I never owned a Megadrive as a wee bairn*. I was exposed only to the endless delights of Road Rash and Streets of Rage and that life-changing isometric Jurassic Park game, on those occasions where I could steal myself away to a friend’s house for dinner. I’d watch in awe as cartridges were prepared and a gaming icon was slammed into the port; an unintelligible swirl of colour suddenly blurring by at unthinkable speeds, requiring reactions I could only assume weren’t human, forever longing to have that blue-haired hedgehog in my home.
That statement is less weird than it might have read, promise.
As an instantly recognisable symbol of gaming, Sonic has endured, although it has to be said, only just. Being around in the 80s and being so damned iconic might have lead to, or at least exacerbated Sonic’s rather troubled voyage into the 21st century. Flying the mast on the tragically sinking vessel that was the Dreamcast (God rest its soul), Sonic eventually jumped ship to the Wii where, feeling like a traitor unto himself, he turned to the bottle, became frequently violent, strung-out, never saw his friends, and allegedly did some jail time for DUI.
With Sonic Mania finally spin-dashing onto shelves the other week, perhaps by the conduit of an enormous red spring so as to really hammer that cringey metaphor home, the industry has been tripping over itself to adorn it with praise. Well done Sonic, they say. You’re doing great! Good on you! Don’t go back to the whiskey!
Sonic Mania is essentially old Sonic, but new; there’s more of it, the level design is inspired and superb while familiar enough to be satisfyingly nostalgic. It has supposedly taken SEGA nearly 20 years to figure out that’s all that Sonic really needed to be.
Previous iterations have desperately tried to shoehorn some fancy new features in, to make use of at least some of that processing power trembling under the latest Sony Xbox X Pro 360 4 hood. And at long last, in 2017, we know for sure, that that’s not what Sonic is, not what he needs, and not what’s going to make a good game.
Which is interesting, isn’t it? That we can come all this way, all this way. We can try so much advanced technical wizardry, and yet at the core of it, that 16-bit, superfast spin-dashy, ring collecty, loop-the-loopy platformer was all that game ever needed to be.
Seeing Sonic Mania a roaring success across the industry, with positive reviews from even the most miserable and easily angered YouTube critics reminded me of something I wanted to write about years ago, and never got round to. #professional.
There’s a lot to be said for just doing your thing and doing it well. With some inspired level design and operating within the boundaries of what Sonic always was – it’s been proven there’s life in the aging hedgehog yet. But the crux of the matter is the ‘operating within the boundaries’ aspect of that sentence.
A little while ago, I got to wondering how mobile gaming would ever get its act together. How this aspect of the industry that I’ve always had a soft-spot for would deliver what I’ve always wanted, a true console-like experience on-the-go. Only after playing the excellent Framed (which had a sequel earlier this year) followed by Device-6, did I start to give up on that idea.
At that point I thought, maybe it just isn’t feasible. I had such a great time with these ‘mobile-optimised’ games that I had a change of heart. Maybe portable gaming is these stripped down experiences that have merit in their own right. Maybe that’s all it ever needed to be, and I should stop searching for something close to a big, twin-stick, AAA experience on a tiny screen, and instead be content that these are the boundaries which mobile gaming operates in – the only way it can truly excel.
I enjoyed Framed massively, and its unique take on the interactive story style game made me think a little differently. Deep down I’m still pining for the Nvidia Shield to be what it promised to be at Eurogamer all those years ago, and the Switch definitely represents a new leap forward on the AAA style game on the go front. But ultimately, I suppose, truly portable gaming is a different arena to the console experience and that is that.
In the same way Framed made me think maybe portable gaming can stick to its boundaries and be everything it needs to be, Sonic Mania seems to be an awakening of sorts. Some games just belong in two dimensions.
*wee bairn is a Scottish phrase that my Northern family say a lot for some reason. It means child…