I finally cracked it. I finally know what makes a grand game. It turns out to be astonishingly simple: if it makes me smile. The longer I smile, the better. Sonic Mania made me smile, chuckle and almost cry from the beginning to the very end. The game’s premise is simple: it brings joy to the people who loved the ancient 2D Sonic games. Christian Whitehead managed to deliver on all levels: originality, level design, soundtrack. It is simply everything a Sonic fan would want. The only thing I regret is that it’s not longer.
That might all sound a bit cheesy, but it’s the truth. The game is critically acclaimed, and one of the favorite Sonic games of many ResetEra gamers. It is very hard for me as a 2D Sonic enthusiast to describe what I feel when I hear SEEEEGAAA and see intro scene:
Now, if that video did nothing to you, then you can stop reading and go do something useful. However, if it did manage to touch something somewhere, read on. Nostalgia can be very powerful (the whole Codex runs on it!), and the recent tendency to (re-)release many retro-inspired games is one of the few gaming trends that I applaud. From Duke’s inspired Ion Fury to Castlevania-inspired Bloodstained spin-offs: they’re all lovely, but not without their shortcomings.
Is Sonic Mania Sonic 2+?
What makes sonic Mania so special for me is its resemblance with the older 16-bit era Sonic games. I grew up with a MegaDrive, not a SNES, and my sisters and me played Sonic 2 and 3 over and over again. Well, one of the sisters was handed the second controller. “You can be Tails, there you go!” - we all know what that means…
Many stages in Sonic Mania start of as a homage to the original 16-bit Sonic (2) game(s). For instance, there’s the Chemical Plant Zone, of which the first act is almost an exact replica of Sonic 2’s Plant Zone, including loops, bridges to take before you run out of oxygen underwater, enemy placement, and even death traps. Until you zip through it and progress to the next Plant Zone stage, where the music suddenly is a very catchy remix of the original, and the Chemicals in the Zone are multiplied. New gimmicks, jumpboards, background art, foreground tunnels, enemies, and so forth are introduced that blend perfectly with the classic first stage that has set the scene. I loved every minute of it.
Sonic Mania does this on many zones: Chemical Plant, Hydrocity, the first Green Hill, … It got a fair bit of critique because of that, as it’s not seen as very “original”, and it should try to get out of its predecessors' shadows. I concur: the first sections of those zones merely act as an introduction to the original, new compounds that Whitehead and his team has cooked up for us. It jogs the memory, brings back the nostalgic memories, and then slaps you in the face with a modern remix of the same elemental pieces of the game design puzzle.
The New, New Zones
In-between all that nostalgia, a few completely new zones are tucked away. Well, new might be the wrong word here. For example, the third zone, Studio Metropolis, has not been ripped from Sonic 2 or 3: instead, it is a pleasant combination of (A) original ideas, (B) Sonic 2’s Casino Midnight zone, and (C) with a few touches of Sonic 3’s dreaded Carnival Night zone. It sounds less enticing than it actually is. When you’re zipping through those stages, you won’t be able to stop smiling - at least I did. The bouncy balls, the enemy photographers, the vans that transfer Sonic through satellites, the popcorn machines (what? yeah!), it’s all so over-the-top and so grand, that it’s impossible for me to explain how I feel about this game.
Of course Sonic Mania also has its weaknesses. The last Zone for instance was quite a drag and contains many cheap death traps that become frustrating rather quickly - but these “gameplay elements” are also an integral part of the 16-bit Sonic era games. You can’t expect a retro-inspired game to give up on the retro-inspired frustrating bits now, can you?
At least Whitehead managed to create a proper classic 2D sonic game. SEGA was unsuccessful for a long time, and Sonic 4 left me and other critics cold. I know there are fans of the 3D Sonic-on-rails games, but I’ve had my stomach full of awkward 3D platformers and the Italian mustache guy for a while now. Granted, I simply suck at navigating 3D games. Still, looking at the Meta Critic scores of all recent Sonic games, only Mania firmly stands out.
Sadly, the DLC, Sonic Mania Plus, is a bit of a letdown. I expected a few extra Zones to play through as I’m not a big fan of games within games. Sonic Mania Plus gives you a few extra playable fluffy characters, of which an armadillo that can stomp the ground, but they’re mostly forgettable when I can play with Sonic, Tails or Knuckles. Luckily, they don’t speak, like in the 3D games… Furthermore, other new additions such as Encore mode, left me yearning for more classic Sonic gameplay. Instead, I’m on a weird mission to “collect” my fluffy friends. The mode does start promising, with a tiny portion of Sonic 3’s classic first Angel Fire island Zone. Just the music got me going - until I abruptly “finished” it 20 seconds later. Too good to be true.
Okay, fine. After the initial nostalgia wears off a bit - it won’t be gone completely - the game can sometimes get on my nerves. Take Flying Battery Zone Act II for instance. Weather conditions cause Sonic to shift in directions. Combined with some upside-down loops around the ship, where I never know if I need to keep on pressing the
-> button when in reality going left, the Game Over screen does come rather quickly, but perhaps not unexpectedly so. On other occasions in the same Zone, where I attack an airborne enemy but forget to take the knockback into account, Sonic suddenly falls off the edges. Fuck. Another Game Over screen. Time to put the controller away before I start flinging it through the living room…
There are Sonic Mania 2 Rumors floating around, and all my money is on that one. The big promise is more original zones, as according to The Game Crater, everyone’s sick of playing the same old stuff:
That being said, I feel like focusing too much on Genesis-Sonic nostalgia could hamstring the series a bit. One of the recurring jokes in the fandom is that everyone is sick of playing Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone. But there’s a grain of truth to that.
Maybe a part of that is true: as much as I enjoyed Hydrocity and Chemical Plant, I liked Studio Metropolis' originality even more. Let’s hope for the best in the (maybe) upcoming sequel! Until then, I think I’ll go ahead and beat the game for a fourth time, just to be able to get that smile back on my face.