Sonic Mania: An endorsement of our fan game future
There’s an easy joke to be made about Sonic Team “forgetting” how to make good Sonic the Hedgehog games and flogging the duty onto fans to see if they could do any better. Turns out they could! It comes with a few caveats but Sonic Mania is out and it’s good; certainly good enough to be coming in the top five of crap Sonic game ranking articles for the next decade or so.
A lot of the talk regarding the game concerns where it came from as much as what’s in it, it’s essentially a Sega-endorsed fan game which Amr Al-Aaser documented a lot of background history of over at Kotaku. Fan games (and fan content in general) still face a lot of stigma, but the beautifully animated pixel art, aesthetic, colour palettes and creativity in Sonic Mania are more than enough to make Sonic Team’s own attempt at making a new “classic” Sonic game Sonic 4 look like a Chinese bootleg by comparison.
What’s interesting about Sonic Mania is not only the fact that’s it’s a good game worthy of the original 16-bit incarnations, but that it’s good in a way that would be almost impossible if it wasn’t a fan creation. Sonic Mania is filled with all kinds of cute references and nods that stem from genuine nostalgia which will resonate hard with the target audience, however on top of that the game is overflowing with level design polish as well. There’s plenty of spots in the game where a convenient spring or platform will pop up for no reason other than it would be a lot more frustrating if it wasn’t there. This doesn’t detract from the challenge either since the stages are so intrinsically laid out with a focus on multiple paths and hidden bonuses you’re still motivated to play well so you can go the route you actually want to take, it’s just nice that the game doesn’t insist on as many groin kicks as the originals do for the slightest mistake.
This is unique because it’s the kind of polish that can only come through obsessive unreasonable amounts of play testing (which is what Nintendo does) or alternatively…a game created by hackers who have played Sonic games for decades and literally rebuilt them from scratch within their own engine. These people know their Sonic and it’s not merely obsessive gushing fan knowledge; their experience working on the franchise previously has contextualised that knowledge through a practical and critical lens which amplified their understanding of why old Sonic games “work” perhaps more than anyone else in the world. Sonic Mania hits the sweet spot that most fan created sequels or remakes can only dream of between experienced developers who know how to make a game, fans who have decades of knowledge and understanding of the original design and inspired artists who have new ideas to incorporate for the future.
Still, the stigma remains and despite everything looking positive pre-release there were still some fears that a “fan game” could only be so good or somehow “doesn’t count” as a true follow up. Here’s where we go back to the joke about Sonic Team “forgetting” how to make games; in order to “forget” something you have to know it in the first place. Sonic Team is not an eternal omnipresent deity churning out Sonic games by the exact same process over and over again; they’re a team of people and for the most part they’re not the same people making the games from 20 years ago. Yuji Naka, Nato Ohshima and Hirokazu Yasuhara (the three main talents responsible for the original Sonic the Hedgehog from 1991) all bailed from Sonic Team over a decade ago and had nothing to do with most of the games people hate.
This is where fan games become extremely important and projects like Sonic Mania show positive changes for the future. If franchises and characters are going to survive for decades past their initial creation eventually the reins of control have to switch to successors, and naturally the people who are most willing and able to take that position are going to be fans of the original work. It’s understandable why a lot of fan content gets dismissed; a lot of it tends to be pretty bad due to amateurism or too much love for the source material causing the creator to miss the forest for the trees by fixating on one individual aspect or character of the work they love undermining what works about it as a whole. However, when you dismiss fan content as a concept all you’re doing is ignoring those who care the most while throwing your hat in with the intellectual property owners and massive corporations who might have no interest in the work outside of a means of revenue.
Let’s get over our obsession with iconography or logos or who owns what, fan works warts and all are essential to the future of this industry. They give people a window to learn how to code or write or draw by starting work on something they already love and are familiar with, they let people practice and improving their work by creating something that’s more likely to get attention, and in a rare case like Sonic Mania they might even fill in a few potholes on a beloved franchise and contribute to our understanding of design and culture from a particular era. It’s not an argument of whether we should let fans make “official” follow ups to beloved games or not; it’s an unavoidable inevitability. The challenge is in finding the right people for the job, and that’s a whole lot harder if you don’t encourage fan creations as a whole.
So the next time you want to make fun of teens on the internet for writing Sonic fanfiction load up the boss music from Sonic 4 (which sounds like a drunk clown jerking himself off with a Mega Drive cartridge slot) and think about how if it wasn’t for a group of people who cared as much as that kid that’s the best Sega would have ever given you.