Sonic’s mainstream origins lie within a snappy marketing campaign. Sega didn’t need a mascot at the time – it needed a weapon in schoolyard fights between kids who owned rival consoles. Peer pressure did the rest to push Sega’s consoles under Christmas trees instead of Nintendo’s.
Whether Sonic the Hedgehog was actually good or not didn’t matter. He wore cool sneakers. Mario wore non-descript plumbers garb. Sonic moved like a manifestation of that purple-and-turqoise “solo jazz pattern” adorning paper cups in the ‘90s. Mario plainly bounced along. It was hard to argue against this hedgehog in the era’s childhood zeitgeist.
A lot of this manifests in Sonic Mania. It’s not so much digital adoration for Sonic as it is an entire era of videogames. That’s when cartridge sizes expanded, colors ballooned as they passed a CRT tube, and level designs lost their style. Mario ran to the right. Maybe he squeezed into a pipe or climbed a weed into the sky as a diversion. Sonic’s world offers no resemblance of logic; it’s a twisting mass of blocks and rollercoaster tracks, both hurriedly connected by a theme.
Sonic Mania then, like even the best Sonic adventures of yore, sloppily exists. It’s endlessly messy and confusing. Sonic isn’t under control at times. He just bounces off things. Lights flicker. Maybe a charming pinball sound plays. In terms of audio, the cues here equal that of Mario in their distinctiveness. They can never change. Neither can the enthusiasm, even if it’s often false.
Unlike with Sega’s 3D interpretations, Sonic Mania returns to the cartridge and proprietary soundchip days. Many of the musical tracks crackle with the messy treble and muddy bass of the Genesis audio. That’s energizing, just as distinctive as those pinball-like pings. Sonic always did this well – finding a way to cover the wacky, even dorky mascot routine with something dazzling. Watching Sonic bounce about is forever more fun than making it happen.
Sonic is at his most commercialized self in Sonic Mania. He’s an adorable sprite, gorgeously animated with deep contrast, and looks great at a glance. No one can deny the splashy value of this Sega property, designed with the company’s own corporate color in mind, but it is arguable whether the action itself ever reaches a tantalizing tier. Sonic Mania definitively decides the wildness is worth something though, enough to recreate not only Sonic, but other games too in a gooey, feel-good throwback. Nostalgia wins. It usually does.
But now, instead of the schoolyard, we have the internet. It’s less personal and a lot less about Sonic too. Sonic doesn’t sell consoles; he’s on all them. Without that urgency, Sonic just dangles here like a cat toy, waiting for anime-eyed 30-somethings to paw at his latest adventure. Sonic will still win, just like he did on those playgrounds of old.