On occasions in the past we've bemoaned Nintendo's tendency to shut down work by talented independent developers remixing and re-imagining their games, when an alternative is to embrace them. Capcom did this with the quirky free PC release of Mega Man X Street Fighter, which was fun if a tad flawed, but SEGA has gone further and teamed up with established and talented indie developers for a fresh entry in the Sonic series. Of the three developers collaborating on Sonic Mania, Christian Whitehead and Headcannon both have history of working on unofficial and then official emulations and new versions of classic Sonic games, while PagodaWest Games is an Indie with a few releases behind it. The game that's come out of this collaboration, as a result, is dripping with quality and also reverence for what came before.
Sonic and Nintendo, of course, have a long and fabled history together. The Blue Blur and Mario were huge rivals in the 'console wars' of the early '90s; when Nintendo's plumber was riding Yoshi and giving the peace sign, Sonic was dashing through stages and tapping his watch. As SEGA dropped out of the hardware race years later a friendship emerged from the rivalry, typified by the Mario & Sonic Olympics titles that eventually emerged in the DS and Wii era. For Nintendo fans it's been a mixed bag - exclusives like Sonic Colours and Sonic Lost World have arrived, but on the flipside Wii missed out on the console iteration of the thoroughly decent Sonic Generations (though the 3DS got a version).
When Sonic Mania was revealed during SEGA's chaotic anniversary event for the mascot last year, this writer was both ecstatic and disappointed at once. A stunning launch trailer made no mention of the Wii U or 'NX' (as it was then), and it seemed that a PS4 or Xbox One purchase would be the necessary port of call; that seemed a pity, as an alliance between Sonic and Nintendo hardware feels right in this day and age, a far cry from the console wars of 20 years ago. When it popped up in the Nintendo Switch presentation and was even playable at the follow-up London event, it was impossible to hide a smile.
The demo we played had the system in its tabletop mode, with a Joy-Con held horizontally like a miniature Wii Remote; as we've said previously, the controllers are surprisingly comfortable to use in this configuration. On the one hand it was a shame not to savour Sonic Mania on a bigger monitor, but on the flipside its bright pixels were a good showcase for the Nintendo Switch screen.
If you're unaware, Sonic Mania is a part-remix and in part a new game, blending tweaked classic stages and others that are all-new. Our demo was the same that did the rounds on other systems last year, so we started out on Green Hill Zone. On the surface it felt familiar, with twitch memories enabling us to dash through the opening section; rather like the brilliant 3D Sonic the Hedgehog on 3DS you also have the spin dash for occasions Sonic doesn't feel like running up a hill.
Memories get disrupted, though, as the stage throws in a surprise ending that almost served as our demise. Along with small but telling adjustments to the core stage it was very effective as a means of keeping us on our toes. On top of that the upgraded visuals and animations also add a 2017 sheen to proceedings, with Sonic being that bit more radical (dude) than in his 16-bit days.
Next up was an all-new stage, Studiopolis Zone, which is heavily featured in the trailer above; this riffs on ideas and designs seen in the metropolis and casino stages of old. We took nearly five minutes going from start to finish, no doubt baffling someone that decided to film as we played. Poor old Sonic got lost, but when you're having fun it doesn't really matter.
With gorgeous visuals, this stage pops even off the six inch screen of the Switch. The pixel detail is outstanding, and it's a level that makes use of modern techniques and capabilities to add depth and shine to graphics inspired by yesteryear. Boombox vans that propel Sonic with radio waves - Google it, kids - are just one feature alongside various bouncing and propelling hazards. It's in this new stage that the developers truly show off their prowess with the graphics engine as Sonic goes into shadow or smashes through glass, sending shards scattering around the screen.
This is certainly a stage for speedrunners, with plenty of routes and options that we clearly missed. The Drop Dash will be key for those looking to set fast times, too, as you can go from a jump into an immediate dash upon landing. Studiopolis as a stage was perhaps a little meandering in its design, but when playing at home without a care in the world (and not in a busy London venue) the pressure to reach the end goal won't be as significant.
It was a short demo of two stages, but we left feeling rather excited about Sonic Mania, and delighted that it's coming to the Switch. It looked fantastic, ran perfectly, and filled us with both nostalgia and intrigue for new Sonic levels. We've wanted a new top-notch 2D Sonic platformer for quite some time; this may well deliver the goods.