Yahtzee reviews Sonic Mania.
So you may have heard there's a new Sonic the Hedgehog game out; you may also have heard some people say that it's good, slightly inarticulately through mouths muffled by fur-suit fabric and cocks. But maybe you're a savvy consumer who recognizes this for the usual beginning of the Sonic game post-release cycle: it always starts with the Sonic fans going, "It's good! Sonic's good again! Fuck you, mum! I was right to paint my tits blue and wriggle around on the Chesterfield!", but then, as the weeks unfold, reality inexorably sinks into the resistant minds of the public like a lead weight on a jelly. "Well, I guess it wasn't perfect. Room for some improvement. Quite a lot of improvement, actually. Still better than Sonic 2006- Actually, you know what? Let's just stop talking about it. Holy shit! They announced another Sonic game! Mum, buy more blue paint! This'll be the one!"
So, savvy consumer that you are, you come to me for the brutal lowdown. Well, first of all, there's definitely something different about Sonic Mania, which might be something to do with Sonic Team's logo being conspicuous by its absence, amid a dense cluster of developer idents I've mostly never heard of. And thus did my subconscious scream out the words, "elevated fangame".
Sonic Mania is a deliberately nostalgic sightseeing tour through several old Sonic games, which was also the premise of Sonic Generations, which did it as part of the Sonic franchise's much-needed effort to figure out what the fuck's been going wrong all these years. You may recall that Sonic Generations rather ill-advisedly attempted to celebrate the latter-day Sonic games as well, which came across like a toddler beaming with pride at you because they managed to smear a turd all the way across the playroom wall. Sonic Mania isn't making the same mistake, and is only concerning itself with Sonic games that can be uncontroversially described as "good".
Unsurprisingly, then, it's entirely 2D and looks like a Sega Genesis game. Still, the commitment on display is admirable; there are bits and pieces from Sonic 1, 2, 3, & Knuckles, Sonic CD. There's even a bit where you have to play a round of Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, which feels rather drastically out of place, but we've made a pledge to reference every 16-bit Sonic game, and by Tails the Fox's implied second butthole, we're damn well gonna do it!
The plot is a little bit hard to follow, but anything else might have required the characters to have spoken dialogue, so let's not mess with success. It's basically the usual arrangement: Dr. Robotnik steals the magic gems, decides to individually store them in abstract racing challenge levels rather than buy a fucking safe. He could at least store them in challenge levels that don't play to Sonic's strengths, like a bake-off or a cryptic crossword. Still, say what you like about Dr. Robotnik; at least he's a hands-on employer. A lot of managers would delegate the boss fights, but not him; he wouldn't ask those kidnapped and enslaved baby rabbits to show more faith in his contraptions than he's prepared to demonstrate.
Anyway, Sonic Mania consists of a handful of original levels packed alongside faithful recreations of old ones visited through some hand-wavey time-travel flappery, albeit zhuzhed up with extra features and more elaborate boss fights. But this is where the prickly spider of modernity starts to venture from beneath the comfortable toilet seat of nostalgia, because a fancy, elaborate, multi-stage boss fight is all very well if the level didn't have a ten-minute time limit and we hadn't already spent nine minutes of that getting boinged up the wrong tube over and over again. See, I don't remember the ten-minute time limit ever being much of an issue in the original games, unless you were in the Casino Nights Zone and had a compulsive gambling problem. But in trying to impress us, these extra-long levels have suddenly made it a problem.
The new boss fights are of a more modern style in that they gleefully piss you about, making you wait for the brief vulnerable moment, when as long as you can reach the buggers, you can bounce on the old boss fights at your leisure and rim them off with eight well-timed thrusts. Besides that, it's an almost totally faithful recreation of a Genesis Sonic game, but that being the case, why was I finding it so annoying? Could it be that a popular retro game from the 90s might actually have been more dodgily-designed than we thought, and at the time, we were all blinded by a lack of alternatives and its obfuscating air of 90s 'tude? Help me out here; why exactly was there an arbitrary ten-minute time limit on every level in the first place? Was it just because adding an extra digit to the on-screen timer would have been a bridge too far for the Genesis processor?
I'd like to digress, if I may, and examine the old Sonics from which Sonic Mania takes inspiration, along with several hundred art assets. The very first Sonic game, Sonic the Hedgehog, back when he still went by his full name and before the title of every single game was the word "Sonic" followed by whatever was on Sega's word-of-the-day calendar, things were a bit wobbly straight off 'cos we hadn't quite come to terms with the whole "Gotta go fast!" remit. It was still a little too mired in the general standards of what a platformer was, a little too much accurate jumping in cramped, hazardous tunnels where the only people who "Gotta go fast!" were the profoundly bored with life. That underwater ruin level in particular was like having to push a tomato through a tennis racket. Sonic 2 and 3 and & Knuckles brought the "going fast" and the obligation thereof to the forefront; you were traversing huge sections of map so fast, you couldn't tell where the fuck you were going and you were afraid to press anything in case you accidentally jumped up the dilated exhaust pipe of a giant robotic arse.
And what lets these games down, and by extension, Sonic Mania, is that the levels are very annoying to explore. Easy to get to the end of, sure; just hold "Right" and press "Jump" every time you stop going right. But if you want to explore - and, spoiler alert: you do, 'cos that's how you get the Chaos Emeralds and avoid the post-credits screen with Dr. Robotnik provocatively waving his bollocks at you - then you have no way of knowing if a given path will take you to some lovely secrets or will lock you into a gun barrel that fires you halfway across the map through nine loop-de-loops and the intestinal tract of a whale, before slamming a "point-of-no-return" door shut behind you with a great big middle finger painted on it. This is one thing the first game got right: get fifty Rings by the end of the level, bam! Secret stage! Having to find the secret stage is like finding a speck of lint in a candy floss machine.
All right, well, before all you fanboys start impotently tugging at my jumper while making noises like the last squealy fart of a dying manatee, yes, the Sonic games are rightly well-regarded for their characteristic style, the whole "drop the Rings" thing is actually pretty ingenious design (and hauntingly familiar to those kids who used to get their lunch trays knocked out of their hands by school bullies). But that style was definitely papering over some cracks; I wish they'd picked a jump sound effect that didn't grate as much after a while, like the sound of a set of bagpipes being dragged across a chalkboard.
- Gotta go measuredly: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- It's easy to get up a giant dilated robot arse but the hard part is getting out again
- Who the fuck is "Jeed" anyway