In the year of our Lord 2017, two Sonic the Hedgehog games were released within months of each other. And both of those games were really good.
That has never happened before.
This is an unprecedented event. This is the kind of thing that shakes your belief system. This is akin to discovering that your soul mate is and has always been a 90 year old retired construction worker named Danielle. How does something like this happen? What does it say about you? Does this mean that other “impossible” goals in this reality were actually achievable? Was there some secret way to breed ponies and kittens together to create the mythical/adorable pitten? All things are possible in this post-Sonic the Hedgehog Can Be Good Twice world, and we should all live in constant fear of the next shock to our collective system. Next, Aero the Acro-Bat is going to come soaring in to rave reviews, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it!
But before that happens, we are going to look at the differences between Sonic Mania, an amazing 2-D Sonic title, and Sonic Forces, an amazing 3-D/2-D Sonic title. Maybe we’ll discover the secret to Sonic success? Or does only madness await us? Let’s find out!
Stage Length is Important (or not)
Sonic Mania is, for all intents and purposes, Sonic 4 & Knuckles. Or Sonic & Knuckles 2? Look, what’s important is that it is very much a sequel to the Sega Genesis titles, and it employs a number of tricks and tips from that era. Included in that bag of tricks is the ol’ “giant stages full of secrets” standard that became popular with Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and its many hidden giant rings. Sonic has never been about exploring, but Sonic 3 did add the joy of pushing on all “solid” walls at all times. Could there be a secret in this direction? Or maybe over here? Let’s explore every nook and cranny until time runs out. Or… wait… that’s terrible! We don’t want to run out of time! These stages should be smaller! … But we don’t want to lose any content! This is confusing!
Meanwhile, Sonic Forces is all about shorter stages. The average Sonic Forces stage can be completed within all of two minutes. This is something of an accomplishment, as 3-D platforming games have a tendency to take hours just to burn through the “introduction” portion of a level. Traversing 3-D space takes a long time! But, despite the existence of these short stages, there are a myriad of routes available, so, like in Sonic Mania, there are secrets to discover up and down Sonic’s world. You’re unlikely to ever see ten minutes on Sonic Force’s timer, but levels can still be played for hours in an attempt to find new and fascinating routes.
Basically, we’re looking at two completely different approaches to level design and how to discover secrets. One takes the “old school” concepts of 2-D design, but expands them to possibly unwieldy levels, while the other shrinks 3-D sensibilities to bite-sized nuggets that are over before they begin. And they’re both great! Bah! That doesn’t make a lick of sense!
Bosses should be one thing (or the other)
You finished a stage, and now it’s time for a boss. Sonic Mania throws everything at poor Sonic, up to and including a kitchen sink that will eventually be transformed back into a penguin. Some stages end with a simple “jump here” boss. Some levels lead to a high-speed chase. Sometimes the boss is a puzzle that requires careful observation, timing, and bouncing. Sometimes you have to fight Shinobi. And, if you’re particularly unlucky, you might be faced with that one damn boss from Hydrocity wasn’t any fun the first time, so why the hell did some nitwit decide it was time for that jerkass to return!? Er-hem. The bosses of Sonic Mania are an eclectic bunch, and a lot of stress is derived from whether or not you’re going to face Heavy Rider & Jimmy or goddamn Metal Sonic. But, stupid Metal Sonic aside, nearly all of these boss battles can be completed inside of thirty seconds, so there’s not much to complain about.
Sonic Forces, naturally, features bosses that take much longer. By and large, the bosses of Sonic Forces are generally more cinematic affairs, and do their best to utilize the story telling potential of 3-D adventures with epic clashes between Sonic (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) and his most dangerous foes (and that one dork from Lost World). Thus, these battles generally contain multiple phases, wildly changing patterns, and the occasional finale that features any number of hedgehogs powering up to supersonic speeds. In general, this leads to more interesting battles, though at the cost of having to hear about Sonic believing in you over and over again should you hit a particularly rough spot. Sonic, dude, I know we can beat this boss, just shut up about it and get your damn homing attack working properly. I’m just as tired of this Virtual Boy dimension as you are.
So, once again, both games take completely separate paths to reach the same generally enjoyable but somehow flawed destination. Huh.
Show Don’t Tell (or Shout Everything)
Sonic Mania contains the typical Sonic the Hedgehog Sega Genesis plot: Dr. Eggman is up to no good, and it’s time to stop him. Not a single bit of dialogue is spoken, and the new antagonists, The Hard Boiled Heavies, are not given names during actual gameplay. But, in the same way you learned everything you ever needed to know about Knuckles from his ability to jump on switches (he’s kind of a dick), the Heavies are clearly defined by their actions. In the end, Sonic saves the day (of course) and puts down a minor robot uprising while sending Robotnik packing. Oh, and there might have been time travel involved, too? Doesn’t matter, a rollercoaster doesn’t need a story to be fun.
Sonic Forces has the most bonkers plot to ever grace Sonic’s elongated snout. Sonic the Hedgehog is dead! Forever! And Eggman has conquered the entire planet inside of a couple of months! Our last hope is Original the Character and a resistance of whacky animal pals! And Tails had such a sadgasm over his dead buddy that he summoned another Sonic the Hedgehog from another dimension! And it turns out (regular) Sonic is alive again! And all of this happens before the fourth stage (of thirty)! I’m not even going to get into how Eggman gave a magical rock that controls reality to an anonymous moron that is cataclysmically annoyed by Shadow the Hedgehog. And then somebody summons the freaking sun like gravity ain’t no thang!
Sonic Forces’ plot never shuts up, and that makes it glorious. There is not a single sane person on this planet that ever needed to see Knuckles the Echidna and Vector the Crocodile discus the horrors of war, but here it is. Sonic instantly makes best friends with the player’s haphazardly created deviantart avatar while Tails wanders around with his mentor’s inter-dimensional ghost from another timeline. I’m pretty sure Amy Rose makes a joke about having an all Sonic threeway somewhere in there. The story moves at breakneck speed, it’s completely demented, and it’s magnificent. If you’re going to have a plot where a group of rebel furries un-conquer a planet inside of four days, this is the way to do it.
So completely silent, gameplay-based storytelling versus senseless talky talk that spirals around exclusively for lunatics. Either one works
In one adventure, Knuckles is the noble leader of a resistance movement that is humanity’s last hope. … Or what passes for “humanity” in this world.
In another world, Knuckles maybe has the pattern recognition of a goldfish.
…. Echidnas can be anything?
Tight Controls are Essential/Unnecessary
Sonic Mania controls like a dream. It feels like the Sega Genesis titles never ended, and, after years of terrible approximations, “real” Sonic has returned. Sonic’s momentum is untouchable, and, whether you’re navigating between moving platforms or over an ocean of flaming oil, you’re completely in control. Sonic can spin dash up to mach speed at a moment’s notice, but he can also handle shifting blocks like a pro. Give or take a few accidentally deadly “squishing” spots, Sonic Mania provides perfect Sonic movement.
Sonic Forces, unfortunately, carries forward many of 3-D Sonic’s movement problems. During the 2-D areas in particular, it is nearly impossible to get Sonic to 100% follow your inputs, and not instantly break into some uncontrollable, inevitably deadly forward momentum. This Sonic is designed backwards from his constant need to barrel forward, and that leads to a number of terrible, unwanted deaths at the hands of bottomless pits or stationary spikes. Sonic the Hedgehog should never be defeated by an inanimate object!
But, then again, it doesn’t matter.
3-D Sonic is also built for his homing dash, and Orginal the Character has an inexplicable grappling hook. Both abilities allow Sonic/Original to instantly dash forward and onto a specific point, and the stage design is generally built for that essential ability. And, more often than not, it works wonderfully. Sure, you can steer a freight train into a parking space a lot easier than this Hedgehog, but why bother? Sonic is the King of Speed, so keeping your goin’ fast. There might be an accidental death or two, but you don’t have any lives to lose, so don’t worry about it. You want to put brakes on your bumper cars? Don’t be silly.
Just because you’ve got the same hedgehog in two different games doesn’t mean he has to control exactly the same.
Fanservice Can Go Both Ways
Sonic Mania is a love letter to the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Not only are stages remastered and remixed, but there are an amazing number of “little touches” that recall Sonic’s decades-long history. There are traps originating from Game Gear titles. There are bosses that crept out of ill-advised arcade fighting games. There are loving homages to the Sonic fan community and its myriad of modders. You could spend a day reading the Wikipedia pages dedicated to each individual zone. Did you know that Sonic’s shake at the start of Chemical Plant Zone was a reference to Sonic Spinball? Of course you didn’t know that! Nobody played Sonic Spinball!
Sonic Forces primarily speeds off in the other direction. Rather than dwell on Sonic’s past, Sonic has made a brand new friend: you! You are Original the Character, an anthropomorphic animal of your own creation, and Sonic totally wants to be your best friend! But don’t worry, it’s not just because he loves your sparkling (and completely silent) personality, it’s also because you’ve got the skillz. In an effort to create the most beloved original character in history, the kindly creators of Sonic Forces combined your chance notebook sketches with the one and only Spider-Man! Grapple around the city like an avenging arachnid! Get ready to employ all sorts of amazing acrobatic techniques to save and stand by your favorite hedgehog. You love Sonic, and now Sonic loves you! You’re the best Sonic Fan ever!
Chemical Plant Zone is a Scourge
Both Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces contain remixed versions of Chemical Plant Zone. Sonic Mania adds bouncy chemicals, while Sonic Forces adds the occasional sprinkling of lasers. This proves that, even with a basic theme, you can have riotously different interpretations of the same level. Unfortunately, as good as these zones may be, they still come from the same base of the cruddy Chemical Plant Zone.
So, there, that’s it. All good Sonic games contain a Chemical Plant Zone.
Ugh. This universe is the worst.
FGC #354 Sonic Mania
- System: Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. Only one of these systems is technically portable.
- Number of players: There’s Sonic & Tails mode for multiple players, and some manner of race mode that I am never touching.
- Favorite Zone: Oil Ocean becoming combustible thanks to the fire shield is the exact kind of “remix” the world needed.
- Something special: The special stages are very reminiscent of Sonic & Knuckles as well, as they seem difficult initially, but are second nature in no time at all. This is a tremendous step up from the Sonic the Hedgehog 2 special stages, which are impossible.
- Just play the gig, man: Everything about this soundtrack is amazing, but the way each stage is remixed for various areas and events is amazing. Flying Battery might not be my favorite zone, but its second act gets the best tunes.
- Did you know? Sonic Mania was one of the top selling Switch titles, outselling even Minecraft. Like, it didn’t outsell Minecraft on every system, but go ahead and tell your know-it-all nephew that Sonic is more popular than Minecraft.
- Would I play again: In a heartbeat. Sonic Mania 2 is all I want from this sick and twisted world.
FGC #354 Sonic Forces
- System: Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. Only one of these systems is technically portable.
- Number of players: You can be all sorts of crazy characters, but only one at a time.
- Favorite Zone: Null Space is a stage that takes place in “null space” for all of ten seconds before becoming another random city level. You would think this would bother me, but, come on, takes a special kind of game to trump up some alternate dimension and then utilize it for less time than it takes to blow a fart.
- Head Canon Corner: In Sonic Generations, “old” Sonic is stated to be Sonic’s younger self. In Sonic Forces, “old” Sonic is recognized, but Tails claims he is from another dimension, not the past. My theory? This is not a retcon, and when Old Sonic the Hedgehog saw his 3-D future during Generations, he decided he wanted nothing of it, and caused a split timeline/dimension when he decided to never leave the joys of 2-D exclusives. And that’s where Sonic Mania originates.
- The disease is inside me: Okay, full disclosure? I may have been mentally working out my Original the Character’s backstory while I was bored during zones. She’s purple, so I figure she’s the adopted sister of Fang the Sniper, and one day she decided…
- Did you know? It sounds crazy, but the last time Shadow the Hedgehog was a playable character in a “main” Sonic game, it was 2006. Yes, that 2006. That game really killed the poor hedgehog’s street cred.
- Would I play again: Not as quickly as Sonic Mania, but I am going to return to 100% this title at one point. It’s just too fun! And how often does that happen?
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo, and we’re going to pair it with Pocket Fighter aka Super Gem Fighter Mini Mix! It’s time for a whole pile of chibi street fighters! Please look forward to it!