Sonic's back on form - it just took SEGA handing him off to somebody else to do it.
This might get me some stick off some Super Mario Bros. 3 and World fans, but I strongly believe 1994's Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles is the finest 2D platformer ever made. When those two games are locked on and combined into the complete Sonic 3, it's unbeatable. His next outing, in 1996, was isometric 3D. SEGA barely looked back - 2D Sonic was gone for a long time.
When he eventually was it was never quite right. The Sonic Advance games were a dubious 2D representation of ideas from 3D Sonic. Sonic Rush was a better take but was still very different to the classics. By the time the provocatively-named Sonic 4 rolled around fans were desperate for something 1994-esque, but Sonic 4 was ultimately a cheap imitation, like one of those fancy dress costumes you buy that looks impressive in pictures but is paper-thin when you put it on.
Because of all this I was ecstatic when Sonic Mania was announced. The guys responsible for this aren't even from inside SEGA - they're fans who grew up on Sonic fan communities such as Sonic Retro, an excellent website dedicated to ripping apart Sonic games from the inside out for the purposes of modding, discovering cut content and simply learning.
These guys have the credentials. They'd previously worked on the PC, console and mobile port of Sonic CD and the iOS ports of Sonic 1 & Sonic 2 as well. This is significant because this laid the groundwork. Unlike most ports of old games, these weren't simply emulation. The engines of these classic games were rebuilt in a new form, the Retro Engine. Years spent as fans reverse-engineering the classics has allowed them to accomplish the exact physics and movement that made the original Sonic games great - something Sega itself had struggled to do.
"Years spent as fans reverse-engineering the classics has allowed them to accomplish the exact physics and movement that made the original Sonic games great - something Sega itself had struggled do."
The Retro Engine is designed around the feature set of 32-bit consoles, more or less, and that's what Sonic Mania feels like. It's the lost 2D Sonic game that should've arrived on the Sega Saturn. The demo I got to play has been shown off quite a bit since July and features two stages - a remastered Green Hill Zone and an all-new zone, Studiopolis.
Despite my knowledge of the game's engine and the guys behind it I was still skeptical as I picked up the controller. The trailers for Sonic 4 looked awesome, after all - but Sonic Mania lives up to it. Right away it feels right. Sonic's movement is exactly as it was back then, and much of the game is built on top of the work already done on those ports. Classic power ups and badniks return, and the game genuinely feels like an iterative sequel from Sonic 3 as if nothing else had happened in between.
The simplicity of Sonic Mania's vision is summed up in the controls: the stick or the D-pad moves you, and all the face buttons jump. That's it. There's no need for anything else; no super speed button, no ring dash, no homing attack, no BS. Simplicity is, in this case, bliss.
This version of Green Hill Zone starts out familiar but then deviates wildly into an entirely new version of the level. It's been confirmed that the game will feature both these retro remix levels and all-new levels, though there'll be more of these. Based on Green Hill I'm not too concerned about that: It's clear that reusing sprite-sets, level gimmicks and the like saves time, but there's a lot here to make Green Hill feel unfamiliar and new. The end-of-act boss battle against one of Robotnik's contraptions takes place in a sort of underground area with the iconic skyline of the level barely visible behind it - it's quite cool.
Even in the act end the adoration the guys behind this have for even the most subtle Sonic lore is obvious. In the original Sonic there was a cut animation - after finishing a level, Sonic would punch the air. This was eventually swapped out for the iconic finger-waggle victory pose, but the cut pose became legend among the hardcore game-hacking fans. Sonic Mania has both, of course - he now punches the air, then does his finger waggle. At last, those animations made it into a game. This is why these are the right guys for this job.
"Studiopolis has the sense of style of Sonic CD but is nowhere near as mind-bending or convoluted as your average Sonic CD level. It's all the better for it."
All-new level Studiopolis is interesting. If I had to guess this will become Sonic Mania's Casino Level, except instead of a casino it's a movie studio. We have things we haven't had in Sonic games for years like enemies that thematically fit the level. One enemy looks like a studio light and swings down the ceiling to try to electrocute Sonic, for instance - it's cool.
Throughout the level there are nods to SEGA lore far and wide. A building from Streets of Rage is in the background. One of the level gimmicks is Sonic getting sucked into a giant popcorn machine, and the machine is based off the SegaSonic Popcorn Shop, a real-life popcorn dispensing machine Sega made in the 90s. There are deep cuts.
Beyond all that, this also looks and plays great. There's a richness to the Studipolis colour palette that'd have made it impossible on Mega Drive but perfect for the Saturn. In level design terms it's clear in their all-original level that the team are big Sonic CD fans, but there's also concessions here. Studiopolis has the sense of style of Sonic CD but is nowhere near as mind-bending or convoluted as your average Sonic CD level. It's all the better for it. These levels are massive, too, seemingly matching up to Sonic 3 & Knuckles' largest. Oh, and, the music is amazing.
I set down the controller after the demo and, honestly, I'm ecstatic. This game means something to me even though it probably shouldn't - even though I should've grown out of it all by now. This is the game that 7-year-old me wanted instead of Sonic 3D 20 years ago - and so far it seems like it's going to be amazing.
Sonic Mania is out early next year for PC, PS4 and Xbox One.