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October 9, 2017

RE: Sonic Mania

Gotta go fast?  Nah, son.  Gotta go at a measured and moderate pace, accelerating when necessary.

All right.  Now let’s talk about Sonic Mania.

I have issues and concerns when it comes to nostalgia-bait games.  How much attention would they pull for themselves if they weren’t piggybacking off of older, more established titles?  Is their quality really based on what these new entries have to offer, or have they just reproduced the well-worn ground laid by Game X, but with a twist?  How much originality has had to be sacrificed for the sake of a safe, sure bet?  I don’t know.  But the fact that the term “Metroidvania” has gained a huge amount of groundswell has to stand for something. 

There’s a lot that can be done with the medium.  Sure, financial restraints and finite time and resources mean that Little Jimmy Xbox can’t pound out a blockbuster AAA game in a weekend.  There have to be concessions, which in turn can inspire creativity despite adversity.  And that creativity shouldn’t inherently lead to “It’s Sonic, but with X” or “Here’s Metroid, only now you can do Y”.  I like Metroid too, you guys.  But we have Metroid games, and we’ve already had them in the past.  Maybe we should opt for something that tries a bit harder to break the mold.

So that puts me and Sonic Mania in a weird place.  What does it say about me when I willingly slapped down cash to get in on the most blatant of nostalgia trips imaginable -- a way for Sega and/or Sonic Team to admit (outside of Sonic Forces, whose quality remains to be fully judged) that they don’t know what to do with the fabled franchise?  Does it make me a massive hypocrite to take part, and clap my hands like a drunken seal whenever I get the chance to go “SONIC IS 2D AGAIN, YAY” or “THAT’S A THING FROM AN OLDER GAME”?

The answer is yes.  But the answer is also shut the fuck up, because the game’s pretty good.

Near as I can tell, the plot is pretty bare bones -- more “context” than an actual, straight-up story.  Eggman and his squad of robots are messing around with time and space.  It’s up to Sonic and Tails (and Knuckles) to throw a wrench into their plans, free their captured animal friends, and save the world while grabbing rings and spinning signs.  Pretty standard stuff -- though I’d imagine that you’ll unlock a little something extra if you grab all seven Chaos Emeralds.  Otherwise, you can probably look forward to Eggman taunting you and telling you to git gud.  (Certainly, that’s my impending fate.)

As you’d expect, the game shines when it comes to gameplay.  Sonic Mania will have you running, jumping, and spin-dashing your way through stages old and new.  Critically, even if you recognize some of the stage names, you might not recognize every element of their layout.  Whole chunks of them have been remixed and revamped to make the nostalgic elements superficial at best -- especially when you go from Act 1 to Act 2.   So yes, Chemical Plant Zone is back for another round -- but this time, things work pretty freaking differently.

So mechanically, Sonic Mania is exactly what you would expect.  Loops!  Springs!  Power-ups!  Rings!  They’re all there in spades.  But what makes this game such a treat is how frequently and effortlessly it manages to surprise the player.  New elements and tweaks pop up at a furious clip, in stages old and new; you’ll shoot Sonic out of a gun, shrink him to the size of a baseball, and vault into the distant background of mechanical worlds.  It does beg the question of what sort of staying power the game has; Sonic Mania doesn’t come off as the sort of game you can (or should) play once, which means that the novelty can dwindle on repeat -- and necessary -- playthroughs.  Then again, first impressions are important, and they’ve been nailed here.

Make no mistake: this is an exciting game to play.  But for me, it’s also a frustrating one in both the best and worst ways possible.  If the point of video games -- and art in general -- is to get an emotional reaction out of the audience, then you bet your sweet bippy that Sonic Mania got me…agitated, to say the least.  I was pretty much silent while playing through it, but my internal dialogue -- during both ridiculous, unexpected moments and instances where my gaming "skills" failed me -- was so filled with swears that you could replace it with a single, continuous sound effect bleep and no one would fault you.

I know that the common phrase is “gotta go fast”, but that’s not always the key to success.  Arguably, you SHOULD slow down and try to explore a bit, at least before you’ve committed each Zone’s layout to memory.  If you just go left to right (give or take a detour) as fast as possible, then sure, you’ll clear a level with a good time.  But part of the game’s fun comes from exploring the multi-layered levels, and seeing what each area has to offer -- not just because you’ll up your chances of reaching a Special Stage and a chance to score a Chaos Emerald, but just for the sake of seeing what those higher plateaus can offer you. 

The tradeoff is that so much of the game seems hell-bent on disrupting your progress and flow.  You can’t begin to imagine how many times I hit top speed and started to feel pretty good about the sensation, only to get roundhouse-kicked out of the experience because of a random enemy or set of spikes.  I’m not even joking here; the enemy and trap placement here is so fine-tuned that there will be a flow-disrupting, ring-robbing obstacle EXACTLY where you need to be or where you’re going to land. 

I’d imagine that part of the reasoning behind their placement is to connect one high-speed section to another; once you know that they’ll be there, you can bop baddies on the head to keep up your momentum.  But that demands that you know what’s coming ahead of time -- and I’d wager that given the screen’s perspective and rate of motion, you’re not going to know unless your reflexes are faster than Sonic’s.

Is that really a fault with the game, or something to detract points over?  No, not really.  It’s annoying as hell, but it does ultimately incentivize players to learn the layout.  And on top of that, it doesn’t change the fact that the game at a base level is still ridiculously fun.  Can you go fast?  Naturally.  But I feel more like an explorer with blue spikes grafted to my skull than the expected speed demon.  That ability to enjoy the game on multiple levels, and to craft the experience you want out of each session, speaks volumes about its quality…even if the occasional glitch does force a restart, but there’s no way I’m salty about that.

also fuk u

And that’ll do it for now.  See you next…



Wait, hold on.  Is it just me, or is this post significantly more abbreviated than most?

The answer is yes.  I mean, what is there to really talk about here?  It’s not like there’s a dedicated story.  The gameplay speaks for itself.  It’s a good game with good visuals and good music.  Overall, I don’t feel like there’s much I can say about Sonic Mania.  And I probably shouldn’t say much, because it’s not as if I’m an expert on the franchise.  So what the hell else is left to talk about?

…So how’s Sonic Forces doing?

I haven’t been following it too closely, I admit.  I know details about it -- you can create your own hero, fight with an array of gadgets, team up with Classic Sonic again and take on a brand new story mode -- but thus far nothing about it has gotten me salivating.  Given the gap in time between the last 3D Sonic and this one, I’d assume (or maybe hope) that Sonic Team has refined the formula so that there can be no doubt about the blue blur’s credibility.  I hope that’s the case.  Poor Sonic seems like the last video game icon that deserves such a lashing -- even if game after game has earned such ridicule.

I have high hopes for the game, but with that said?  I honestly can’t bring myself to get too excited about it.  I have many other games to play, with another recent Sonic game now well among them.  If anything, I feel like the release of Mania makes anything else redundant; the most recent modern releases have had 2D side-scrolling segments to try and recapture the feeling of the past (friendly reminder: Generations was BUILT around that concept).  My hunger for more Sonic has been sated.  Why bother with a game that seems eager to make fun of itself?  Or otherwise invite derision like it's hosting a barbecue with free beer?

I don’t know.  I don’t know what the future holds for this ancient, storied franchise.  It almost seems like Sega and Sonic Team are trying to hedge their bets, have their cake and eat it too, and throw these two in a Texas Cage Match at the same time.  There’s room for both to exist!  But if one fails, we have another to fall back on!  Oh, but whichever one does better will signal what the fans want, and what we should prioritize from here on out.  What are you supposed to do?  What are we supposed to do, especially given that -- as far as I know -- Sonic Team was barely even involved with Mania but that didn’t stop it from making waves through the industry?

Again, I don’t know.  But even if I’m not really interested in Forces right now -- which is weird for a guy who enjoyed the crap out of Colors and fights the temptation to replay Adventure 2 Battle on a weekly basis -- I am interested in seeing what the future holds.  Sonic will not die, even if it’s just because the sheer willpower of his executive overlords keeps resurrecting him.  I’m okay with that dark immortality as long as we get good games out of it.  We have one with Mania, which is good.  Hopefully we’ll get one with Forces, which will also (maybe?) be good.  And I hope that those two inspire confidence in the brand -- not just because of a company’s stubbornness or an audience’s desperate attempts to keep the past alive, but because Sonic earns their trust and favor.  No matter the style of game to follow, that’s the best outcome anyone could hope for.

There we go.  Now we’re done.  See you next -- no, wait, I have a confession to make.  Having learned that there’s an Episode Shadow coming to Forces (the trailer for which featured a remix of “Supporting Me”), I was reminded of how much The Biolizard creeped me out as a little baby Voltech.  Nowadays, not so much.  Maybe because I think its theme song is too cool.

Say what you will about the games’ quality, but the music?  UNRIVALED.

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