When you remake something creative from the past, who is your audience, exactly?
We ask because if you were to stray too far from the source material, you run the risk of alienating the impassioned people who most identify with the original. But on the other hand, if you stick too close to the old formula, well, are you really even adding anything to the conversation? And who wants to play the exact same game again, anyway?
That fine line was on this writer's mind as we inched up to play Sonic Mania, a retrofitted, 2D Sonic the Hedgehog title releasing on the Nintendo Switch on August 15th.
The absolute foundation of Sonic Mania, from the marketing to the art direction and, of course, to all of its gameplay, is that of nostalgia on steroids. At a quick glance, the game appears indistinguishable from the original four titles released during the Sega Genesis era, which is a feat in and of itself. It wasn’t until we got up close to the screen that we really began to notice the minor differences.
On my first go around we got to pick between Green Hill Zone and a desert-like zone called Mirage Saloon Zone. For the purposes of first impressions, Green Hill seemed like the way to go. Our second choice was to pick Sonic over Tails and Knuckles, then we immediately got dropped into Stage 2. Hold right to run, press “A” to jump - simple as that.
First let’s talk about what wasn’t different: the physics of Sonic Mania are borderline carbon copy to the original titles, and more specifically, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 onwards. If you’re someone (such as this scribe) who happens to think the originals’ physics inform virtually everything about what made those classic games fun: rejoice! Sonic Mania felt right.
This familiarity is in large part is due to the involvement of serial Sonic the Hedgehog porters Christian Whitehead and Simon Thomley, who in conjunction with Pagodawest Games, meticulously recreated that original physics engine and many other of the old games’ original assets. But more on that importance later.
Okay, back to the game’s subtle differences to the originals: Sonic Mania thrives on the general principle that your brain will always misremember the past in more flattering ways. Even though they seem identical, Sonic on the Genesis nor even the Saturn ever looked quite as fluid as this game. Sonic’s upward looking animation is just oh-so-smoother. No, there is no lag when you get hit by an enemy. You can burn wooden objects with your fire power-up. And instinct tells us that Sonic doesn’t seem to slow down quite so much on hills when he has no traction, either.
To those who value complete consistency in their homages, let us stress to you that all these miniscule changes were wise moves. Sonic Mania, from what we’ve seen and played so far, looks and feels fantastic in regards to creating a satisfying, retro feel. Any tiny changes we sensed are certainly in line with what the original Sonic Team might have even done themselves.
Here’s another welcome change: the level was long! We don’t know if it was considerably longer than a typical Sonic level, but it genuinely took us the majority of time with the demo to get to the end of it, which for a barn burner stage like Green Hill Zone - where you can typically speed through it quickly - is actually saying something.
At the end, whether this was intentionally glib for the demo or not, the zone’s first boss ended up being the literal final boss from Sonic The Hedgehog 2. And maybe this writer's just bad at Sonic, but we wasted all of our lives trying to beat him. I do own a $175 Metal Sonic statue, so I’d like to think I’m pretty decent at Sonic games.
All that to say, it might be fair to consider this game somewhat harder than the average Sonic game. We’ll have to wait and see.
One other quick note. Unfortunately, the music seemed not quite as inspired as the project itself, seeming somewhere south of an average remix. It was only a couple of levels, so we’ll reserve judgement.
So with these impressions in mind, what is Sonic Mania, then? In fact, this is a game that’s riddled with Sonic in-jokes, like Knack the Weasel wanted posters and casual references to Sonic CD, yet simultaneously and unmistakably comes across as an impassioned labour of love with a ton more to offer than just self aggrandizement.
“As far as I’m concerned, it goes Sonic 1-3, Knuckles, and then Sonic Mania”, Aaron Webber told us in a meeting after the demo, PR for SEGA and famous “@Sonic_Hedgehog” Twitter account holder.
Webber describes Sonic Mania as largely new, though homage in spirit, and most definitely not parody. The full game is set to feature many classic zones from previous Sonic titles, but even the classic zones were described to me as keeping to a formula of refresher course during stage 1, then complete reimagining for stage 2. All the while, new zones are in tow, though the exact ratio was left vague.
If it can possibly be that a game can reference its own past as frequently as Sonic Mania does while still doing enough to elevate its source material, then perhaps Webber may be correct in his placement of Sonic Mania into canonized status. We haven’t played it enough yet to know.
But even if not, maybe it’s still been a long enough wait to where playing those same games over again - in Mania form - might actually do the trick all the same.