Sonic's transition from lovable 2D console mascot to sarky 3D speedster has been far from smooth, as I'm sure you're well aware. While there have been some additions to the Blue Blur's back catalogue that his rabid fan base has enjoyed in recent years like Sonic Generations, the majority have been less than inspiring. This year, Sega is looking to make everyone that loves the chili dog eating rodent happy with the more modern-feeling Sonic Forces, and the game that would've launched on the Mega Drive 5 in 2002, Sonic Mania.
I'm one of those that grew up on the Mega Drive titles, so Sonic Mania naturally resonates with me. The original quadrilogy was terrific at the time, introducing new elements to the series up until it's finale Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Many of these return in Mania, like the item boxes that give you elemental shields. Upon starting the newly refurbished Green Hill Zone, I couldn't help but smile as I was transported back to a simpler time when the hardest decision in my life was whether to have Coco Pops or Frosties for breakfast. This is the direct sequel to Sonic & Knuckles that fans have wanted since 1994. Honestly, it's probably better than what you've envisioned in your head.
As Sonic is racing through the Chemical Plant Zone, you hear a fuller version of the instantly recognisable tune, and watch on as his spines blow in the wind. The sprites of the titular 'hog, Knuckles, and Tails, look terrific, as do the 16-bit-esque backdrops. On top of the already mentioned classic zones, I got to play a bit of the new Studiopolis and Mirage Saloon zones, too, which fit right in with the modified Genesis stages.
Studiopolis is like a warped TV production studio which has director's chairs that can raise Sonic up onto higher platforms, and Sky installation vans that magically transport him around the level via satellite signals. Mirage Saloon is the western-themed zone that affords you the opportunity to shoot Tails sky-high out of a gun, and spin around on bar stools, just like John Marston does on his days off (I'd imagine). If you grew up loving Sonic games, you know what to expect. And by that same token, if you grew up despising the series, I doubt there'll be much in here for you. I'm looking forward to playing more of it once it comes out to see if there's more to Sonic Mania than nostalgia, but right now, I'm very hopeful. More hopeful than I am for Forces.
Head of Sonic Team and hedgehog legend, Takashi Iizuka, spoke to me at the event and said that Sonic Forces was made for fans that like high-speed action. Within seconds of playing one of modern Sonic's levels, that's crystal clear. The issue with 3D sections in Sonic games is that you feel like a passive participant. You're only called into action when it's really necessary. Holding the left analog stick forward, draining your boost, and occasionally using the jump button to perform a homing attack on enemies is pretty much all that's required of you; the game does the majority of the heavy lifting. It moves at such a pace that you barely get enough time to look at the well crafted sights.
I also got to play a boss battle as old-school 2D Sonic which required me to run from side-to-side in an exercise that wasn't overly taxing, all things considered. Again, it looked nice, but I would've preferred to see how a full stage plays out with the shorter, stockier hedgehog variant. The most interesting thing in the preview build, in fact, was the one involving the brand new character: you.
Sonic Forces allows players to customise a character to their liking, joining the two Sonics in their effort to save the world from Dr. Eggman. Sonic Team has never been shy about adding to the hedgehog's long list of comrades, which is why I asked Iizuka why a new Big the Cat, Rough the Bat, or Shadow the Hedgehog wasn't created instead. He told me that he'd been getting letters from fans with their own designs of potential characters, asking for these creations to be put into a game. The new custom Hero option is a way for the studio to satisfy that demand. And while I was sceptical at first, I think it's a positive move.
In the full game, custom hero stages will be similar to 3D Sonic's levels as they'll fluidly switch between the second and third dimension — in the build I played, I only had access to a predominantly 2D stage and two preset custom characters. Both characters I played as felt notably slower than the modern hedgehog, meaning bolting for the finish line takes a backseat to measured platforming. The major difference, though, is that your custom character has a unique special ability. With one of the characters I was able to use a lightning whip to attract nearby rings to my person, and slash at enemies; and the other preset avatar wielded a flamethrower that allowed me to down countless robots, and boost myself up into the air. This focus on gadgets could be a really fun deviation from the other styles in-game, as long as there is enough variation in the weapons available.
The perception of Sonic has dwindled to a point where he's barely a blip on most radars, nowadays. He's like that band that hasn't had a hit in 15 years and is constantly on farewell tours, but is still able to get a few bob out of the older generation. Sonic Mania will likely do that with ease. Sonic Forces is the harder sell. Even though there's potential in this custom character tool, it's still a 3D Sonic game in 2017.
Sonic Forces is out Q4 2017, and Sonic Mania will be released on August 15 on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Switch.