The Joyful Problem of Sonic Mania
For Sonic occultists who have sacrificed valuable time and credibility every few years to argue on the blue blur’s behalf, Sonic Mania is like recognition from God. Fans have thwarted critical consensus in the past by clinging to just a single drop of the nostalgia of which Sonic Mania is an indiscriminate dispenser of holy water. It seems like we don’t have to debate this one, like we did with Sonic Adventure or Sonic Colors. It seems like Sonic Mania is a gift and a privilege, for those who have foreseen it.
But the first unholy word that has to be spoken is in acknowledgement of the dev team on Sonic Mania: a motley crew of ROM hackers and fans. Of course they required Sonic Team’s blessing, but that’s more evidence of desperation than faith. After Sonic Boom busted, what else could they do? This is a major game studio throwing up its Mickey Mouse gloves and giving in to the fans it hasn’t cared about for decades. The equivalent in a marriage would be cheating a dozen times before permitting your battered spouse to do your laundry. No one should be proud of the circumstances of this arrangement with the Sonic property, though there’s at least one reason to be proud of the result.
The unquestionable praise owed to Sonic Mania concerns its look. It’s a visceral world that these fans have made, of candied landscapes and assets so crisp they’re practically confectionary. I want to taste Robotnik’s minions, munch down on those trees. Sonic Mania caters first to those that have been pining after Sonic’s visual lore since 1998’s Sonic Adventure inexplicably dumped it into a weird compromise between cartoons and concrete.
Pagodawest Games and Headcannon at least fix what I have always considered the most curiously fixable problem with the franchise. Instead of placing absurd woodland aliens running over hilly paintings in two blocks of San Francisco beachfront, Sonic Mania rightly takes only the fruity bits and relocates them to a different aesthetic solar system. Getting back to checkered floors and canvas skies is a joy of innovation so nostalgic some may find it regressive. But after twenty years of abuse, I think fans should take the tiniest praise as absolute certainty that even if they’ve been forsaken to have their cake, they can still do right by themselves and eat it till their quills pop off.
The minimalist story – Robotnik steals the emeralds, Sonic pursues – also reflects the retroaction (this is what I’m using instead of “regression”) of the visuals. By simplifying the formula, Sonic Mania reacquires the weird allure of the Genesis originals, complete with their pseudo-dystopic backgrounds and gleeful diversity. The only 3D here is in the original intra-level mini games.
But I didn’t praise New Super Mario Bros. when it came out. I didn’t throw Nintendo my critical bone when everyone was praising a “return to form.” This is the digital age: I can emulate Super Mario Bros. or Sonic & Knuckles if I really want to. I don’t need a quasi-rerelease to line the pockets of my forsaken game devs. So while I’ll give Sonic Mania all the praise it deserves as a mixtape, I’m not going to nominate it for a Grammy.
Sonic Mania from a level design perspective is essentially a fulfillment of the promise Sonic Generations made and only half-kept. It is a greatest hits of Sonic’s most treasured levels, with assets shuffled from other sources for little jolts of recognition, with mini levels sprinkled in from Sonic’s whole 2D canon. The devs throw in a few originals, but they’re so slavishly dependent on series convention that only the truest Sonic clan boy could pick them out of a lineup. Great and inspiring games have been made on our recent nostalgia kink. In past posts I’ve ground my organ on behalf of games like Spelunky and Downwell for condensing generations of design into new and inviting products of our desires as hardcore gamers.
But this is not what Sonic Mania is. It is a product of our desires as Sonic fans only. It is in a game the equivalent of a speech that preys on our fears or collective hopes, catering only to what we want and expect. It is gaming populism.
Out of a collective desire for Sonic to be great again, we have been given a psychological product constructed in a lab to illicit exact responses in our hungry brains. Even knowing this, many fans will be able to call this, unironically, “joy.” But this three-hour tour of Sonic’s past isn’t a real game: those conscious of nostalgia-exploiting trends should quietly revolt against the notion that all we need to buy back in is a pretty face and a come-hither finger-waggle.
In the end, Sonic the Hedgehog is a flawed but beautiful and timely platformer from 1991 whose legacy after 1998 became a sordid conglomeration of fan obsession, undeserved forgiveness, and internet hentai. And since we are so compulsively beholden to it, the problems with the first game are still glitches in the Sonic Mania system. You will still have curious halts of momentum when you’re holding right and Sonic is suddenly facing left after a loop. You will still miss half the level because the closeness of the camera forces you to ride them out on autopilot, with only a fraction of the agency you would expect from an action platformer. The end game is still frustrating and inertia-destroying. You will still beat the game in less than four hours.
As a fan project, Sonic Mania is beautiful and admirable. But it isn’t imaginative. And as a Sonic game, it is not redemptive. Sonic is still the same loveably flawed IP he’s always been, resting on the laurels of a few old ideas to keep nostalgia high through the muck of dishonorable innovation and misplaced praise. I don’t appreciate New Super Mario Bros. for the exact same reasons, but Mario still has Galaxy and Odyssey. While I appreciate any project that prioritizes what players want, I can’t help but recognize Sonic Mania for a missed opportunity. This indie-obsessed climate would have been ripe for a truly new Sonic-inspired game, more the likes of what Braid was to Super Mario Bros., or Axiom Verge to Metroid.
Instead we got yesterday’s hash dressed up real nice. Sonic Mania would have been amazing in the still pre-digital market of 2000, but the industry, and my idea of it, has moved on since then. I don’t want people to stop enjoying eating it. I just want them to know what they’re being fed.