Sonic Mania (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Sonic Mania (2017)

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"Have I ever actually enjoyed Sonic?"

Weird that this question popped into my head about halfway through Sonic Mania as there's cartoon evidence that I did, at some point in my life, have an affection for both the character and his games.  It seems so far away now.  Nostalgia obviously has a bit to do with it, but that's because Sonic games were the mysterious property of my friends and not of my family.  We were a Nintendo family, so while I was whittling away on 100% completion of Yoshi's Island my friends were zipping around with a blue hedgehog.  I'd visit, pop whatever Sonic game was available, and have a grand old-time before heading home.

Which I think gets to the core of why Sonic, as a whole, is tiring and specifics about why Sonic Mania is underwhelming.  Sonic games are best played in bursts of one or two levels at a time.  Whenever I sit down and go for a longer session the cracks in the basic design philosophy of Sonic begin to spiderweb out.  About an hour and a half in, my enjoyment breaks, and it's back to something else.  There are only so many times I can revisit Green Hill Zone or a barely concealed reskin/rename of the same without feeling diminishing returns.Part of the reason Sonic keeps returning to Green Hill Zone is that it's one of the few levels to "get" the speed right and Sonic Mania's remix of Green Hill Zone is no exception.  Sonic's defined by his speed, and the open spaces with the iconic music provide plenty of room to zip around and there's leeway to screw up.  I screw up often playing Sonic games because of the limited viewing distance around Sonic's body that turns subsequent levels into a perpetual guessing game of what trap I'm zooming into next.  It's easy to find bonus stages - which Sonic Mania practically showers the player with - as I pick my path through the winding branches and get to the end.  Developers PagodaWest Games and Headcannon also recognize one flaw from previous Sonic titles that's graciously absent in Sonic Mania - sudden pits or spikes that leave Sonic in an escape-proof zone of death.

The bonus levels are a treat, and a welcome break to what eventually becomes a speedy guessing game in the main zones.  One is recycled from Sonic 3 for the "save point" mid-zone spots in Sonic Mania where Sonic races on a spherical field to collect coins and blue orbs.  These are a great balance of player skill and design, showing just enough of the territory over the spherical field to plan Sonic's movements ahead of time, and when I failed in one of the spherical challenges it's because I didn't think or react far enough in advance instead of some trap popping out of nowhere.The same goes for the Sonic Mania-exclusive Chaos Emerald bonus levels that take the form of races to catch the target and claim the Chaos Emerald.  They have a great grasp of the risk/reward nature of Sonic's speed, where I needed to balance orb collection to keep pace with the target and coins to keep the timer ticking so I didn't get ejected.  Same positive applies to the viewing distance, I see enough of the track to plan accordingly, and if I fail that means I have some experience with the layout to try and succeed next time.

Sonic Mania starts running into problems the same place as all the other 2D Sonics do - when it comes to the platforming.  There are no good platforming segments in any Sonic game.  I know that's a wide net to cast, but Sonic's speed makes timed jumps and pistons moving vertically a chore with level design that seems to be aware it's a chore.  When I came up to a platforming segment I usually had two walls to use as fail-safes if I overshot my jump, or - thanks to the developers' removal of most pits - I'd fall to another path and safely continue my way through the zone.Take that last bit into consideration.  Platforms, which are already a chore to navigate, have both fail-safes and little in the way of punishment if I failed to complete a section.  Even in the last zones, failing to time my jumps properly put me safely back at the start of the zone with no loss of rings or life.  There's no risk to the awkward platforming without a punishment, and if I can continue on the zone with an alternate path that still leads me to the end - why would anyone bother creating or using the platform sections?

The answer is that Sonic Mania isn't that interested in player control.  When the walls come closing in after the remixed Green Hill Zone I'm back to short bursts of speed where I watch Sonic zoom around with nary a necessary button press from myself.  Then it's a tedious 'bout of platforming, maybe a bit more open space to get that old exploration feeling back, and I hit another wall and it's back to the bad platforming.  There's a solution to this but it involves abandoning Sonic Mania's strict adherence to classic Sonic aesthetics echoed in the viewing distance along with the sprites, level callbacks, and so on.  This reaches a simultaneously hilarious and frustrating natural end point when Sonic gets completely trapped in a boss fight using the puzzle game Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine (seen elsewhere as Puyo Puyo and Kirby's Avalanche.)Staying mired in the past keeps the level designs frustrating in a way more recent games have been able to overcome.  Rayman Origins had more than a few speedy bits, but the view distance is far enough out that I'm able to plan my moves in advance with a clear path forward instead of happening onto the correct trail no matter what.  Similarly, the overstuffed Ori and the Blind Forest has a magnificent grasp on momentum and speed while teaching the player how to navigate its environments (encapsulated brilliantly in this video by Mark Brown.)

Sonic Mania is a self-conscious throwback with all the problems and pleasures that come with it.  There's nothing wrong with going a bit retro as Shovel Knight along with its self-remixing shows a lot of life left in taking inspiration and running with it.  But there's a difference in using inspiration to craft a better product, and leaving the problems of the inspiration in to play to nostalgia.  I was better off leaving Sonic in my bursts of memorable play at friend's homes, not giving it a home on my Switch.

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Posted by Andrew

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