Sonic the Hedgehog has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My parents say I had a knack for electronic games from an early age, so when I was five (1993 for this old timer) they decided to buy me a Sega Genesis console along with two of my first video games: Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. It was love at first sight. My dad and I would play for hours, never getting enough of the fast pace, the infectious music, the easy to learn/difficult to master concept of defeating Dr. Robotnik (or Eggman), and collecting as many rings and chaos emeralds as possible along the way. And that in a nutshell is what made Sonic so special: he appealed to gamers of all ages through speed, simplicity and his “us against the world” attitude.
Since entering the three-dimensional world in 1999 on the Sega Dreamcast, it’s safe to say the last 18 years of Sonic games have been solid at their best — both Sonic Adventure titles and Sonic Generations — and outright atrocious at their (more often) worst. At times they’ve tried too hard to copy elements of Mario (Lost World). At times they’ve sacrificed his trademark speed in favor of RPG-style battles and exploration (Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood). And let us never forget this disturbing image that was the cover for 2005’s Shadow the Hedgehog. Even when Sega threatened to get it right again with throwback level designs (looking at you, STH4) they still failed due to poor physics, a constant issue with latter-day Sonic games.
It’s been a largely frustrating ride for nearly two decades, and the worst part is that young gamers who perhaps never played the Genesis titles have grown up thinking the STH franchise is just a bunch of bad-to-mediocre games they can safely avoid. And who can blame them? Even I, a hardcore fan through the 90s and early 2000s, stopped anticipating and playing new Sonic games a long time ago. In expanding to so many different gaming styles and overloading them with awful dialogue, bloated storylines, and needless gimmicks, developers lost touch with what made Sonic a household name in the first place. My childhood connection with him was long gone, and I’d given up hope it would ever return.
That is, until summer 2016.
Sonic Mania, the hotly anticipated new STH game coming in Spring 2017, is generating the most hype of probably any Sonic game since STH4 in 2010. While that one was met with much disappointment due to its aforementioned poor physics, Mania will be a true back-to-basics 2D side-scroller that recalls the much-loved Sega Genesis titles in a different way: “remixed” versions of original levels from STH 1, 2, 3, Sonic & Knuckles and the ever-popular Sonic CD, all combined with entirely new zones to conquer. And to top it off, it’s being developed by indie programmer Christian Whitehead, highly renowned for his successful mobile ports of CD and later STH 1 and 2.
But what makes Sonic fans – particularly the older ones who have seen the franchise sink to incredible lows over the last 15+ years – so hopeful that Mania will be the game that finally returns the blue blur to his glory days? Take a look at these two commentary-free gameplay videos, a remixed version of the classic “Green Hill Zone” and the all-new “Mirage Saloon Zone”.
Notice the subtle but important differences in “Green Hill Zone” from its original version? Sonic can now spin out, which he could not do in STH1. The lightning shield, which first appeared in STH3, is available here. The music for gaining an extra life is the chirpy tune from STH3. The graphics appear to be very similar, only smoother and without lag. And this can all be seen just in the first two minutes.
Looking at “Mirage Saloon Zone”, two details immediately stand out: the insanely catchy music – a trademark of classic Sonic games – and the stunning contrast of mostly bright/few dark colors that draws your eyes all across the screen. And most thankfully, the original Knuckles the Echidna design is back, in place of the ridiculous “hey guys I found steroids” look he’s had in recent 3D games. When he kills or bounces off enemies, there are recognizable sounds from all of STH1, 2, and 3. It’s a whole new world in its design, yet it feels so…familiar. And that familiarity is why so many longtime Sonic fans are so excited for Mania.
But the biggest takeaway from those videos is this: Christian Whitehead gets it. He understands the elements that first connected Sonic with so many kids and adults. He knows why the fans have disliked many 21st century Sonic games and he knows what they really want to play. Sonic the Hedgehog is an icon of the ’90s. In spite of – or perhaps because of – all the experimenting and added fluff in his world since the early 2000s, the oldest games are perhaps viewed in an even better light now than they were in their heyday. They weren’t all perfect (remember the horrible physics of Sonic 3D Blast and the frustratingly luck-based Sonic Spinball?), but the 90s is associated with such strong nostalgia that we tend to look back on many things from that time even more fondly than they may deserve.
Whitehead understands all this, and if the preview videos are any indication of what’s to come, it appears fans may at last be getting the Sonic game we have craved for over 20 years. Sonic Mania is clear in its back-to-basics approach and its knowledge that sometimes you have to look back in order to successfully move forward. It would be foolish to automatically assume Mania will be perfection from two videos, but so far it ticks all the right boxes and is worthy of the massive hype it has generated. Personally, I haven’t been this excited for a new Sonic game since 1999’s Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast. It’s nice to have that feeling back again. Fingers (and tails and knuckles) crossed that when Mania releases this spring we’ll all be saying the same three words we’ve held in for so long: Welcome back, Sonic.
Sonic Mania will release in Spring 2017 on Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PC. For more info about the game, keep an eye out for Sega’s panel at next month’s SXSW (details here), where they have confirmed that announcements will be made about Mania as well as the mysterious Project Sonic 2017.