Subject: How The Fandom Saved Sonic
Posted on: 2020-10-22 14:49:13 UTC

Did you know that it's Sega's 60th anniversary? I didn't, until Steam very loudly informed me that was the case with a free copy of Sonic 2 and a sweeping, massive sale on everything that Sega has ever made or published, including cult classics like Jet Set Radio and Yakuza, smash hits like Crazy Taxi, strange historical artifacts like Shenmue, a huge back catalog of first and second-party Genesis games. And of course, the rest of the Sonic games.

I'm not a Sonic "fan" per se, but Sonic was something I played growing up. Until the Wii, we were a strictly Sony household, so I was raised on the PS2 (which remains arguably the greatest game console ever made). But this was right after the death of the Dreamcast, and Sega had gone multi-platform. So long before I ever touched a Mario game, there was Sonic. I owned a copy of Sonic Mega Collection Plus, which had all the classics (as well as a few rubbish games like my childhood favorite, Sonic 3D Blast (oh my god why did I like that game it was terrible)) and played a good amount of games like Sonic Adventure 2 and Heroes. So while Sonic played second fiddle to the Playstation's homegrown heroes (Spyro, Crash, Ratchet & Clank, Jak and Daxter, Sly...) it was certainly a presence. But I never... loved? those games. As a kid, I don't think I ever got past the first level or so of almost any of them, because I was really young at the time. And when I revisited them later, I was pulled up short by many of the more... questionable game design decisions. Everyone says Sonic went to hell when it went 3D, but the warning signs were there from the start: Sega never designed as tightly as Nintendo, and early Sonic had a nasty habit of encouraging speed and then sharply punishing you for daring to go fast that bordered on cruelty. Sure, a Sonic fan will tell you when to go fast and when not to, and can wax poetic about the real design center of Sonic and how best to approach and play it... but I didn't know any of that stuff, I was just some kid. They probably had that hammered into them through communal experience and being repeatedly and capriciously killed. The game should teach you how to play it and make it fun, and if it fails to do so, that is a failure of design. That doesn't mean Sonic is bad, but it's important to recognize that it was never perfect.

Of course, since then, Sonic has become many things to many people. Sonic had the longest running single American comicbook series in history, and those comics diverged wildly from the source material and have their own crazy and lore and backstory. Sonic was recently the lead in a hit kids movie that I haven't seen, but I hear people say that it's pretty alright. And Sonic has starred in a series of increasingly disappointing and poorly-received videogames. Some of them were good, sure: Most people liked Generations, I think. The fact is, nowadays, a lack of quality and a team that increasingly seems like it has no idea what it's doing with the character has turned Sonic into a joke in the eyes of the gaming masses, and... not undeservedly so. Between Lost World, Boom, Unleashed, '06, Sonic 4, and other blunders, people have just been burnt so many times by Sonic that the term "The Sonic Cycle" has entered the gaming lexicon: a shorthand for the loop of hype and disappointment that is as synonymous with Sonic as the phrase "gotta go fast!" at this point. A couple of good games aren't going to fix a decade of disappointments, mistakes, and mixed (at best!) receptions.

There are a lot of bad things I can say about Sega, and about their handling of Sonic, but there's one really, really good thing I can also say. And that's that Sega has a proud tradition of supporting their fans. Like most videogame franchises, Sonic has a long, proud history of impressive and talented fans making their own games. But unlike, to pick a random example, Nintendo, Sega invites fangames and won't try to get them taken down. But it gets better, because when they released their old Sega Genesis games on Steam, Sega added mod support. Now, you might be scratching your head. "Modding, for Genesis games? How would that work?" Here's how: ROM hacks. Yes, you read that right, Sega has officially supplied a place for fans to distribute ROM hacks of their games (for the uninitiated, ROM hacks are literally binary patches that are applied to the game data of retro games. It's the oldest form of modding there is). That does not happen. Ever. There is not a single other game company I can name that has done something like that.

So now that I've set the stage, let me introduce to our heroes: Christian "Taxman" Whitehead and Simon "Stealth" Thomley. Taxman and Stealth both have a long history in the Sonic community: these guys are legit. Taxman wrote his own game engine for Sonic-style games in the early 2000s for the Sonic Amateur Game Expo (yes, that's a real thing), and has made his own levels and romhacks besides. Stealth has comparable credentials, and is best known for hacking Knuckles into Sonic 1, as well as for overseeing Sonic Megamix, a very highly-regarded fan campaign for Sonic. If these guys were Nintendo fans, they'd have been DMCAed fifty times over now. But they're not, so when Taxman pitched Sega a rebuilt version of Sonic CD (an oft-forgotten but pretty alright Sonic game of the classic era) running on his custom engine as a mobile port of the game, Sega actually accepted his pitch, and nowadays Taxman's Sonic CD remaster (available on Steam and Mobile) is considered the best way to play the game. It's packed with extras, includes both the Japanese and American game soundtracks (the Japanese one is better), and most importantly of all runs in widescreen at a consistent 60fps. It's hard to explain how big a deal this is unless you experience this both with and and without the change, because it sounds like such a small thing, but because of this, there is absolutely no lag in the game, Sonic feels more responsive than he ever did, and you have enough time to anticipate and avoid obstacles in a way that was that difficult in the Sonics of yore.

Since the Sonic CD port went over so well, Taxman teamed up with Stealth and his company, Headcannon, to give the same treatment to the mobile ports of Sonic 1 and Sonic 2. And like CD's port, these quickly became a fan-preferred way to play the game. As a result of these successes, Taxman, Stealth, and their partners PagodaWest Games (composed of former members of the Sonic 2 HD project), were able to do something that very fans are ever privileged to get the chance to do: They got to pitch their vision for a brand-new, original Sonic game to Sega.

The result, released in 2017, was Sonic Mania. It's a combination of remixed classic levels and all-new levels by Taxman, Stealth, and their team, all built in the style of a Genesis game but without any of that system's technical limitations. It has been universally hailed by Sonic fans and non-Sonic fans as the best new Sonic game in ages. And they're right. Actually, they're more than right, because I'm going to tell that Sonic Mania is the best Sonic game. Ever. Period. Bar none.

I'm not a Sonic fan, but I adore Sonic Mania, for so many reasons. It feels more fluid and responsive than those old Genesis games, of course, but it's also just... so, so good. The old levels have been redesigned to feel better and to be less capricious in places. And the new levels outshine the rest because this team has probably forgotten more about making good Sonic levels than Sega ever knew. It's rife with callbacks and references to the original games, if you've played them, but if you're a filthy casual like me this is a game that grabs you by the wrist and says "this is why Sonic is great, and this is why we, the people who love Sonic, feel the way we do."

The tagline of Sonic Mania is "by the Mania, for the Mania", and that fits that game to a tee. It's a game made by people who unabashedly love Sonic and have paid their dues learning how to make it the best it can be. And it's beautiful. Of course it's beautiful: The artists are just as invested as everyone else. If you leave the game on the title screen without pressing start, instead of jumping into a demo/attract mode like the old game it's inspired by, it will go through a gorgeous animated opening sequence, directed by Tyson Hesse, who's the artist for the IDW Sonic comic, and got his start making dumb Sonic meme comics on the internet (warning, this is NSFW). Tyson would later direct a series of Sonic Mania shorts, which I can't recommend highly enough because they're hilarious. The music is made (or in the case of old levels, remixed) by Tee Lopes, who got his start posting Sonic remixes on youtube nearly a decade ago. And that soundtrack absolutely hits it out of the park, with my single favorite track being the Hard Boiled Heavies Theme, which draws inspiration from, of all things, Cowboy Bebop.

That soundtrack is important, by the way. Having a great soundtrack is a key part of Sonic's identity, and it's something that I always noticed, even as a kid. While Mario tends to lean into "gamey" tracks, or later into full orchestral compositions, Sonic had a clear center from the start, probably in part because Sega had a tradition of pulling musicians from outside of gaming in to do work on their soundtracks. The first two Sonic games were composed by one half of a band called Dreams Come True. From what I can tell, DCT are (or at least were, at the time) a huge deal in Japan: One year after Sonic 1's release, the band released the first Japanese record to sell over three million copies. And the third Sonic game had a soundtrack developed in partial collaboration with Michael Jackson. Sonic's music has thus always leaned heavily pop. Although I confess that when I think of Sonic, none of that comes to mind, because I think of Jun Senoue's years helming Sonic's sound direction, which were marked by guitar-heavy and extremely cheesy rock and roll. Butt Rock, as they call it. Blue skies and upbeat rock music were what Sonic was in the 2000s, and while the game design was frequently shaky, some of those songs will be with me forever. And by "some of those songs", I of course mean Live and Learn, which the kind of song that would sound perfectly at home blasting over the radio while you're on the highway. And I mean that in the best possible way. It's great.

The point is... yeah. Sonic Mania is incredible, and it's incredible because it was made by fans, who genuinely care about Sonic and know how to make it good in a way that no random developer ever could. And that's why this post exists: I wanted to highlight the work of some real, incredible people in a fandom nobody talks about (or at least talks positively about) who have done more to repair the reputation of their favorite series than the company who allegedly own it have ever done. I hope Sega lets these guys make more games. I want to see what else they've got.

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