Old Hog, New Tricks.
Best Sonic game ever!
A celebration of the past and a hopeful sign of things to come…
The Sonic Cycle is broken!
Better than Super Mario World in every way…
That’s just some of the praise that Sonic Mania has garnered since it’s release less than a week ago (well, maybe not that last one…). The game currently sits at 87% on Opencritic, with 2001’s Sonic Adventure 2 being the last series entrant to achieve a similar critical response. Gaming press and social media geekdom have Christened Mania as the long-awaited return to form fans have endlessly clamoured for, with the overall narrative shifting markedly from – Sonic was never good… to – fuck yeah, remember when Sonic was good? Go figure…
So is Sonic Mania good? Yeah, it’s fucking awesome. Is it the best Sonic game ever? No, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is. Is the Sonic Cycle broken? Probably not, Sonic Forces is due out later this year and looks like more of the third-person wank that we’re now so sadly used to… Apparently you can create your own attitudinal Hedgehog – gotta get that furry boner money, I guess.
So let’s break the above statements down a little. Why is Mania good? Mania does what SEGA should have done years ago, and accepts that the Sonic franchise died in 1994 (fuck you, furries). It takes the core gameplay and subtle storytelling philosophy of S3&K, adds the cool-ass animated sequences of Sonic CD, and then sprinkles dozens of in-jokes and references from the golden era of the speedy blue mascot. The game does a remarkably classy job of balancing nostalgia with creativity, knitting together levels and bosses that fans will know with new content that doesn’t feel out of place alongside its decades old inspiration.
Musically, Mania feels like audio therapy after years of being subjected to vomit-inducing metal and rap tracks, this being a particular lowlight. The 16-bit classic melodies sound as good as ever, all getting various degrees of the remix/remaster treatment and all sounding sublime for it. Compare the original version of the Lava Reef Act 2 music to the Mania remaster and you’ll see what I’m getting at here. If there’s one thing that Sonic has truly done better than Mario, at least in the mid-90s, it’s music.
This subversive approach to inducing nostalgia can also be seen in Mania’s level design. After a short, and reminiscent, intro sequence you’ll find yourself back where it all began – Green Hill Zone. Seemingly faithful to the original, it’s not until you make your way further into the lush lime slants and loops that you’ll begin to notice slight contortions and revisions. These not only improve the experience (all but gone are the bottomless pit deaths etc) but also give Mania a dream-like feel as it skillfully and knowingly plays with your expectations and decades old gaming memories. The second acts of these revisited stages tend to more fully embrace a creative edge, feeling distinct from their namesakes due to radically altered level-designs and the introduction of new mechanics. Boss encounters are especially noteworthy, being a well balanced mix of old and new, with some jaw-droppingly funny and creative scenarios.
Structurally, the game apes S3&K almost entirely, with the option to play as Sonic, Tails, Sonic & Tails, or Knuckles with design and narrative considerations made for each. Short, non-interactive sequences play out at various points throughout the game, giving the player an abstract understanding of the, admittedly minimal, plot. The true ending, and final stage, can’t be accessed without first capturing all Chaos Emeralds, each of which requires the completion of a brief bonus stage sequence, ripped straight out of Sonic CD, to attain. Doing this also allows each character to transform into their Super variant, making the levels a breeze as long as the now glowing and frantically fast hero is fed a constant supply of rings. For all S3&K veterans the above should be business as usual.
So why isn’t Mania the best Sonic game ever? This is kind of an odd question as at least 50-60% of Mania is directly pulled from previous games. Yes, this is done with a keen sense of subtly and subversion that feels respectful to the source material, but the fact remains that a large part of the game in question isn’t original. I also think that there’s a conversation to be had around which elements of the classic games were used – why shoehorn in the blue sphere bonus stage for every single checkpoint instead of mixing this up a little (there’s plenty of other options to choose from), as an example. Or why did Flying Battery Zone get the nod over other more memorable and visually distinct levels, like Ice Cap Zone, is another. And as much as I think the developer deserves kudos for integrating original levels that don’t immediately feel like poor relatives to the originals, these never really hit the same highs aesthetically or musically, and tend to rely too heavily on the pinball philosophy of Sonic games, something I’d be happy to see relegated to just bonus stages and/or the standalone casino setting.
Ultimately, the reason that Mania isn’t the best Sonic game ever is because a much better one already exists and is clearly the reason that Christian Whitehead felt so passionately about returning the franchise to its roots. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles is not just the best Sonic game ever made but also one of the best 2D platforming games ever made. Go back and play through the transition from Lava Reef Zone with it’s emergence of the Death Egg, to Sky Sanctuary Zone and it’s epic showdown with Mecha Sonic, to the brutal Death Egg Zone, and, assuming you’ve collected all the required emeralds, to Doomsday Zone where Super Sonic battles Robotnik in space. There’s a sense of artistry and scope there that Mania manages to hint at but doesn’t even attempt to match. Seriously – go play it.
And as for the last question – is the Sonic Cycle broken? I’m doubtful. Mania was a wonderful and cathartic experience for a fan of 90s Sonic games who longs for a true sequel. That said – Mania isn’t really attempting to be a true sequel as the whole premise is setup to be a greatest hits compilation with some unreleased B-sides to sweeten the deal, rather than the actual next hit. Could the critical and, assumedly, commercial success of Mania prompt SEGA to invest in creating a true sequel? Maybe, but bad Sonic games always sold well too, that’s why they kept making them. Interestingly – word on the street is that Mania actually directly links into Sonic Forces. And I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, really.
Regardless, just like Sonic and his anthropomorphised pals in Sonic Mania, we too can travel time and space to revisit long forgotten places and distant memories. Once you’re done with Mania – go play S3&K. Sonic was always this good.