In more than ten years of writing for The Sonic Stadium, this article has by far consumed the most time, and required the most revisions. I guess this is because sometimes it’s hard to really convey what you mean when you’re in love, and I can say without a doubt that I am already in love with Sonic Mania.
I found myself welling-up last week while watching the new trailer: rapid-fire clips of the gameplay, interspersed with lovingly crafted animations, brought forth those same 90’s feels that have remained all but echoes for the better part of two decades. It is probably the same question on most seasoned fans’ minds, but I can’t help but ask the question: am I excited for Sonic Mania purely on the basis of pure nostalgia, or is it something more?
Sure, there is probably an element of truth in that nostalgia plays a part. I have lost track of how many conversations I’ve shared with fellow fans, indulging in speculation as to what a 2D sprite successor to Sonic 3 & Knuckles might look like. However, I think it would be a massive disservice to what we have seen of Sonic Mania to date to dismiss the hype it has generated to date purely on wistfulness for 1993. For starters, and I think the majority of us can agree, not all sequels are good.
I recently took a trip to the cinema to see Alien: Covenant, a film I was quite frankly disappointed at, and expected to be. I absolutely adore Alien and Aliens, the first films of the franchise, and regularly bore those who will listen on the minutia on what these movies are so great. Yet it came to me as no surprise that this movie fell short of impressive (even with Ridley Scott, the director of Alien, returning) as it follows in a long line of fairly lacklustre titles which have marched onto screens with a factory conveyor belt-like monotony. So why is it that Aliens functions as such a great sequel while others do not, and analogously, why is Sonic Mania receiving such ovation, whereas titles like Sonic 4 did not?
The answer is one simple in theory, but one very difficult to execute in practice; a great sequel captures the spirit of the first while simultaneously creating its own identity.
Returning to my Aliens analogy, it is obvious to see what heralded the success of the second film. James Cameron and the writers understood and evolved the primary protagonist’s character from the original. The set designers borrowed facets from the first, developed and created new environments with a haunting atmosphere. The score, composed by the late, great James Horner, resonated elements of its forebearer. Covenant, however, failed to create an identity – with even the original director under the illusion fans wanted to see the same old material repeated ad infinitum, the bottomless pit Sonic 4 fell into. Cameron et al. however understood their universe to which they were contributing and carefully embellished it, a borderline obsessive enthusiasm not over-ridden by a desire to simply replicate the predecessor…but to make it better. It is my opinion that Sonic Mania has accomplished this.
At E3 2011 I was introduced to Christian Whitehead. Christian really needed no introduction; as a prominent figure at Sonic Retro, he had set the community alight two years previously with demonstration video of Sonic CD on an iPod touch. The demo was powered by the infamous Retro Engine; the beating heart of what would form the core of many remasters to come, designed by Whitehead himself. It hadn’t taken long for SEGA to realise the potential of this, and to quickly employ him along with Headcannon, and the equally-talented Simon Thomley (aka Stealth) to remaster CD. My first experience of this high definition version of the game, played in the presence of its architect, was akin to restarting the motor on a beautifully restored classic car; a familiarity which felt so finely tuned. Here were two people who knew what a classic Sonic game should feel like.
The iOS releases went on to resounding successes in both sales and reception, and with the Sonic 2 remaster came a literal game changer in the form of a reconstructed Hidden Palace Zone, lost long since the days of its development. This demonstration was not only proof that the team could rebuild a stage from the old assets, but that they had the ability to create entire levels from the ground up with a deep understanding of the design. The next logical step, as many in the community felt, was giving Whitehead and Thomley free reign on building a 2D title from scratch.
On a visit to SEGA of America in the summer of 2015, I spoke to then Director Patrick Riley and returning PR and Social Media Manager Aaron Webber and reiterated my opinion – as I imagine many had done before me, and many would do after me. I was very pleased to see Webber return to SEGA, as he and the rest of the community team had performed an interstellar job for many years previously. Webber returned to SEGA with a renewed fire, and has transformed Sonic’s social media presence, with the now 2 million follower-strong “Twitter account with attitude” and an unparalleled community engagement. Undoubtedly, the success of this has derived from his encyclopedic knowledge of the Sonic universe and creating a brand self-awareness, now mimicked by so many other big social media accounts. Webber’s intuitiveness has undoubtedly been a vital proponent in both the inception and promotion of Mania, and with the clout of his successes, I have no doubt he will have been key voice championing the project – as well as those recruited to be involved.
The Sonic Mania development team is supplemented by those with their roots firmly established in the Sonic the Hedgehog community. The PagodaWest team traces its heritage back to Sonic 2 HD, with Tom Fry and Jared Kasl leading the art and level design aspects of the game respectively (and if you have not played Major Magnet, developed by PagodaWest, you need to check it out). Their team has produced key artwork and promotional compositions that emanate the spirit of those classic titles, a worthy legacy of the art of Hoshino and Oshima. The new Badnik designs, as well as the “Hard Boiled Heavies” of whom we have caught a fleeting glimpse, feel like a natural evolution from their predecessors. The musical compositions created by Tee Lopes that have made it to the public domain to date pay a fitting homage to the Hataya and Ogata tunes of Sonic CD (as well as the Shiratsu and Nanba Chaotix soundtrack from which the game derives its more 32X visual style). While elements of the familiar ring through via synthesised brass and piano, the more contemporary tone and polished finish delivers something distinct alongside revisited zone themes that have been carefully revitalised. The animations featuring in the Mania trailer, created by Tyson Hesse, hark back to the Studio Toei Sonic CD intro and outro, yet exude Hesse’s unique stylisation that helped drive the best-selling Archie Sonic Mega drive comics to success. I’m sure there are also many other players working behind the scenes to further enhance the Sonic Mania enterprise.
The Mania team are not your run-of-the-mill squad. This game is not just another Sonic title. Mania is not a 2D generations, nor is it a cash cow to capitalise on the nostalgic twenty and thirty-somethings longing for the Megadrive Genesis era. Here is a game that is being created by those at the top of their game – people who have lived and breathed the franchise, and who know the intimate details of lore and canon. These are people who demonstrate unparalleled affection and enthusiasm matched only by their skill at their craft. I cannot think of a name more appropriate for this game than Mania, as its creators are beyond what many have dubbed a fan boy dev team; they are quite literally Sonic Maniacs.
Criticisms of Sonic Mania sounded so far have been the number of classic stages that are making a return in the game, and the ratio of old to original concepts. Yet to those who hold this belief I implore you to play this game, whether at E3 or upon release. Play Green Hill Zone, play Chemical plant Zone, and see how far these stages have advanced from their progenitors, in visuals and mechanics, sound and gimmicks. I have nothing shy of praise of how in-keeping these re-envisioned levels are, while including sufficient innovation to discern past from present.
Sonic Mania gives all the right impressions of a great Sonic the Hedgehog game; while a distinct portion of this title exudes familiarity, the other feels alien (excuse the tenuous pun), but in the same wonderfully strange and exciting way plugging the Sonic 3 cart into the Sonic & Knuckles felt nearly two-and-a-half decades years ago.
We have waited a long time to play a game like Sonic Mania; not just because it fulfills the idea of a true spiritual successor to the classics, but because it dares to build a new identity upon them. This, I believe, is why you will all fall in love with Mania, if you aren’t head over heels already.