sonic mania hands on pax west
In the pulsating game community, there is a strong fondness and connection to the past. Many of the games I played at PAX WEST harkened back to the golden days of video games, with simpler visuals and gameplay mechanics. In the grand sea of video games and gaming characters, few have been as fond, memorable, and most representative of the past as Sonic The Hedgehog. Chances are, you’ve heard and seen the hedgehog streak across your screen at the speed of sound, fighting robots and saving the known world. With Sonic Mania present at PAX West, I had the unique chance to play the demo of the game. But before I give my impressions, a small history lesson is in order. Having grown up in the golden age of 16-bit video games, an era that brought us StarFox, F-Zero, Vectorman, and Castle of Illusion, there is quite a lot of perspective that I took in to help me best gauge how Sonic Mania truly felt.
Sonic, known as the Blue Blur in the gaming community, streaked past gamers at blast-processing speed in 1990, becoming a near-instant sensation. This was further succeeded by a golden series of Sonic games, largely regarded as one of the most important culturally influential video games of all time. The SEGA Genesis would release Sonic 2, Sonic 3, as well as Sonic & Knuckles in the coming years, not only becoming tremendous video games but also drawing mainstream culture into the world of video games. This was very encouraging as legendary pop star Michael Jackson worked with SEGA on his Moonwalker game, and as recently revealed, was involved in the creation of Sonic 3’s extremely memorable soundtrack. Sonic CD, released for the short-lived but incredibly well-made SEGA Cd, was one one of the first games to combine a live, orchestrated soundtrack, with breath-taking visuals and exciting gameplay, much of it a first for the series.
Things were looking even further up for Sonic The Hedgehog. Several animated series were made, including the incredibly famous Sonic: The Animated Series. The show put Sonic as a member of the freedom fighters, fighting to defeat evil warlord Robotnik following his robotization of the natural world. The series put Sonic into more core scenes, with Sonic experiencing the loss and struggle of resistance against tyranny. The stories of that series continue in a comic book series from Archie Comics, which has currently broken the world record for longest running comic series based on a video game.
But with changing times and changing game systems, a long and rough road was paved, with the hedgehog having no choice but to soldier on.
Sonic would have spin-off games released in subsequent years, such as Sonic Spinball and Sonic 3D-Blast. Games of this caliber would have mixed results, with players either enjoying the spin-offs or disliking them. At times, there would be installments that served as tremendous breakthroughs, such as Sonic Adventure 1 & 2 for the SEGA Dreamcast, SEGA’s swan song in the gaming console business. However, for every breakthrough, there were underwhelming, disappointing Sonic titles, and the beginning of these terrible iterations began with Sonic The Hedgehog 2007.
2007 Sonic attempted to put a realistic take on the classic character, making Sonic the Hedgehog more akin to a Final Fantasy game, complete with time travel, interdimensional demons, a global rapture, and a princess that revolved around it all. The gameplay was atrocious, and the rest of the game was not well-received. Subsequently, Sonic and the Black Knight for the Nintendo Wii was even more negatively received. There were moments of redemption, such as Sonic Colors, Sonic Generations, Sonic: Lost World, and the re-release of SONIC CD. However, there would also be setback such as Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Riders, Sonic 4 Episodes I & II, and the much-derided duo, Sonic BOOM and Sonic: Shattered Krystal.
Coupled with an ill-received anime cartoon and the internet’s obsession was disturbing fanart, Sonic The Hedgehog has been both a beloved gaming icon and a tremendous joke within the industry. Sonic has been the subject of many skits, mocking the hedgehog for being unable to achieve the hallmarks that Super Mario has made in the last several decades. However, based upon my time with Sonic Mania, the decades of mediocrity and mockery may come to a resounding end.
Sonic Mania had a playable booth in the main thruway of PAX WEST, right across from the Bethesda booth. Passerby’s had an opportunity to see the game in action from a distance. However, playing a game and seeing a game are two completely different experiences. Seeing a lull in the line, I jumped onboard to play the game and see for myself just what would happen next.
As I waited in line, I talked to a SEGA representative at the both about the dynamics of the game. Much of it was under wraps, but the details I was able to uncover were quite exciting.
Sonic Mania is set to be a standalone game from the rest of the franchise, but it can also be described that the game takes place after the events of Sonic 3, Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic CD, and both episodes of SONIC 4. Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles will be playable characters in the game as well. Much of the story’s narrative is under wraps for the time being.
Sonic Mania has unveiled at San Diego Comic-Con this past July to stellar acclaim. I asked about the development of the game and learned the Sonic Mania was a collaboration and several different teams. Sonic Team, a team, comprised of game makers that know Sonic best, are working with several other studios that were known for bringing the classic Sonic video games to smartphones. Over the years, the classic Sonic games were released on Android and iPhone platforms, to stellar acclaim for those that desire the classic experiences on their phones.
I finally had my hands on a controller, ready to play the much-hyped game. The first thing I noticed is that the game was to be played on a traditional SEGA Genisis gamepad. I was blown away at this, so naturally, I had to get a picture. At the beginning of my demo, I was given the choice between two levels. One of them was Green Hill Zone, so naturally, I had to select that.
What happens next was astounding. As an avid video game player and Sonic fan, the first 10 seconds of this demo gave me a massive feedback
From the moment the level began, chills ran up and down my arms. Like the famous Antonio Banderas meme, my head kicked back for a brief moment, relishing in the beginnings of the sound design for the game. While I didn’t verbally say it, in my mind, I yelled: ” YES, they finally got it.” And this all happened before a single step was taken.
As I moved Sonic, I couldn’t help but notice the fluidity in his animation. It is as if someone made this game on the SEGA Genesis platform back in 1994, then placed the game in a time capsule as 3D games and the Sony PlayStation entered the gaming arena. This wasn’t an imitation or emulation but real blast-processing 16-bit sprites moving all the way around the screen. My eyes could not believe what I was seeing and playing! After so many years of borrowing 2D experiences from earlier times in gaming, this was a game that, quite literally, went back to its roots to capture that sensation from decades ago.
As the demo continued, I was able to spin, jump, run, and defeat Doctor Robotnik’s evil robot army. The same sound effects remained and, just like the originals, there was no auto-lock for defeating enemies. Even though this was Green Hill Act Zone 01, I could tell there were some subtle differences from the very original level. I was doing pretty well, spinning across the level, doing loops, and collecting rings. Of course, I did miss a platform and fell into an area of spikes. However, I did grab the invincibility box of stars. Not only did the star animation reminisce on the animations in Sonic 2 but the music was different. It’s worth stating that the music, while different in Sonic Mania, was not something so strange that I was unable to recognize it. It was music that understood the momentum of Sonic Mania and the callings of the past. In other words, it was classic music with a twist.
I spun my way to the end of the level and noticed the background had changed into a cavern with water inside, which was clearly different. I finally faced the end boss, two wrecking balls shaped in the image of Doctor Ivan Robotnik. The boss music changed, and I was poised to defeat the boss. I jumped up, avoiding the swinging of the lower ball. After a few hits, the first ball erupted into flames. I then targeted the second ball, avoiding the swinging left and right. Eventually, I found my opportunity and destroyed the wrecking ball.
Following the boss fight, I freed the animals, and the famous level-ending sign appeared. The demo was over.
My enthusiasm for this demo simply couldn’t be contained. I talked to the SEGA representative again, basically bursting with enthusiasm about what I had just played. After many years of the mighty SEGA rolling along the industry with bruises and scars, this was a momentous occasion as I had witnessed the sampling of the game that may seek to break the pattern of mediocrity and return to trademark SEGA quality and greatness.
While many details of Sonic Mania are still unknown, make no mistake, that SEGA is poised to deliver something truly tremendous for casual gamers, SEGA loyalists, and Sonic The Hedgehog Die-hards. The bar to which that game will be is still up for interpretation. However, based on what I saw, things are looking very bright and fast for the hedgehog.
Sonic Mania is slated for release in February 2017. A Collector’s Edition, which involved a replica ring, statue, and Genesis cartridge, is available for pre-order.