E3 2017: Sonic Mania seeks to recapture old 16-bit glory

Sonic Mania
Just over 20 years ago, new Sonic the Hedgehog releases such as Sonic Mania were a special event. The series competed on almost equal terms with Super Mario Bros., and supporting cartoon shows helped the blue hedgehog as well.

Once the Sega Genesis era ended though, Sega failed to launch a mainline Sonic title for the 32X and Sega Saturn. Oh sure, games such as Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic R attempted to distract fans for a little bit. But the development team responsible for the planned Saturn title Sonic X-treme encountered problems and eventually, Sega canceled the project.

Today, the release of new Sonic titles are more common and low-key. The series transitioned smoothly into 3D in Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast, but Sega botched every other series title afterward. Now years later, Sonic the Hedgehog is a bit tainted as a franchise, even with a couple of good efforts thrown in. Can another return to a 16-bit style help?

It is hard to blame Sega for trying a retro approach with Sonic Mania. The game looks and feels like an old 1990s Sonic platformer during the franchise’s glory years. Numerous previews are available on YouTube.

It looks so much like the older versions, that it even copies the same levels.

To be fair, the classic levels are remixed. But it brings up one possible problem with Sonic Mania. Instead of coming up with new levels for the entire game, the team chose to take old levels and mix things up. A danger exists in relying too much on nostalgia. Besides, the series already took a similar approach in the solid Sonic Generations a few years ago.

Now, Sonic must revisit Green Hill Zone and Chemical Act Zone once again? Most fans will not care about the slight repetitiveness. In fact, eager franchise followers are jumping for joy at seeing the old levels and music.

Furthermore, the game felt fine on the show floor. E3 participants could choose either Sonic, Tails or Knuckles, just as in the later Sonic the Hedgehog titles from the Sega Genesis era. The controls for those characters are what fans expect.

Playing as Sonic needs little explanation. He runs fast and jumps. Sonic never had the extra powers of his friends, but people enjoy playing as the hedgehog anyway because of the coolness factor.

As for Tails, the little sidekick plays like the old Tails from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. If players want to skip through a level, they can use Tails’ flying ability. It is kind of a cheap method. For beginners though, Tails is a good character.

Also, Knuckles can still glide too, just as in Sonic & Knuckles. So the three main characters play exactly the same.

From a graphics standpoint, no one should be disappointed. Sonic’s sprite appears slightly touched up, but fine. Green Hill Zone is… Green Hill Zone, complete with the same familiar theme from 1991.

Lead programmer Christian Whitehead made the excellent smartphone ports of the classic Sonic the Hedgehog titles. Perhaps that is partially why the game feels almost too familiar. In fact, Sonic Mania offers the kind of simple gameplay perfect for smartphones, because it mostly requires going from left to right (or vice versa) and pressing one button to jump. It is the perfect casual game for all levels. Maybe one day, Sonic Mania will find its way onto Android and iOS.

For now, Sonic Mania is scheduled to come out for Steam, Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Aug. 15.

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