Roll around at the speed of sound in Sonic’s latest adventure.
PC Release: August 29, 2017
By Ian Coppock
If this decade’s flood of reboots and remakes has done anything besides move tickets, it’s taught that nostalgia sells. Viewers like reminders of simpler times, and those reminders often end up being the media that they consumed at those points in their lives. Films and TV shows are hardly the only offenders here; game developers are just as eager for that nostalgia dollar as the biggest bosses in Hollywood. Sometimes, though, developers are out for more than just a buck; they’re out to reminisce for themselves as much as their customers. That’s how Sonic Mania was born.
The Sonic the Hedgehog series has an… uneven history. The character was originally created by Sega to compete with Super Mario, and his 1991 debut was a smash hit. Audiences loved Sonic the Hedgehog‘s fast-paced platforming gameplay, which (at least at the time) was groundbreaking for both the genre and for video games. The franchise’s success continued throughout the early 90’s with titles like Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic & Knuckles.
Sonic’s good fortune didn’t last, though. 1998’s Sonic Adventure introduced the character to a 3D format and was lukewarmly received for doing so. Over the next 20 years the franchise endured an unending cold streak, releasing mediocre title after mediocre title. Things got so bad that Sonic’s lack of success was memed online and even parodied in a successful YouTube series. It was only after suffering these embarrassments for almost two decades that Sega did what it should’ve done two decades ago: hire the fans.
Yes, though Sonic Mania was published by Sega, the title was developed by a team of devoted old-school Sonic fans. That certainly explains why Sonic Mania looks like it would fit snugly in a lineup of early 90’s Sonic titles, as well as why it’s the most warmly received Sonic game in 20 years. It’s sad that Sega took so long to return the series to its roots (and only after trying things like putting Sonic in a fairy tale), but let’s be fair; not every company has more than one brain cell.
As can be inferred from that pixel-coated screenshot, Sonic Mania hearkens to the early 90’s Sonic titles in every way. The game does away with 3D gameplay or one-off gimmicks in favor of simple side-scrolling platforming. As with classic Sonic games, players can zip through levels collecting rings and bopping bad guys over the head. Sonic Mania features other hallmarks of the classic Sonic era, including boss battles, mini-games, and nonverbal storytelling. Players can also count on hearing lots of chip tune music.
Sonic Mania‘s adherence to the older Sonic games goes beyond gameplay. Its story is set right after Sonic & Knuckles and follows the Blue Blur as he investigates a strange signal. The signal turns out to be the Phantom Ruby, a powerful jewel not unlike the series’s famous Chaos Emeralds, and the dastardly Dr. Eggman has sent his elite Hard-Boiled Heavy robots to retrieve it. The ruby sends Sonic and his friends Tails and Knuckles through different levels, wherein they must fight Eggman and prevent him from unlocking the ruby’s power.
Stopping Dr. Eggman from taking over the world? Check. Pixelated visuals? Check? Simple, side-scrolling gameplay? Check. No one keeping tabs on the Chaos Emeralds? Check. It seems that the fans who built Sonic Mania did their homework before building this game. Sonic Mania is indeed Sonic the Hedgehog at his simplest: running and dashing over colorful levels in pursuit of Dr. Eggman. As an added bonus, the game runs well (no surprise given its simple system requirements) and even has a decent options menu.
Sonic Mania‘s running and dashing is little-changed from that of the old-school Sonic titles. As Sonic, players can run along paths and jump on enemies to destroy them. Sonic can also collect rings, but he’ll lose them all if he gets hit by an enemy. The more rings Sonic can hold onto by level’s end, the higher the player’s final score. Players can also switch over to Tails or Knuckles, or have a buddy be one of Sonic’s sidekicks with Sonic Mania‘s co-op utility. Old-school fans yearning for past Sonic games can rely on Sonic Mania to deliver the platforming that fueled Sonic’s early games.
In adhering so closely to the gameplay of older Sonic games, Sonic Mania inadvertently reintroduces that old gameplay’s flaws. For a start, the controls are floaty. It takes a while for Sonic to stop or move following controller input. Indeed, the world of Sonic Mania is riddled with the same clumsy physics, making it more difficult than necessary to move Sonic through the air or keep him on one surface. Sonic Mania succeeds in emulating older games, but that’s for better and for worse.
More problematic than Sonic‘s buttery running are the levels in which he rolls around. For all the acclaim afforded by the old Sonic the Hedgehog games, their levels had an unfortunate tendency to be easy to get turned around in. Sonic Mania shares these problems to a t; many levels feature little alcoves that, when combined with the slippery controls, result in players having a much harder time resuming the level than strictly necessary. This design flaw was eradicated in later platformers, but Sonic Mania has brought it back from the dead, preferring to encapsulate everything that its idols did instead of improve upon it.
Though it basically copy/pastes the Green Hill Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic Mania does feature a few worlds of its own design, including a scorching desert and a futuristic metropolis. Each environment in the game is gorgeously decorated with those crunchy retro pixels, which are both reminiscent of Sonic’s happier days and pretty to look at in their own right. Character animations are more sophisticated than those of the early Sonic titles as well. All of this results in an aesthetic that is less afraid to improve upon old Sonic games than virtually any other facet of this title’s design.
Sonic Mania‘s unflinching adherence to everything good and bad about old-school Sonic games demonstrates that the title is more interested in nostalgia than innovation. The game is so keen on bringing 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog back to the forefront that it takes everything, even the aged gameplay and level design, right along with it. Fans who struggled through the original game back in the day probably won’t notice, but newcomers to the series and players used to, frankly, more refined platformer design will.
There’s an even greater danger behind Sonic Mania‘s blind fandom. In copy/pasting so much of what previous games did, Sonic Mania makes a better case for the old Sonic the Hedgehog games than it does for itself. If all this game does is repeat what older titles did decades ago, why shouldn’t players just buy the older title for a song instead of this one for a premium? Sonic Mania demonstrates the danger of hiring fans to develop a game: they may nail down the great things about a series, but their rose-tinted glasses prevent them from noticing gameplay flaws.
Believe it or not, Sonic Mania‘s outdated gameplay may not prove the largest headache for PC buyers. Though it wasn’t mentioned in the game’s EULA, the PC edition of Sonic Mania comes with Denuvo, a DRM software alleged by countless users and tech experts to wear down computers. Denuvo works by constantly rewriting its code so as to make itself much harder to crack, at the (alleged) expense of destroying solid state drives and leaving harmful code on hard drives. When Sonic Mania launched, it was also impossible for PC gamers to play it offline.
To be fair to Sega, the company addressed the concerns about Denuvo and released a patch making it possible to play Sonic Mania offline, but the company’s failure to mention that software’s presence in their product is an outrage. Sega is either ignorant of or uncaring about how these practices negatively affect its PC audience. Even if Denuvo isn’t actually as harmful as its detractors claim, omitting any mention of it from the game’s documentation is a farce. It certainly doesn’t give PC gamers cause to trust Sega.
Sonic Mania may be the best Sonic the Hedgehog game in years, but that’s not saying much when the competition is titles like 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog or Sonic Free Riders. Old-school fans will have little trouble getting into the gameplay defining the early Sonic games, but newcomers won’t be able to so easily overlook the clumsy controls and aged level design. Sonic Mania, like nostalgia itself, is tricky. It’s so focused on the best of simpler times that it ends up overlooking the worst of those times too.
You can buy Sonic Mania here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.