Preview: Sonic Mania is the 2D sequel we’ve all been waiting for

The Sonic the Hedgehog series has over the years established a reputation for delivering consistently disappointing games that fail to live up to the legacy that the franchise built in the heyday of 2D platforming that was the early and mid-90s. The original trilogy of Sonic games, plus Knuckles and CD, are often considered some of the finest games in the entire genre, rivaling Mario, Mega Man, and all of the other platformer greats.

Then something went wrong. The first few 3D games weren’t all bad, but the series lost its way over time. A slew of bugs, horrible new characters, imprecise gameplay mechanics, and other problems all plagued the once great blue blur. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – in two underwhelming parts – was an attempt to recapture the hedgehog’s glamour, with mostly disappointing results once again.

Luckily, Sonic Mania is on the way to cleanse our palates and satiate our hunger for Sega’s once great mascot to return to his glory days.

Back to His Roots

At this year’s PAX West in Seattle, I got a chance to go hands-on with Sonic Mania for the first time, and came away extremely impressed. When the trailer originally released back in late July, it seemed too good to be true.

Retro, 16-bit art style? Check. Updated classic levels like Green Hill Zone? Of course. New zones that feel like they belong? You got it. Traditional, side-scrolling, platformer gameplay? Absolutely. A focus on speed and precision? Yep.

For all intents and purposes, Sonic Mania looked like a dream come true for Sega fans old and new.

At first glance, you could easily be fooled into thinking that Sonic Mania is a Sega Genesis game, which is probably the highest possible compliment a person could pay a Sonic title. It’s being created in collaboration by Sega, Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games.

If the name Christian Whitehead sounds familiar in the context of Sonic, it should. After making fan ports and engines based on the blue hedgehog’s games, Sega took note and decided to just hire the guy. He worked on official ports of several games in the series for mobile devices and even released Freedom Planet in 2014, a Sonic-like 2D platformer with glowing reviews from fans and critics alike, solidifying his reputation. Now, he’s personally helping Sega reboot the classic 2D branch of the franchise with Sonic Mania.

Something New and Something Blue

The demo I played only included two levels – the updated Green Hill Zone and the brand new Studiopolis Zone. In the updated Green Hill Zone, it was at first exceedingly familiar. For the most part, it felt and played just like the Green Hill Zone from the original Sonic the Hedgehog we all remember so fondly. But I did notice a few changes to the core gameplay and the level itself that stuck out to my eye.

First of these changes is the new ability known as the drop dash. The drop dash allows you to charge up your dash spin while still in the air, so once you land on the ground, you immediately dash in the direction of your choice. This is crucial because it not only allows you to quickly accelerate upon making contact with the level again, but it also lets you easily change directions. Instead of accidentally rolling or walking off of a ledge after jumping a big gap, you could immediately dash in the opposite direction to keep your speed. What initially seems like a minor addition to the gameplay is actually a fundamental change that expands your options in every level, both new and old.

Additionally, it’s clear that particular care has been paid to the locomotion and animations in the game. For the most part, it plays and feels just like the old Genesis games, which is great, but the animations do look smoother and there are some new flourishes added here and there. There is a new twirling sprite while Sonic is launched on some occasions, and a new idle animation after he taps his feet while waiting. Everything runs at a blisteringly beautiful 60 FPS, too, with wonderful sprite work across the board.

Familiar and Fresh at the Same Time

Cutting my teeth on the new Studiopolis level was by far my favorite part of the demo. It was only a single area in the new zone, but the faithfulness to the series’ roots as well as a vision for its future is immediately clear.

The homages to the Star Light Zone from Sonic 1 and the Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2 are evident, but you can tell that the visual effects seen in Studiopolis simply wouldn’t be possible on an actual Sega Genesis. The particles fly across the screen in dazzling color, and the sheer size and layers of the level speak to the depth and care paid to designing brand new zones from the ground up.

I spent a lot of time exploring this zone from top to bottom, backtracking through areas, finding power ups like the bubble from Sonic 3, as well as being told about the promise of new powers and new zones once the full game releases.

Since my demo was restricted to only two levels and I was only permitted to play as Sonic himself, I received just a small taste of what’s to come. Both Tails and Knuckles will be playable in the full game, with flight and climbing powers, respectively. Whether that means we’ll get to see multiplayer such as in the Genesis games remains to be seen, but it’s likely a safe bet.

When I was finished with my demo, I just wanted to play more. Sonic Mania truly feels like a return to form for Sega’s globally recognized mascot. While his image has been dragged through the mud tirelessly for years – to the point that even the official social media channels embrace the memes – we might finally have the true sequel we’ve all been waiting for.

Sonic Mania is slated for release in Spring 2017 on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.