Recently I’ve been playing the hell out of Sonic Mania, and loving every minute of it. It truly is the great Sonic game we expected to received after Sonic and Knuckles but were never given. However, as I was playing I thought about writing an article to explore why it’s so good, beyond the rosy tint of nostalgia. This idle thought led me to the battle of postmodernist deconstruction versus reconstruction.
Postmodernism is a philosophy that is best described elsewhere, like that Wikipedia link. I am not a fan of Postmodernist philosophy whatsoever, and especially for their use of deconstructions. Deconstruction is when you take a trope – a standard story item found in media – and then apply “realism” to see how the trope would function in the real world. The idea is that you break apart the trope to its core, then examine how it would work in the real world or how relevant it is. You then push everything about the trope as far as it goes to see what happens. The uber example of this in gaming would have to be Metal Gear Solid 2, which deconstructs nearly every trope in gaming, or Game of Thrones, which deconstructs nearly everything about mediveal fantasy literature.
Now that something has been deconstructed, and the pieces are strewn about where do you go from there? For far too many examples in media you go nowhere, but more inventive pieces use what TV Tropes calls reconstruction. You accept what criticisms are made by the deconstruction, then you gather up your Legos and rebuild the trope so that it works better than before. The best examples lately of this are movies: Pacific Rim reconstructs giant mecha tropes, while the latest US Godzilla not only reconstructs Big G himself, but also the “Vs” movies of the 80s and 90s.
Until Sonic Mania. True, Sonic Generations did reconstruct the series’ history, but this game offers a true reconstruction of the classic gameplay. The classic 2d gameplay of the Sonic series has been broken down and examined in so much of the 3D games that we forgot just what makes classic Sonic games so classic. The game is made by two developers who are unabashed fans of the classic style, and they came together to show what it can still do, all these years later.
Christian Whitehead, the developer of the game, had established his name both as a fan game creator and as the programmer of the well received mobile ports of the classic games. He took the standard tropes of the Sonic gameplay, and then applied new technology that simply wasn’t available when the games were new to create a fresh experience based upon tried and true Sonic games. He worked with just the components of the classic games, but added a drop dash to make things more interesting. The majority of levels in the game are classic levels, but all have been reworked with additional paths and secrets.
All of this combines to make the Sonic game we wished we had gotten years ago. By looking back at what made the originals great, trimming some fat and inserting new ideas that fit into the classic context Sonic Mania becomes the best Sonic game in over a decade. Not only that, but it perfectly demonstrates how deconstructions and reconstructions should actually be used. Deconstructing tropes just for the purpose of deconstructing them is just “brainless destruction of convention,” to steal a phrase from the Remodernists. Too often deconstructions are used just to make media darker and edgier, or to simply sneer at conventional tropes like they’re not good enough.
It shouldn’t be this way. When engineers take apart older structures, it’s almost never done just to demolish them. The structures are examined, and then rebuilt to be better. The deconstruction should examine tropes and take them to their logical ends, but then the reconstruction should come in and show how those same tropes can work better than before. Instead of destroying conventional tropes just to do so, you can rebuild them into something better, and that’s what we got from Sonic Mania. It shows just what happens when a skilled developer with a true love of the source material can do when he puts back all the blocks to make a better version of what we had before. In the end, we get a game that feels like the classic titles, but with a fresh experience that lifts it above just a simple remaster or rerelease. It shows just why the rebuilding can make all parts that much better.