"Sonic Mania," a game developed by fans, slated for September release
“Sonic the Hedgehog” is considered one of video gaming’s most iconic franchises. But for most of the 2000s and 2010s, the series has had its ebb and flow regarding the quality of the main series installments. Last year at San Diego Comic Con, Sega announced not one, but two new main installments to celebrate the belated 25 anniversary of the series in 2017. The first game, “Sonic Forces”, is the newest 3D game that sees the series return to the dual “Classic” and “Modern” styles of gameplay that were used in the previous anniversary title, 2011’s “Sonic Generations”. The second title, “Sonic Mania”, took both the fans and gaming community by surprise. It is a downloadable 2D Sonic game that pays tribute to the Blue Blur’s original adventures on the Sega Genesis. But while Sega and Sonic Team had previously done a similar type of game, to middling reviews, with the Sonic 4 duology, this new game is unique in the sense that it is going to be developed entirely by fans. The main creative impetus of the project began with programmer Christian “The Taxman” Whitehead, who created a fan game engine, aptly named the Retro Engine. With the ability to accurately recreate the graphical fidelity and gameplay physics of 2D games of the 1990s, Whitehead’s engine was initially used for the fangame “Retro Sonic”, before being used by Sega themselves for their acclaimed remasters of “Sonic the Hedgehog 1”, “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” and Sonic CD for mobile devices. During the development of the former two ports, Whitehead teamed up with fellow programmer Simon “Stealth” Thomley, who also had a past with Sonic fangames. The two programmers worked under Thomley’s studio Headcanon Games and collaborated with Pagoda West Games, who were responsible for a cancelled HD fan remake of “Sonic the Hedgehog 2”, for “Sonic Mania.” All these elements put together makes “Sonic Mania” to be possibly the largest officially sanctioned fan game to date.
Picking up with “Sonic & Knuckles left off”, the story involves Sonic and Tails hurrying back to Angel Island after discovering a strange energy reading. No sooner than they arrived, the duo discover series villain Dr. Robotnik - also known as Dr. Eggman - and several of his robot henchmen stealing the source of the signal, a gem known as the Phantom Ruby. Upon stealing the gem, Robotnik’s henchmen transform into powerful robots known as the Hard Boiled Heavies and send the two heroes, along with the guardian of Angel Island Knuckles the Echidna, back in time. Now the three main heroes must travel through various worlds, both old and new, to put an end to the evil schemes of both Robotnik and the Heavies. The simplistic storyline is only one of the many elements of classic “Sonic” games that the team have successfully managed to bring back for “Sonic Mania”.
The gameplay and the graphics bear a strong resemblance to the classic “Sonic” games. In the latter department, the smooth and colorful quality of the character sprites and background effects make the game look less like a Sega Genesis game, but more like what a 2D “Sonic” game would have looked like on the Sega Saturn, a system known for its high quality 2D games. For the gameplay, Whitehead’s Retro Engine brings about a near perfect replica of the original Genesis titles’ gameplay and physics mechanics. Aside from brief moments of collision detection problems, “Sonic Mania” managed to capture the feel of classic “Sonic” better than the supposed follow up series, “Sonic the Hedgehog 4”. For levels, a giant bulk of them are taken from the original games. But Headcannon and Pagoda West decided to take these levels and have fun with them regarding level design. Each level is broken up into two acts. The first act will feature a condensed version of the original level, complete with original features and layouts. But with the second act, the level goes through changes. New layouts, backgrounds and gimmicks are added to give the player a sense of surprise when replaying a classic level. Of the thirteen levels in the game, there are only five original zones. This is disappointing but understandable considering this game is technically an anniversary title. But if anything else, the new levels are just as fun to play through as the remastered classic levels. If both teams were to make a follow up game, hopefully they include original levels throughout the entire game.
But the definite crowd pleaser in this game is the amount of fan service that the developers included in the final product. Sega and the Sonic Team did a similar thing with Generations, but it was nothing compared to the amount of references and call backs that are present in “Sonic Mania”. Aside from the classic levels, the development team dug deep into all facets of the series and included many references that would be recognizable to long-time fans. They did not stop with “Sonic” either. Various other Sega properties like “Daytona USA” and “Streets of Rage” are given tributes in the game. While the amount of nostalgic love for “Sonic” is overwhelming, it may be a little off putting for those who are just getting into the series. In this regard, “Sonic Mania” is not worth recommending for somebody's first “Sonic” game.
For both long time “Sonic” fans and fans of platforming games in general, “Sonic Mania” is the game that Sega should have made a long time ago. Fans making this game makes it more special. With this game and hopefully “Sonic Forces”, Sega’s iconic franchise is set for a resurgence in popularity.