Sonic Mania: Review
The nostalgia is strong in this one.
It would be an understatement to say that Sega has had a difficult time with its mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, since the world moved to 3D gaming. His one-time arch rival, Mario, opened up the extra dimension in the Nintendo 64 days with relative ease, making it fun and easy to explore new worlds that looked and felt like they belonged in a Mario game.
But Mario games were about exploration and platforming than about Sonic's key feature: Speed.
Speed and 3D platforming in Sonic games have not made good bedfellows. In the original Sonic games, speed was key, but there were secrets to find, bonuses to collect and the fastest routes through the levels to discover
In 3D, the levels were skinned like Sonic worlds but more often than not it whizzed by too quickly to notice or to respond accordingly. Precision jumping or planning your route could prove difficult.
The Sonic Team appeared to acknowledge this in previous games like Sonic Generations, that would allow you to play part of the game as original Sonic and part as 3D Sonic, but it only felt like half a Sonic game. Later attempts, like Sonic 4: Episode 1 and 2, dropped the 3D elements at all and played purely as 2D platformers of old - but they just weren't quite right. The action and physics of the game and the puzzles just felt 'not like Sonic'.
In Sonic Mania, any form of subtlety of playing the nostalgia card are thrown right out the window from the start. Upon starting the game, Sonic and Tails are flying on their biplane over the sea to a paradise island - a direct replication of the Sonic 2 opening sequence - only to discover Dr. Eggman (a.k.a. Dr. Robotnik) digging something from the island. So far, so Sonic 2, but there is something different: the robotic henchmen and the gem they dig from the earth are both … different.
And that sets the tone for the rest of the game.
The gem causes Sonic and Tails to be thrown back in time to a familiar location, Green Hill Zone Act 1. It's a direct replication of the original level that started it all, but the further you go through the level you'll find that there's something … different.
And that is not a bad thing.
After defeating the boss in the Green Hill Zone, the time-space rupture brings you to the Chemical Plant Zone Act 1 from Sonic 2. And we seem to be heading on a Sonic's greatest hits tour, which again is not a bad thing. A similar strategy worked well for a certain well-known Sci-fi franchise that had been languishing for a similar time: create a new entry in the series that hits all the familiar themes and feelings on a full retro setting.
Bonus and Special Stage
Bonus stages come in two forms: Jumping into a giant golden ring, hidden somewhere in every level or hitting a lamp post with a certain number of rings and jumping into the spinning stars that appear above the post.
The Golden Ring bonus stages bring you into a Sonic CD-style chase, complete with pseudo "Super FX" 3D. Sonic chases a UFO but can only catch up to it by collecting spheres that will increase his speed, as long as he avoids obstacles in the way. The timer for the bonus level is a countdown of Rings, Sonic needs to collect more rings to increase his time in the level. Balancing collecting rings as well as spheres is key to success in catching the UFO and collecting the Chaos Emerald. As in previous Sonic games, seven Chaos Emeralds will unlock a super ability.
The Special Stages at lamp posts are almost exact replicas of the Sonic & Knuckles bonus stages. Sonic runs through a curved 3D world trying to touch blue spheres and avoid red spheres; Touching a red sphere immediately ejects you from the special stage, touching a blue sphere turns it into a red sphere increasing the difficulty of a level, clearing all blue spheres successfully completes the level.
Turning left or right in the level rotates the world 90-degrees beneath our hero. As an added risk-reward element, the longer you are in the level the faster it becomes but if you touch the blue squares in a certain way, creating an outline of red spheres containing blue squares within will turn all those spheres to coins.
Having tried internally to develop a Sonic game, but failing to be successful in getting the flavour right, Sega have wisely reached out to the community to include teams who clearly love and understand what makes a true Sonic game. Christian Whitehead, HeadCannon games and PagodaWest Games, each of whom had been involved in various ports or unofficial HD versions of older Sonic games through the years.
This community-based love shines through in how the feel of the levels and the handling of the Spiky Blue One are just right. Sonic jumps as expected and isn't weighed down as he was in Sonic 4. The new skills that Sonic has learned over the years stand in good stead - using the Spin Dash on Green Hill Zone lets you reach areas that you didn't realise you would miss until you went back to play the original Sonic the Hedgehog again.
The 16-bit art style works really well and looks like a colourful mix of Mega Dive, Mega CD and Saturn.
In addition to the Story Mode, called Mania mode, there are mutliplayer and challenge options. The challenge mode is a time trial through any of the levels you have completed in the game. You can see your fastest three times and compare yourself to other Sonic fans around the world.
The split-screen multiplayer mode from Sonic 2 is back and allows you to set up two player local challenges. It is a nice addition and allows for longevity for the game once you have completed the single-player campaign. Presenting the two-player game in 'Squishy Vision' from Sonic 2 is also a nice throwback to the heyday of Sonic games, especially as there would be no need to do it with the power of the modern consoles and PCs
It's not all plain sailing for Sonic Mania, though. Nostalgia and getting the look and feel right will get you so far, but there has to be something new to make it an original game.
Sonic gains a few new moves, he is able to spin dash in mid air to gain a little more velocity towards a destination and if done correctly his companion, Tails, can grab his hand and fly Sonic a short distance. Both new moves can be tricky to initiate and also easy to accidentally initiate at the same time, leading to a sense of frustration with them. Luckily, for the most part, you can avoid using them but only after a few unintended deaths in the mean-time.
Boss battles at the end of the last act in each level are classic Sonic fare: Learn his attack pattern and hit him a certain number of times. Sometimes these battles can go right down to the wire and an 'all or nothing' attack with zero rings can let you breathe again as you are treated to a short in-game sequence to set up the next level until you eventually meet Dr. Eggman in the final battle.
Many years ago, new James Bond films stopped being reviewed as good or bad films, they just seem to be reviewed as good or bad Bond movies. Sonic games may be reaching that point in their history as the series is over a quarter of a century old.
Overall, Sonic Mania is a return to form, with the speed and exploration of the classic Sonic games. and it certainly scratches both the nostalgia itch and the quality platforming itch.
It's Sonic and it's fun
Platforming is crisp and fast.
The developers love of the franchise shines through
New moves (Air dash and Tails being 'helping') can be frustrating.
Some of the later levels can have a lot happening on screen.
Sonic Mania was reviewed on Xbox One, but is also available on PC and PlayStation 4 (including updated performance on PS4 Pro).