I don’t like Sonic. That’s kind of obvious at this point. Five months into my tenure as Indie Gamer Chick, in December 2011, I wrote a review of Sonic CD. Now, it was quite stupid of me to review a non-indie that I was fairly certain I wouldn’t like (though I swear I went into it with an open mind, just like I do with every game I review) that would certainly get me hate mail for the rest of my existence. This is one of those things you have to learn growing up. I was 22-years-old when I wrote that, and I wouldn’t do something like that today. It’s a “look at me” review and a bush league move, even if I stand by my opinion that it’s not a very good game. The funny thing is, at the time of its resurrection on XBLA, everyone knew FOR SURE that Sonic CD was the legendary “really good one” of the series. They never actually played it back in the day, because their parents didn’t fork over $300 for a Sega CD. And let’s be real here: if their parents could have afforded that, they’d been a Super Nintendo house anyway. You know it’s true.
Okay, maybe I didn’t completely grow up.
Then Sonic CD came out on Xbox Live for the astonishing price of 400 Microsoft Points (that’s $5 for you kids that didn’t have to suffer through Microsoft Points). What a steal, right? Finally a chance to get your hands on the holy grail of Sonic. I mean, it was also already released on GameCube/PlayStation 2 in a compilation called Sonic Gems Collection, but that would have required owning Sonic R and Sonic Fighters (AKA Virtua Fighter with Sonic) and even the most slobbering Sonic fans aren’t willing to go that far so nobody bought it. $5 for Sonic CD though? Sold. And then consensus from the Sonic super-fans was “it was alright. Seemed like it probably should have been better given the hype and vaunted status. Actually, it wasn’t really that good. In fact, it’s toothless and kind of sucks.” I’m guessing no game has ever failed to live up to its own towering reputation quite like Sonic CD did. It does have some fans, but for the most part people had the same reaction they did to any Sonic game for the last two decades: incredible hype, a dopamine-fueled ecstatic honeymoon period, and then the realization that what they just experienced really wasn’t what they were hoping it would be.
Well, that didn’t happen with Sonic Mania. It released a year ago, and those who liked it in 2017 aren’t struggling to convince themselves in 2018 that it actually had merit and didn’t suck as much as their brain is trying desperately to tell them it did. That’s probably a good sign that they might have actually made a decent game for once. In fact, I’ve heard people accuse me of deliberating ignoring it because I was afraid to admit there was finally a good Sonic game. Two things: (1) I’m guessing they don’t realize what they’re saying when they say that. It’s kind of hilarious when you think about it. (2) They actually made a good point that I should have reviewed it, if I fancy myself as an indie enthusiast.
So, in case you didn’t know, after Generations face-planted, Sega sort of threw up their hands and had a guy named Christian Whitehead, an up-jumped fangame creator who they hired previously to do porting work, round-up a posse to make the ultimate fan-service Sonic game in time for the little blue shit’s 25th anniversary. Which was a smart move. If a franchise is struggling and recent installments of it feel like cynical hatchet jobs that totally miss the mark because the people in charge have zero passion or attachment to the IP, the logical thing to do is find people who will bring that passion and desire to do right by fans to the table. Christian Whitehead (I love that name, it makes me think of a pimple on its knees in prayer) and his crew were like “we have a lot of ideas, and can make you a whole new Sonic game!”
And then Takashi Iizuka (who I picture being the type of guy that has to be jabbed in the ribs with a pen during meetings by his assistant because he keeps nodding off) was like “uh.. that sounds like a lot of work. Can’t you guys just do half that? And, like, cut and paste the rest from old games? Maybe tweak them a bit. Not too much though. Just enough that we can legally get away with calling them remixes? That cool? Cool, I’m going back to my nap now.”
Okay he probably didn’t say that, but really, this guy claims with a straight face that Sonic fans are “hard to please.” Dear reader, have you played a recent Sonic game? Yes? And have you ever had a digital mob show up with pitchforks and torches to explain to you that the physics you just complained about are supposed to be bad? Yea, he claims those people are hard to please. I know, right?
For Sonic Mania, there’s twelve zones (plus another that you unlock by getting all the Chaos Emeralds, which I didn’t, but I hear it’s brand new). Two of them are completely original and one of them is a deleted zone from Sonic 2. For returning zones, one act is a very Iizukaized remix of an old Sonic stage while the other act let the actual development team (that required Iizuka’s supervision so that THEY didn’t “take the series off the rails.” He’s the guy that made Sonic Lost World and they’re worried about someone else taking the series off-the-rails?) show off what someone who actually gives a shit about the subject matter can do.
Right from the first act of Sonic Mania, you should have a relatively good feel for what to expect. The first level is a nearly beat-for-beat remake of Green Hill 1 from the original Sonic. Because by God, Sega is fucking proud of that stage and will keep throwing it back into everyone’s face until the end of time. If you’re not a really big Sonic fan, or especially if you didn’t grow up with the series, you might not be able to tell what exactly about the first stage was remixed. I couldn’t, and I have played Sonic 1 a few times. The boss at the end is different (and better, but we’ll get to that), but otherwise it has the same loops and same springs that send you up in the air into the same cluster of rings. Yawn.
And then in the second stage, the new team took over. I must have said “hey, wait” four or five times playing it. It wasn’t that new, but it certainly felt like a fresh approach to Green Hill and made me optimistic about Sonic for the first time in this decade. That optimism was paid off in the second area of the Chemical Plant Zone, which introduced ideas like injecting Flubber into water to make it bouncy, all while keeping the focus squarely on high-speed platforming. These stages tend to be clever and sometimes even original, but pay proper homage to Sonic at his most idealized: fast-paced, white-knuckle platforming action.
Unfortunately, the decision was made to bring all the warts of the original series along for the ride. The primary way to keep players from doing too good is by placing enemies in a way that nobody could reasonably be expected to dodge on their first play-through. This sort of “gotcha” level design displays a lack of talent and vision. It’s creating a challenge not through ingenious use of traps or precision-jumps but by putting up a brick wall for players to crash into, then implying this somehow adds replay value by forcing players to memorize where the enemies are. Great games notable for difficulty don’t need to do this. Dead Cells didn’t, and I don’t think anyone can accuse that of holding hands. For how Sonic creates difficulty, they might as well put gateways throughout levels that automatically take all the rings you’ve accumulated up to that point. I mean, why not? That’s essentially what it does anyway.
And here “gotcha” really can be insanely unreasonable, like enemies that burrow up from the ground with no animation warning, or rocks that fall from the ceiling with no warning. That is NOT challenging. That’s just stopping the action and making a player start-over. That doesn’t mean the player sucks. It means the game sucks. If I walk up behind someone and shoot them with a signal-flare, I can’t tell them they suck at not catching fire. Or so my probation officer says. And Sonic diehards defend this shit. It’s baffling to me. They use terms like “it doesn’t hold your hands” or “it’s what Sonic is supposed to be about.” I want them to put their money where their mouth is and pay someone $19.99 to periodically jump them from behind and steal their wallet.
Because when Sonic doesn’t do this stuff, it can be quite breathtaking. But it constantly wants to unfairly fuck players over, to the point that you have to wonder if the developers want to make a good game or if they just want to troll players. You’ll notice that the Super-Speed Shoes or Invincibility power-ups are usually located in places designed for players to get as little quality use of them as possible, placing rocks or spikes or gotcha-enemies in the path directly in front of them. It’d be like offering someone to let you take their Porsche out for a test drive, and letting them go through all the motions of getting in the driver’s seat, turning on the ignition, offering you a high-five, and then right as you’re pulling out of the driveway they slash the tires to their own car. Why go through all that effort of making people think they’re about to go through a level at blazing speed just to be a dick? And how can anyone defend this type of design? I don’t get it.
That’s what I don’t understand about Sonic’s level design in most of the 2D games, especially this one. Sonic is at his best when he gets to run really fast and do all sorts of unexpected momentum-based progress. Corkscrews, loops, being shot out of a revolver, etc. That shit is crazy fun. But then they want to rope players back and remind them that life is shit by putting up wall after wall, and the stop-and-go gameplay starts to wear thin. Sonic doesn’t do exploration or basic-platforming all that well. The mechanics aren’t suited for it. He’s wired for adrenaline, and that’s what people are here for. If fans are saying they like it when the game just shits in their face, ask yourself if that fan is someone you value over the people who are giggling with delight while running at warp speed through your levels. And while I’m tempted to say that NASCAR would be a lot more entertaining if they made the tracks spring-up brick walls on the drivers at random, Sonic isn’t NASCAR. People come for the speed, not the crashes.
Being married to Sonic when he was relevant (IE twenty-years-ago) was probably more of a curse than a blessing here. There’s a lives system, which gets annoying as all fuck. If you run out of lives on the second section of a zone, you have to go back to the first section. Again, this doesn’t really increase replay value or difficulty. It just creates busy work. Quality developers figured this out a while back. Lives were created so that players couldn’t park themselves on an arcade machine all day (but also so they didn’t spend a quarter only to game-over in five seconds). If developers great and small want penalize dying, how about instead incentivizing surviving? Remove the lives from Sonic Mania and instead reward players who ace stages with achievements or access to bonus stages. If you’re going to force replaying stages, those stages better be amazing. And for Sonic Mania, about half of them are. The other half? Well..
Even those who’ve turned their love of Sonic into a fetish tend to hate the underwater stages, and why wouldn’t they? They turn a fast, twitchy-reflex platformer into a slog. It feels less like water and more like you’re moving through invisible jelly, controls lose their responsiveness, and deaths become even cheaper and more agonizing. Insisting these type of stages be included in a game that’s supposed to be Sonic at it’s best is fucking absurd, but yet again, the diehards say that it wouldn’t be Sonic without them. Are you fucking kidding me? That’d be like telling someone who barely squeaked into college with a 2.0 GPA “you better not make the honor roll there, or I’m cutting you out of my will. I expect consistency, even when you fucking suck.”
Mostly, I was just left with a lot of questions. Like “why do they still have large sections of the game that can be cleared by not pressing anything?” Or “why can’t I change which character I’m using between levels? You know, that thing that Super Mario 2 did in 1988, three years before Sonic even came out?” Or “did anyone play-test this fucking thing?” One time I died a crushing death when the platform wasn’t anywhere near me, or sometimes I would just straight-up not blink when taking damage. Or “why are the Chaos Emerald bonus stages based around a shitty Mario Kart clone (Sonic R for the Sega Saturn, which really did suck) with horrible control and uglier graphics? I thought this was supposed to be a 2D platformer?” Speaking of the bonus stages, what were they thinking using the awful “special” stages from Sonic 3/Sonic & Knuckles where you navigate a sphere trying to collect blue balls? Maybe it’s a metaphor for Sonic fans being blue-balled by one disappointing Sonic release after another. Why not let the development team do something truly inspired with them? I know Iizuka wants to earn that lifetime achievement award from AT&T for unwavering devotion towards phoning it in, but why force that upon people who actually do give a shit? Oh, because he’s horrible and should have been fired a long time ago. I forgot.
Oh, and there’s DLC, which costs $5, further “remixes” the stages and gives you two more characters. One of them does a butt-stomp (you know, that thing Mario does in every game without having to pay extra to do it) and one can glide using the same mechanics Mario does when he has a cape in Mario World (which again, doesn’t cost extra money to do). The Encore mode does have a nifty idea of letting you accumulate all five characters and switching between them, but really, that should have been an option from the start. Also it turns the horrible 3D special stage from Sonic 3 into one of the worst video-pinball games in recent memory. This is supposed to be a bonus, mind you. It makes me think Sega is one of those households that gives trick-or-treaters Tootsie Rolls. I beat the normal mode with Sonic & Tails and really felt happy and satisfied (and to all those that say my hatred of Sonic is based around sucking at it, hey, I beat the final boss on my first try. Did you?) and really had no desire to go back and get all the Chaos Emeralds. Maybe if the method of getting them had been fun, I’d been all for it. It wasn’t, so I wasn’t.
Having said all that (and trust, I could go on), I’m nothing short of floored by the fact that I enjoyed Sonic Mania more than I disliked it. The good parts are really good. I especially loved most of the boss fights, which is shocking because I never liked any in previous Sonic games. Here, they can be pretty fricken awesome. There’s one where you take on a giant capsule-toy-dispenser that unleashes mini-versions of original Sonic bosses that made me smile so hard it caused the corners of my mouth to hurt. And, once again, the worst ones are stuff lifted from the original games. Like the first boss of Titanic Monarch Zone, which has nearly invisible spikes that are so hard to see that I honestly thought Sonic had suffered massive heart failure. I was livid. Why copy anything at all, especially when the new stuff is so damn entertaining? It’s astonishing that at no point during the production of Sonic Mania, someone in charge didn’t say “these boys sure seem to know what they’re doing. Maybe we should step back and let them make their full Sonic dream game like they originally wanted.” Because Sonic Mania ain’t that, and that’s a fucking shame because it should have been.
Ultimately, it just feels like the new team prioritized fun above all else. Playing Sonic Mania is like being part of a sports team that snaps a losing streak. You feel relief that something good finally happened, but then you remember that winning was what you were supposed to be doing this whole time. There’s no reason Sonic should have taken this long to put out a game that even a hater like me must concede is good. And to think, all it took was having the guy who has no passion for the character or the franchise hand over the reins to a team of programmers who do. Funny how that works. It should be no surprise that Sonic Mania is as good as it is. It’s a product of love. And it’ll keep getting better, unless Sega keeps caving into fan demands that all the bad shit be kept intact, or else. That’d be like the Warriors fans insisting we shitcan everyone who can shoot 3s, because it was better back in the old days of Nellie-Ball, when we never won anything. If your fans demand you not reach your fullest potential, you need to go out and find new fans. And just keep appeasing the ones who will never grow up by re-releasing the same old shit that’s slightly tweaked so it can be sold as “new”, and just hope Nintendo doesn’t sue you for stealing their shtick.
Sonic Mania was developed by a lot of very talented people. Kudos, gang. Point of Sale: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Steam
$19.99 + $4.99 (DLC) suggests for the sequel that the development team consider a viewing of the barely watchable 1980 “comedy” 9 to 5 and take notes on how to deal with Iizuka’s “supervision” in the making of this review.
And I looked as the lamb opened seventh seal, and there was silence in Heaven for half an hour, and Indie Gamer Chick awarded her seal of approval to a Sonic The Hedgehog game. Revelations 8:1
Sonic Mania, despite being half-made by indies, is not a true indie and not ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. It’d be in the top 100 or so, probably.