Will Sonic Forces Be Able to Usurp Sonic Mania?
As many know, the Sonic games from the 1990s were wildly popular. They rivaled Nintendo's Mario games and provided a different kind of platforming adventure that emphasized reflex and attention to detail more than most games on offer at the time.
As media outlets and players alike have widely noted, Sonic Mania's immediate appeal is nostalgia. In part, it's the fuzzy-wuzzy kind of nostalgia --happy memories of early gaming days, the thrill of finding that your favorite games aged well and are still fun, and, for some gamers, the added benefit of being able to pass these gems from the past down to the next generation. Though often exploited and frequently hawked by developers in recent years, nostalgia is a powerful thing. However, using nostalgia comes with responsibility as well, as the other part of nostalgia is recapturing the reason why a game was held so dear to begin with.
Developers have to be careful and ensure their products lives up to players' expectations, especially with a set of games held in such high regard by so many.
Sonic Mania does just that. A large part of its success is the fact that Headcannon and PagodaWest captured more than just the sound and look of the hedgehog's 90s glory days. The level design is spot on in a way it hasn't been for many years -- too long, fans would say -- with perfectly placed platforms, devious traps, and enemies that actually pose threats. The developers found an excellent balance between levels that encourage high-speed runs and methodical backtracking, looking for different paths or missed gems.
Stage types vary enough to keep players' interests as well, melding puzzle solving and 3D platforming on occasion -- just as the originals did. Equally as important is the fact that the physics engine works exactly as it should, ensuring the clever level design doesn't go to waste. And on top of that, Mania includes even more replay incentive through adding Knuckles and Tails into the mix.
In essence, it's nearly a perfect Sonic experience, potentially leaving no room for any other contenders -- even from its own family tree.
Sonic Forces: Contender or Pretender?
Unfortunately, Sonic Forces doesn't have the benefit of either of those key pieces of nostalgia. Overall, the 3D Sonic games have not delivered the same kind of enjoyment over the years -- apart from the two Sonic Adventure games. And even those two contained some pretty significant flaws.
Part of the problem lies in one specific observation: When making those games, Sega attempted to create something new with every iteration, including adding new, largely unnecessary characters, rather than attempting to refine and perfect what was done well before. In some situations, these new mechanics worked well, but changing mechanics every time stonewalls refinement. And in most cases -- for example, Sonic and the Secret Rings -- iteration just didn't work at all.
Sonic Colors was the exception, offering well-designed and interesting levels alongside new powerups that changed the way players approached those levels. However, it is Sonic Generations that has been the best-selling 3D Sonic game in recent years, and mostly for its return to 2D platforming with inspired levels. Lost Worlds tried the same approach -- mixing 2D and 3D -- and was somewhat successful, before being followed by the disastrous Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric.
Without a strong heritage to draw from, Sonic Forces is at an immediate disadvantage to Sonic Mania, tempting players to approach it from a "How bad will this one be" angle, rather than a more positive point of view. The developers will miss out too, since there is no solid lineage for working 3D Sonic games to draw from.
Sonic surveying his 3D legacy...
It also seems Sega may not have learned its lessons from past failures -- and early previews of Sonic Forces are mixed. The initial stage shown off at E3 this year features speed, yes, but little else. The level is linear, far more so than the escape from the city in Sonic Adventure 2 (which it takes inspiration from), and enemy placement seems arbitrary, not adding to the level design in any way, as they do in Colors, for example.
The 2D elements are lacking as well. Spike traps make an appearance, with hardly any danger of speeding into them, a few easily-reached platforms break up the speed… and that's about it. Sonic bosses always vary in terms of difficulty and interest, but the one shown in Sonic Forces' E3 segment is fairly generic -- and it is almost impossible for Sonic to take a hit during the battle.
However, the most concerning elements are the new ones. The inclusion of customizable avatar characters is one of the most anticipated portions of the new release, though it seems underused at this point. The avatar stage is supposed to mimic Green Hill Zone, but the platforming appears repetitive and severely limited.
Unique, avatar-only weapons take the place of powerups in Forces by absorbing the wisps from Colors, but they don't seem to be put to good use. One power lets the avatar fly (in a way), but the areas it opens up would have been easily accessible via platforms, like in most other Sonic levels.
The Tag Team feature recently revealed at Gamescom suffers a similar problem. It provides an extra way to speed through a level and triggers some flashy in-game scenes, though doesn't seem necessary or vital to the level that was shown -- and that's not to speak of the level's bland design itself.
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Sonic Mania and its faithfully preserved and expanded return to precise platforming and varied stages appear to be in no danger of being toppled from its throne. Sonic Forces probably won't be a terrible game, but it doesn't seem like it will be as good as it could or should be either. It builds on a shaky foundation of lackluster 3D titles and includes showy extras -- with seemingly no real purpose -- at the expense of engaging gameplay and level design.
It looks as if it's safe to say that Sonic Mania is one of the best Sonic games in a long time -- and that it's in no danger of losing that title anytime soon.