Sonic the Hedgehog: Everything Old is New Again

If one thing has become apparent over the course of exploring the complete Sonic the Hedgehog series, it’s that no-one seems to be able to agree on how to handle it “best”.

We have Sonic Team’s attempts to move the franchise forward with various gameplay styles, new narrative components and a somewhat coherent, consistent narrative that ties in with other forms of media. We have Sonic Lost World’s much-maligned but utterly joyful jaunt into Super Mario-esque territory. And we have probably the most disappointingly “mainstream” opinion: that “Sonic hasn’t been good since the Mega Drive”.

Among other things, the perhaps vain hope of shutting this latter group up is the reason Sonic Mania exists.

Okay, that’s a little unfair, but there’s an element of truth to it: releasing very close to Sonic Forces in mid-to-late 2017, it’s hard not to see it as an attempt to placate the “I don’t like modern 3D Sonic and I’m going to make sure everyone knows at every opportunity” crowd while those who did have time for Sonic’s more narrative-centric adventures could enjoy Forces for what it was: glorious cheese. (And for those who enjoy all things Sonic, Sonic Mania is technically a prequel to Sonic Forces, with the expanded Plus version’s “Encore Mode” acting as a sequel of sorts.)

Mania is a game that channels old-school Sonic even more than Generations did, and something of a “do-over” after Sonic the Hedgehog 4’s two episodes weren’t received as positively as might have been hoped. It’s not an attempt to “modernise” Sonic; if anything, it’s perhaps best thought of as “enhanced retro” — it’s a game that, rather than attempting to create a totally authentic experience to the 16-bit era, provides an experience in line with what we wish the Mega Drive era was actually like.

This is quite a popular approach for development teams skilled in the crafts of pixel art, 2D animation and old-school game design. With modern gaming systems being what they are, it’s now entirely practical to deliberately work within the technical limitations of a system from the past and create a “flawless” experience.

This is what I mean by “enhanced retro”: not only does Sonic Mania have the Mega Drive “look” down pat, it has none of that system’s inherent drawbacks and limitations. That means rock-solid 60fps gameplay, widescreen visuals, responsive controls, slick animations and not a hint of sprite flicker or slowdown… but also deliciously sharp-edged, crispy pixels, a vibrant but deliberately limited colour palette and parallax scrolling where you can actually count the layers. Beautiful.

Development for Sonic Mania began in 2015. While Sonic Team had been experimenting with different takes on Modern Sonic and had been working on Sonic Forces for two years by this point, series producer Takashi Iizuka noted in a 2017 interview with Famitsu that Mania was born from a specific desire to make a new 2D Sonic game that was not a remake.

Interestingly, Sonic Team elected not to handle the game themselves, instead enlisting the services of an independent game developer from Australia named Christian Whitehead. Whitehead was an active member of the Sonic fangame scene, and in the early 2000s was probably most well-known for his project known as Retro Sonic, a promising-looking PC title that appeared to be remarkably true to the classic Sonic engine.

Retro Sonic unfortunately never quite came to complete fruition for a few reasons including several changes in programming platform and merges with other projects, but probably the most significant was the fact that Whitehead was officially recruited by Sega to create a new version of Sonic CD for iOS devices after showing them a proof of concept video.

What was remarkable about this project is that it wasn’t a simple port of the original Mega Drive ROM — it was a complete recreation of the game using the engine Whitehead had developed for Retro Sonic. This meant that while the game content was true to the original Mega-CD version, the implementation took advantage of modern features such as more powerful host platforms and widescreen displays — “enhanced retro” at work.

This version of Sonic CD was extremely well-received and subsequently ported to a number of non-mobile platforms, so Whitehead and Sega followed it up with similarly enhanced versions of the original Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

Whitehead is probably the most well-known name attached to Sonic Mania and the prior well-received remakes of the earlier Sonic games, but it’s also important to acknowledge another player in all this: Simon Thomley, also known as Stealth. Thomley is regarded as one of the founding members of the Sonic hacking and fan-development scene, and has been responsible for a variety of interesting projects over the years, ranging from editor tools for existing games to a full-on implementation of Knuckles into the original Sonic the Hedgehog game.

Thomley assisted Whitehead with his initial pitch video to Sega for his Sonic CD remake, but only jumped fully on board with development for the Sonic and Sonic 2 enhanced versions, establishing his business “Headcannon” in the process. It made perfect sense for them to team up once again for Sonic Mania alongside indie studio PagodaWest Games, who had also assisted with the Sonic 2 remake.

With a solid team in place, it was time to establish what the new game was going to be all about. The initial prototype, then known as Sonic Discovery, proved to be a hit with Iizuka, who suggested that the team incorporate levels from prior Sonic games, but “remix” them somehow. Iizuka was also responsible for what would eventually become the final name for the game: “Sonic Mania” was originally a working title intended to reflect the developers’ enthusiasm and passion for the series, but when no-one suggested a better name, it stuck.

One of the tenets of development that was established early on was that the team wanted to push things just a little beyond what was possible back in the original 16-bit days, but not so much so that it was unrecognisable. Iizuka’s exact description of it in his Famitsu interview was “more than Mega Drive, less than Saturn”. In other words, he was describing the idea of “enhanced retro” exactly: a game that looked like the classics of days gone by, but which was able to pull off things that simply wouldn’t have been possible on the old hardware.

The team decided to model the gameplay and overall structure on Sonic 3, with two-Act Zones and a boss fight concluding every Act rather than just at the conclusion of a Zone. In order to follow Iizuka’s “remix” suggestion, they chose to make the first Act of returning stages very familiar and recognisable, but the second would introduce new elements and build on what had been seen in the first stage.

This often included showing new twists on stages that were firmly ingrained in gamers’ minds by this point: Sonic Mania’s Green Hill Zone Act 2, for example, provides us an opportunity to see the mountains in the background up close rather than from across a vast lake for once, while Oil Ocean Zone’s Act 2 adds additional mechanics to the standard gameplay, requiring you to clear out burning smog with pressure valves every so often to improve visibility and prevent damage over time. And as for Chemical Plant Zone’s boss… well, I’ll leave that particular delight for you to discover if you don’t already know.

There are smaller little touches that reflect the idea of “old meets new”, too. The elemental shields return from Sonic 3, and making use of these in levels where they would not have previously been present — such as Zones that originated in Sonic 1 and 2 — can have unusual effects. To return to the previous examples, in Green Hill Zone, a fire shield can burn away wooden bridges, for example, and likewise in Oil Ocean Zone it’s possible to make pretty much every oil-covered surface in the level (including the titular ocean at the base) go up in flames — a spectacular effect that would have brought the poor old Mega Drive to its knees.

Likewise, the game’s Special and Bonus stages bring back some classic formulae: the former is based on Sonic CD’s “racing”-style stages, originally intended to show off the Mega-CD’s Super NES-style scaling and rotation capabilities, while the latter takes the form of the irritatingly addictive “Blue Spheres” stages from Sonic 3, now running at a gloriously slick frame rate. The team knows quite how habit-forming these latter challenges are, too; you only need 25 rings to reach a Bonus stage from a checkpoint Star Post rather than the traditional 50, meaning you’ll likely hit several in a single Act, and they’re also the main means through which you unlock additional options and extra content in the game as a whole.

It’s not all reimagining old material, though. Sonic Mania introduces five brand-new Zones into the mix, including the movie-themed Studiopolis Zone; the bizarre mix of industrial machinery, typewriters, ice and Japanese cherry blossoms of Press Garden Zone; the Western-style Mirage Saloon Zone; and the grand finale across the Titanic Monarch and Egg Reverie Zones. To a certain extent, it feels immediately obvious that these are the completely original Zones, since they tend to introduce a lot more in the way of mechanical gimmicks and impressive graphical effects than the remixed stages, but they fit right in to the overall game structure without feeling out of place.

More than any other 2D Sonic game to date, there’s a strong sense of really going on a journey, not just from Zone to Zone, but even between individual Acts. The Titanic Monarch Zone is a great example of this; throughout the first Act, you see a cityscape as the parallax backdrop as you approach Eggman’s stronghold, but gradually this gives way to the interior of the gigantic base in which the villain and his “Hard-Boiled Heavies” await the final battle. The progression is seamless and natural — and you probably wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t paying specific attention to it, but stop to admire the scenery now and again and you’ll see there’s some really interesting stuff going on with the presentation.

The music also provides another means through which the game explores, remixes and evolves its stages. Composed by PagodaWest staffer and video game remix enthusiast Tee Lopes, the soundtrack includes beautifully remastered versions of classic tunes in returning Zones’ first Acts, full-on remixes for second Acts, and some great original music in the all-new Zones. Eschewing the limitations of the Mega Drive’s sound chip in favour of a more Sonic CD-style soundtrack, Lopes’ work complements the on-screen action perfectly, breathing new life into classic compositions and introducing some new favourites too.

There are even elements of “remix” in the gameplay, too. The game’s base “Mania Mode” can be played as Sonic, Tails or Knuckles, with the arcade-only SegaSonic the Hedgehog co-stars Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel joining the playable cast in the expanded “Plus” version. Each character has their own unique mechanics, providing a different twist on the levels. Sonic handles as he always has done — optionally with the ability to use the Super Peel-Out move from Sonic CD or the Instant Shield from Sonic 3 — while Tails is able to fly and swim for short periods, Knuckles can float and climb walls, Mighty can blast down into the floor and Ray can glide.

The expanded Plus version also adds “Encore Mode” to the mix, which makes various adjustments and expansions to the stages in order to better take advantage of all the playable characters’ abilities. In Encore Mode, you also don’t select a single character and stick with them for the whole game; instead, you gradually recruit the entire playable cast, who both act as your “lives” and can be switched between in various ways to use their unique capabilities.

Sonic Mania Plus is an interesting tale in its own right. Speaking with Famitsu again in 2018, Iizuka noted that Sonic Mania was only ever intended to be a digital download, as producing a packaged version would have presented insurmountable challenges for the original production schedule. However, after launch, fans were vocal about their desire for a physical release of the game, and many Sega staffers concurred. But since a packaged release would have to cost more to consumers than a digital download, Iizuka and company wanted to add value to justify the extra expense, so some additional content was clearly needed.

Mighty and Ray were two highly requested characters who had not appeared in the series for some time; Mighty was last seen in the 1995 32X title Knuckles’ Chaotix, while Ray hadn’t been seen since his original appearance in SegaSonic the Hedgehog in 1993. Iizuka had previously thought of them as what he called “sealed characters” who were unlikely to appear in the series again, but in a desire to “stimulate expectations and curiosity from fans”, the team decided to incorporate them.

“We wanted to make a title packed with all kinds of references for all the special ‘manias’ out there,” said Iizuka, referring to the most devoted of Sonic fans. “And the stage was set to have those two make an appearance. So I figured we could unseal them. We announced the appearance of Mighty and Ray at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Texas, and when the Sonic fans heard their names they really got excited like ‘whoo!'”

At this point, Iizuka believes that the team has probably done everything it can with the Mania project, so a sequel isn’t on the cards at the time of writing, despite there apparently being something of an appetite for one. He was, however, pleased to note that a wide age group was enjoying the game, not just those who grew up with the Mega Drive games, and noted that he was particularly pleased it was a title he could “proudly recommend to the elementary school children of Japan”.

Sonic Mania really “gets it”, and perhaps most importantly understands why certain portions of the audience still regard the Mega Drive Sonic games as all-time classics while not caring for Modern Sonic’s adventures. It’s proof if proof were needed that if you really want a game that makes your fans happy, you let your fans make that game themselves. The results can be really quite beautiful.


More about the Sonic the Hedgehog series

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4 thoughts on “Sonic the Hedgehog: Everything Old is New Again”

  1. Ahhhh, Sonic Mania. Now that’s a good Sonic game. But gee, I didn’t know it was technically a prequel to Forces (don’t plan on owning or playing that one)

    Like

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