Sonic Mania is a fantastic game. Great level design, awesome visuals, 90s soundtrack, and a control scheme that feels perfect for a speed-based platformer. When it comes to retro revivals, it really doesn’t get much better than this. Now gamers can all collectively breathe a sigh a relief and declare unanimously that the Blue Blur is back…right?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. One great game does not save a franchise, especially one riddled with games ranging from decent to abysmal. Fans love pointing back to the inception of the series when discussing Sonic’s greatness, but not all of the classic titles are special. For instance, Sonic’s first outing was plagued with terrible enemy placement and an odd momentum system that made it difficult to really get going. The speed issues were mostly remedied in Sonic 2 and 3, and both of those games still offer a decent amount of fun, but compare them to other platformers from the era and they simply don’t stack up. Super Mario World is a more complete platformer than any classic Sonic title, which have NEVER been comparable to the Mario games being released during the same time, regardless of what retro enthusiasts might lead you to believe (trust me — I am one).
Sales-wise, you could definitely argue that they were comparable, and in fact Sonic led to Sega holding a larger market share than Nintendo at one point. However, Sega’s obsession with prioritizing speed and “attitude” over game mechanics that were actually enjoyable would prevent Sonic from ever reaching the heights that he was supposed to. Even Sonic and Knuckles was plagued with cheap, strange deaths and confusing level layouts. Regardless of all these negative comments, I still don’t think the classics are bad; they’re just “okay,” which leads me to believe that Sonic Mania might be the first truly great Sonic game.
So what happened in between the classics and Mania? How did the hedgehog fare during the transition to 3D? The Genesis era was the only period that had some good Sonic games — the rest is an absolute crap-shoot of terrible 3D errors that were plagued with awful controls, conflicted design direction, and bestiality (well, that last one only happened once). Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 tried to shoehorn in both a serious narrative and a focus on multiple characters, while the controls were frustrating, the character animations were laughable, and the level design was just messy. However, this was their first attempt at a true 3D Sonic title, so these issues would definitely be ironed out in future installments. There’s no way Sega would keep releasing Sonic games that played like garbage!
Well, guess again. Sonic Adventure DX, Sonic Adventure 2: Battle, Sonic Shuffle, Sonic Heroes, Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic Riders, Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), Sonic and the Secret Rings, Sonic and the Black Knight, Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Lost World, and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, etc. The list goes on and on, especially when we start mentioning some of the really weird ones, like Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood.
This is not an over-generalization. Each of these titles forgets the most important part of a platforming game: the controls. There is NOTHING more important in a platforming game than the way it feels to physically play the game. Miyamoto describes the controls in Mario titles as being “an extension of yourself.” As such, it never feels as though the controls are fighting against you. Controlling Mario feel effortless, almost instinctual, whereas modern Sonic (pretty much any Sonic game after Sonic Adventure) is the exact opposite. Every single one of his 3D outings involves a certain degree of frustration in the form of broken controls, bland level design, or gimmicky abilities that seemed as if they were thrown in at the last minute. This is not a situation in which gameplay tweaks would benefit Sega’s mascot; the whole thing needs to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.
The Sonic franchise is not defined by the sparse number of decent releases — it’s defined by the dozens upon dozens of mediocre, unfinished titles that plague its legacy. If 90% of the games in a series are awful, then would you consider that a quality a franchise? Absolutely not, though Sonic seems to get a pass on this from many fans. Even a game as fantastic as Mania does not make up for the years of disappointing releases.
The future isn’t looking too optimistic either. Sonic Forces looks to continue the trend of corny 3D Sonic titles with an identity crisis. It wants to keep the Modern and Classic Sonic segments from Generations, but it wants to add in a character creation mode so that people can bring in their favorite Deviantart characters from their Sonic fan fictions. This is not what the franchise needed whatsoever; the entire gameplay system needs to be reworked from the ground up with these 3D titles, as the status quo just doesn’t cut it. Sega clearly hasn’t learned a thing, so hopefully, the sales of Mania will exceed those of Forces. It’s the only way they’ll see a need to change.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to playing Sonic Mania.