If ever there was an argument that we, as gamers, are a nostalgic bunch, then I would thrust the release schedule of 2017 under the noses of those that disagree.
In the past few months alone we have been treated to a new Micro Machines game, the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy (on the other console that shall not be named) and that’s without even mentioning the upcoming Original Xbox Backwards Compatibility titles currently being planned. The two aforementioned games seemed to fall on opposite ends of the review spectrum however, which made us realise that those rose-tinted glasses we are so fond of looking at things through can be both a blessing and a curse.
This can be extended to the whole Sonic the Hedgehog series. Much has been said about the series’ decline in popularity and quality since the days of Sega quitting hardware and the developers have tried numerous times to rekindle the love and excitement we had at running through 2D side-scrollers at breakneck speed controlling the blue hedgehog. Recent examples including Sonic Generations and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 were both ok, but the magic wasn’t quite there. Step up: Sonic Mania.
Sonic Mania was announced alongside Sonic Forces last year to celebrate the titular character’s 25th anniversary. Whereas Sonic Forces will focus on the old and new versions of Sonic together, akin to Sonic Generations, Sonic Mania is a straight-up 2D side-scrolling platformer matching up with the series’ original titles.
And this game really is a love letter for the fans of the original titles, led by project lead Christian Whitehead who was responsible for the ports of the first two Sonic games onto mobile, and later consoles.
Being based on the older titles means that a lot of the dross from more recent titles has been removed too: the supporting cast after Tails and Knuckles, Sonics ‘homing’ attack or an elaborate love story between hedgehog and princess. No, instead we are left with a homage to the origins of the series, which does more than simply borrow gameplay elements.
The game begins with Sonic and Tails returning to Angel Island, birthplace of Knuckles, to investigate an anomaly. When they arrive, series protagonist Dr. Eggman/Robotnik and his cronies find the anomaly before the daring duo can, and send them back through time. And back through time in the sense that those classic levels you remember are all featured in Sonic Mania.
I won’t spoil what zones are here, because it was a genuine moment of joy when seeing certain zones returning, but the game opens with Green Hill Zone from the very beginning of the franchise, and includes another seven classic zones alongside four completely new zones. As a personal note though, thank the lord that Metropolis Zone from Sonic 2 is not in Sonic Mania.
These zones are not carbon copies of the originals though – they have been ‘remixed’. Subtle changes have been made across all the first acts of the zone, but then major changes occur in the second acts of the zone.
These major changes extend to the boss battles also, which like any good Sonic game occurs at the end of the zones. Some of these will look familiar, albeit tweaked, but the newer designed ones are really clever in their appearance and require more lateral thinking should you wish to be able to defeat them. Others though are downright nasty.
This highlights some of the games’ inconsistency in terms of difficulty. By the 4th zone I had already defeated the hardest boss in the game, and none of the remaining others came close to its’ difficulty. The zones appeared to be shorter as well, around three quarters of the way through, compared to some earlier ones which again wasn’t expected. The zones and the bosses themselves are faultless to a ‘T’ and play exactly like you remember, but it’s like they have been shuffled up and put back in the wrong order. The final two zones however are deserving of their places at the end and bite back with a vengeance.
The zones play fantastically, but they also look and sound great too. The remixing extends beyond the design into the soundtrack as well. Again, the first act of each zone has the standard music, at least for the returning zones, whilst new zones have a completely new theme. The second act has these themes remixed but still sounding excellent.
The rest of Sonic Mania sounds equally fantastic, and the sound effects will instantly sound familiar.
Local multiplayer is also included but this time you can race on every single zone in the game, not just leaving you to choose from a select few. Here I noticed the odd glitch though and on some levels Player 2 would became trapped, ultimately leading to a forfeit by being timed out. I was Player 1 though so these issues didn’t bother me because I won! But seriously these are very infrequent and it’s much more likely that a rage quit will occur due to the difficulty, rather than see a glitch determine the victor.
As mentioned earlier the most difficult boss seems to appear early in the game, but this is relatively speaking, because the rest of Sonic Mania is far from a walk in the park. But, in an attempt to combat the high difficulty, the developers have at least tried to make it easier for when you inevitably run out of lives.
The game keeps the familiar formula from older games of having a stack of lives which can be increased. But, Sonic Mania has gotten rid of continues, which were previously earned if you scored over 10,000 points in the post-level screen. If you lose all lives now, rather than start the entire game again – like it would have been – you simply start from Act 1 again for that zone. It’s much more forgiving, but if you can run through a level at a canter only to be scuppered by the end-zone boss it does get frustrating after a couple of attempts.
As this is clearly a love letter to a classic franchise from a lead developer who started out porting the classic Sonic games as a labour of love, it is very understandable that the game contains plenty of Easter Eggs. Whether these be some of the more obscure characters popping up in boss battles, or hidden in the background, nods to other Sega memorabilia or even the developers, you will need to travel through these levels multiple times in order to see everything.
In addition to the main game, known as Mania Mode, and the local multiplayer, there is also Time Attack mode. This allows you to hone your skills by replaying levels you have previously bettered. These also include leaderboards to compare and contrast against some of the best.
Sonic Mania runs a lot longer than many of the older games, and took me around five hours on my first playthrough. Admittedly this was with plenty of re-tries, so better players can expect to take a lot less time. The game has 18 achievements to pick up in that time, but you could easily play the whole game and only unlock one, as they can be a rather tricky bunch to get without aiming specifically for them. Each zone has an achievement related to them, but these are for finding certain hidden areas or performing something unusual while you are blasting through the areas.
The nostalgia felt when playing Sonic Mania means that SEGA have done a fantastic job. It looks the part, sounds the part and most importantly plays the part. It’s more challenging than I remember, but this is quite possibly due to there being a lot of new elements to the levels to learn, and my muscle memory from the old games counts for nothing here. There is plenty of replayability here though, so maybe one day those memories will return. Aside from the odd multiplayer glitch, and frustrating Game Over situation, this is still a hugely faithful entry into the franchise and easily one of the best Sonic games ever.