Sega is releasing two new Sonic the Hedgehog games this year that represent polar opposites of the sides of the franchise. On one hand, there's Sonic Mania. Due to release this summer, it’s a retro, 16-bit-styled 2D platformer that appears to ignore any Sonic games released after Sonic and Knuckles in 1994. And on the other end of the spectrum is Sonic Forces, the latest entry in the ongoing 3D Sonic series. The two Sonics were set back-to-back at Sega's booth — stand on one side of a wall, and you can play the re-created ghost of Sonic past; walk around to the flip side, and you can gaze upon Sega's vision for the future.
I got the chance to try the pairing, and it was an odd juxtaposition, like chasing a fine aged wine with Red Bull. Mania looks like classic Sonic not as it is (low-resolution), but as your remember it (sleek, HD). Sega has melded the original retro style with some smooth animations that give the character just a little more personality. Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles’ sprites are all impressively detailed, and things like Sonic’s ears or Tails’, er, tails will subtly ripple in the wind when the characters are running. Gameplay is pure, classic Sonic — if you've played any of the Genesis Sonic games, you'll know exactly how Mania feels to play. Levels feature layered paths from one end to the other, and you get the overall sense that the game’s mandate is: the thing fans love but more.
But that familiarity also is a double-edged sword, and Mania’s adherence to the style of Sonic games of old doesn’t seem to leave a lot of wiggle room for big changes in gameplay.
But if Mania is a game meticulously panning Sonic for gold, Sonic Forces is akin to drowning in the Sonic deep end. Building off Sonic Generations, which offered a mix of both 3D Modern Sonic and 2D Classic Sonic levels, Forces adds a third variation on the gameplay, with levels designed for the custom heroes that are to be a major feature of the upcoming game. (The mode all but targets the series’s rich fan art community.)
The modern levels play similar to any of Sonic's recent console outings, switching back and forth between three-dimensional settings and more traditional 2D platforming areas. The 3D moments — when you're flying at top speed, grabbing rings and dashing through enemies — are surprising when Forces feels its most composed. The 2D sections fared worse; the platforming feels oddly weightless and lacks all the momentum of Mania.
As for the custom character sections, Sega should be commended for giving the fan community the long-desired option to leave their mark on the Sonic world. The custom characters levels play a lot like the modern Sonic ones, switching between 2D and 3D, except the gameplay emphasizes gear and abilities that can be equipped to your hero. In my demo, I wielded a lightning whip that allowed the character to lash out at enemies and dash along trails of rings. But when areas didn’t have rings, gameplay slowed down dramatically from the core "gotta go fast” loop, and it didn't really feel like a Sonic game.
Forces — at least in the levels on display at E3 — has a comparably muted color scheme, suitable for the Eggman-ruled world it’s set in, and left me missing the colorful worlds of Mania. Forces also has the irritating habit of inserting Sonic's various friends into the top left corner of the screen, where they pepper Sonic with unsolicited commentary. And in a weird change to the Sonic formula, rings simply vanish after you’re hit, instead of scattering everywhere to give players a chance to recover them, making mistakes far more costly.
But while Forces may make a few missteps, the willingness to try new types of gameplay and add new characters to the mix occasionally clicks, and you see where Sonic could go from here. Different custom character abilities — like the already shown-off grappling hook — could offer a more enjoyable Sonic experience. Or maybe Sega has some more out-of-the-box levels up its sleeve that take advantage of Sonic’s speed in 3D environments in new ways. It seems willing to try new things, with fresh takes on the tried-and-true franchise formula, even if it doesn't totally nail the execution on a first impression.
While Mania and Forces may offer wildly different views of Sonic games, the good news is fans have choice. And ultimately the two 2017 Sonic games — despite wildly different viewpoints for the franchise — end up complimenting each other pretty well. The combo just takes some getting used to.