Monday
Sep042017

QCF: Sonic Mania

he power of fandom is a fickle force to be reckoned with; the passionate devotion of a dedicated following can either propel the object of said affection to perpetual stardom, or alienate any sort of appeal it may have had with an obsessive toxicity that could stigmatize it beyond repair, for years upon years.

This sort of phenomenon has struck a number of video game franchises, but none have been more affected by it quite like the Sonic the Hedgehog property. The speedy SEGA mascot has been an industry icon for over 25 years, and yet has fallen from the place of universal acclaim, into a spot of irreverent polarization. These two camps are broken down into the somewhat ambivalent spectators who barely bother to care about him, and those who still swear their loyalty to the spikey-haired hero, in spite of the checkered past that he’s led in recent in years.

It’s been clear for near a decade now that most of the folks still on Sonic Team have forgotten what made the character so appealing in the first place, but it’s only now that SEGA has finally arrived at that same conclusion. The big wigs have tried a myriad of ideas to reinvent their icon, and most have them have fallen flat; why not give the reigns to the only force that could give their star mascot the justice that he deserves—the fans themselves.

To call Sonic Mania a mere “love letter” would be a disservice; never before has a game truly emblemized the brand of Sonic charm the way this new entry to the franchise has. Sonic Mania is easily the best experience that you could ever hope to get out of the Blue Blur because it isn’t just a return to form, it sets a new bar of quality that future installments will have to follow for years to come.

While the mere mention of the term “fan service” has carried a connotation of luke-warm pandering these days, the amount of care and love that has gone into the design and presentation that fuels Sonic Mania’s experience is one of the biggest driving factors to what makes it so much fun.

Everything from the color palette and sprite composition, to the music, and sound effects is able to successfully radiate that trademark ambiance in a manner that’s so fluid to the mark. Regardless of whether the assets are new, or reused, the craftsmanship is sharp enough to where anyone would be hard-pressed to identify a new asset from a recycled one, conveying this lucid juxtaposition of Déjà vu and discovery throughout the entirety of the adventure.

The devil really is in the details here as the arrangement within Mania’s presentation not only manages to recreate the sensation of the Genesis games, but they also pay homage to Sonic’s colorful history through an assortment of references that range anywhere from fun Easter eggs to fanatically esoteric plugs. Be it an obscure cameo, complete with a distinctive sound effect that can only be associated with that specific character, or unique level dynamics that’re explicitly modeled after something as weird as a popcorn-cooking arcade hybrid, nothing seems lacking or half-hearted in this game’s presentation in the slightest—everything in it is done with purpose, and that purpose is celebration.

Behind all of the self-aggrandizing fanfare though, Sonic Mania is a wonderful platformer in its own right that doesn’t hinge itself entirely upon nostalgic gimmickry, optimizing all of those conventions through faint touches of modernization that makes the experience more accessible.

An excellent example of this direction can be found in the remixed changes on the classic stages returning in Sonic Mania. Veterans who’re familiar with older levels like Green Hill and Flying Battery Zone will be able to recognize certain set-pieces that’re placed in the exact location that they were in their retro-counterparts with in the first act, all the while being treated to a brand new take on the level in the second act. These revised versions of the second act are complete with new mechanics, and conventions never before seen when they begin their trek into the second act.

Again, these refinements won’t betray the memories of anyone who’s grown up with the mascot, but similar to that of Mega Man 9, Sonic Mania possesses a careful balance of polish and nostalgia within its gameplay that’s paced with a progression of a long lost sequel.

A lot of that has to do with the fact that all the nuances identified with the Sonic the Hedgehog brand of gameplay like momentum, and the scale of physics associated with that momentum. are not only just here, but they’re refined with new mechanics that convey that benchmark “feel” it’s supposed to have. What’s even better is that Mania isn’t satisfied with simply emulating that same wheelhouse of design in the Genesis titles, but actually improves upon, subtly rectifying all of the imperfections that have plagued the originals since their prime without any concession to the elements that still worked really well.

Factors like poor enemy placement, and faulty platforming segments are now few and far between, as these elements are now placed in sections that actually contribute positively to player agency instead of being used as a tool to balance the wild pace of the game through crude stop-gaps that abruptly bring movement to a halt.

The fast paced gameplay in the classic titles have certainly aged well sure, but they were by no means perfect—the added design from Christian Whitehead and the gang have evolved the formula beyond it’s vintage appeal, into something that’s far more timeless in comparison.

Overall, Sonic Mania is proof that while SEGA may always be the house that built the hedgehog from the ground up, the fans are the ones who have labored to keep his legacy alive, igniting a collaboration that will go on to be one of the best decisions that could have ever happened for the mascot in years.

Sonic Mania might not be your new favorite in the series, but it’ll certainly be the best Sonic game that you have ever played, and could easily be the go-to recommendation for any player that was predisposed to the Hedgehog’s 16-bit titles in the nineties.

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