I’ve never been much of a fan of Sonic. I never really understood the Sonic fandom, and my young gaming life barely touched on the mascot wars of the early ‘90s. For most of my young, formative years in gaming, Sonic was old, and weird, and no one had a Genesis. I knew of it, but I wasn’t seeking it out.
Then Sonic Mania happened.
At this point, the “cycle” of Sonic is pretty much standard gaming lore. 2D Sonic games for the Genesis are generally considered hallmarks of the early platforming world. As the series branched out, few of the later conceptual ideas for the Sonic series seemed to stick. The games became a mishmash of 3D platforming, increasingly large character rosters, mediocre combat, and lots of minigames. Sonic was a series grasping for identity for the greater half of the last two decades.
But, like many games with a golden age, it maintains a small but ardent fanbase. So, now in 2017, Sonic Mania is released. In so many ways, it feels like a love letter from that fanbase. It’s fast, bright, colorful, and fun.
I use the word “fun” in the purest sense. It feels, at its core, to be about play and the act of play. The characters are vibrant, the worlds are detailed and rich in pixel art. Sonic himself feels younger, like he eschewed the ravages of time to come out with a game from 1993 in 2017. It’s a radical departure from the character-focused epic storylines of recent Sonic titles.
Contextually, this feels almost at complete odds with Sonic Forces, the upcoming mainline Sonic game from Sonic Team, Sega’s in-house studio. Forces sells itself on all the trademarks of the 3D Sonic lineage: a staggering number of animal heroes, set against a backdrop of a colorful world threatened by a grimdark menace led by the wily Dr. Robotnik. It’s everything we’ve come to expect from a mainline Sonic game, and my initial thoughts are that it looks supremely boring.
I know those games have their devotees. I understand their reasons. Zolani Stewart’s magnum opus on Sonic Adventure is still a text that I value, even if I can’t muster the same excitement for the title. But Sonic Mania, and the plethora of animated art that’s accompanied its release (including the stellar opening animation), has helped me to understand just exactly why Sonic is so beloved to a small group of gamers.
Sonic is childlike, adorable and seems full of life in Sonic Mania. There’s no bloated storyline, no awkward interactions with Human-Sized Humans (I still shiver with fear thinking about Sonic 2006), no absurdly large cast. Sonic Mania feels like Sonic at its most pure and entertaining. Sonic’s fun again. Sonic’s cool again, but he’s not trying too hard to be cool. I get it now. I finally get Sonic.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on twitter at @videodante.