Sonic Mania is good, but of course it is. It’s a love letter to the Genesis era, jazzed up to look like it’s on a Sega Saturn. Basically, you knew if you were going to love this game if you could answer yes to one question: did you like Sonic Generations?
And that’s where my unexpected cynicism originates. At least for me, Sonic Mania was sold on the premise of, “This is the real Sonic 4.” Early shots of Green Hill Zone made me roll my eyes with the same speed as Sonic’s Spin Dash, but I gave it a pass. I got more hyped to see Studiopolis Zone and hear the sensational sounds composed by Tee Lopes, who turned in a sterling soundtrack. Then, I saw the reappearance of Flying Battery Zone and was a little surprised, but I could go with it. Flying Battery Zone was pretty good, after all, and to go with it, there was also the new Mirage Saloon Zone. Hey, great, new content! So what if it bears a striking resemblance to the scrapped Dust Hill Zone from Sonic 2? Only Sonic nerds like me would even make that connection anyway. And so Sonic Mania news lay low for several months, only ramping up in the last few weeks when I got to see…Oil Ocean Zone from Sonic 2? And…Blue Sphere from Sonic 3 & Knuckles? And Stardust Speedway from Sonic CD?
Don’t get me wrong: Stardust Speedway is S-tier stuff and it was a crime that its inclusion in Sonic Generations was limited to the Metal Sonic battle. However, that meant that each game from the original tetralogy got zones remade for Sonic Mania. And then I found out that of the twelve zones in the game, only four of them are original. Four. And even then, there are several set pieces from various zones of that original tetralogy scattered everywhere. Marble Garden Zone gets nods in Stardust Speedway, there are references to IceCap Zone in Press Garden Zone, and there are at least two allusions to Death Egg Zone in Titanic Monarch Zone.
Look, I cry every time someone dumps on the iconic video game hero of my (long-distant) youth. I also understand the many legitimate complaints about the franchise in its more than two decades of history. A big selling point for Sonic Generations was its reliance on nostalgia for the better parts of that history. However, this isn’t Sonic Generations, nor was it marketed as such. The upshot of this is that the remade zones are only sort of remade: if you played the original games, huge chunks of the zones’ original map design are straight-up copied from their 90s sources.
I don’t want to be one raining on everyone else’s parade. I am enjoying Sonic Mania largely due to the talents of Christian Whitehead, he being the wizard behind the successful ports of 16-bit Sonic games to Android and iOS in recent years. Whitehead first landed on Sega’s radar when he started working on a port of Sonic CD that included an all-new final zone. Sega squashed the original content but contracted with him to make the port a reality. When you consider that, it’s perhaps unsurprising how little new material made it into Sonic Mania. It’s like Sega is saying, “If anyone’s going to screw up Sonic, it’s going to be us!” An admirable, if bewildering, goal.
All of this wouldn’t normally bother me, but I see a pattern. Between Sega excising Whitehead’s original content from Sonic CD, the existence of Sonic Generations, and now the most hyped 2D Sonic in recent memory being two-thirds recycled material, it is as if Sega is trying to time-lock Sonic, Groundhog Day-style, in his halcyon days. I find that problematic. This isn’t the 90s anymore, kids. Despite the fact that my local ice cream truck still sells a Sonic-shaped Popsicle, it is undeniable that the Archie comics are now a thing of the past, Sonic’s only TV series is all CGI wonkiness, and Bill Clinton is no longer president. That era is over, no matter how many frantic throwbacks Sega puts in its games. Sonic Mania is not the true Sonic 4; it’s Sonic Generations 2: Electric Boogaloo (and Sonic 4 is Sonic v. 1.1.). Imagine if Sonic Mania came out in 1996 on the Saturn. Would we be as happy as pigs rolling in our own slop to see literally identical content from as recently as two years ago dumped on us again and sold as a new product? I doubt it, and no one would have given Sonic Mania a free pass in 1996 for that. The only reason Sonic Mania is getting praise now is that the time between 1995 and 2016 has been, shall we say, difficult for the Blue Blur. Twenty-one years of wandering in the woods will do that to you.
It’s hard for me to condemn Sonic Mania. I really like it. I want Sonic to succeed. I want to be able to enjoy Sonic games. However, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the idea of Sonic Mania being what Sonic Jam aspired to be back in 1997. Nostalgia itself doesn’t necessarily age well.
Sonic should be symbolic of sprinting toward a brighter future. That’s not possible when he is always looking backwards.