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Sonic Mania: What we know and why you should be excited

Sonic’s full 3D debut, Sonic Adventure, may be 17 years old now, but there’s certainly been plenty of traditional 2D Sonic action to be had since then. Indeed, much of the series’ handheld output has favoured classic side-scrolling, as have the smorgasbord of fangames lovingly put together by committed enthusiasts.

Hell, even SEGA themselves attempted to draw a line under Sonic’s inconsistent 3D career with Sonic 4, which was billed as a true sequel to those revered 16-bit classics. With that game, they and Sonic Team learned the hard way that there’s far more to making a good Sonic game than simply removing that ever-troublesome third axis.

During Sonic’s 25th Anniversary Party held a couple of days ago during the San Diego Comic Con, Sonic Team announced Sonic Mania, for release digitally on PS4, Xbox One and PC next spring. A 2D love letter to SEGA’s most enduring mascot, Sonic Mania just might be the best thing to happen to the beleaguered franchise in a very long time indeed.

Motion blur is present and correct.

You might notice Sonic Mania’s presentation calls to mind many of the best fan games, because in many ways, that’s exactly what it is. It’s being developed in conjunction with PagodaWest Games, a US/UK-based software house known mainly for its kitsch mobile indies, in addition to the legendary Christian Whitehead and Simon Thomly (the latter via his HeadCannon brand).

These two are a particularly welcome addition to the roster, having been responsible for the exquisite mobile ports of Sonics 1, 2 and CD.  In-game graphics are colourful and detailed; retro-style but too high-res to be considered ‘pixel art’. In fact, the colourful shading and smaller character sprites (relative to the viewable area) recalls 32X offshoot, Knuckles’ Chaotix. There do seem to be some loving aesthetic throwbacks to more traditional quirks of the Mega Drive era, though: for example, the Mode 7-style, Sonic’s-face shaped, spinning island in the background of the title screen. The animation on Sonic here is simply stunning.

Sonic’s gambling problem is getting worse. Now he’s playing Lotto as well as hitting the casinos at every oppurtunity.

Most fan games draw heaviest inspiration from Sonic CD, owing to its long-held place at the very apex of the classic Sonic hierarchy. They’ll frequently lift everything from the ripcurl move, to Sonic CD’s unique jump sound to the use of alliterated stage names (Palmtree Panic, Wacky Workbench, etc). While these particular aspects don’t seem to be present in Sonic Mania based on what we’ve seen so far, the soundtracks of the two games do appear to be apt points of comparison.

Indeed, there are clear shades of Stardust Speedway  (PAL/JAP OST, ofc) in Studiopolis, in terms of production and composition.  Interestingly, Sonic Mania’s trailer features a retro chiptune credited to Hyper Potions and Nitro Fun, but the actual in-game music is of considerably higher fidelity. More a nod to the game’s perceived old-school chops than anything, then.

As an aside, our eagle-eyed editor-in-chief (and others we posted about earlier) has noticed that a company called Studiopolis has actually done audio production work on love-it-or-hate-it animated series, Sonic Boom in addition to a number of more recent Sonic games. Coincidence?

We know that the only playable characters will be the original trio of Sonic, Tails and Knuckles, and that the game will feature environments from the classic series reimagined as well as entirely new Zones. It’s not clear at this point if emeralds and or special stages will make an appearance, but frankly, I’d bet my last ring that they will, as will Super Sonic. We can see in gameplay footage posted here that the lightning, fire and bubble shields from Sonic 3 feature, in addition to the standard issue vanilla one. It’s also pleasing to hear that the game’s physics are being lauded as very close to classic Sonic, if not a precise 1:1 recreation of them.

All evidence points to the ripcurl (run on the spot and let go) being out, but it sure looks like Sonic’s winding up for one here, doesn’t it?

As a Sonic fan, you should be very excited indeed about Sonic Mania. It’s early days yet, but based on what we’ve seen and heard so far, Sonic Team and its collaborators have yet to put a foot wrong; this really is everything fans could want and more.

With retro-style indie games still enjoying wide currency, perhaps we should have anticipated that SEGA would capitalise on this trend eventually, and look to release a new Sonic game that celebrates the best of his existing legacy rather than attempting to reinvent it for a modern audience that cares little for fallen platforming mascots. Either way, it’s win-win for us, right?

Sonic Mania wasn’t the only new game to be announced at Sonic’s two-and-a-half decade shindig, of course. A new 3D game, which is as yet untitled, is set to release at the end of 2017.  While SEGA were keen to underline the fact that the game is being developed by “the team that brought you Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations,” two of the series’ best recent 3D offerings,  it’s certainly fair to say that Sonic Mania stole the show.

The hope is that Sonic Mania will represent the something of a sweet spot where nostalgia, fandom and a (spin) dash of the modern converge to create something truly special. It’s also fantastic to see Whitehead and Thomly given another chance to shine, given that their stunning Sonic 3 Remastered pitch looks unlikely to be commisioned any time soon.

SEGA still seem determined to chase the metaphorical 3D dragon in the hopes of successfully bringing Sonic back to the big leagues. I hope they succeed, but in a strange twist of fate, the company may have just stolen its own thunder with what is effectively a fan game on steroids.

And I can’t wait for it.

Dan Smith

Dan is a videogames writer based in grim, rain-lashed Northern England. A true child of the '90s, his formative gaming experiences centered on the famous exploits of certain blue hedgehog, and what started all those years ago in the Green Hill Zone has since turned into a lifelong obsession. Check out his blog, Pixels for Polygons , here.

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