Developer: Headcannon, Pagodawest Games
Rating: E for Everyone
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PS4, PC, Xbox One
Much has been written about Sonic games in recent years, whether it is the negative reviews of Sonic ’06, or the optimistic reviews of Sonic Generations. It is difficult to know whether a new title is actually worth investing time and money into. With Sega’s latest title tied into the 25th Anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog, expectations were high that Sega would deliver a modern title that would earn universal acclaim.
Sonic Mania began as a project of Christian Whitehead, who had already worked on bringing Sonic games to mobile platforms. When Sega gave him the green light, he enlisted the help of others within the fan community. Produced was a back-to-basics 2D adventure that is the true successor to Sonic 3 and Knuckles.
Violence in game is described as children’s cartoon in style. Characters will rebound off enemies when hit or fall off screen. When enemies are damaged their robotic shells are broken and usually living creatures are released.
The associated lore aligns characters toward good and evil values and there are final bosses that are represented as being evil in nature.
The basic gameplay is familiar for those who have played the original Sonic games. Collect rings to stay alive, jump on enemies and reach the goal as quickly as possible. But it also assumes this by having no real tutorial or explanation of what the various power-ups or enemies do. It’s a throwback to the 90’s with trial and error providing the learning curve. Whilst the basics are quick to learn, newer players, particularly those who aren’t familiar with more challenging retro titles may be put off by this.
The power-ups haven’t changed much from the 90’s. The first shield from Sonic 1 works alongside the elemental shields from later games. But in the spirit of improvement, there are some minor additions that will only become apparent at certain times. A perfect example is the fire shield, which can open up new areas by burning away trees. Another, graphical advantage of the fire shield is that it ignites the oil of the Oil Ocean zone. There is an interesting addition in the form of the blue ring box. Opening this changes the color of your ring counter to blue but the bigger benefit comes when hit by an enemy. The rings released while “blue” are much larger and replenish more rings when collected.There are however a lot of differences between Sonic Mania and the original gameplay, mostly within the level design. Each of the original levels has been remastered in some way, including slight changes to the level itself, the re-positioning of items or enemies, or the reworking of end level bosses. Combine this with each act featuring its own boss and adding in a few new mechanics, and you have a game that mimics the challenge of 90s platformers.Not everything in the game is perfect though, although nostalgia does alter the perspective sometimes. Essentially what makes the game enjoyable is also it’s downfall in places. Simply put, if a feature was in an earlier Sonic game, chances are it’s here as well. Some of the more frustrating mechanics are back in Sonic Mania. A good example of this is act 2 of Oil Ocean zone where a thick layer of fog builds up over time. Grabbing onto switches clears this fog, which drains your ring count if it gets too thick. The problem with this mechanic is I get fed up quickly with trying to find the switch rather than exploring the level or reaching the goal, and you may too.The bosses are a great example of this done well. A number of different challenges are used to break up the traditional “hit 8 times” model. This makes each battle more interesting as the player spends time learning the patterns. One of the bosses breaks the mold entirely while paying homage to another game within the franchise.The story uses cinematics similar to those present in Sonic CD. This provides a perfect way of storytelling without the use of voice actors, but makes it difficult to interpret the story at times. There are also multiple endings based on whether the player has fully completed the game or not, such as collecting chaos emeralds. Graphically, the aesthetics have gone through an overhaul, bringing the 16-bit graphics of the Genesis into the 21st century with the greater use of color and a 1080 HD resolution. The added color palette makes it possible to include greater detail and includes nods to other Sega properties throughout.
The soundtrack complements the gameplay by having undergone the same treatment, new songs are alongside remixed versions of the original soundtrack. Each of the original zones has a remixed track for it’s second act, adding yet another new twist to the game.Sonic Mania expands on the main game with two additional stages. Bonus stages are available when Sonic activates a star post while holding 25 rings or more. Once there the player encounters a Sonic 3 and Knuckles bonus stage where by collecting blue spheres and rings will unlock a silver or gold medal. These unlock content within the extra portion of the game.
Special stages involve finding a large golden ring somewhere within the level. This unlocks a pseudo-3D course whereby chasing down a UFO holding the chaos emerald releases it. Rings add to your time limit while blue spheres aid your speed, running out of either or colliding into obstacles will prevent you achieving this.The bonus and special stages are possibly the most frustrating aspects of the entire game. Collecting the chaos emeralds requires a great deal of patience and practice and almost relies more on muscle memory. Crashing into one obstacle can easily cause you to crash into the next, causing a cascade you can’t recover from. The bonus stages require you to collect all the rings to gain perfect and therefore a gold token, however, this requires a planned approach to ensure you turn blue spheres into coins at the right time, at first this can happen easily, but after two or three stages, the pattern is less obvious.The other game modes include time trial and competition mode, both similar to Sonic 3 but with more levels. Time trial is exactly what it says on the tin, while competition allows you and a friend to race to the finish of a zone collecting as many rings and destroying as many enemies as you can on the way. Overall the competition mode is fun and brings back the nostalgia of couch co-op.
There is a selection of bonus content available, something which was not present in the original games. This includes “super” versions of the characters and alternative pairings such as playing with Sonic and Knuckles instead of Tails. Also available is the ability to use “debug mode” similar to that in Sonic 2. This allows you to customize your own levels with all the assets from the game. The addition of this content makes replay-ability a huge incentive, as doing so encourages the player to utilize all 4 character combinations in order to unlock all available content. The downside, however, is that this is only available in the “no save” version, so progress cannot be recorded.Overall, Sonic Mania is a thoroughly enjoyable throwback to the original games and a must have game in anyone’s collection. Christian Whitehead and his team at Headcannon and Pagodawest have definitely set themselves apart as the team to hopefully take 2D Sonic games forward. They have also clearly layed down the gauntlet for the “original” Sonic Team with their upcoming title Sonic Forces. The game goes back to basics and highlights that a good Sonic game wasn’t just about speed at all cost. Rather, it was about exploration, finding secrets, different routes and saving Mobius. No guns, no anime romance, and most importantly not rushing to market full of bugs. Hopefully, Sega will use Sonic Mania as a springboard to rebuild confidence in a brand., but only time will tell.
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