Sonic Mania

Fan games are an interesting subject in the medium of videogames, as "fan works" tend to be in art as a whole. They have existed for as long as videogames have, and their place and presence in the industry varies considerably depending on whose work the fan work is derived from; some of the medium's finest art or most influential works started as fan works, or indeed still are fan works, but the ensnaring poisons of IP law, copyright and trademark enforcement, and the myriad myths about the requirements thereof have pushed them into an "underground" status, almost.

This is largely because of the often highly-publicised heavy-handed enforcement bullshit of Nintendo, who regularly make the news for discovering and striking down incredibly promising fan games willy-nilly, ostensibly in the name of protecting their properties. I say "ostensibly", because in actual reality they don't actually need to do it to maintain the control and ownership of their properties they're apparently so worried about losing. This has led to a practice of makers of Nintendo fan games especially just going quiet or not announcing their games until the things are done, then dumping them in a sudden burst release before vanishing. The game, once out in the wild, is propagated and spread beyond Nintendo's control, but the need to do this is frankly shameful.

Embracing, encouraging and actively rewarding fan works is not only easy and largely safe to do (some caution is fair), more often than not it's enriching and rewarding for the property. One need only look at the frankly amazing breadth of works that bear the name of Touhou, legendary Japanese doujinshi series, a series whose name, characters, aesthetics and elements can be used freely by anyone on permission of its creator ZUN, and how this has given rise to an enduring, sprawling fan-fuelled empire that has fed back into and informed the main games themselves. Whole personalities, histories, stories, interactions and more made by fans disseminate throughout the fanbase, feeding into and enriching newer and newer works in the series. And it hasn't hurt the series even once; we're now in a position where Touhou fan games, once relegated to the depths of the internet often with nary a hope of translation from Japanese, are now regularly localised and released on home consoles, Steam and elsewhere by a variety of publishers - one published in Europe on PS4 by one of Sony's own divisions, no less!

Examples are countless and take many forms: Valve, as a company, have a long history of hiring fan game and mod makers who make promising work to make them as actual games for Valve directly; id Software had a great relationship with Doom mod ("wad") makers and have long experimented with and tried to make a system where makers of popular mods could be rewarded with a cut of game sales, for driving ever more people to buy and play their stuff; less happily (for them, not for us, because fuck them), Blizzard's disastrous and horrific WarCraft III "remake" tries to enforce a stipulation that any kind of popular new work or concept made in the game's map editor is wholly owned by Blizzard, as they are disgustingly bitter about DOTA evolving out of a fan's map for the original release.

And, of course, there's Sega.

Sonic Mania's existence is evidence enough of Sega's approach to fan works, because Sonic Mania itself is a fan work. Its development was lead by prominent Sonic fan game makers Christian Whitehead (alias "Taxman") and Simon Thomley (alias "Stealth"), involving the latter's indie studio Headcannon Games, and an additional developer studio in Pagoda West Games. Taxman and Stealth came to prominence for their high quality, impressive fan games and porting efforts, and in sharp contrast to the behaviour of their old rival, Sega looked at this and did the smart thing: they hired them to handle the modern console and mobile ports of the classic 2D Sonic games. Taxman's self-developed mobile port of Sonic CD was the first, not just porting the game but bringing with it a number of changes that improved the experience and made it as well-suited to mobile as one can make a platformer. Sega made it an official port, and then hired Taxman to head up further ports of Sonic 1 and 2, joined by Stealth and his new indie studio, and these versions are both well-regarded. The Sonic 2 port goes the distance in particular, recovering the assets and data of an unfinished, inaccessible stage in the original game's code and completing it, making it available to be played legitimately for the first time.

And then, in a flourish of genuine genius, Sega hired the pair of them for the next natural step: make a brand new 2D Sonic game, using all you know, love and have learned. And, here we are: Sonic Mania released in 2017, and I just got around to it on my backlog-clearing streams.

The main thing that I have to say about it is that truly, it is a fan game.

Learned Ways

I played the PS4 version of Sonic Mania, on a PS4 Pro though that doesn't matter for this one. I do not own the Sonic Mania Plus DLC pack, which adds more characters and a remixed story mode, so I cannot speak to that. Some of the better changes that came with that release, such as the total rework of a specific boss, have been added freely into the base game, so it is a commendable work for that attitude alone.

The thing about being a fan of stuff, even one who has progressed enough in thinking and analysing the thing they love so as to pompously call themselves a critic, is at some point you touch upon the question: "could I do this?". Could I create something, wholly original, the way the people who made the thing I'm calling shit did? It's something that comes to mind often, perhaps especially lately with ever more success stories like Sonic Mania and Helltaker around to make one wonder. The further we go, the easier creation becomes in a number of ways, for a number of mediums; this is perhaps most evident in videogames, after a fashion, as the tools of game development, avenues for game publishing and so on become more and more accessible to the average person. It becomes easier to learn how to code by the day, as it becomes more prominent in schools over the world and those who came before more readily share and spread their knowledge, and use it to build tools to expedite more annoying processes for those to come after (hell, this is a regular part of working in software in general, I've found). Access to those tools and the knowledge of how to use them is easier to find than it's ever been.

This isn't to say actually making something is easy; if all were so easy, I'd have released the Castlevania-esque gothic platformer I see in my head, I'd have written the bizarre thriller novel about a truly zestless man tormented by a demented billionaire for the latter's amusement, or drawn myriad arts of my precious anime idol OCs, I'd have made a shot at a song made on the Yamaha YM2612, etc etc. The commitment to seeing a work through to even partial completion is a gargantuan ask. Writing critical pieces is distinctly easier, from experience, because while it is the act of creation and critique is an art itself (being writing), a lot of the work has been done for you, so to speak. Actually creating a whole work, not just talking about one? In a way, it boggles the mind, but then I'm someone who has never entirely created anything outside of academic or work environments.

What then, is the difference between fan game makers and the actual creators of a videogame property, when the former has reached the point of being able to create something on the level of Sonic Mania?

Well, in a way, it's a bit like critiquing a game without having made one yourself.

Call it stereotyping, but sometimes, you can just tell something is a fan game by looking at it, or by playing it.

There are some recurring trends across fan games, largely down to the fact that the sort of person who is dedicated enough to sit down and attempt to build upon the work of an entire salaried team of people tends to have specific beliefs and views about the work they're a big fan of. In videogames, a nice go-to example is the difference between the developers' approach to mechanics, and the dedicated fan's approach to mechanics. The latter tends to revel in their use, and endeavours to utilise them as much as possible, often out of a drive to truly wring out the potential of each with the goal of creating something either more difficult, or more engaging and in-depth, than the work they're a fan of.

If you've ever played a game reliant on user-made content, like Mario Maker or LittleBigPlanet, you'll have encountered what I mean sooner or later. Hell, if you're particularly fond of ROM hacks, mods, Doom wads and so on, you'll have encountered this sort of thing. Levels dependent on very specific implementations of mechanics that the original never utilised or even suggested at, levels packed with an occurrence of every standout element from across the entire length of the game, that sort. This is not, intrinsically, a bad thing, and of course has the potential to be amazing; the truly clever and skilled can make very special stuff by pushing the limits of what the original's mechanics can do.

At the same time, they will regularly miss the point of why the original only did so much with its mechanics in some instances. This is perhaps most obvious in fan mods and games of RPGs, where more often than not they'll have a habit of cranking up enemy stats or levels to make things more difficult, under the belief that a plainly harder time is a better time by default. It's not a fan game, but it is kind of close in this intent; TemTem, at least what I last saw of it, ran into this by religiously drawing from the long-held desires of loud hardcore Pokémon fans, and doing things like making all fights Doubles battles (2v2 matches) without actually considering what that meant for the early game where you have few creatures with tiny movepools unable to oneshot each other. The end result is an extremely tedious and dull opening where fights come down to blindly mashing A for several minutes, and no amount of surprise stat or level jumps in your foe actually change that or make it any different.

This brings me to Sonic Mania, and my biggest issue with it; around half of the game's levels are fucking great, they're joyous and clever recreations and remixes of levels from Sonics 1-3&K and CD, with sick remixes of their level themes, and a handful of wholly original levels that are sheer visual delights, interesting stages with their own visual flourishes and styles completely distinct from any of the levels of the old games. In these, Sonic Mania is at its height, a fast and bouncy platformer that lets you build up momentum and perform slick jumps and precision hazard evasion on a dime with some absolutely stunning spritework and animation and a fucking gorgeous colour palette to make it shine. I can see from these why some claim Sonic Mania is "the best 2D Sonic game", I really can, because they were joyous.

The other half of Sonic Mania is a pile of tedious, irritating experiences that repeatedly break the flow of the game, filling themselves with myriad speed-breakers and obstacles that stop you dead (not even to damage you, just stop you). Or they effectively slap the controller out of your hands as it leaves you at the mercy of hidden springs that pop out of walls, with no indication that they're there, to throw you through a section of level themselves. These are often populated with some of the lesser ideas, elements and mechanics of Sonics 1-3&K and CD, and regularly stumble into level design issues that Mania's predecessors did.

The most obvious example of a lesser mechanic brought back when it really shouldn't have been is the "plane segment" of Sonic 2; Sonic 2 had a whole level called Sky Chase Zone which was a slow, lazy auto-scrolling level about working around slow, easy enemies. The level isn't the best, it's an experimental break and exists to build up reaching Wing Fortress Zone as a narrative beat more than anything (a simplistic precursor to S3&K's more overt story scenes). Sonic's usual movement speed and momentum and generally fun movement are hampered by the constraints of the automatic scrolling and the fact that you are bound to the wing of Tails' plane. Your movement changes as a result; going all the way forward or back isn't Sonic moving forward and building speed for a normal run, he just keeps walking as Tails pilots forward or back. You can also go up and down vertically, which has a minor hampering effect on holding down to spindash and similar.

Sonic Mania brings this back as the opening part of Mirage Saloon Act 1, and it kind of encapsulates what I was referring to earlier about the "fan game" take on a mechanic; it controls basically the same, in that it's slow and awkward and you don't have Sonic's proper movement. But Sonic Mania decides it must up the ante and instead of just slow-moving enemies flying in straight lines, you've now got clusters of enemies that fly in loops and home in on you, and if there aren't more of them than in Sky Chase, it certainly feels like more because it's more active and frantic. That isn't a good thing because it still doesn't control well. This then climaxes by going further than Sonic 2's developers wisely did, by making you fight a boss on the fucking plane, a large and awkward one whose gimmick is jumping in from the foreground and background at you when you don't have your proper movement speed and momentum.

This then hits a fever pitch with Titanic Monarch Zone, the game's final level and another wholly original one.

Titanic Monarch is the perfect example of "fan game runs wild with mechanics without really thinking it through", and it does so with the most baffling one: the Bonus Stage of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. The primary mechanic of both Acts is using giant plasma balls that Sonic sticks to and rolls around to jump off of to reach new places. It's functionally identical to the electric balls of 3&K's Bonus Stage, but what works for a brief bonus excursion for free rings and shields in exchange for an oddball, tricky way of platforming does not make a good mechanic to build a level around.

Much less, build the two longest levels in the game around.

The idea is, Sonic rolls around the ball and as he's rolling up the side, you jump to carry his momentum for a higher jump. The problems begin when they want you to start aiming at offscreen plasma balls, or specific directions at springs needed to advance, and of course, springs in specific directions attached to moving platforms. It's slow, it's annoying, it's fiddly and they like to do things like have big arrays of moving plasma balls in big rooms where you can't see everything, so you're fighting not knowing what's a hazard and what's progress with Sonic rotating around a ball that is itself rotating in an array of other moving plasma balls. Throw on top of this enemies that attack by wrapping a big wire-frame sphere around Sonic that can track him quite some distance from the enemy, spikes and electric coils all over the place, and the other core gimmick of Act 2 in particular and the whole thing's just a fucking mess.

Act 2 goes further by being the biggest and longest level in any main 2D Sonic game.

I know what they were going for with Act 2; it's a climactic stage, you have to go along four paths from a hub point and clear them to open the way forward to the boss. The problem is, on top of all four of these sections using basically the same three or four mechanics and ideas, those mechanics include the fucking plasma balls even more extensively, and include a new one of falling down pits that warp you back to the start of that section of the stage. This is not helped by an extreme reliance on hidden springs - an irritation throughout the whole game, but Titanic Monarch takes the piss - springs you cannot see until you're right on them, whereupon they pop out to launch you god knows where. A lot of these are for spectacle (popping up right before you blast into spikes from another spring), but several are needed for progress and good fucking luck ever telling they're there. There's no indicator, and at one point you have to find one popping out from a ledge that has spikes at the top edge, balanced over one of the reset pits.

It's telling that the devs at least thought to reset the timer once you reached the boss, because my clear time on the first go was 9 minutes and over 30 seconds; if you have the timer on (I'm not sure if the ability to turn it off is unlocked by default), Sonic Mania retains the 10 minute time limit of its predecessors. The level is simply too fucking big, and I played through both Acts three times on stream (once the first time, died to the final boss; second time to beat him, third time with all 7 Chaos Emeralds for the true ending); even on my second and third goes, where I knew what I was doing and had Super Sonic's supreme speed and jump, it's still a 6-7 minute stage because of the plasma ball segments. The whole thing really needed trimmed down, and the developers should have reconsidered the plasma balls as a level centrepiece at all.

Didn't Stop To Think If You Should

The dirty secret of the term "fan game" is that while it implies an inherent status of being lesser, the truth of it is there is no such thing. A fan game maker is just an indie developer, through and through, and the only real distinguishing factors between fan game makers and the original developers of the property, in terms of ability to make a game, are available resources, whether or not a publisher is looming overhead and experience. And experience is a highly variable factor, at that, it's not so binary as to be "studio developers more, indie developers less" as more and more, veterans leave toxic work environments to make their own (hopefully) better environments and strike out to see through their own creative visions.

This, I think, is where the heart of Sonic Mania's few problems lie. Taxman, Stealth and company are particularly well suited to making genuine Sonic games because their ports/remakes of Sonics 1, 2 and CD for modern platforms required them to become intimately familiar with the controls and Sonic's movement to make sure they functioned not just accurately, but properly and even better than before, where possible. I don't find that Mania controls better than its predecessors, per se, but it controls very much like them. Mania's real advantage is actually screen real estate; I wager most people take issue with the originals not because of the controls (past Sonic 1, anyway), but because you can't see far enough ahead of you for most's reaction times to be able to keep up. Sonic Mania is undeniably better in this regard, but it's not actually wholly free of the problem; slamming headfirst into hazards I simply could not have predicted was pretty common, although at least most of the time it was level hazards as opposed to enemies.

But while they get the controls down very well, their level design can vary quite wildly. I've already gone on about Titanic Monarch, but in terms of level design and not mechanics like Mirage Saloon reviving the plane, Sonic Mania trips quite a bit. Hydrocity Act 2 is far more aggravating than any water level in the originals ever was, in large part because they (rather naturally) chose to make a lot of the core challenge centre on getting from air bubble stop to air bubble stop, but retained more or less the same underwater "air" timer as the originals. The result is at points, you can fail getting past an obstacle or hazard once or twice at best before you're just fucked, retreat to the last air bubble or if you can't, just die. The level design obsession with shoving as much shit in everywhere is a key part of this, there's a particular spot where you have to drop down ledges while a cannon shoots at you, and below each ledge is a spring that will kick you back up to the previous ledge. It's all underwater, and you can (and I did) conceivably fight Sonic's underwater controls so much that you're just fucked here if you don't get it right away.

Lava Reef Act 2, another full remix of an original (effectively an original stage using the theme, aesthetics and central mechanics of a zone from a past game, with a twist here and there), is also rife with this sort of horseshit. It doesn't kill anywhere near as much, but great stretches of this stage are just fucking littered with fake rock robots that wind up explosions after being touched. Being touched doesn't hurt Sonic, but it does completely kill his momentum and bring him to a dead stop if you don't jump over them. Except, a lot of the stage is narrow pathways or incline steps you jump up, with these things coating the floors, ceilings and path. The ones in corridors and tight areas are the worst, because instead of zipping through to a new platform challenge, you just trip and stumble and slowly bumble across a fucking stupid amount of these completely pointless things. It's actively frustrating, as Lava Reef is a zone where if you have a Fire Shield, you're immune to the frequent lava pits and flame spouts, and a lot of enemy attacks; pair it with the Fire Shield's aerial lunge and you can build serious speed in this level. Mania tries to stop you from doing so at every possible moment and I do not understand why, at all.

Level design is a very fine thing, and after core controls it's the most make-or-break part of gameplay. I do not doubt the developers' ability to make a Sonic game that controls as well as the classics did (ideally, we would not have such accuracy in underwater or plane controls, but c'est la vie), but I do find their level design chops quite a bit more dodgy. This also extends to bosses here and there; remixed stages often have one boss from the classics brought with them, and around the point you've got this fucking "be Super Sonic or face-tank damage" fuck as your choice for Titanic Monarch Act 1, I have to inquire about the thought process involved. Not least because in Mania he gets a second phase that decides seemingly at random whether or not you're allowed to hit it as regular Sonic, by embedding itself in the ceiling out of reach or the floor in reach. On my second Titanic Monarch run, I almost got timed out on Act 1 because this boss just wouldn't come down to the ground.

Sonic Mania is far and away the prettiest 2D Sonic. It runs like a dream, it's so beautifully colourful and the use of shading, lighting, colour and contrast is fucking exquisite throughout the game. Even Titanic Monarch, which I will keep kicking otherwise, looks damn nice as a stage. The highlight is easily Studiopolis Zone, the first original stage, but all the classics look better than ever before and there's all manner of additional flourishes and wonderful effects it busts out to just make the whole game sing. Combined with the stellar remixes and original tracks throughout the whole game, it's easily got the best presentation of the 2D Sonics, and hell, it's one of the best-looking games in the whole goddamn franchise (music is a much tougher arena, but it is a strong showing). The sheer detail in the environments is a whole notch above most others, and all the character sprites and animations are so expressive and alive. There's a cartoony bounciness to a lot of it that looks so natural, like the natural evolution of the old Mega Drive sprite style if it had kept that look going forward.

But, like the level design and mechanics, it occasionally just goes too far. Some stages are just so visually busy that combined with Sonic's speed, for the first time in one of these games I had genuine trouble seeing important stage elements. There's quite a few points in both streams where I just get stopped and have to ask aloud "I don't know what you want from me here" because I can't see the spring or switch or other thing to proceed. Backgrounds and foregrounds, especially in Mania's own original stages, are so busy that at times, they clutter the screen enough to block out elements entirely. Studiopolis and Press Garden both have points where this happened, of note. Also, back to my favourite punching bag, the tesla coil electric hazards in Titanic Monarch are so unassuming and bland (just dull, dark gold poles) that they fade into the background and I can't tell they're there until an electric beam suddenly materialises on Sonic as I'm sprinting past. They don't stand out against the stage at all, they look like background objects and it makes it hard to spot them even when not speeding.


The thing is, pretty much all of my issues with Sonic Mania are things easily resolved by learning from experience. The fact that it controls the way it does, and that the developers knew to account for having HD resolutions for spacing levels and hazards against Sonic's speedy approach, show they have most of it down. Level design comes with trying and learning from what you did once it's out in the wild. If Sega have anything left of the spark of wild genius that saw them hire these developers in the first place, they'll have them back around as soon as possible for a Mania 2. Ideally, one that's comprised entirely of original levels, no remixes or redos, to really let them try and see what comes out. Because, that's what the developers of the classic games had to do; after all, they were new to Sonic too at one point.

Because as much as the aggravating ones gall me, a lot of Sonic Mania's level design is already there. Mania's originals are at a 50-50 win rate, Studiopolis and Press Garden against Mirage Saloon and Titanic Monarch; the remixes have a better one, even if some are impacted by the devs' general issues (Flying Battery is basically a test run for Titanic Monarch with how fucking long and fiddly it is, but it isn't anywhere near as bad as that bastard is). The foreground visual issue is so very simplistic, they've got a demented inventiveness for boss fights, and the sheer love and respect for Sonic, the series and Sega itself that shines throughout Mania is as clear as day.

There's just so many fucking callbacks and cheeky nods throughout Mania that it'd take paragraphs to recount and explain them all here. From having a fucking Knuckles & Knuckles mode to basically every classic callback fans have screamed for for years; to pulling mechanics and a whole fucking boss from fucking Knuckles Chaotix (the Sega 32X mess few ever played); to the way all of the classic returning stages reference their games, games of their time and go to great strides to weave them all together; the whole thing is a fucking love letter to the Mega Drive Sonic titles, in much the same way as (and in many ways, moreso than) Sega's own Sonic Generations is to the whole series. Mania is actually a very good pair for Generations, which is amusing, as it is actually bound (by story, no less) to Generations' proclaimed lacklustre followup Sonic Forces.

The thing about critiquing a game when you haven't made one yourself is that to an extent, you know what works and what doesn't. Playing a game tells you that; you can work out what works and what doesn't by playing it, watching others play it, see what others think and just thinking about how it was put together. Does its content regularly sync up things like introducing new gameplay mechanics with level design that effectively teaches players how to use it? Does it alter gameplay and use mechanics to help get across its story? Does it properly balance this, properly utilise that, etc etc? But, until you're actually in the hot seat yourself, you can't really know the whole of any game you've played. You can't truly call the developers idiots for a mistake because you weren't there; for all you know, they knew well before anyone they had a problem, but the publisher deadlines and provided finances were a choke chain keeping them from doing anything about it. Or, it may be that your alternative actually wouldn't work any better, as the devs of TemTem (hopefully) have learned. Working as a software engineer at a company going on two years now (as of this month, in fact), it gives some considerable perspective on a lot of the issues game developers might have had, but there are still whole dimensions unknown to me.

This, I think, is the sort of thing reflected in Sonic Mania; the developers, from their prior experience and sheer dedication to the series, had a lot of the fundamentals down, all they need now is experience in the bits that that kind of work doesn't provide. Really, that's true of a lot of the best fangames, and partially why some like Another Metroid 2 Remake took so fucking long - free of publisher constraint, they could test, retest and fine-tune it for as long as they wanted. Taxman, Stealth and company didn't have that sort of freedom actually working for Sega on this, in exchange for resources beyond any previous measure, and it's interesting to see what that's done for Sonic Mania.

It's not so much "what is the difference between fan game makers and 'actual' developers", as there are so many mundane and material factors. From an artistic viewpoint, I suppose it can be called, the question really is "what is the one consistent dividing line between fan game makers and game developers?". And that line is simply "the experience of having made something".

I shall have to think about this.


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