It's hard to remain relevant in the gaming industry. Ask Sega. Once a successful hardware company, it later pivoted to software due to lackluster sales, a ridiculous downturn for an entity boasting one of gaming's most recognizable icons ever — Sonic.
Thankfully, Sonic the Hedgehog has remained mostly the same — both a compliment and a detriment to the franchise. Some titles reaped lackluster raves: 2014's Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal amounts to just 47 percent on Metacritic; 2015's Sonic Runner is at 51 percent. Some are winners, though, like Sonic Generations, his crossovers with Mario, Sonic Classic Collection, and others.
Sonic Mania, the latest entry, is a new direction for the franchise, and thankfully not a misstep. In fact, it evolves the character and the franchise oddly by going back to what made Sonic the Hedgehog's fast-paced adventures so addictive and irresistible.
Sonic Mania Goes Old School
"With Sonic Mania, Sega brings Sonic back to his classic 2D sidescrolling roots, taking direct inspiration from the 16-bit games that originally propelled Sonic and friends to superstardom. Sonic Mania is proof that no matter how much time passes, great gameplay is always in style," wrote IGN.
Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles are all back in the game in an attempt to put a stop to Eggman's forces. You'll dash, jump, spin, and hightail your way through 12 zones, including ones inspired by the Genesis-era Sonic titles and modern made-to-look-like-classics Studiopolis and Mirage Saloon.
Sonic Mania features old school graphics, a callback to the original graphical style of old Sonic Games. Nostalgia is a prized currency in gaming; Sega and Nintendo both have had great success milking it for their individual franchises. Here, though, it's used methodically. Sega could have simply used classic graphical assets and stopped there. But it didn't. The game packs an attention to detail that will please those who turn to look twice and notice.
There are neon lights, electronic contraptions, a popcorn machine, and underground subway tracks. They're all elaborately designed and visually complex, with old zones fascinatingly packed with new elements. Beware of traps and new gimmicks littered throughout, and prepare to see throwback zones in fresh, new ways.
Cashing in Nostalgia makes developers lazy. After all, it makes a game an easy sell. Sonic the Hedgehog games aren't particularly a tough sell; however, the attention to detail is a welcome and promising indication that the developers took their time fine-tuning and putting on finishing touches to elevate the game to not only look familiar but also give off a vibe that is special.
Polygon, however, was critical of this visual acuity.
"Sonic Mania looks achingly familiar, to the point where I'm not clear whether or not many assets have been pulled directly from existing Sonic games. It certainly looks like a Genesis game, or rather, a Sega CD release — animations are more detailed than I remember them being from the cartridge titles, though the color palette feels like it came directly from the Genesis."
The Evolution Of Sonic
What an odd way it is to evolve a character by going back to his roots, finding what works, and making them exponentially better. When Sonic fans get to play Sonic Mania, they'll be delighted by how familiar the mechanics feel, and yet they'll also feel a sense of surprise. They'd probably ask themselves why the old feels so new.
"Sonic Mania is a celebration, a digitized block party of blistering speeds and bright worlds. Sega's decision to hand their famous mascot over to fan creators and artists has paid massive dividends, creating a game that is not just a welcome return to form but a raucous, delightful experience," wrote Kotaku.
"How the hell is this possible? It's possible because for a small group of dedicated aficionados, the blue blur's halcyon period never ended. What's old has become new, and Sonic is once again the star he was supposed to be," wrote Eurogamer.
Sonic Mania launches Aug. 15 for the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. A PC version will come later, out Aug. 29.