On The Level examines one small part of a larger game.
Sonic Mania (2017)—Green Hill Zone, Act 1
As pop culture’s booming nostalgia-industrial complex goes to show, the comfort and delight we find in the familiar is only amplified the longer we go without it. Two of gaming’s most recent hits, Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and Sonic Mania, reach back more than 20 years for the subjects of their respective revivals. Crash had fallen off the map completely, and this anthology rebuilt the wacky marsupial’s first three games with all the shiny graphical flair 2017 has to offer. It was the first time in years Crash appeared in a game of his own. Players would eventually discover some minor tweaks under the hood, but other than that, these were the exact same games many people came of age playing. And judging by N. Sane Trilogy’s domination of this summer’s sales charts, the allure of reliving those memories was a powerful one for a lot of people.
The opening minutes of Sonic Mania make it seem like a similar, albeit more visually modest, makeover to Crash’s. It begins with an homage to Sonic 3, as the blue hedgehog and his buddy Tails fly their biplane to Angel Island, that game’s starting level, and watch as a giant claw pulls a magical ruby out of the ground. It triggers some sort of rip in the time-space continuum that sends the duo (or whatever character you’re playing) back to Green Hill Zone, the first level of the first Sonic game. When you’re finally in control, you see it’s exactly as you remember it—that bastard robo-hornet that pulls up when you try to grab the first item box, the spring hidden among the leaves of a synthetic palm tree, the little steps that lead to a bridge and the piranhas that live below it—and nostalgia’s warm and fuzzy feeling starts to kick in. But Sonic Mania isn’t interested in just repackaging your memories, and it doesn’t take long for the game to turn them against you.
After a few dozen seconds of marveling at this near perfect replica, you reach the zone’s first checkpoint and the first change familiar eyes are most likely to notice. Dashing past it, you can catch a glimpse of two platforms floating in the air above. In the original Sonic, you can jump up there and follow them to a raised cliff holding some rings and another trail of floating platforms that leads you to a shield power-up atop the game’s first loop-de-loop. Try to follow that same path in Sonic Mania and you’ll see it’s not quite so simple. Those floating platforms above the checkpoint are just out of reach, and if you’re stuck in a Sonic 1 state of mind, you’ll never get up there. Remember, this isn’t actually Sonic 1. Mania’s Sonic is a hedgehog out of time, dropped into this seemingly primitive world but gifted with abilities he’d not develop until later games. The only way to reach that tempting path is to dip into his bag of futuristic tricks and spin-dash up a gentle slope a few steps away to get just enough air to reach the platform. This is the moment Sonic Mania starts to turn nostalgia against you. You’re forced to think outside the boundaries of the game it seems like you’re playing and shatter the memory-based reality it’s lulled you into with its recreation of Green Hill Zone.
It’s a subtle, easy-to-miss moment, but catch on and you’re rewarded with an even bigger shocker. Just as in the original game, you can follow that trail of platforms to a plateau above the loop. But what awaits you in Mania’s cross-dimensional collision of a world isn’t some boring old shield; it’s the sparking, magnetic force field straight out of Sonic 3. At this point, the whole Green Hill Zone charade breaks down completely. The original level lasted for just a few more screens beyond this point, but in Mania, surrounded by that orb of lightning, you’re just getting started. There are new heights to reach and new chasms to cross and new anomalies to discover, like the corkscrew loops of Sonic 2 and the flame shield, yet another of Sonic 3’s signature items.
And that’s just what happens on the level’s upper path. Take the low road, and the changes are even more striking. Playing the original Sonic for the first time, you might reach the game’s first crumbling cliff and fall along with it, thinking you’re doomed to drop into a Mario-style death pit. But instead, you fall down to a second path, one with springs that’ll let you bounce back up to the high road and enough goodies to make it worth sticking around. In that original incarnation, you’re forced back up to the main route right before the big loop, undoubtedly the first “wow” moment in the game and something the developers desperately wanted to show off. On the other end of it, Sonic dashes into a tunnel and carves through the checkerboard mountainside, ending up on an even lower path that takes you across the bottom of a waterfall and straight to the level’s ending.
But loops are nothing new to the seasoned Sonic players heading into Mania. Instead of forcing you back up to the high path, the developers placed a tantalizing trail of rings just beyond where the original game’s low path ended. If you clear the spikes and follow the rings downward, you’ll be plunged into a vast new area below Green Hill Zone. You’re seemingly within the island itself, the background’s big open skies replaced by a craggy cave ceiling hanging over sparkling waters. Instead of the one lousy loop above ground, you’ll find a series of loops, sheer drops, and oddly angled springs. It’s your first chance to speed around like a maniac, largely unabated by obstacles or enemies, and while you could get there through some less elegant means, the best way to experience it is by, yet again, breaking from the well-worn path you might remember from years of playing the original level and allowing yourself to be taken some place completely new by Sonic Mania’s creators.
Green Hill Zone, Act 1 is just the first of the game’s 24 stages, and while its divergences from the original level are tame in comparison to the wild iteration seen in Act 2 and beyond, those moments where it first breaks your idea of how this stage should go and what you’re able to do within it are some of the game’s most potent. Green Hill Zone is iconic, a course that’s been trotted out again and again, etching itself into the dedicated Sonic player’s memory in finer detail every time. It’s only natural that Mania play upon that familiarity to draw you in with its glossy recreation, then shockingly establish itself as something far different. That’s how you put nostalgia to good use.