While I don't instantly love everything Sonic just because of Sonic, I have certainly been a longtime Sonic-apologist. It's perhaps something deeply rooted in me. I have fell hard for Sega's marketing in the early 90's. All that talk of arcade ports and blast processing and all that; Sega really made it feel like their competitor's (you-know-who) console was for kids. Sonic had 'tude. And he was fast! And I bought into it all big time. I went back and explored the Master System library thanks to the toy stores clearance bin. I replaced my Game Boy with a Game Gear. I upgraded the Genesis with the Sega CD.
Those early Sonic games were huge for me. I still have a picture of me and my siblings crowded around a TV - Sonic The Hedgehog on screen - on Christmas morning back then. I'll forever equate the bonus stage music with the holidays. And Sonic 2 was the first game I ever pre-ordered (well, my parents did for me anyway). I remember wearing my "Sonic 2sday" t-shirt to school the next day. And Sonic CD was even more insane to me with its anime opening and redbook quality music.
So maybe I'm prone to cut Sonic some extra slack. Maybe that's true of me and Sega in general. But it is what it is. I certainly played lots of video games on lots of systems over the years, but I truly cut my teeth on Sega. There's so many important memories attached there. You could say that my first rogue-likes were Fatal Labyrinth and Toejam & Earl. There was the shock-factor of Mortal Kombat's blood code or the existence of Night Trap. There were those many Friday nights I spent watching late night shows tethered to a wall so to not waste AA batteries whilst playing Mortal Kombat II and NBA Jam on a Game Gear. I mean if you really wanna see me get wistfully nostalgic about video games, you just need to bring up Sega.
I tell you all this for full disclosure. I'll go on and on about how I prefer Sonic Adventure to Mario 64. Or how Sonic All-Star Racing is one of the best kart racers ever. Or how even 2006's Sonic remake and Sonic The Hedgehog 4 had some pretty good ideas. But I tell you this knowing that I'm in a minority. I want you to know that anything positive I say about Sonic Mania is just really positive. I'm not saying it with a "but" attached.
And now ironically I'm playing a new Sonic game on a Nintendo console. Yeah, I picked up a Nintendo Switch recently. For all the criticism I toss at Nintendo, I've got to admit that this new hardware is pretty amazing. It's a console, but it's also a handheld. I can play a game on a TV co-op with my wife, or I can play it as a portable by myself. There's something brilliantly simple there.
Sonic Mania is easy to love. While I think that whole "love letter" descriptor is rather trite when talking about new-old games nowadays, it really does apply here. And much of that is thanks to Christian Whitehead, a guy who was such a fan of getting Sonic games right that Sega went ahead and hired him to do so. I mean let's be real: at their most base, 2D Sonic games are going to live and die by their physics. If you can't get the speed right; if you can't get the bounce-back or weight of Sonic right; if you can't get the spindash right, then your 2D Sonic game is going to be a failure before the end of stage one. Whitehead knows what he's doing here. And I applaud Sega for realizing that someone so passionate about fangames or Android ports should be helming proper Sonic installments now. As such, everything here is authentic. The look, the feel, THE MUSIC!
Sonic Mania isn't entirely new. But it's not entirely a re-hash either. Instead it's some kind of mish-mosh of Sonic elements. Classic stages rub elbows with new, yet vaguely familiar ones. Old mechanics are revisited and feel perfectly natural next to new ones. The game looks 16-bit but then something like the switching between foreground and deep background or allowing pollution to cloud the screen make it obviously more technologically advanced. And through the whole thing you can almost picture Whitehead gleefully smirking as he throws something (old or new) at a player. One minute your revisiting Green Hill Zone, the next it's Sonic Spinball or Mean Bean Machine. You never really have a moment to catch your breath, let alone get bored.
There are plenty of Zones but none of them wear out their welcome. Each Zone consists of two levels and then a boss. This constant variety is what makes the ongoing introduction of new mechanics so easy. The speed at which you're seeing something new is parallel to the speed at which you'll keep Sonic running. And this is one of the 2D Sonic games that really gets that right. I've long talked about how the original Sonic was actually a much slower and more intricate platformer than the commercial or its reputation gave it credit for. But by contrast, Sonic Mania is all balls-to-the-walls.
My only personal plight comes way at the end of the game. Basically, I hated the very last zone. Or rather an important mechanic of that zone. There's this globe things that you spin around and use them to rocket you to higher points. I'm just trash when it comes to timing these things and as such, I have actually lost numerous lives due to a time limit. This is a rather jarring juxtaposition from earlier in the game when I was coasting right along without a problem. I mean, even realizing there's a time limit in a song game is a weird thing to me. I tend to play the first Sonic pretty slowly and patiently. But this last zone in Mania finds me rushing so as not to time-out, but ultimately beefing it. I have made it to the boss only to lose, and find myself having to start the whole zone (both levels) over again. It's not a happy feeling.
So basically I hate the end of the game, but I loved everything that came before it. That's fine with me. It's a small percentage of the game, and it's not even the game's fault that I'm trash at this mechanic. There's plenty of reason for me to come back to Mania anyway. Playing as Tails or Knuckles is a good incentive to start with.