Sonic Frontiers has swiped the best part of Sonic Mania

By Lee Brady,

Sonic Frontiers shows Sonic Team continuing to study the fantastic Sonic Mania for ways to improve its upcoming PS5 and PS4 title, and they've swiped the best feature from the 2017 Sonic game that changes Frontiers significantly.

Sonic Frontiers has swiped the 'Drop Dash' move from Sonic Mania, an ingenious addition to Sonic's movement abilities from the 2D title that allowed Sega's mascot to maintain a forward burst of momentum while landing from a jump. Despite seeming like a small addition next to all the other details we've learned about this would-be Sonic Adventure 3, Sonic Mania's Drop Dash could fundamentally shift how Sonic Frontiers plays and how Sonic moves in 3D.

Sonic Frontiers Sonic ManiaSonic Frontiers x Sonic Mania.

How Sonic Mania changed Sonic Frontiers gameplay for the better

Much as Sonic Mania felt like a culmination of every lesson learned by 2D Sonic game design when it launched, Sonic Frontiers seems to be an amalgamation of the last 20 years of 3D Sonic game design. It's got Sonic Adventure-esque open areas with Sonic Generations' refined boost gameplay and another crack at the parkour system from the Wii U exclusive Sonic Lost World — that's all good — but once again we see Sonic Team shoehorning an awkward-looking combat system into a Sonic game. Between Shadow the Hedgehog's levels in Sonic '06 and the Werehog in Sonic Unleashed, you would think the developers would try their hand at an alternative gameplay style that's more on-brand — like racing. Why is Sonic always punching things and never racing things?

That said, one benefit of that amalgamated approach is that some ideas that didn't quite gel in a previous Sonic Team effort can get a second look here. The fact that Big the Cat has any bearing on Sonic Frontiers' gameplay would have seen every Sonic fan simultaneously slam the eject button on this future plane wreck — yet today, as a neat little minigame with a side of Monster Hunter DLC, why not let Sonic fish? The same goes for Sonic Mania's Drop Dash — a new ability that was not introduced to the franchise by Sonic Team itself, and its pointless appearance in Sonic Forces' flat 2D levels suggests they might not even have really understood its purpose at the time.

Sonic Frontiers Sonic ManiaThe OG Drop Dash.

The Drop Dash was introduced to Sonic Mania by its lead developer Christian Whitehead, who conceived the move as a workaround for new 2D Sonic players who struggled with overcoming the steep curves in each level. Instead of grinding forward motion to a halt in order to plot Sonic down somewhere and perform a Spin Dash (like in Sonic 2), players could instead more intuitively jump, hold the jump button, and land with a burst of speed that would push Sonic past each obstacle.

The quiet genius of the Drop Dash's utility went well beyond simply helping new fans out, as long-time Sonic players soon found it just flat-out made Sonic games feel better. Getting an instant burst of speed every time Sonic jumps to a new platform suddenly offered a solution to the pace-killing platform sections that have haunted each and every 2D Sonic game since Sonic 1. Mania's Drop Dash also paired well with 2D Sonic's classic momentum as it not only offered players a handy way to overcome steep inclines but also worked to let them ramp up speed quickly on the decline.

Sonic Frontiers Sonic ManiaI guess the Drop Dash could be useful here?

It's that last detail that makes the addition of the Drop Dash to Sonic Frontiers a quietly fascinating addition — so long as you stretch the definition of the word fascinating, at least. Until Frontiers, the Drop Dash has been exclusively paired with 2D Sonic, available only to Classic Sonic in Forces before retroactively finding itself jammed into the anniversary mode of Sonic Origins. The reason why the move skipped the 3D gameplay of Sonic Forces is pretty straightforward — Sonic hasn't had momentum-based gameplay in a 3D title in years.

The modern "boost gameplay" of 3D Sonic games traded the physics gameplay of 2D Sonic titles out for a flatter level design that presented obstacles and enemies almost like notes on the digital fretboard of a Guitar Hero game. In titles like Sonic Colors, the Spin Dash was stripped from Sonic's default moveset — what was the point in a quick burst of speed if Sonic accelerates like a car and there are no momentum challenges to overcome?
Yet, despite holding onto the boost abilities, here in Sonic Frontiers we see the return of the Drop Dash, and it's all thanks to the "open-zone" level design bringing momentum back to 3D Sonic. The hills and slopes in the open world environment act as naturally forming ramps and slopes presenting mini physics challenges as you move around, much like the shape and availability of nearby buildings to swing from in Marvel's Spider-Man adds micro obstacles to Spider-Man's movement. It once more makes sense for Sonic to have a means of picking up speed in order to quickly climb up or careen down a slope.

If Sonic Frontiers manages to appease players with its fun momentum and enjoyable open world, much of that credit will entirely belong to the designers of Sonic Mania. It's very easy to imagine this exact game, with its emphasis on free and expressive movement through the world, not quite hitting right as Sonic Team forces players to slowly roll from whatever speed they're working with, or Spin Dash from zero. Instead, the Spin Dash didn't even make it into Frontiers — so evidently superior is the Drop Dash that there feels no reason to include a move that only works if you stand still.

Sonic Frontiers Sonic ManiaSonic Frontiers x Drop Dash.

Will the result of Sonic once more having momentum in 3D make us feel as though Sonic Frontiers is the true Sonic Adventure 3? Will the natural feeling movement in the open-zone segments be enough to land the game a high spot on our best Sonic games list? Our best PS5 game list, even? Well, Sonic Frontiers preloading starts November 6th — guess we'll find out soon enough. Let us know in the comments whether you've ever spoken to your lover with as much passion as this essay clearly exudes — also whether you'll be checking out Sonic Frontiers next week.
Lee Brady
Written by Lee Brady
Staff Writer Lee keeps one eye on the future (Marvel's Spider-Man 2, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth), one eye on the past (PS Plus Premium, recent Sony news), and his secret third eye on the junk he really likes (Sonic Superstars, Final Fantasy XVI). Then he uses his big mouth to blurt out long-winded opinions about video games.
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