Review: Sonic Mania
Posted 11 Oct 2017 at 21:50 by Sam C Gittins
To say that we've been kept waiting for a true sequel to the original Sonic the Hedgehog titles on the Sega Megadrive is something of understatement, Sega has indeed taken Ages in making us wait a literal lifetime in some cases before finally seeing sense and letting the fans make a game for the fans; or indeed, by the mania for the mania.
For anyone who perhaps hasn't lived through the Nineties or has somehow missed every since Sonic title since the creation of the series up until now though, perhaps a quick recap to get everyone up to Sonic speed is in order... blink and you'll miss it though. #GottaGoFast!
Way back in 1991 the blue blur was created as a collaborative effort between Yuji Naka, (Programming) Naoto Ohshima (Character Design) and Hirokazu Yasuhara (Stage Design) who brought Sonic the Hedgehog to life, the character and game were created as an "answer" from Sega to Nintendo when it came to coming up with a mascot platformer which could go up against Mario. Of course these days it's not uncommon to see the two characters appearing side by side in the same game on the same console but these were different times.
The first game was a smash hit success which gained fame for its unique trademark exploration-focused gameplay with an emphasis placed on speed, all of the physics in particular were so finely tuned that it would be easy for the player to continually run in the same direction for only a few moments and manage to build up a decent amount of speed fairly quickly, further aided by those trademark loops, rolling hills and tunnels leading you through the environments as you'd bounce off springs while collecting rings as you tried to avoid Badniks, spikes and the odd pitfall.
Play through classic zones you know with a few new twists...
This inevitably led to sequels being made, with Sonic 2 taking everything from the first entry, adding in some really inventive Zone choices, some amazing boss battles, the Spin Dash move and of course the ability to go "Super Sonic" upon obtaining all of the Chaos Emeralds plus those magical fifty rings. When it came to the third entry in the form of Sonic 3, it turned out that the game was too big to fit one just one game cartridge, so after its standalone release we then got Sonic & Knuckles in the form of a game which could be played on its own - just like the third game - or with the two titles combined to form the now legendary Sonic 3 & Knuckles.
Thanks to the catridge which had the revolutionary "Lock-On Technology" which game you battery back up for multiple save files, the ability to play as either Sonic, Tails or Knuckles through two games worth of Zones, double the amount of Emeralds, two transformations if you "Got them All!" plus a connecting storyline and a "final" Final Zone to cap it all off. All of this while truly pushing the limits of the hardware, it was a joy to behold for many a Megadrive owner, myself included.
Since then, Sonic has had a more than turbulent time where game releases are concerned, perhaps partially due to Sega not succeeding in the videogame hardware business with their mascot only properly returning in style at the launch of the Dreamcast with Sonic Adventure which gamers did open their hearts to as it went down well as the first proper 3D title in the series - discounting Sonic 3D for obvious reasons - but following this, Sonic Team have been unpredictable at best with games ranging from decent to dire.
Moving onward to July of 2016 where Sega host a Sonic 25th Anniversary stream which was perhaps most notable for its spectacular faults more than anything else as myself and fellow Sonic fan - our very own - Josh Phillips - via Instant Messenger - looked on both in sleep-deprived horror combined with morbid curiosity for the most of it at what might come next. Then finally it hit, that trailer for the reveal of a title in which Sega Proudly Presents... In association with Christian Whitehead, Headcannon & PagodaWest Games... returning to it's 2D roots... Sonic Mania! Starring only the best three playable characters, Sonic, Tails & Knuckles in both old zones and new in what's essentially the game everyone wanted them to make since 1994. Needless to say that this made sitting through the now infamous stream worth it, just about.
...plus brand new ones with some old references and more than a few surprises.
Anyway, enough of this recap which has quickly become unintentionally convoluted thanks to my overly invested self who finds the overwhelming need to rationalise everything in chronoligical order before even thinking about writing how I feel about this new game - despite completing it multiple times over at this point - and over to Jonathan Stanley for a succinct summary of just how much of a joy this game is to play.
"Playing Sonic Mania is like a dream. Has this really happened? After years of hurt, squandered promises and an almost ruined franchise, all it has taken is persistence, nostalgia and some incredible fan service to create a masterpiece that's as much a blast from the past as it is a reinvention of the series.
It's a credit to all the hands that have helped put this game together that it works so well, for players returning to the series like myself, or new comers who've never experienced the blue blur in anything other than a mediocre 3D platform game or similar. This is what Sonic in his purest form is all about; speed.
There is a lot of content packed into every level; different paths, secrets, and different characters to play as, and yet nothing beats the thrill of holding down, spinning Sonic up into a frenzy, letting go and watching him fly around every loop the loop, whizzing off every edge and bouncing through each stage with the same grace he displayed over Twenty-Five years ago.
In terms of Switch related specifics, the game runs along perfectly, and is very well suited to the handheld, pick up and play style the Switch offers; this is a fast, short burst type of game and when you can turn on your console anywhere and be playing the game within twenty-odd seconds, you've got the perfect combination of game and console."
Sonic's good all-round, even underwater but is liable to drown outside of that bubble.
From the first moment you put pressure on the D-Pad or control method of choice, it's clear that what's happening on screen correlates exactly to your input, this in itself shouldn't be a revolution but it's clearly a statement of intent which I can safely say delivers for the duration of the game. In short, Sonic moves just as he did in the Megadrive titles, if not better and it's such a simple joy to be able to say this with confidence.
You can perform the Spin-Dash by holding "Down" while stationary then revving up by pressing the "Jump" button just as it used to be, there's the new Drop-Dash which gives you a useful burst of speed just before you hit the ground (by holding down the Jump button) as Sonic which will carry on your momentum just when you need it, plus rolling into a ball - true Hedgehog style - as you go through a loop or burrowing through that iconic part of the wall in Green Hill Zone has never felt better.
Perhaps you prefer to play as Miles "Tails" Prower, the twin-tailed golden-coloured Fox instead as you try to maximise your area of exploration through the power of flight, by double-jumping and repeatedly pressing that button you can fly high in the sky, up and up you'll go... until Tails gets tired, returning to the nearest flat surface rather rapidly. As an aside, if you are playing as Sonic & Tails then you can jump up as Sonic and catch hold of Tails' gloved hands as you get a boost as the flying fox carries you all the while grimacing at Sonic's added weight; this can all be done just by player one's controls which is one small impressive example of how things have been refined, especially since I can remember trying to do the same thing with two Megadrive controllers back in the days of Sonic 3 as it was the only way to explore certain areas as Sonic & Tails if you didn't have a second player alongside you.
Fly high as Tails as you go on your own sky patrol.
But of course it would be amiss of me not to mention the third star of Sonic Mania who is none other than Knuckles the Echidna! The red to Sonic's Blue, a misunderstood hero who came into play from being the titular half of Sonic & Knuckles way back in 1994, he's been a staple favourite since as in addition to having his own Spin-Dash, you also get to Glide through the air in a flash, climb any vertical surface with relative ease and even break through some walls like a sharp knife through cheese. Knuckles, the Guardian of the Master Emerald on Angel Island is certainly a solid character choice for any fan of the Sonic series.
While I don't wish to spoil much, the story within Mania Mode revolves around you fighting against Dr. Robotnik (aka Eggman) and his band of robots known as the Hard Boiled Heavies, if you want to find out more than you'll just have to play it but suffice to say that there is a plot device which allows for Zones from classic Sonic games to be explored in addition to some new ones you'll want to become familiar with, all expertly interspersed so as to add some sort of cohesive flow to them which works well for the most part.
Of course you'll be running through a familiar-looking Green Hill Zone to start with but once you get into the second Act you'll be pleasantly surprised at just how much is different, this is because the first Act has been designed to be close to the original games but not quite, while the second introduces new mechanics either never before used or an existing mechanic from the series which is new to that particular Zone. It's an approach which works really well, especially when coupled with the power ups which you can still gain from destroying TV monitors scattered throughout each area; once you manage to burn through one of those rotating spiked bridges from Green Hill Zone Act 2 you'll be left wondering what else you can interact with now that Sonic has elemental environment interaction.
You can still obtain the other elemental shields as well but they mostly play to expectations, as the Water Shield will let you bounce in addition to conserving your air while underwater, the Lightning Shield will pull rings towards you plus give you a spark attack and of course the Flame Shield still turns you into a Fireball if you double jump but only as Sonic of course. Don't worry though as you still have Super Ring, Power Sneakers, Invincibility plus the standard Shield; indeed the only truely new power up to the main Sonic series is the Hyper Ring which is an altered version of the Combine Ring from Knuckles Chaotix, it's one you'll want to grab if you often end up losing your rings as it consolidates then into larger rings worth more if you spill them on some spikes for instance, watch out for the Eggman Mark though as that won't help you at all.
Climb nearly every vertical surface as Knuckles, glide to safety and bust through walls.
Some of the returning Zones will surely be more celebrated than others, obviously Chemical Plant Zone has appeared in Sonic Generations but nothing like this as everything which is good about the area such as the blindingly fast loops with spring sections and the tubes is all present with more than a few extras, the second Act which introduces chemicals with new properties instead of just "purple drowning liquid" is nothing short of genius, especially as it calls back a mechanic first seen in Sonic CD which lets you bounce rather high, except here the design is on-point so it feels more like a help than a hindrance.
If you didn't get along well with underwater areas then the returning Hydrocity isn't going to endear itself to you much more but this time it feels like there are easier routes you can take along with actual boats for short sections as well. Personally I loved the return of Flying Battery Zone as it's one of my personal favourites, set inside and outside an airship which somehow manages to combine bits of the Wing Fortress Zone as well, it's really a joy to behold. Indeed this combining of elements from two Zones or more within one is something which continues throughout the adventure and while I really don't want to say too much, it is genuinely impressive to think that nearly every element contained within 2D Sonic games is present here in a way which works, is surely testament to the excellent level design.
References are scattered throughout the Acts, not just limited to Sonic either but just as a rough idea you should expect to see at the very least nods to all previous main Sonic titles on the Megadrive, Mega-CD and even that one aforementioned spin-off 32-X game. Not only that but there's a stage mechanic based around the Sega Sonic Popcorn Machine, references to Streets of Rage, Revenge of Shinobi and much more which incorporates many elements from Sega's history from many years ago right up to present day; I won't personally tell you where everything is as half the joy is experiencing it organically as you play but suffice to say that if you've already played any of the aforementioned series then you'll surely recognise and appreciate them. But for those of you who aren't as familiar with them, enjoy the ride as it will surely only make it an even more surreal playthrough.
It's like the Special Stage to a Sonic on the Sega Saturn we never knew.
All of the newly created Zones more than live up to the gold standard set by the originals in my opinion, the heavily touted Studiopolis Zone is brilliant on so many levels with it being set inside a studio environment works well within the Sonic universe, featuring many creative touches throughout which make traversal much more than a means to an end. Then there's Mirage Saloon which was originally adapted from the Dust Hill area which was an unused Zone for Sonic 2 originally, so seeing it come to life here in all of its Desert set, Wild West inspired glory is nothing short of a revelation. The other two Zones are something of a treat as well but I'm sure nobody reading this wants the main Final area spoiled but you're sure to enjoy it for yourself once you get there and it really does impress in every respect.
But this wouldn't be a proper Sonic title without some form of pseudo-3D or similarly modelled Special Stage, this is another example of where this game really gives as good as it gets, drawing on inspiration from the UFO stages which were in Sonic CD, then combining them with 3D character models which look like they have come straight out of an unreleased Sega Saturn title and then adding in rings plus a mach mechanic centered around collecting blue spheres; put all of these elements together with an emerald at stake for what is a challenging yet compelling Special Stage which doesn't disappoint.
Speaking of Blue Spheres, although accessing the main Special Stage is done by locating large rings within each act, you'll notice plenty of Star Posts dotted around which you can retry from but if you have between twenty-five to fifty rings or more at certain points when you hit the posts you'll see those familiar stars which will take you to a bonus stage which should be familiar to any Sonic fan. Yes it's Blue Sphere from Sonic 3 & Knuckles in which you must grab all the blue spheres, avoid the red ones, collect all the loose and hidden rings in order to try for a perfect which will in turn grant you a medal, which will in turn unlock decent stuff if you can keep up with it. Seeing both of these Special Stages in motion is nothing short of spectacular, despite their difficulty and they serve only to strengthen the long-term replay value.
Blue Sphere is back and better than ever... what do you mean it's too hard?
Too often in more recent titles the boss battles have been meaningless, often throwaway encounters but here this simply isn't so, because bar perhaps a couple of instances, the majority of fights against the Hard Boiled Heavies and Robotnik are nothing short of spectacular setpieces which are not only inventive but actually require a reasonable amount of skill to beat for even the most seasoned Sonic fan. There is definitely one which is nothing short of genius as it doesn't play to expectations at all, instead remaining a complete surprise until the last moment where the pieces fall into place; or what about a battle based around weather? It's in there, plus a ninja-like stand-off with an ice cold twist which will make you rethink how you attack... and to think that these are just a handful as there is a boss encounter on every act which is nothing short of impressive whichever way you look at it.
Even once you've finished Mania Mode with all characters, there's still more incentive to come back as there is of course Time Attack which takes all of the main acts in the game, strips out the boss battles and merely challenges you to get the best time you can. You might feel pretty confident at your speed-running skills but you will find that you've really "gotta go fast!" if you want to place pretty high up on the online leaderboards, so get practicing that drop dash as Sonic or find that high spot with Tails, not to mention those walls which only Knuckles can bust through as you pull out all the stops to keep bettering your time by mere fractions of a second.
If that's still not enough for you, then grab a second controller or Joy Con plus another human player so that you can go head to head in the old favourite Competition Mode which gives you a choice of certain acts from the main game and the task of trying to reach the end first. This is much like the mode of the same name from Sonic 2 which I personally have fond memories of playing with family members growing up in the Nineties including most notably my late Grandmother who actually got rather good at it, beating my younger self at it several times; indeed it's my parents and all of my grandparents whom I have to thank for getting me into Sonic in the first place as I'll always fondly remember that fateful Christmas when my brothers and I were given a Sega Megadrive with Sonic the Hedgehog plus Sonic the Hedgehog 2 later on in the day.
It seems even Sonic has to cringe at the reference to that stream from 2016... can you hear that?
Fast-forward back to present day, it was a good month after Sonic Mania had officially launched that one of my brothers and I actually got around to playing Competition Mode using the Switch in Tabletop Mode at a time when we were without power for a few hours. It brought back so many good memories from being huddled around a small screen playing what was quite a simple but very enjoyable game indeed, plus I got to teach my brother how to play Sonic again... as it had definitely been a while but I could see that he certainly appreciated a lot of the new mechanics mixed in with the old familiar feel of a classic Sonic game, good times were had by all and I intend to go back to it when I next get the chance to.
What can I honestly say about the visuals in this game other than they are bold, brilliant and more beautiful than I could have ever possibly imagined, even though I had seen every video clip in the lead up to release, poured over every screenshot... I even sat open-mouthed at the high level of animation from that initial reveal trailer. Nothing could have prepared me for the moment that I actually got a controller in my hands and started playing as the simply wondrous amount of detail which has gone into every single frame of each area is really a true joy to behold; I could tell you about the extra detail in the backdrops, the painstakingly perfect colour matching, all of those small visual flourishes... genuinely though? It looks like a continuation of the original 16-Bit games made for modern times which you need to experience for yourself.
Likewise with the audio which sounds like it has all come straight out of a vault from within Sega's own offices, then put into this game, as if unreleased until now but now miraculously implemented in a brand new Sonic game so many years on. I don't mean to be in any way disingenuous in any way toward the pure talent behind the music and sound effects here, rather that I'm having difficulty in understanding how a soundtrack could have been created in such a way that it is practically perfect in every way; every track sounds like it would have fitted in as part of a Nineties Sonic game right alongside any existing music. Of course there have clearly been many advancements as well but generally I just wanted to convey the fact that I appreciate the feats of pure technical wizardry which have been pulled off in order to make this possible.
Be prepared for some amazing boss battles, just don't get frozen out for too long.
Talking of feats, for this Switch version the talents of Tantalus have been employed which is most certainly a good thing, everything they have worked on for Nintendo platforms has turned out to be top-notch thanks to their unique knowledge and breadth of experience; Sonic Mania is certainly no exception. Everything runs just as you'd expect with a smooth framerate which compares well to the other versions whether playing in handheld mode or on the big screen bar an odd anomaly with the first Special Stage which is barely even worth mentioning or worrying about. I can say with confidence from playing all of the other available versions - yes all of them - to completion that I honestly prefer the Switch version thanks to its versatility making for one of the best titles I've experienced on the system to date this early in the systems life, the future is looking good for the console.
As for the future of Sonic obviously we'll have to see just how the soon to be released Sonic Forces turns out, personally I'm interested to see how the storyline might connect as well but I think that this shows there is room for Sonic titles to be released into both traditional 2D in addition to 3D perhaps on an alternate cycle, possibly every few years so as not to become too iterative. One thing is for certain, if the same dream team expressed an interest in developing a similar project in the future or even a full remake of Sonic 3 & Knuckles but brought up to the same technical standard as this amazing title which I still can't quite believe exists even now in 2017 - the year of dreams coming true for games - then I would be all for it.
I've enjoyed every second with this sublime Sonic title which may have taken Ages to create but it was worth the wait, I'm sure Sega will agree and really... I take my hat off to Christian Whitehead, Simon Thomley, Tom Fry, Tee Lopes, Lola Shiraishi, Jared Kasl, Headcannon, PagodaWest Games and everyone involved in making this dream come true.
N-Europe Final Verdict
Sonic Mania sets the standard to which all future titles starring Sega's famous mascot should aspire to in the future, if only to secure the quality and the newly regained reputation of the series going forward. After playing Sonic at full screen, 1080p at a smooth 60fps, the series will never be the same again for me; so if Sega is in doubt then rather than take ages to reach this level of brilliance again, I'd suggest sticking with the excellent ensemble you've now assembled as the "Sonic Team" equivelant of the modern age.
Aesthetically and audibly perfect
Performs near-flawlessly at 60fps
Recaptures the essence of classic Sonic
Staggering level of attention to detail
Sega took Ages to make it happen
This is now the new modern-day Sonic zenith