Sonic Mania: A Nostalgic Return to Form

(screencapped from Sonic Mania)

2017 has been a hell of a year for video games. One could argue it has been the best year in quite a while! We’ve seemingly had at least one Game of the Year contender every month, with no sign of that stopping as we approach the end of the year. We’ve had new franchises crop up such as Horizon: Zero Dawn, older franchises getting rejuvenated such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and the continuous drip of indie games such as Night in the Woods and the upcoming Cuphead. Quite honestly, many avid game players are overwhelmed with options in a good way. Nostalgia trips haven’t been left out either. As I said, Zelda has come back into play and pixel based indie games are as popular as ever. The perfect crossover here, for me, was the release of Sonic Mania.

Sonic Mania, released for PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC, is a throwback to the classic 16-bit era of Sonic games. Christian Whitehead (the man behind the previous remasters) and Pagoda West Games (a group of modders), alongside several other members of the modding and fan community, came together to build a game that hearkens back to classic games while adding the flourish of modern technology. This is worth noting because this Sonic game is explicitly not primarily built by the Sega and Sonic team; these are fans in the most hardcore sense because they’ve been doing the same thing for free for years. They just now have the blessing of the parent company. It’s quite nice that Sega chose to embrace and employ these fans rather than squash them out, and shows at least a modicum of openness to new strategies on making games.

So did these modders deserve the grace of the original company? Judging from my experience with the game, yes. This team created a very solid experience. From the title screen, we see beautiful sprite-based art showing a fluidly moving Sonic above a spinning island. From this first screen we can see that the devs have built something that holds onto the old Genesis style, but uses an amount of color and effects that could never have worked back then given graphical limitations at the time. If we linger a bit before starting the game, we’re treated to an anime-esque video of Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles running around and fighting a few baddies. It doesn’t necessarily impact the story of the game, but it is pretty and has nice music. In fact, once we blast through the title screen and menus and get into the gameplay, we’re treated to wonderful music throughout, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

(screencapped from Sonic Mania)

The game is divided into twelve main levels with an unlockable final boss. Out of the twelve levels, four are original, and eight are remixed levels from the series’ history. While I would have liked to see more original zones, the remixed ones employ recreated set-pieces and entirely new mechanics and areas. Within all the levels, there are stage gimmicks from other games, including modern ones and the Game Gear games, but also brand new hazards. Everything feels cohesive, even the entirely new levels and mechanics, which shows an acute understanding by the developers of the series’s aesthetic.

And like I said before, the music is on point. Each stage has an Act 1 zone theme and a remix for Act 2. The remixed stages are pretty straightforward, as they’re completely original pieces. However, the returning zone themes are more interesting, as they have to fit the original style, but also bring something new as to not feel like a rehash. For the most part, they accomplish this beautifully. This is more apparent with the Sonic 1, 2, and CD stages since they only had one theme to begin with. (Sonic 3 levels already had two themes) For example, Chemical Plant Zone, from Sonic 2, has a song that feels like a remastered version of the original with a bit more flourish. The Act 2 remix, however, is one of my favorites! It has a more jazzy feel, and more of a bombastic air. This musical “rehash but with pizzaz, then, go wild for Act 2” approach seems to be the way they went about level design. And again, I think it works amazingly.

Besides the lack of new stages, I only see one main flaw in the game. The game, with all of its adherence to classic design tropes, sometimes sticks to them too hard. Giving Sonic the classic shields, letting Knuckles have alternate paths, or letting the characters pick up momentum rather than hit max speed instantly, are all great decisions. However, using lives, rather than having infinite lives, is an odd choice. Limited lives theoretically provide a constant sense of danger and motivation to explore and find extra lives, but for experienced players, we either don’t need them, or know how to find way more than we need. For players unfamiliar with the paths or traps present in Sonic games, limited lives can quickly become a deterrent to progress and fun. Based on this dichotomy, the system is mostly unnecessary as it doesn’t provide enough challenge for those who want it, and too much for those who don’t. Just like the lives system, giving players a ten minute time limit can be annoying too, especially when the game rewards exploration.The save file not letting the player start from an Act 2 of a zone is annoying during repeated playthroughs as well. In that vein, getting a game over in Act 2 sends the player back to the beginning of the zone with only 3 lives. While this never affected me, I do see how this could be frustrating for newer players, especially in some of the longer, more difficult levels. And from a gameplay standpoint, there are a decent amount of collision-detection issues in the game, or highly sensitive areas which lead to the player getting crushed: an instant kill even with invincibility power-ups. Again, this is able to be mitigated with caution, but it’s annoying. These design decisions, at least in my opinion, really are there to replicate the experience of an old school video game, but I don’t know if they were great ideas. To me, they aren’t game-breaking, and very rarely got in my way of enjoying it, but they are the few things I could point out that keep the game from being perfect.

(screencapped from Sonic Mania)

Given all of this, I think Sonic Mania is a great addition into the nostalgia market we’ve been living in lately. There’s been a lot of concern of whether we’re banking on memories too much. With the upcoming Magical School Bus “re-sequel-boot”, the Duck Tales reboot, ongoing legacy properties, and the deluge of sequels, there seems to be a bit of worry that we aren’t making enough new material. While I can’t directly comment on if that’s true or not, I can say that I won’t worry about it for now as long as we’re getting good content. Sonic Mania‘s main pitch is that it’s a return to form, and it walks the walk. Other games in the franchise have claimed to be going back to Sonic‘s roots, but they weren’t very good; they were nostalgia grabs first, quality experiences second. Sonic Mania is good, so anyone could pick it up and enjoy it. And yes, longtime fans will probably get more out of it, and have an easier time with it, but the game is not needlessly impenetrable to newcomers: if this game isn’t for you, or gives you a hard time, chances are you would have gotten the same experience with the old games. (One could argue that 2D Sonic games don’t have a lot of context to begin with, and you’d be right, but I just mean Mania isn’t any better or worse at this than previous entries.) And in that sense, it’s a good version of nostalgia: extremely pleasant to longtime fans, while being solid outside of its throwback traits. This is what most nostalgic properties should shoot to do. But I’ll talk about this more in depth soon enough.

That said, I found the game incredibly enjoyable. I’m a huge Sonic the Hedgehog fan, and pretty much anyone who knows me knows that fact. So to be fair, my opinion is most likely biased. I do think this game is very well made and could be enjoyed by a wide audience… but it’s not for everyone. If you were a fan of the classic games, or liked platformers that are a bit tricky (without being super hard), you’ll definitely want to give this game a try. And for $20 USD, it’s an incredible value! There are a good bit of unlockable goodies, a few different playstyles, and some surprises that will be fun if you enjoy the general sentimentality the franchise has had in the last few years. Overall, I’d give Sonic Mania an 8/10, with a prediction that the (hopeful) sequel will be even better! (Fingers crossed!)

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1 thought on “Sonic Mania: A Nostalgic Return to Form

  1. Considering even Mario is ditching lives in Odyssey, with instead a small cost in coins for death, I have to agree that that’s a very weird choice in this day and age – I think for stage based gameplay, the local lives rather than universal lives system of Little Big Planet and Splatoon’s single player is just far superior a design decision – What does losing all your lives mean in stage based modern games? Restart the stage with the default number of lives, no other consequence. (and this problem extends back to Sonic 3 which introduced saving into Sonic), so embrace that as a feature while knowing exactly how many lives players could have at any given point and design around that, either resetting them each checkpoint, setting them to an arbitrary value (Little Big Planet kind of does a hybrid of these two with three life and six life checkpoints being available when creating levels), or restoring one to the maximum amount (as in Splatoon)

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