One of the first things that struck me when I launched Sonic Mania is that it doesn’t have a tutorial level — and that’s because it doesn’t need one. After years of Sonic games piling on power-ups, abilities, characters, and weird bandanas, Sonic Mania reaches back in time, sheds that accumulated baggage, and returns to its bare-bones, 16-bit roots. The best part of Sonic Mania is how simple it is.
Instead of seeing how many gameplay mechanics it can stuff into a single game, Sega has pared things down to the bare essence of the series: running fast. Building and maintaining momentum are once again the focus of the game, and a dazzling mix of levels old and new are all built around that central idea. When it all comes together, with Sonic flying through the shining lights of Studiopolis or over the well-trod grass of Green Hill Zone, it feels almost like magic.
It’s a big change compared to a game like Sonic Colors, perhaps the best modern Sonic game. In Colors, the first level is full of the breakneck speed that you associate with Sonic, but it breaks players out of that every few minutes with incessant tips on how to boost and grind on rails. Button prompts for combos and abilities pop up, unbidden, at the top of the screen. And this is just the most basic level; later stages introduce a host of “wisp” abilities that further muddy the waters. Colors is a relatively tame modern Sonic title, because it sticks to just Sonic as a playable character. Other games, like Sonic Adventure or the disastrous 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog, have piled on new gameplay types with a seemingly endless parade of friends. Seriously, who on earth thought that the Chaos Emerald shard scavenger hunt levels were a fun idea for a game?
Sonic Mania has no fetch quests to complete, no tree of abilities to unlock, no mech suits or fishing levels or werehogs or vehicle segments. The entire control scheme of Sonic Mania is simple: these buttons move Sonic, and this button makes him jump. Knuckles and Tails are available as optional characters with a little more mobility — Tails can fly, Knuckles can glide and climb — but the core loop is still the same: run and jump.
In absence of a tutorial, you learn everything else organically through playing the game. There’s no pop-up notice telling you to grab the ring to climb up, or that breaking this container causes a new platform to grow. Boss fights are unique puzzles for you to figure out, not a chance for Tails to shout at you that “the glowing red spot is a weak point!”
I don’t mean to conflate simple with easy; Sonic Mania is still a challenging platformer, where the delicate interplay of building momentum, dodging enemies, and moving through the intricate stages is a careful balancing act that takes time to master. But the core gameplay loop — run fast and get to the end of the level — is a breath of fresh air in a time of complex open-world adventures with seemingly endless content and gameplay variations.
Back at E3, I had the chance to try out Super Mario Odyssey, the next blockbuster title of Sonic’s one-time rival that will almost certainly be a holiday success. My biggest takeaway from my brief time with Mario was how complicated it was — different jumps, new abilities, multiple ways to go about throwing Mario’s hat. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the sort of game you can just hand off to a friend without first explaining how things work.
Unfortunately for Sonic fans, it seems that Mania’s return to simplicity will be a temporary thing, as the upcoming Sonic Forces looks like it will return to the overstuffed, overcomplicated style that fans have come to know and vaguely tolerate. Still, I’m holding out hope that maybe the success of Mania will help Sega realize that it already knows how to make good Sonic games. It just needs to keep things simple.