Sonic Mania is a lot of fun but one of its most exciting features is a dangerous string of bosses. Reshuffling and changing what Sonic can do adds a lot of danger to each encounter. We take a look at the boss design in this critical video.
Here's a transcript for those of you who can't watch the video:
Sonic Mania recreates the excitement of earlier Sonic games through a mixture of dizzying speed and winding level design. Capturing the memory of the original games also requires a faithful recreation of their mechanics. Sonic jumps, spins and dashes with a familiar ease. These long-standing Sonic mechanics shine in the game's exciting boss encounters, which remix and shuffle Sonic's gameplay vocabulary.
One way to identify meaningful actions in games is to count the verbs it's possible to perform. In Sonic Mania, the number of verbs is very small. Sonic is able to run back and forth, roll for greater speed, and jump over obstacles or to attack enemies. There are a few modifications of these verbs: For instance, Sonic can spin dash to build up speed and roll faster, and later in the game he gains the ability to "drop dash", instantly rolling with great speed any time he hits the ground.
Mania gets a great deal of mileage from this core set of verbs, and this is particularly clear in the game's boss fights. Let's consider the verb "jump". One way to keep jumping interesting to stress precision jumping and attacks. At the end of Press Garden Zone Act 2, players are faced with a battle against a leaping ninja robot. Normal jump attacks are blocked by this enemy, who can parry the attack and freeze Sonic in an ice block. The trick is to attack when the robot is jumping. Limiting the active time when the player can effectively perform a core action adds tension and challenge to the encounter.
The "jump" verb is altered in other boss fights as well. The boss fight at the end of Titanic Monarch Zone Act One takes places in a rising and falling elevator that shifts and distorts gravity. This randomly changes the range and speed of Sonic's jump. Altering the environment the boss fight takes place in allows Mania's designers limit the available mechanics while keeping the experience fresh and exciting. The designers do a lot with a little, and the limits and changes mean the action remains familiar but never gets stale.
Sonic Mania's boss fights don't always rely on the core verbs, however. One of the game's more surprising boss fights comes at the end of Chemical Plant Zone, Act 2. Here, players are asked to complete a match of Doctor Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine. It's essentially a version of Puyo Puyo that's shoved into the middle of a Sonic game. In this moment, the game's verbs are completely rewritten. Sonic can't run, jump or roll. Instead, he can only rotate and drop puzzle pieces. This tactic is repeated in Hydrocity Zone Act One, which places the player inside Robotnik's hovercraft. It's an inversion of the traditional boss fight set up, swapping out Sonic's traditional verb set and instead giving him the ability to suck up water into the machine. These moments change the pace, but they never occur frequently enough to confuse the player with a completely new toolset.
Sonic's limited set of actions means that players can focus on movement and platforming without too many distractions or gimmicks. When his verbs deviate, it breaks up the action in a way that challenges and excites. If you want to keep Robotnik dangerous after all these years, that's definitely one way to do it.