This Week in Games - Sonic Mania

by Dustin Bailey,
Kirby, likely Nintendo's most versatile mascot, turned 25 this month. Kirby's Dream Land, the original Game Boy game, is in hindsight kind of a bizarre little thing—an experiment in casual games for children, something with cute characters and minimal difficulty that can be finished inside of about 30 minutes. Kirby's never shaken that experimental nature, and the pink puffball has served as the face of some of Nintendo's weirdest games ever since. Kirby's been a pinball, a golf ball, star of the first great DS game, hero of a SNES-era minigame collection, the face of Western Puyo Puyo, controlled by a gyro sensor in a Game Boy cartridge, and transformed into a piece of yarn.

But I like Kirby mostly because of his first full-sized game, Kirby's Adventure on the NES. Most anybody will tell you that game is good—it's the introduction of the signature copy ability, one of the fullest explorations of the NES's technical possibilities, and just a breezy fun time—but for me, it has the special distinction of being the thing that made me love video games. Now, trying to replicate my own nostalgia within other people is task too Herculean to attempt inside the space of two paragraphs, but without Kirby's Adventure I probably wouldn't be writing this column today. So thanks, Kirby, and best of luck with that Switch thing next year.

First Impressions: Sonic Mania

Sonic Mania is great, and its quality is without the equivocations that have marred every Sonic game since the Genesis games. It's disingenuous to say there've been no good Sonic games in the interim, with things like the Advance series quietly puttering along to prove the hedgehog still had life, but those games were never quite good enough to escape the gnawing void of quality seen in stuff like Sonic '06 and the more recent Sonic Boom titles.

But Mania is that good. Good enough to be worth playing by those who don't put themselves through the cycle of disappointment that surrounds every new Sonic announcement. I was a Nintendo kid, so even though I liked the first few Sonics—even the Adventure games, to an extent—I never had enough nostalgia to stick through the series' bad years. Mania is more than a bone thrown to long-suffering Sega fans. It's an incredibly smart remix of some classic games that stays true to what made them great while tweaking them just enough to feel fresh and relevant in 2017.

But if you're not all in on Sonic nostalgia, it might not be clear why exactly Mania is so successful. At first glance, it looks exactly like a 16:9 edition of the Genesis games—though the enhanced visual tricks possible via modern hardware means it actually looks far better than would've been possible in true 16-bit fashion. But you've got themed stages divided by acts, boss battles at the end of each, rings to collect that act as a first line of defense against damage, and an endless supply of ramps, loops, and springs to pit your speedy mammal of choice against. If the game's roots weren't clear enough by all of that, there's even a set of the visual filters you'd typically expect from an emulated rerelease of a retro title.

But rather than just recreating those classic stages, Mania rebuilds them, remixes them, and makes them better than they ever were before. There are familiar themes and patterns, but every stage features incredible pacing, with perfectly timed rollout of new mechanics that keeps everything consistently fresh and exciting. The levels are consistently full of surprises, from the varied explosions, jumps, and landing areas that make up the roller-coaster runs that define Sonic to the branching paths that offer opportunities to find secrets without distracting from the forward momentum that keeps pushing you toward the stage's conclusion.

In terms of sheer creativity, one of the boss battles is a round of Mean Bean Machine. That's a tiny example, but it speaks to how wild-yet-well-considered every piece of Mania really is. It exists as a love letter to a set of old games, but that letter is so heartfelt that the love manages to be entirely infectious. The presence of a character select between Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles doesn't do much for me, the fairweather Sonic fan, nor do unlockable abilities from various games in the series, nor even the presence of 3D bonus stages in the style of 3 and CD. Individually, none of those things are really important—but together, they help Mania to feel like the ultimate realization of Sonic, a happy stew of all its best components.

The story of how Mania came to be only adds to that feeling, with a folks from the fangame scene coming together under an official banner to make a Sega-branded follow-up to the originals. The joke that Sega has no idea what to do with Sonic these days is now liable to never end, with a truly special game only coming when they handed off development to a group far outside the company. But setting that aside, maybe there's some real hope for fangames to stop being the stuff of takedown notices. (Please, Nintendo.)

Sonic's traditional flaws still exist. It still kinda sucks when your momentum stops, though thankfully Mania shies away from death traps at the end of long running paths. Digging out secrets from hidden areas still feels a bit at odds with that “gotta go fast” mentality. But then you start moving again, those annoyances fall by the way, and Sonic Mania confidently reminds you why the hedgehog became an icon in the first place.

NEWS

SWERY'S NEW THING IS A CAT RPG

I've thought about Deadly Premonition at least once a week since it released in 2010. It's bad, but it's so, so good. So good that I forgot how bad it was, even while playing it. So utterly full of captivating charm that every other sin that game committed just evaporates in light of its effervescent heart. The first “next game from Swery” ended in disappointment, with the episodic D4 never reaching its climax.

But with his new studio, White Owls, unveiled earlier this year, the next Swery thing couldn't be far behind. It's called the Good Life, and it's an RPG about a photographer who visits an English village where everyone turns into cats at night. She starts turning into a cat too, with those nighttime adventures allowing you to explore and find clues about what's going on in the town of Rainy Woods (incidentally, the working title of Deadly Premonition.

The Good Life comes with one significant caveat, though: it's gotta get through a crowdfunding campaign at Fig first. That's rife with its own problems—problems I've run through ad nauseum in this space—but some terrific games have come out of the process. Here's hoping the Good Life joins them soon.

OKAMI HD MIGHT BE HITTING A MODERN CONSOLE NEAR YOU SOON

Yeah, Okami HD already exists. But that's a PS3 game, and we've long since moved past that, right? According to a report from Kotaku UK, Okami HD is scheduled for a retail release on PS4 and Xbox One in December. That's info from European retail, so take it skeptically. Plans subject to change, retail info is unreliable, this is only info for a European release, et cetera, et cetera.

But there might just be an excuse to play Okami again, and that's very exciting. Zelda-likes have always been a surprisingly unpopulated genre, and the PS2 game remains one of the best of that bunch. A beautiful style that remains unique to this day, entertaining combat, and a whole world filled with Japanese mythology to explore. Heck, maybe I'll just dust off the PS2 regardless of this rumor.

YOKO TARO SAVED PLATINUMGAMES (HEY, THEY SAID IT, NOT ME)

Above is the kind of headline you'd call “clickbait,” but of course it's not because you already had to click on this article to see it. Platinum's Hideki Kamiya is mostly known on social media for being a lovable asshole, but he dropped the asshole part of the schtick earlier this week to address the future of Platinum following the success of Nier: Automata.

According to a translation via NeoGAF, Kamiya said “Nier's success has to this point given Platinum a new fanbase, a growing staff, a brilliant success story, an increase in qualified job applicants, and a great benefit. Normally, I can't help but do everything by myself... it's a pitiful story, but to say that Yoko-san saved Platinum would not be an exaggeration. I cannot thank him enough.”

That's following Microsoft's unceremonious cancellation of Scalebound after years of development, and a general switch by Platinum from making creative original work to handling every bit of licensed development the world threw their way. Having a success story in a game as weird and wild as Nier is a tremendous change in fortunes, and it almost certainly signals more in the future.

UPCOMING RELEASES

UNCHARTED: THE LOST LEGACY
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: August 22
MSRP: $39.99

It's Uncharted without Nathan Drake! Your feelings on Naughty Dog's now-trademark roller-coaster-em-up series are probably well-established by now, and a switch in protagonists probably won't do much to change that. But hey, Chloe and Nadine are two of the most interesting characters in the series, so maybe? Otherwise, this is a pretty low-key Uncharted spin-off, the most notable new feature of which is the occasional appearance of a dialog tree.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Zero Time Dilemma makes its way to PS4 this week, completing the death trap VN series on home consoles.


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