Rarely has a work of fiction been so aptly named.
Sonic Mania released this past week on consoles, with the PC version delayed a few weeks for additional tweaks and optimization. This is one half of SEGA’s 25th Anniversary celebration for Sonic the Hedgehog (the actual anniversary was last year, but that’s just how SEGA rolls), a game made by a team of former Sonic fangame developers led by Christian Whitehead, famous for his HD remake of Sonic CD and his extremely high-quality conversions of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Sonic Mania, as you might expect, is thus a game self-consciously indebted to the style of the earliest Sonic game releases and plays out as a kind of fan’s version of Sonic Generations: A bunch of “reimagined” classic stages with the occasional crop of new material, but this time done in a manner that slavishly attempts to recreate the style of the original games on a new platform.
This is not a review of Sonic Mania. I don’t even have the game as of the time of this writing, though I do have the Nintendo Switch version of the special collector’s edition on preorder, primarily because I thought the display statue and faux-SEGA Genesis stand would look nice in my room stood next to my library. It is a game I’m looking forward to, as you can probably tell, and I do have something special planned for it later in the year. I am not, however, looking forward to it as much as I am some other releases coming out in the next few weeks and months (the fact I not only do not have the game, but I don’t even have the console to play it on should probably speak to that), and it would seem I’m not looking forward to it anywhere near as much as certain other individuals, if the press’ crop of reviews is anything to go by.
The enthusiasm for Sonic Mania has been nothing short of rabid, and the professional reviews for it have been glowing in a way typically reserved for things like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (particularly perceptive longtime fans of mine will know where this is going). Amongst the expected slew of reviews declaring Mania “a return to form”, there’s been many a re-evaluation of the Blue Blur’s history to date, and one author even made the analogy that Sonic is the Bugs Bunny to Mario’s Mickey Mouse, with their sympathies clearly lying firmly with the wabbit (Given the fact that, when faced with the age-old binary of “Disney or Warner Brothers”, I’m the asshole who picks “Tom and Jerry”, my thoughts on liberal Nerd Culture’s veneration of Looney Tunes are many and varied, but would require an essay of their own). But the reviews have been something else too: Nasty. Not towards Sonic Mania, of course, but towards basically every other Sonic game ever made that isn’t Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic CD and Sonic 3 & Knuckles. And implicitly, any Sonic fan who wasn’t them.
One review compared Sonic Generations unfavourably to Sonic Mania, saying the older game was pointless fanservice and made up of references that were there for no reason (which astonishes me as not only was I under the impression Sonic Generations was relatively well-liked, but what is Sonic Mania if not pointless fanservice?) And another particularly egregious outlet, whom I shall not be naming or linking to as I don’t want to give them any more traffic than I already have for this self-indulgent hit piece, went so far as to say
“Mania is Sonic without 20-odd years of slowly accumulating bullshit. The wider pantheon of sidekicks – Shadow, Silver, Big the sodding Cat – have been cast headlong into the screaming cosmic abyss from whence they came, reducing the playable line-up to the Holy Trinity: Sonic himself (who can use each shield power-up’s special ability), long-suffering fox acquaintance Tails (who can fly and swim) and beefy echidna rival Knuckles (who can smash through certain walls, climb and glide).”
This, I remind you, is a professional, highly-respected industry publication, not some random self-published asshole blogger raving about Star Trek, religion and radical lefitst politics. More to the point, and I know it may be hard to understand, but…Some people actually liked those denizens of said screaming cosmic abyss and the games they came from. A whole lot of people. Just not people who, it seems, get to write for professional game industry websites.
(Indeed, perhaps surprisingly given their reputation, it’s been the Sonic fans themselves who have crafted the most sober and even-keeled reviews of Sonic Mania. Check out The Sonic Stadium’s excellent review if you’re curious about the game, and steer clear of the professional outlets for this and probably any other Sonic game: The industry has a real problem with this franchise for reasons that are too complex and tiresome to go into right now, and someone could legitimately write an ethnography of Sonic fandom.)
Though Sonic Mania has been read as a slavish retro throwback to the Genesis/Mega Drive games, that’s not actually how either Christian Whitehead or SEGA have conceptualized or marketed it, though you wouldn’t know that looking at the industry rags. Rather, the development team is pitching this as a “lost” Sonic game building on the Genesis/Mega Drive installments, but that hypothetically would have come out on the SEGA Saturn. The Saturn is the odd duck out in the fifth generation hardware cycle: With Sony setting the discourse with the PlayStation, declaring that henceforth all games should push photorealistic polygon graphics and ape cinematic narrative at all costs or be hopelessly outdated and Nintendo offering a powerful alternate take with the Nintendo 64 (namely, polygon graphics will still be the future, but actual, real-time gameplay is more important than trying to make our games look like movies), SEGA’s console is the lone representative attempting to push more and better sprite-based graphics.
Although the PlayStation forced SEGA to change tactics not long after launch, the fact remains the Saturn was never designed to compete with either it or the Nintendo 64 as a polygon machine. Rather, it was designed to replicate the then-contemporary arcade experience for home audiences, something SEGA had an innate knack for understanding, and that all home video game consoles had done up to that point. And in the mid-90s, arcades were still driven almost exclusively by hand-drawn sprite animation, and indeed the arcade games of that time, such as the early Marvel Super Heroes and Marvel vs. Capcom games, boast some of the most elabourate and stunningly beautiful sprite graphics of all time. The Saturn was the only machine at the time capable of replicating those visuals accurately, and indeed at a cursory glance it was tough to tell the difference.
If you are so far down the rabbit hole of “nostalgia” (which isn’t really nostalgia, but that’s beside the point) you are reading Sonic Mania as a much-needed retrograde throwback to the Genesis Golden Age, you will not understand this and will miss this level of analytical nuance. My concern here isn’t that video game journalists can’t read (this is, of course, nothing new), but that this is yet one more example of the medium’s increasingly hostile and exclusionary nature. The discourse surrounding Sonic Mania verges on bullying, and there are plenty of voices being silenced and left behind by the new historical Master Narrative that’s being crafted around something that feels to me like a microcosm for video game fandom writ large.
In many ways, Sonic the Hedgehog is a lot like Doctor Who: Both are series that can be read and interpreted very different depending on when and how you were first exposed to them. In the case of the hedgehog, Sonic was created as a brand mascot first and foremost, so there’s little to no aesthetic coherence in the earliest games. The narratives were incredibly simplistic, even for the time: There’s an environmental motif (Sonic must save his animal friends from being captured and turned into robots by Doctor Robotnik, an evil industrialist and inventor who wants to take over the world), but that’s about it. This isn’t a weakness of Sonic’s, as it allows the series to throw out incredibly impressive, beautiful and praiseworthy abstract designs and concepts for the setting and art design of its levels, but it does mean that Sonic relies on the player’s own imagination and positionality to a degree even above and beyond some of its contemporaries.
Sonic was designed to be a pop culture merchandising phenomenon, and the original games were only ever a small part of this. There was never any “series bible” or style guide made for the franchise: SEGA was incredibly lax about brand messaging (in fact, I don’t think they ever did any), so anyone who touched Sonic pretty much had carte blanche to do whatever they wanted with him. If you were a child in the early 90s, you were probably exposed to as many as three or four wildly different interpretations of Sonic the Hedgehog, in addition to the games themselves: There was a daily cartoon show called Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog that took the series in a very slapstick and irreverent direction clearly indebted to the Golden Age cartoons of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett, kind of like a more G-rated version of Ren and Stimpy. There was also a Saturday morning cartoon show simply called Sonic the Hedgehog, and it couldn’t have been more different.
Unlike the weekday show, this one was set in an entirely different continuity and jettisoned whatever familiar characters and iconography the games provided in an attempt to tell a totally straight, serious action sci-fi dystopia story (although also different from them, Adventures was by and large closer in tone and style to the original games than the Saturday morning show, using recognisable characters and locations). This series was eventually spun off into the longrunning Archie Comics adaptation, which as of this writing has just recently been canceled after decades on the market. If you preferred one of these shows over the other, you probably read the original games very differently to someone who preferred the other one. That’s not even touching on the UK, who got an exclusive “Sonic the Comic” that was another take still from the Archie series or either of the two cartoon shows, or Japan, who got none of this and for whom the marketing for Sonic games was dramatically different than in the west. And the video game series itself was basically soft rebooted in 1999 with the release of Sonic Adventure, which took a slightly edgier, more contemporary and more Western take on the series that was still completely different from anything that had come before.
(There’s even a discrepancy in tone between *the original games themselves*: Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic CD are much closer to each other than they are to Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles, which are two parts of the same narrative. The first two games have little to no plot and hang on game design and aesthetics, while the latter two put a bit more emphasis on story and try to turn the Genesis games into a quasi-epic trilogy.)
Because of this, what Sonic means to you very much depends on you, and how you were exposed to Sonic in the first place. Even if you played the original games when they were current and relevant, that was no guarantee you got the same things out of them as somebody else. And if you grew up on Sonic Adventure, Sonic Heroes, Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) or Sonic Boom instead? You’ve got an entirely different and unique narrative from anyone else. And, unfortunately, you’re also probably left out in the cold by Sonic Mania, or at least the discourse around it.
This wouldn’t be a problem-after all, Sonic Forces is pretty much being explicitly made for you-if it weren’t for the fact all the discussions surrounding both of these games has been overwhelmingly positive for one and overwhelmingly negative for another. Sonic Mania has been met with universal acclaim purely because of its retro atmosphere while all the previews for Forces have been mixed to negative for the same reasons people have always slagged off “Modern Sonic” games since 1999 (namely, they’re not like the Genesis games and journalists are bad at them). The new Master Narrative about Sonic seems to be an explicit declaration that he was only ever good for a few short years in the early 1990s on the SEGA Genesis, and anyone who thinks otherwise is simply Wrong. If you grew up on a Sonic game that wasn’t Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic CD, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles, (or indeed took something different away from those games than the people currently peddling reviews of Sonic Mania), how does that make you feel?
Given my own unique and idiosyncratic history with the series (although really at this point people who’ve been reading my work on this site should not at all be surprised to hear I have a weird history with a Pop Culture Thing) I have a fair few thoughts on this, but that’s best saved for another essay. Right now I just wanted to call attention to a group of people whose voices seem to effaced by the current fervor in the industry rags, because that’s not cool. Whether the journalists like it or not, a bunch of those “Modern Sonic” games have a much better reputation amongst people who are Not Them, because they were somebody’s childhood. Everyone’s childhood was different and formative in its own way, and nobody gets to say theirs was more important, meaningful and substantial than somebody else’s. That “screaming cosmic abyss” has a lot of defenders: Characters like Shadow and Silver are extremely important to generations of kids who grew up on their games. You cannot disregard that history by mocking it just because you didn’t grow up on or care for them, lest you unleash the Newton’s Sleep of Hedgehogs upon us all.
And, y’know, there’s Blaze the Cat. Who would also be lumped into that category. And who’s kinda important to me for a couple of reasons.
But then again, maybe this doesn’t matter to you, and maybe all this does is drive home my own age. If you grew up on one or more of the 21st Century Sonic the Hedgehog games, maybe you don’t care about the 24 hour news-and-review grind on the industry rag sites. Indeed, maybe you don’t even patronize game journalists. Maybe for you, as it is for so, so many other young people these days, you get your video game fix watching YouTube personalities, who are ostensibly independent from the insular and reactionary hardcore gamer-driven industry press. That they are the new Hollywood celebrities for your generations is an unmistakable vote of confidence in their ability to speak for you, and maybe they’re giving you a far more tempered take on this year’s Sonic games than the review outlets are. Given my crippling unfamiliarity with YouTube culture in spite of me starting my own channel this year, I wouldn’t know.
The only thing I ask, as someone who has spent this year re-evaluating my history with this medium and seriously questioning whether it’s appropriate for me to still be involved with it, is that other people take the same time to be mindful and introspective as I have. Christian Whitehead said his goal with Sonic Mania was to give players the same feelings he and his team had when they played the original Sonic games, and to me that’s the noblest goal a video game can aspire to these days: To share an experience with somebody else. Please do not ever forget this, and please do not forget that video games should be for everyone, not any one individual ego.