With Sonic Mania , there’s about as much buzz as there can possibly be surrounding a new Sonic the Hedgehog game in Our Current Year of 2017. I admit, as a cautious Sonic pseudo-fan such as myself, Sonic Mania definitely has a lot going for it. Christian Whitehead is involved, the brilliant mind behind several excellent mobile ports of various Sonic the Hedgehog classics. It’s a gorgeous game, with tons of pixels and dense animations. It’s a back to basics kind of deal as well, with its core thoroughly parked in the Sega Genesis era. Finally, Sonic Mania appears to be using nostalgia properly, appealing to the aesthetics and familiar trappings of the Sega Genesis games while mixing things up and delivering more than just the same thing, but in HD. I put in some time playing Sonic Mania at E3 2017, and I have to say – despite the bad feelings from Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and mixed feelings from Sonic Generations , I am about as on board as I can be with this game.
The E3 2017 Sonic Mania demo had a couple different level options, and I ended up getting dropped into Green Hill Zone. It’s the obligatory first level with the enduring aesthetic – green trees, tan and brown checkerboard platforms, robot crabs and wasps, the works. Nobody ever seems to remember other Sonic locales when it comes to merchandise and marketing materials, but man, those tan and brown checkerboards will last in our cultural consciousness forever.
First of all, forget everything you think you know about Sonic Mania ’s visuals. It looks amazing in person; there’s no other way to describe it. Fluffy, meaningless, and uncritical praise really feels like the most appropriate response to how it looks. Having your eyeballs in front of this game for the first time is something else. The colors explode from the screen and the level of detail in the sprites is almost overwhelming. The way each sprite is shaded is a big part of it, which sounds silly, but it looks like nothing else. I can’t wait to see some of the less familiar stages in this new style.
Sonic Mania also might be the best-feeling Sonic game to play. Don’t misunderstand that statement for hyperbole; we’re talking about a marginal difference here. One of the most appealing parts of the classic Sonic the Hedgehog experience is how responsive they are. Sonic is fast, but he’s also so responsive to your directional inputs as you can trip yourself up and fall off a crucial platform as you battle the blue blur’s momentum. Sonic Mania is just as familiar as you’d expect, but Sonic feels like he’s calmed down a little bit and has a bit more of an ability to defy the laws of physics while he’s in midair. I actually stopped in my tracks not long after starting the game at full speed, noticing a slight difference. Then I stood in one spot and jumped around, testing the physics. It definitely feels like you have a bit more control than usual.
So, Green Hill Zone. Sonic levels are so sprawling and complex it’s hard to tell what’s different about the various Green/Emerald/Whatever Hill Zone variants. You have to be an expert, and I’m no expert. But the beauty of it is, even if the structure is different (it totally is, it’s just difficult to quantify how in a single sitting is what I’m getting at here) it still feels like you’re right at home hitting the bumpers and loops and bouncing off of crabs, fish and wasps. It’s business as usual in the opening state of Sonic Mania , but everything’s in 1080p, gorgeous, and it feels modern despite its old school affectations. Then you get to the end.
I was expecting some goofy variant of Dr. Eggman. You know, the first one, with his giant ball and chain weapon that unthreateningly swings like the most toothless, lethal ball and chain of all time. Instead, the final boss of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 literally drops in out of the sky and I just sort of shut down for a moment while I processed that. I didn’t have much time though. The giant Dr. Robotnik mecha suit clearly wanted me dead, and the boss fight expanded into an auto-scrolling affair while I dodged missiles and desperately tried to remember how to damage the thing without jumping right into its spikes. Sure enough, its extendable arms shot out and I figured out I could jump on those and then jump on the bot’s head. I won shortly after, and the demo booted me off so the next person could give it a shot.
I hadn’t paid much attention to it before E3 2017, but after getting my hands on Sonic Mania , I am all-in. Sonic Forces may be the more immediately fascinating game due to being the unknown quantity, but Sonic Mania is a master class in understanding what the pure appeal of Sonic the Hedgehog as a Thing really is. It just feels right, like slipping into a well-worn pair of shoes. I’m looking forward to August.