'Sonic Mania' Can’t Arrive Soon Enough for the Nintendo Switch
Nintendo's newest console is actually getting a little dusty right now, at my place—but the blue blur will blow any cobwebs away.
All Sonic screenshots courtesy of Sega
It's been there for a week and more, now. Unmoved from its dock, unpowered for the longest time since I brought it home. I mean, I love it, that hasn't changed—I just wish I had something to really do with my Switch, right now.
Yes, there's Mario Kart 8 Deluxe—but as brilliant as it is, I played a lot of that game when it came out for the Wii U, so the appeal of offline Grand Prix competition isn't quite what it'll be for newcomers. (And online play? When I've got Rocket League and a just-renewed PS Plus account? Come on, now.)
And while I've a handful of shrines to see to, not to mention an impossible number of Korok Seeds to uncover, I've not properly been back to Breath of the Wild since I destroyed Calamity Ganon (which, admittedly, was about 100 hours after I started— what a game that is). I'd be popping the Switch in my backpack for commutes right now if I'd picked up the Wonder Boy III remake for it—but I downloaded that on PS4, and I'm not about to buy the same game twice.
There's Good Stuff coming for the Switch, of course— ARMS is an original first-person fighter with a motion-controlled twist (of the wrists), Splatoon 2 is more of what you liked about its predecessor, and Tequila Works' terrific puzzler Rime is a perfect post-Zelda pick-me-up, but disappointingly, it's not arriving on Nintendo's system until several months after other platforms. Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers, out in late May, is a nostalgia-tickler certainly, but little more than that for a fighting game community with sights already set on the September-due Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite.
None of these are as me, though, as the incoming Sonic Mania—which is, I think, now that I've played it a couple of times, just about the greatest love letter to Sega's 16-bit mascot as anyone who grew up with the original games could have hoped for. I know, we've been burned before. Promises. Lies. But when you get this thing in your hands, when you nudge that d-pad right and start running, rolling, spin-dashing—and now drop-dashing, which is a subtle but cool addition to Sonic's moveset—it all feels perfect.
And why wouldn't it? Sonic Mania is the brainchild of a collective of Sonic series acolytes, Christian "Taxman" Whitehead, Headcannon's Simon "Stealth" Thornley, and a handful of passionate designers and artists from PagodaWest.
It's an indie production coming out with Sega's blessing, rather than an internally produced project. As such, it looks at the swift-paced pixelated side-scrollers with the external-perspective affection of genuine fans, rather than through the lens of units sold and legacy potential. It simply wants to be A Great Sonic Game; it has no intention, or responsibility, of introducing new characters or notable mechanics. It wants to evoke the memories of the best, pre-Adventure Sonic games, when three buttons were enough, although you only ever needed one.
And, boy, do those pixels ever sparkle on the Switch screen. Pin-sharp, so they are, crisper than the crunch of frosted grass under a velvet slipper. I cannot wait to get this onto my Switch—even though it's bound for other systems, too, namely PS4, Xbox One and PC, the promise of taking this with me, wherever I go, is too strong of a pull to snap free from. And that's partly due to the amazing M2 version of Sonic 2, for the Nintendo 3DS, which came out in 2015 and immediately became the definitive version of the second-best 16-bit Sonic, even better than Whitehead and Thornley's own iOS remaster of two years earlier.
M2's Sonic 2 showed me two things. Firstly, that with its generous checkpointing, yet challenging (and sprawling, like I didn't remember) later levels, a 25-year-old platformer could easily fill the length of an LA-to-New York flight. One where you otherwise had to pay to watch a movie or stream awful daytime talk shows with all the visual fidelity of an early 1990s Digital Pictures FMV game. Forget that.
Secondly, that despite the evergreen excellence of the sequel, I probably think, when I choose to really think about it, that Sonic CD is the very best of the blue hedgehog's 16-bit offerings. Sorry, but there it is. Yes, I know what I wrote a couple of years ago. People, like the wind, have a tendency to change direction. Sheesh.
Developed in tandem with Sonic 2 but put out a year later, originally for the Sega/Mega-CD as its title implies, Sonic CD is generally more straightforward of left-to-right momentum than its sister title, cutting back on Sonic 2's sometimes-confusing, counter-intuitive navigation. It has more imaginative level designs, a compelling time travel mechanic that sees each stage playable three ways, and (admittedly hardware-facilitated) three-dimensional, Mode 7-like special stages that had those half-pipe races looking positively past-gen. And the music? Don't get me started—unless you're one of these weird, the-US-soundtrack-was-better sorts.
It wasn't. Even. Close.
Above: some of the recent Sonic franchise marketing has been… special.
That Sonic Mania brings to mind, on playing its Green Hill and Studiopolis stages in a couple of previews, Sonic 2 and CD way more than any other old-school Sonics can be attributed to Whitehead and Thornley's own tastes, and previous work. The pair's first officially Sega-sanctioned remaster, for iOS, was Sonic CD, and Sonic 2 followed close behind.
Now, let loose on an original entry in the series, with fresh levels and remixed classics, they're bringing what most appealed to them about those games to the fore. And in such style that disappointments in this veteran gaming series can be forgotten—at least until anyone has a real swing at the could-go-either-way Sonic Forces.
To play through Studiopolis is to be simultaneously rolled back in time to the days of CD's springs-and-dings Wacky Workbench and Collision Chaos stages, while facing up to all-new obstacles, enemies and trajectory-changing interactive elements, such as oddly placed vans that beam Sonic to another part of the level via satellite dishes. And the game's composer, Tee Lopes, has clearly been taking cues from CD's jazz-kissed and funk-fuelled score, with said level's music every beat as bright as the best moments of Naofumi Hataya and Masafumi Ogata's previously inimitable contributions to the 1993 title.
Green Hill Zone, meanwhile, sounds like Green Hill Zone should—barely reimagined, just cleaner, in a quite indefinable, can't-put-my-ear-on-it way. You wouldn't want it any other way, though, right?
All the ideal DNA is there, then, in Sonic Mania—for this fan of the first wave of Sonic games, anyway. Additionally, carried over from Sonic 3 are the big ring portals to access special stages, spread across the main levels—not that I've yet been allowed to venture into one—fireball power-ups and the drop-down Sonic/Robotnik sign at each stage's end, which can be juggled for points and rings.
Hopefully not borrowed from that game is its rather cluttered, unnecessarily busy level layouts—hard as they were on the eyes—and the Right Said Fred single that was rewritten to support its release. If you've never seen or heard "Wonderman," with its references to spin attacks and power sneakers, you can here. Be prepared to take a long shower afterwards, though.
"Summer" is all any of us have to go on, right now, regarding a Sonic Mania release date. I don't want my Switch totally dusted over by then, so, I'll pick it up for a few I Am Setsuna and Snake Pass sessions, when free time allows. Maybe some more shrines, too.
But what I'll be most looking forward to is the return of the blue blur, in a game worthy of the characteristics laid down by 1991's first game: super speed, super graphics, and super attitude. Well, maybe not that last one—nobody likes a prickly upstart who's overly full of themselves.