In the off chance that you somehow clicked onto this article without knowing what “Sonic Mania” is, it’s the next Sonic the Hedgehog game slated for release by Sega. It’s a throwback to classic Sonic the Hedgehog games that has fans ecstatic for its release. That alone seems unusual given the mess of a game Sonic Boom was (some even call it worse than the infamous and nearly franchise destroying Sonic ’06). But the project is partnering with Christian Whitehead and Headcannon, both of which have great renown in the Sonic the Hedgehog community for their fantastic, and sometimes even game improving ports of the first 3 Sonic the Hedgehog games (Sonic 1, Sonic 2, and Sonic CD). It’s very likely that Sonic Mania will be a very good Sonic the Hedgehog game. Nevertheless, the mere existence of this game has me worried for Sonic the Hedgehog’s future, mostly because it shows that Sonic Team, the people with control of Sonic the Hedgehog, haven’t just messed up Sonic by fluke in the past, but rather because they have no understanding of their iconic character.
Part of why I say this is that in the trailer, the phrasing they use to introduce the game is written assuming precisely that premise. Specifically, the trailer begins with a series of title cards that say, “In 1991, one hedgehog changed the world. And for 25 years he’s collected countless rings. But now, to discover what made Sonic a gaming icon we’re going back.” Reading that immediately concerned me, because Sonic already had a winning formula. It started with the daytime stages in Sonic Unleashed, Sega utilized a speedy 3D platforming style that went on to turn Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations into critical successes. They had failures with Sonic: Lost World and Sonic Boom, but those could be hand waved away as two failed experiments (one a gameplay shakeup that was barely a misfire, and one a development shakeup) from which they could easily recover, if they understood what made Colors and Generations so satisfying. However, this intro for Sonic Mania is an admission that have no idea why Sonic is successful when he is, that they shake Sonic up not to prevent his games from becoming stale, but rather because they’re seriously still trying to make him just work.
This admission also helps explain the inclusion of superficial elements from past games in successive Sonic titles, such as Wisps appearing in Sonic: Lost World despite no narrative reason to exist on the Lost Hex, since Sonic Colors established that Planet Wisp is their home world. In addition to this, The trailer for Project Sonic 2007 (the working title for an as-of-yet unnamed game to be released next year that will likely be named something like “Sonic Resistance”) prominently features the Classic Sonic character from Sonic Generations, despite having already completed a game with a timeline crossover theme (and the narrative of Sonic Generations returning him to his own timeline). Sega seems to believe that the success of their Sonic games comes from an entirely superficial reason rather than any kind of satisfying core mechanic.
This makes some sense given the history of Sonic the Hedgehog as a blatant marketing device to compete with Super Mario. His character design and attitude where all extremely 90’s-ish, having been drawn from a combination of Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, and Bill Clinton according to series creator Yuji Naka. Sonic comes from a time when cartoon mascots were thought to be a necessity for branding your game console, so even though they were aware they made the game as a way to capture and enhance the flow of speed-running a platforming game, they believe the character is what led them to success. So they don’t age their aging character, but eliminate their classic design philosophy.
I’m a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog. I have been ever since I made a Sonic Adventure Let’s Play back in 2011 on my YouTube channel. There’s something about that core speedy platforming that rewards tricky platforming moves without punishing failure harshly that just gels well with my personality. And I am looking forward to Sonic Mania, which seems like it will be a good game. But it’s a bad omen for the future of the character, especially coming off the objective failure that Sonic Boom represents for the franchise. People are understandably distrusting of Sonic Team, and seeing an admission of incompetence coming from them in the form of Sonic Mania… it’s enough to destroy any optimism I had for the character returning to glory.