new red shoes, several golden rings and a stocking fulla chili dogs
When I was a kid, I mostly remember getting Mario games as birthday presents, so Mario feels like a summer series to me; whereas a few years later, Sonic games were xmas presents, so that series feels christmassy to me. Funny how life works out sometimes.
I recently replayed my two favorites in the series, Sonic 2 and Sonic and Knuckles, and they both hold up just fine. S&K is my favorite Sonic game and S2 is a close second.1
I haven't really played Sonic Mania since it came out, so I decided to give that another spin.2 Other than my weird personal association it's not christmassy at all; it came out in August 2017, smack in the middle of birthday season and xmas season. Well, apropos of nothing, there's this:
Season's greetings, everyone
So objectively speaking, Sonic Mania is unquestionably one of the best, if not the best Sonic The Hedgehog game. But is it my new favorite? I loved it when I played it, but the fact that I haven't felt a need to revisit it in the last 5 years may indicate how I feel about Sonic as a whole now. Cards on the table, I don't think it's possible for it to be my new favorite on account of how time works. Something I play in my 30s isn't going to hit me the same as something I played when I'm 12, you know? But I'm going to try to be as fair as I can. This won't be a liveblog exactly, but it's not quite a structured essay either. I'm just going to be playing through the game again and writing down thoughts as they occur to me.
One X-factor that might influence my overall opinion is that I'm getting a weirdly high amount of input lag. It was so bad that I had to plug in my controller, which wasn't an issue3 in any of the old Sonic games past the first one, and wasn't a problem I remember experiencing with Sonic Mania before. Plugged in, there's a tiny bit of noticeable lag, but not enough to make it unplayable. I'm not sure if running the game through Proton is contributing to this; I didn't notice any issues with Final Fantasy 7, but a turn-based RPG isn't the sort of game one would notice that sort of issue with. But keep in mind going forward that when I talk about not having enough control, this might be part of the reason.
remixing old levels
I'm conflicted about the way it remixes levels from old Sonic the Hedgehog games. On one hand, it makes it feel like those levels aren't new enough. The classic Sonic games never had you revisit the same level a second time. Sure, functionally there's not that much difference between the Green Hill Zone, the Emerald Hill Zone, and the Mushroom Hill zone. But the music is different, the features are different, the enemies are different. It makes it feel you're in a completely new world every time. Also, I think the music arrangements aren't as good as the originals. I'm sorry y'all, FM synths are good, I don't know what else to say. Go listen to the music for Flying Battery Zone act 2 and tell me it needs changing.
On the other hand, each level is filled with so much stuff. That's the most striking thing about the game, just how many unique setpieces, cool references, visually striking backgrounds and different things to interact with are crammed into each level. It's really rad how the game will sometimes mashup elements from two different classic Sonic levels --- putting stuff from the Wing Fortress Zone (S2) into the Flying Battery Zone (S&K) makes total sense. The boss of Chemical Plant Zone is a game of Mean Bean Machine. That rules. It's so far afield of anything that would've appeared in a classic Sonic game, it gives the whole zone a completely different character. All in all, I think I would've preferred entirely new zones with callbacks to the originals, but I'm not mad about the direction they took.
The new levels for SM are amazing. Studiopolis Zone is maybe the best Sonic level ever made. Maybe it's because the new levels are so good that the remixed levels seem a little flat by comparison. But I reckon they can't all be Studiopolis Zones, as the saying goes.
The special stages are a bummer. They brought back my two least favorite special stages: the "blue spheres" stages from S&K (and Sonic 3 I guess,) and the UFO hunt from Sonic CD.
I know the "blue spheres" minigame is iconic, but that doesn't make it good. The first couple levels are okay, but here's how it goes every single time once I reach the later ones: Okay, I've collected all the blue spheres I can find. I guess I got to hit one of these yellow spheres and jump to another area. Oops, it launched me into a red sphere and I lost. Sucks that I had no way of knowing that I'm not supposed to go that way. I'll remember next time --- ha ha no I won't, that stage won't appear until the next time I play the game, by which point I'll have forgotten every one of these layouts. Shrug emoji!
I see why they'd've wanted to bring back the UFO hunt from Sonic CD: it's relatively obscure, and it looks awesome. The one in Sonic Mania isn't a 1:1 copy of the Sega CD version. It's similar, but instead of trying to destroy X number of UFOs in each stage, you're trying to build up speed and catch a single UFO that's running away from you before time runs out. I find it just as unplayable as the Sega CD version. It has the same problem: you can't go as fast as you need to go to complete the objective while maintaining control over Sonic. Once I build up enough speed I start bouncing off the walls, getting stuck on obstacles, hitting spikes and losing rings --- in the special stage, rings = time --- and once I lose control, I'm done. There's no way to get back on track again.
I'm used to ignoring special stages in Sonic games, but this feels like a big missed opportunity. The best special stages in any Sonic game are the half-pipe from Sonic 2, and the magnetic sphere minigame from S&K. If they had refined the half-pipe game, made it run more smoothly, made the controls more responsive (and made it so Tails isn't there to mess you up if you're playing in Sonic+Tails mode) it could've been great. That should've been the special stage you get when you jump into the big rings, the one that gives you chaos emeralds when you win, and for the lamppost, they could've just copied over the magnetic spheres minigame as-is. No notes. Maybe add some of Sonic Mania's trademark Cool Stuff to Look At™
But if I'm holding it to the same standard as the classic Sonic games, I can't fault it too much. S&K has the blue sphere stage; hell, it had the most blue sphere stage. If you locked any game other than Sonic 2 or 3 onto S&K, it let you play a random special stage. They weren't randomly generated, it used the checksum of the cartridge or something to serve you one of the special stages from S&K.4 I did that a lot when I was a kid, because the number of games I had was limited and I was always looking for novel experiences, but I never got good at it or enjoyed it. Like many bad games I played as a kid, I blamed myself and felt bad about my lack of skill, but as an adult I've given myself permission not to care. Once emulators were a thing I used a game genie code to cheat and see the extra level in S&K you get for collecting all the emeralds, and I'm good. It was fine, I don't consider it an essential part of the game. I don't know what you get for collecting all the emeralds in Sonic Mania. Something cool, I'm sure. I'll never see it, but that's okay. The game's big enough. I don't need more.
Also, half the time in S&K when you jump into a lamppost, you get the stupid spinning casino game instead of magnetic spheres. So I gotta give Sonic Mania a pass. Other than Sonic 2 the special stages have never been good.
press garden zone
This is the second original level after the Studiopolis Zone. It's not quite as visually impressive, but it still does a lot of cool stuff.
I wanted to highlight these weird mushroom trumpet piston things. To me it shows how important visual flair is to creating a memorable experience. This thing is just a platform. A solid horizontal line would've accomplished exactly the same thing, mechanics-wise. But the weird piston animation and the big flywheels make it more than a platform, even if they don't do anything. It's like "Cow Tools": it exists to make the world you're imagining feel a little bigger than it is. Any explanation would ruin it: here are the tools that cows use, what they're for is up to your imagination. Here's a trumpet piston mushroom machine: it's for whatever you want to imagine it's for. As far as Sonic's concerned, it's for jumping on.
And then in act 2, it's been reclaimed by nature! How perfect. Where strange machinery once pumped, flowers now dance.
It's cute how these crabs play catch with the deadly buzz saw. (I thought this post could use some more pictures.)
An interesting take on the Megaman disappearing block trope. Why are the letters backwards? Because it's a letter press, of course! After all, it is the Press Garden zone. What exactly is a "press garden"? The answer is don't worry about it. (I did mirror the image to see if the letters spell anything, and they don't seem to, nor do they seem to be in any kind of code that I can ascertain.)
This is another remix level, but it's one I don't mind as much because Stardust Speedway (1) owns, and (2) is from Sonic CD, which I haven't played nearly as much. I like Sonic CD. It's my third favorite in the series, after S&K and S2. I haven't played it as much I guess because it's kind of a hassle, compared to the megadrive ROMs. I have to go out and find the right Sega CD BIOS, and I have to download an entire disc image instead of a ROM that's only a few kb. And back in the old days, Sega CD emulation was glitchy and unreliable, and I've carried on that bias even though it hasn't been true in a long time. Not the best reasons, but there you go.
Also, well, I never owned Sonic CD. I did have a Sega CD. my parents relented and bought me one long, long after they had been discontinued. I think the final clearance price was like 20 bucks. But the only Sega CD game I owned other than Sewer Shark (the pack-in) was Dungeon Explorers, a bad Gauntlet clone I picked up at a yard sale. Every other game I borrowed from a family member who had an extensive Genesis and Sega CD collection. So as much affection as I have for Sonic CD, it's not burned into my brain the same way S2 and S&K are. Therefore, the music remixes are just fine.
I really like that there are seed vaults for you to break open, and that you time-travel at the end of act 1.
This is a very tiny thing, but I like that the ring counter flashes red again when you have 0 rings. S&K changed it so that the white text just flashes on and off, and I don't think it conveyed quite the same sense of danger.
I take particular notice here because I'm losing my rings a lot on this level. It's very fast and there's a lot going on. But you know what they say, if it's too fast, I'm too old!!! Haha (I am too old, but I recall it being very similar on the original level when I was a kid. If I played either game as much as I played S&K, maybe I'd've developed the muscle memory not to get hit all the time.)
I like the fact that it doesn't reproduce the metal sonic race from Sonic CD. That was always one of my least favorite parts of that game. I want to be able to go fast, when I choose, but under no circumstances do I want to gotta go fast.
There is a callback to the race, but I don't actually have to win, I just have to survive a little auto-scrolling sequence. I can live with that.
I love this doofy little metal sonic prototype you have to fight:
I don't know if the game is implying that these are all early Metal Sonic prototypes that failed, or if the process of making them has become so refined that they can churn them out like normal enemies. You fight several of them and each one has a tiny animal inside powering it, so I'm inclined toward the latter.
I like that all of the bosses are interesting. Some of the bosses from the classic Sonic Games had very, very simple patterns, particularly the act 1 bosses. The boss from Sandopolis Zone 1 comes to mind --- you can defeat it just by going to the left and repeatedly jumping for a minute. In Sonic Mania, every boss takes some time to figure out, which does mean there's a lot more trial and error. I don't remember any of the bosses from my previous time with the game, so I'm guaranteed not to finish a level with any rings, but none of them have stymied me for more than a couple extra lives.
Each of the levels is huge. I don't think I've finished any of them in under five minutes. A lot of this is down to the bosses taking more time to figure out, but the levels themselves are often sprawling and full of places to explore, which I love. I've pushed into 7-9 minutes on some of them. The length of the levels is one reason I prefer S&K to Sonic 2. Sonic 2 has more levels, but they're relatively simple, and where they're not simple they're often annoyingly complex. Big levels in S&K and Sonic Mania are fun to explore.
What I don't love is the fact that there's still a 10 minute time limit. I didn't mind it in the old games, since it was mostly perfunctory: very few levels in Sonic 1 and 2 will take longer than 4 or 5 minutes to finish. This got to be a problem in some S&K levels, too. You give me these big sprawling areas to explore, let me explore them. I don't want to die because I enjoyed the levels too much. (This is especially important if you actually care about getting chaos emeralds, it can take some time to find all the big rings.)
I don't mind having a timer on screen to show how long I take in a level, but don't make it a hard limit. The time pressure doesn't actually help me have more fun.
Speaking of length, holy crap, I'll have to make this entry a 2-parter! This is such a long game I couldn't even finish it in a single Christmas day. The next level is Hydrocity Zone, another remix level, this time from Sonic 3 --- but I'll try not to hold that against it. I have no idea how much is left, I could be on the penultimate level or I could be halfway through. But either way, I'm almost at 3000 words, so it's time to wrap up this post. Be here Christmas 2023 for the conclusion!
Just kidding 🦝
My tier list is a little unorthodox, so for the record: S&K > Sonic 2 > Sonic CD > Sonic 1 > Sonic 3↩
not that wireless controllers were a thing then, but it's not an issue now in emulation either. I was wireless when I replayed S2 and S&K, no issues.↩
Okay, I got this wrong. I looked it up and there are actually 227 (134,217,728) stages that are procedurally built out of different pre-made chunks like Daggerfall dungeons. While that's technically impressive, it says a lot that I was never even able to tell that they were different. As far as I knew, the lock-on special stages I hadn't seen were just S&K stages I never bothered to get to. Also, I was reminded that locking Sonic 1 onto S&K would theoretically let you play all of them, with a password system. So if you're looking for #content, there you go.↩