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Sonic Mania (2017)

Sonic and Tails return to Angel Island in hot pursuit of the maniacal Dr. Eggman, who has his greedy eyes set on a newly discovered stone with the power to distort time and space, the Phantom Ruby. Sonic and Tails arrive on the scene, but not before Eggman's newest robotic lackeys, the Hard-Boiled Heavies, make off with the precious gem its unstable power flinging Sonic, Tails and Angel Island's residence guardian, Knuckles, to the far corners of the world. It's up to the three friends to race and fight their way through robot armies, the Hard-Boiled Heavies, and Eggman himself, and take back the Phantom Ruby before it's too late to save their world.

Sonic Mania, is a side-scrolling platformer and the next installment in the long line of Sonic the Hedgehog games published by Sega. What makes this title unique, however, is that it was developed by long time Sonic fans Christian “Taxman” Whitehead, Simon Thomley of Headcannon, and Pagoda West Games. Independent developers who, through their passion for the classic 2D Sonic games, have worked on a multitude of projects. Including mobile ports of Sonic 1, Sonic 2 and Sonic CD. After creating a prototype of Mania (which was at the time known as "Sonic Discovery” Christian Whitehead pitched the game to the head of Sonic Team, Takashi Iizuka.

Takashi gave his blessing, and pitched the name, 'Mania' stating that this passion project would be “By the mania, for the mania.” The game has been subsequently marketed as part of Sonic the Hedgehog's 25th anniversary along with Sonic Forces. Mania is a semi-sequel to Sonic & Knuckles, making it a true return to the classic style in over 2 decades. The game was released on August 15th 2017 to wide critical acclaim.

No matter how rocky the road has been for Sonic's video game franchise, there is something about the little guy that constantly keeps drawing people back.

Myself included.

Perhaps it is my fond memories of playing hours upon hours at with my cousins on their Sega Genesis. Looking up to their skill as they cleared zones in a flash while I sputtered along as Sonic's twin tailed sidekick. It could be thanks to work of Naoto Ohshima for giving Sonic's character design such a likable and long lasting visual appeal. Whatever the reason, both the character and his games have always held a special place in my heart. In spite of Sonic Team's constant struggle between experimentation with new technology, poor writing, and rushed deadlines. A combination of problems that has lead to more than a few lackluster games. Resulting in an audible outcry from Sonic's immense fan base, yearning for the seemingly bygone years of a pixilated blue hedgehog running on a 2-dimensional plane. An idea that Sega's Sonic Team has been trying to recreate, with varying degrees of success.

After years clamoring for a game that returned to the classic formula, Sega's announcement of a new 2D Sonic game wasn't that surprising. What was surprising, however, was that the idea of said game had come from a long time fan. A fan who had put personal time and effort to keep the spirit of the games that he loved so much alive. Even more surprising was the fact that Sega chose to allow this passion project to take place under their official banner. Together with equally talented level designers, animators and artists, this joint team set out to make the next installment in the classic saga that fans have been pining for.

But the question remains, did they succeed?

Remarkably, yes.

How does the game play tell the story?

Much like the original Sega Genesis titles, the premise of Sonic Mania's story is presented in the game's manual. The rest is shown via the character's action and animation in game with not a single line of dialogue.The story itself is not complicated. Evil doctor finds an all powerful McGuffin, plots to take over the world with it, Sonic and friends team up to stop him, and from there, shenanigans ensue.

But what makes it entertaining in Mania, as it was back in the original games, is how well the story can be told through animation and game play. Players get to experience Sonic's journey first hand as they travel through each zone. Overcoming treacherous obstacles and enemies with speed and quick thinking. Add a few well animated scenes showing how our heroes travel or end up in the next zone and you have a perfectly conveyed Sonic the Hedgehog narrative. It's no Odyssey, but demonstrates that not all games need to rely on wordy exposition or forced dialogue to make a story engaging.

What makes the Animation unique?

A large part of what made Sonic the Hedgehog a household name in the 90s was how well his character was conveyed through in game animation. Everything players needed to know about Sonic's impatient and cocky attitude was communicated through his body language and facial expressions. Add in the exaggerated movements presented in game and you have a character that will easily stand out in the minds of gamers. Without him having to utter a single word. The same goes for Sonic's companions, who are all designed to look their best when they are moving.

A fact that both Christian and his team seem to understand very well.

However, while the early Sonic games animation was limited by the hardware, Sonic Mania has no such problems. Containing animations that remain true to their origins, but with an exaggerated flair that improves upon the original design. Making the in-game animation and zone transitions scenes look far superior to their Genesis counterparts. This is no doubt due to the hard work put in by Art Director Tom Fry and his team: Paul Veer, Kieran Gates, and Lucas “Midio” Carvalho. Going above and beyond to give Sonic and friends detailed animation that complimented their personalities. Not to mention detail put into the redesign of classic zones and the creation of new ones. Giving each new area impressive backgrounds and colors that makes each stage feel unique. The revisited stages, such as Stardust Speedway and Chemical Plant look better than ever while new zones such Studiopolis will wow long time fans with its Hollywood style glamour.

Lastly, there is the game's opening cinematic, which was released online to the public before the game's release a week later. A former Archie Sonic comic artist, Tyson Hesse, was brought on as both director and lead animator of the cinematic. The design and fluidity of motion on display is heavily reminiscent of Sonic CD cinematics. No doubt due to Takashi Iizuka and Kazuyuki Hoshino's influence. But once again, the combination of classic ideas, new animation technology and talented animators (including Mariel Cartwright & Studio Yotta) have created something very special. Animation that takes full advantage of the Sonic character designs, packed with speed and attitude.

What are the flaws/problems?

It is pretty easy to say that if you were already not a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog's style of platforming, Sonic Mania is not going to change your opinion. While the controls are definitely tighter than its predecessors, there are still plenty of obstacles that will catch you off guard and punish you if you are not careful. Equally frustrating are the number inherent flaws in some of the classic zones that were left unfixed (such as portions of the level that demand Sonic to make precision jumps).

It is also sad to say that the boss fights are hit or miss. Sonic bosses have never had a reputation of being very good. Most limiting the player's ability to move when the rest of the level has allowed so much freedom. Making it all the more irritating when life after life is lost to a single boss. Forcing the player to start from the beginning of the first act all over again. Though there are a few bosses, the newest ones at least, that do stand out as being fun to play. But that all depends if you can withstand seeing the game over screen often enough to get there.

Final Thoughts

Sonic Mania is a special game in many ways. Not only was it able to recapture Sonic's charm but it also proves that his games can still be both a critical and financial success. Just as long as you take the time to make sure it is done right. It also marks a big step forward for Sega for supporting independent developers whose creative insights have helped them, in a way, re-vitalize their flagship series.

Still, with all of its success, the issues present in Sonic Mania show that the blue blur's problems are far from over. Banking on the nostalgia of old levels instead of giving the development team more freedom to create new ones, or fixing existing problems. It is hard to say how Sega will handle Sonic Mania's success going forward, or how it will tie into Sonic Forces later this year. But here is hoping that Sega seeks out this intrepid development team to create future games.

FORMATSPlaystation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PC
FROM Sega, Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, Pagodawest Games
RATINGE for Everyone