How do you revitalize a once revered video game series that has spent the better part of two decades oscillating between varying degrees of mediocrity? If you’re struggling to come up with an answer, look no further than Sonic Mania, the first game in Sega’s flagging Sonic the Hedgehog series to be a bona fide hit critically, commercially, and communally. The Blue Blur faced some stiff competition this month from the solid if somewhat safe storytelling of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Ninja Theory’s strange and experimental Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and the manic but endearing tactical RPG crossover Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. In the end, the aging mascot managed to pull ahead of the pack and earn first prize for our August Game of the Month.
Perhaps the most significant single achievement of Sonic Mania is that it has put Sonic back on the map for the first time in decades. A big reason for this is because the game reached for inspiration from the franchise’s heyday. It’s common knowledge that Sonic has struggled since the move to 3D despite Sega’s numerous attempts to update and “innovate” on the core gameplay. Rather than try to change how a Sonic game plays, Sonic Mania keeps its design rooted in two dimensions and focuses its energy instead on delivering clear, fun, and well-thought out level design. The core attraction of Sonic games has always been the character’s fluid movement, something the 3D games could never quite replicate. By getting the fundamental elements right, clever level design and speedy gameplay, the innate appeal of the series is able to shine much brighter than when it’s cluttered by ill-fitting gameplay systems.
The ironic thing about this achievement is that Sega was not the developer behind it. While Takashi Iizuka, one of few designers from the first Sonic games remaining at Sega, oversaw production, the core design and programming responsibilities were actually headed by Pagodawest and Headcanon, two prominent studios in the Sonic fangame community. In fact, lead developer Christian “Taxman” Whitehead actually worked on an early version of the game for months before presenting it to Sega. Iizuka was so impressed that he decided to officially sponsor development. In reality, Sega’s most significant game in recent memory is a project that was created from the blood, sweat, and tears of their fans.
Sonic Mania isn’t a corporate motivated, nostalgia-bait cash-grab. It’s a genuine recreation of the franchise’s core from the people who love it most and for whom this kind of game has the most meaning. This is what truly edges Sonic Mania over the competition this month. It has all the prerequisites for a Game of the Month: excellent gameplay, solid design, and a strong place in the current gaming community. Yet what marks this game as truly special is how the resurgence of a decaying franchise was precipitated and spear-headed by the community, for the community. For resurrecting Sonic, proving how powerful and talented the gaming community can be, and just being a blast to play, Sonic Mania more than earns our Game of the Month.