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Sonic Mania (2017): The Comeback Kid

System: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch

Developer: Headcannon / PagodaWest Games

Publisher: SEGA | Reviewed On: PS4


Sonic the Hedgehog is considered by many to be an important figure in video game history. He played a key role in Sega's increase in popularity at a time when Nintendo dominated the video game market. By the end of 1993, Sega would become an equal contender alongside Nintendo with both companies fighting to secure the interest of gamers around the world. His popularity is evidently present in the mainstream today; from spin-off games to TV shows, merchandise, comic books, even a movie released this year starring legendary actor Jim Carrey. But when it comes to his games, the truth is it has been a bit of a bumpy road for our blue friend.


When Sonic made the move to 3D, his games began to have a slight identity crisis. Sega naturally wanted to adapt him into this format & whilst a number of his games were generally positive, there were also a number of less-than-favourable titles that began to taint the integrity of the franchise (...I’m looking at you Sonic ‘06 & Free Riders). There have been entries that retained its classic 2D format, either in full or partially, but a trend was becoming clear; most of these games struggled to capture the wholesome experience the original games offered. It would take a gentleman by the name of Christian Whitehead & his interest in the original series to begin a spur of interest amongst the community.


In his early years, Whitehead was involved in the development of various Sonic fan-games using his own custom engine, which accurately represented the gameplay and physics used by Sonic games on the Mega Drive. In 2009, he would produce a proof-of-concept video of his version of Sonic CD for the iPhone. Since this moment, he’s worked with Sega and been involved with the recreation (from scratch, I must add) of 3 classic Sonic titles, released on both home consoles & mobile devices with great success.


In 2015, Christian presented a prototype of a new Sonic game to Sonic series producer Takashi Iizuka; one that would commemorate the silver anniversary of our spiky amigo & provide fans with a new Sonic experience that stayed true to its roots. With the help of studios Headcannon and PagodaWest Games, this would later morph into the game we are talking about today. I give you my review of 2017 emerald known as Sonic Mania.


Preface


I have chosen to include the added features of the Encore DLC in this review, which are automatically bundled with the Sonic Mania Plus retail version. I have separated these additions to provide readers with an understanding of the difference between the two game versions, as the original version is still currently available on online stores to purchase. I have also provided separate scores for both versions accordingly.


All good? OK, let’s break it down.


Plot


The game takes place shortly after the events of Sonic & Knuckles. Sonic & Tails detect a strange reading from Angel Island and hop onto their plane, Tornado, to investigate further. Little do they know that Dr. Eggman has already dispatched a group of his own robots, known as the Hard Boiled Heavies, to confirm the source of this mysterious signal. Upon further excavation, the robots discover a gemstone known as the Phantom Ruby; a magenta stone of incredible power. This turns the robots into powerful entities with their own identities, as well as warping our protagonists through space-time back to the Green Hill Zone.


From here, it's up to our protagonist(s) to traverse both new and familiar zones & defeat Eggman’s robots and henchmen along the way, in order to reach the Doctor himself & prevent him causing an unprecedented level of destruction, as a result of his possession of the Phantom Ruby. From this intro, I couldn’t deny the prospect of once again scrambling Dr. Eggman’s plans (pun intended) & set off on a whirlwind adventure, just like old times. Oh, I've missed this feeling; welcome back, old friend.


Gameplay


Sonic Mania is a 2D platformer that utilises the same formula used by its Mega Drive predecessors. Your objective is to traverse a series of varying zones, eliminating enemies and bosses in order to reach & defeat Dr. Eggman. Along the way, you have the option to collect various items that will aid you in your journey such as gold rings, Chaos Emeralds, lives and various power-ups. Each zone is composed of two acts, each with a 10-minute time limit and each act concluding with a boss battle. Like in classic Sonic games, the pace is down to you. You can either choose to take it slow & explore its surroundings or go through as fast as you can, whichever is your preferred method.


The game uses an engine that brings the physics & level design from the classic Sonic games, to provide a near identical gameplay experience when compared. Your actions & responses are slick & effective, complimented by a stable frame rate. Christian did an amazing job developing this engine and its heart-warming to see the product of his efforts being used on major platforms.



Your classic line-up of protagonists are ready at your disposal; featuring the likes of Sonic, Tails and Knuckles. Jumping and peel-out actions remain and each character retains their unique ability; Tails can fly, Knuckles can glide & climb walls, whilst Sonic can perform actions based on the power-up ability he’s acquired. There is a new move in this game that Sonic can perform called "Drop Dash". This allows him to charge up in mid-air so when he hits the ground, he's able to peel-out immediately. I believe this was researched and implemented following user feedback & was a nice addition; both in-game & seeing player comments being taken into account.


In the Plus Update, there are an additional 2 characters that you can choose from; both featured a rare arcade game alongside Sonic called SegaSonic Arcade. They are Mighty the Armadillo & Ray the Flying Squirrel. Both have their own unique abilities as well, with Mighty using a vertical drop attack whilst Ray uses a form of flying that requires a maintained level of momentum. Both were very pleasant to play in further playthroughs & were adequate additions to Team Sonic.



Now, let's talk about the zones. The game turns up the nostalgia factor by choosing classic levels from its predecessors (Sonic 1, 2, CD, 3 & Knuckles). This lead to a number of occasions where I heard a familiar intro track from a past game and instantly became excited. What will come as a surprise is the inclusion of a number of new levels, including one that was previously scrapped from Sonic 2. These used an aesthetic that perfectly fit with the classic levels & it was an exciting prospect for me to explore these new environments.


What will come as a further surprise was that all the levels have been dramatically expanded, including the classics. Whilst they do retain familiar paths, the number of routes you can take has been increased, giving a sense of familiarity as well as uncertainty. I also noticed a small number of new elements and mechanics in certain levels, which added a little more variety.



Its boss battles have you facing off against either Dr. Eggman himself, one of his robots or his henchmen; each battle unique in their own right & that will test your reflexes and platforming skills. Some of them partially resembled classic battles whilst one in particular used a gameplay style similar to one of Sonic’s spin-off games, which I did not expect & certainly put a smile on my face. Some did bring an element of frustration, but this was natural. Even when I faced off against the Death Egg Zone bosses in Sonic 2, I used to tear my hair out but you’ve just got to shrug it off, start again, identify each enemy's weakness and attack when necessary. It comes with the territory.


In terms of items, all your classics are back. Elemental shields from Sonic 3 have also been re-introduced and there is also a new power-up called "Combine Ring" which turns your ring count blue. If you take damage, the power-up will drop only a few large rings (of increased ring value) instead of many small ones, making it easier to regain them effectively if you are hit. It was a nice addition and came in handy on more than a few occasions.



Chaos Emeralds once again make an appearance, allowing your character to enter their Super form when all 7 have been obtained. Unfortunately, collecting them is still not as simple as buying a chilli dog. In order to find them, you must enter a special stage via one of a few large gold rings hidden in each level. You are then thrown into a 3D chase scenario against a UFO, carrying the emerald in its claw.


You must try to reach this before the time runs out. To help increase your speed, you must collect blue orbs to build up your Mach speed meter & collect rings to add seconds to your timer. This sort of resembled the special stage in Sonic CD and whilst a little challenging at first, these segments were enjoyable. Collecting all the emeralds does plays a very minor role in the game's ending, so make sure to bring your 'A' game.



We also see the return of special stages, including the Blue Sphere mini-game from Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Once you pass a checkpoint with more than 25 rings & jump into its expanding rings of stars, you are tasked with collecting all the blue spheres in one of 32 different level you've been tasked to complete. You can also collect rings here, which can add to your score and help towards obtaining a Perfect score.


After each successful completion, you will obtain a medallion with silver ones awarded for collecting all the blue sphere & gold ones are rewarded to those who can also acquire the maximum number of rings available in each level. Unfortunately, this mode felt a little bit redundant after I collected all the medallions and whilst I’m a big fan of this particular mini-game in the past, I felt it could’ve been implemented better here to offer more replay value.



This was later addressed with the Plus Update, adding a new pinball style mini-game in its place when all the medallions have been acquired. On the surface, it's just a simple pinball game where you can obtain power-ups, bonuses and extra lives. I was relieved to hear this was addressed in the updated version and I must say, this pinball game was strangely addictive so this frown can now be turned upside down.


If this wasn't enough, the game offers a number of features and unlockables including the return of the classic Time Trial and Versus modes, an "& Knuckles" mode for some double echidna action, the ability to play certain mini-games at whim as well as other tweaks you can activate in your playthrough. Their inclusion added further variety and made me appreciate that this game wanted to provide a complete throwback Sonic experience.



One final addition I must note, as part of the Plus Update, is a new mode called Encore Mode. This plays pretty much like the normal game mode, but changes the experience by incorporating a change in colour palette for zones & eliminating the standard use of lives, replacing this with a team system that uses them as your lives instead.


You can swap between the two active members & pick up other characters throughout to build your team. You can also switch an active character for a benched member by breaking a Switch TV box in the game. If one character dies, you lose them but may have the chance to re-acquire them later down the line. If you lose everyone, it’s game over.



Although the game does features a majority of past levels, it felt like a fresh & progressive sequel; just like each of its previous entries did before it. It uses an established formula with a number of additions to provide a perfect balance of entertainment, variety & challenge that will satisfy both veterans and newcomers. I lost count of the number of times I smiled when collecting an emerald, acknowledging a reference or just appreciating the game as a whole. This is the most expansive classic Sonic game in its history & I would find it hard to think of a valid reason not to play this again.


Presentation


Sonic Mania uses its vintage, pixelated presentation style whilst amplifying it with vibrancy and polish. It’s thanks in part to its previous successes that it’s able to effectively justify this stylistic choice. All of its levels are unique in their own right & with an added attention to detail, these level shined gloriously and were a delight and pleasure to both admire and play through, regardless of my gameplay pace. Its character models resembled those used previously, but have been given a little tweak to make them look great in the modern era.


On the sound front, it uses a combination of new electronic tracks alongside altered and remixed versions of songs used in former games for their respective zones. The music was a pleasurable accompaniment that perfectly fit with the game’s retrospective theme and there was never a moment where a song felt irrelevant.



Interestingly, a number of animated cutscenes are also featured & felt like segments from a remastered version of a 90s Sonic cartoon. Whilst their purpose was very brief, they didn’t interrupt the game’s flow. Also, be sure to keep your eyes peeled because there are a large number of references and Easter eggs (both obvious and discrete) that will appeal to both Sonic & Sega fans like myself.


Overall, the experience is a flash flood of colour and detail, accompanied by a symphony of sentimental & audible bliss that will wash over you, satisfying your nostalgic senses with great effect.


Overall Thoughts


Sonic Mania is a 16-bit adventure that blends its Mega Drive siblings to deliver one of the best Sonic games in years. It’s a homage to its past successes that gives back a thrilling experience to fans for their support over the years. Its gameplay and presentation are of a high calibre with a compilation of levels, features and details that will bring back a flood of memories, whilst adding a new set of aspects and challenges in this new adventure. The Plus Update also provide a complimentary addition to the base game, with its Encore mode giving me another excuse to play it again and its additions adding further replay value to the game.


It’s a shame that certain favourable levels from Sonic's back catalogue didn’t make the cut, but just seeing zones that originated from all 5 classic games, including the application of new levels, made up for my disappointment. It could be argued that the game relies heavily on its past, which is a fair assessment, but I feel the combination of all its elements allows it to stand on its own two feet. Whilst not required, I also felt that you need to be a fan of the classic games, in order to fully appreciate all the elements that Sonic Mania has to offer.



When compiling this review, I stumbled across an old video from YouTuber Derek Alexander (Stop Skeletons From Fighting) involving his review of Mega Man 9 from over a decade ago. When watching this, he explains that the Mega Man franchise had changed in many ways since its inception and with MM9, Capcom chose to revert to their original NES format for this game. Derek made a number of great points here; that Capcom realised that their original recipe for these games didn't need to be altered & that going back to their original formula was actually the most creative solution at the time.


After seeing this, it was difficult not to see a striking similarity when looking at Sega's approach towards Sonic games over the years & the product of Sonic Mania. The original games are established titles that were well crafted at the time and have since been ported to systems as many times as Skyrim. For a number of us, these games represent our childhood and I think it would be a reasonable assessment to say that our love for the original series is still present in some form, even after all this time & despite our thoughts on some of Sonic's less-favourable titles.


Sure, it would've been incredible to replay the fan-favourite Casino Night & Ice Cap zones but for this game to even exist, it was a breath of fresh air because I finally got to experience a new Sonic game in the 21st century that truly honoured its origins. If this indeed is the last Sonic game is created in this manner (there are currently no confirmed plans as of writing this review), I would be at peace because it gave me a fresh experience that I longed for, after years of replaying the originals many times over.



Whilst subjectively this may not be the greatest Sonic game of all-time, it’s certainly a vibrant, fun and exhilarating tribute that can stand proudly alongside its comrades with integrity and glory.


Sonic Mania Score

Sonic Mania Plus Score


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