Platform(s): Playstation 4 / Xbox One / Nintendo Switch / PC (Windows)
Produced By: Lola Shiraishi
Published By: Sega
No. of Players: 1-2 players
Year Released: 2017
It’s safe to say that the Sonic franchise, once an ubiquitous pop-culture phenomenon in its hacienda days of the mid-90s, has fallen from grace since the turn of the century. You can ask a whole list of commentators on why this might be, too. Some might suggest that an artistic change of identity, which hindsight suggests was an attempt to win over a new generation of fans in the Dreamcast era, wound up alienating the ones the series already had. Others might also point to Sega’s naivety in giving its once-landmark IP to development houses not up to the task. Just a cursory glance at some of the reviews for the Sonic Boom series, developed out-of-house by both Big Red Button and Sanzaru Games, is proof of that. But even Sega themselves - and especially Sonic Team, the programmer collective responsible for the speedy mammal’s origins - are just as much to blame for their mascot’s decline. Certainly in the 2000s and beyond, you’d have to take risks in order to keep a long-running video game series fresh. But did Sega really need to give us some of the reboots that they did? Was adding the likes of Shadow the Hedgehog and so many other uninspired, daft-looking spin-off characters necessary to keep that all-important tweener demographic? Did the gaming world really need Sonic and the Black Knight, or actual plotlines (one of which resulted in the uncomfortable weirdness of Sonic 2006’s ending) to all the gameplay? Most likely not. But I do think there’s a simpler answer to all of Sonic’s woes, especially in the post 16-bit era.
Consider me a purist, but the many attempts made at getting Sonic to escape his traditional platformer bindings have all been wasted effort. Quite frankly, most 3D Sonic games suck. I say ‘most’, because there have still been the critical successes of Sonic Generations and Sonic Colors, and while I haven’t played those yet, I won’t question the good judgment of those who have. But it says something that the last Sonic game that I genuinely enjoyed was Sonic Adventure. With it being a Sega Dreamcast launch title back then and all, I was probably blinded to its mediocrity by its vastly superior graphics compared to anything else on the market. Play it again now, and it’s painfully dull - and not just because it’s an old game from the end of the 90s. Rather, its tri-dimensional trappings failed to express what made Sonic games so great in the first place: that thrill of sudden momentum and speed, that immediate need for dexterity in certain moments, and those iconic level designs.
Luckily, Sega has perhaps seen a bit of sense and has now given us Sonic Mania - a tribute-cross-return to that golden 16-bit era when Sonic didn’t have to be kissed by princesses to save the day, or have to share screen time with gun-toting anti-heroes (lol). It’s a game that looks, feels and plays exactly as if the last game of the franchise was actually 1994’s Sonic and Knuckles, rather than the plethora of hit-and-misses that have followed it since. One reason for this is due to the developers behind it: namely Christian Whitehead, Headcannon and PagodaWest Games, the first two of whom have spent recent years porting the early Sonic games to iPhone and Android. A bigger reason is that, despite the many efforts of Sonic Team et al to recreate the magic that made its opening titles such hits, it’s taken this development trinity to actually nail that long-lost formula. It may have been a 23-year wait, but if you’ve been with Sonic since those early days, make no mistake - this is a return to form you’ve been waiting for.
The clue is in the title, you see. Prior to release, Sega has been keen to market Sonic Mania as being ‘by the mania, for the mania’. It’s not an officially-driven reboot of the entire franchise, but rather a side-piece that has come out of its developers’ adoration for the series. Both Whitehead and Simon Thomley of Headcannon were heavily involved in the Sonic fangame scene, long before the idea of a 2D return for Sega’s speedy mammal had even been considered. Sega’s unexpected faith in the pair - after all, the usual response from corporations for such fan appreciation usually comes in the guise of a ‘cease and desist’ notice - has thus culminated in Sonic Mania’s creation. It’s a bit of an unusual career path to take - going from ROM hacks to being given near-total creative reign on a new Sonic game - but it is one that Mania’s developers have treated with the full modicum of respect, and a whole lot of love too.
This love primarily manifests itself in a manner that so many forms of entertainment take on these days - through making the old new again. Only the franchise originals Sonic, Tails and Knuckles are available for selection to play through the twelve levels (or zones) that Mania consists of, and the gameplay is much the same: blast through each Act, two per zone, collecting as many rings as you go. Find a big ring hidden in the stage somewhere, and you’ll be blasted to a Special Stage to grab one of those ever-elusive Chaos Emeralds. And, of course, no level end would be complete without a boss, be it the ever-present Dr. Eggman (Robotnik, whatever) or his crack team of robotic cronies, the Hard-Boiled Heavies, to take on - which they do in a variety of tricky, thoroughly amusing ways.
A number of the levels from previous games also make a return. That lush tropical paradise of the Green Hill Zone makes for a fairly gentle start to proceedings, but there’s also room for fan favourites such as the Chemical Plant, Flying Battery and Lava Reef Zones to make an appearance, too. Far from being lifted straight out of the past though, the second acts of these old levels often come packed with fascinating twists. Chemical Plant soon ditches its twisting pipes and pink liquid gunk for giant syringes and Flubber-esque bouncy platforms (not to mention an unforgettable boss fight for the more hardcore of Sonic gamers). The airship chaos of the Flying Battery meanwhile eventually subjects the player to additional challenges on the outside of the craft - with a deadly, gale-force thunderstorm for company. It’s a steady balance that Sonic Mania has to maintain between providing enough nostalgia for the fanbase to appreciate, while allowing these levels to remain fresh - but for the most part, it manages to keep it with each fun new surprise after the other.
But as much as the remixed versions of these levels impress, it’s the completely original ones that will grab the attention most on initial playthrough. The debut of Studiopolis Zone, a level themed entirely around a Spring Yard-esque city beaming broadcasts of Eggman’s own TV channel, is a particular highlight - packed with more easter eggs and nods to both the fandom and the old games alike than one could possibly imagine. Press Garden Zone - a weird blend of half printing press, half snow-laden Japanese garden, baffles just as much as it impresses too. While these levels retain the same gameplay as their legacy counterparts, they continue to provide additional, brilliantly imaginative enhancements to the regular platforming and loop-running. Towards the end, they also become incredibly long too - something that could never be said about a Sonic game until now. I’m still yet to complete Titanic Monarch Zone, Mania’s final level, without incurring one Time Over each time I play - an observation that on one hand proves this to be a tough game to beat to 100% completion, but also feels reminiscent of the older games’ mild cheapness in difficulty.
Graphically, the game definitely looks more evolved rather than revamped from its heyday - even coming complete with a couple of scanline display modes for you to appreciate that pixelly 90s goodness all the more. There’s definitely a lean in style towards the Sonic CD era of the series too, both in-game and during its animated opening and ending. Fans may debate on whether that was the best moment in Sonic’s heyday to take artistic note from, but it does look fantastic, especially on the levels taken directly from that title. It shows that while the intricate level designs, faster game speed and detailed animations do make the game feel more modern, no corner has been left unturned by the dev team to take as much influences from the past games as it can. Combine this presentation with a wonderful soundtrack (which contains plenty of gorgeous remixes for the reused levels), and there is no doubt whatsoever that Sonic Mania’s charm offensive will utterly captivate the fans of old. Every single thing that made you love the original series is guaranteed to be here, and not just as mere tokens - they’re also reminders of just why Sonic games were such fun to play in the first place.
Of course, these extra touches do also serve as a reminder of what also made such games frustrating to play. Though the idea of making later levels so long that time itself is an enemy is new, Sonic Mania still resorts to the usual tricks of unseen enemy and spring placement to throw you into a trap when at speed. The return of other features, such as certain special stages, also isn’t that welcome either. This certainly isn’t the case for the Sonic 3-lifted blue sphere challenges, though. Required in order to collect coins for unlockables (which include a two-player head-to-head mode, a la Sonic 2), they’re still just as exhilarating - and as fiendish - as they ever were. But the Sonic CD-inspired chase levels, which involve running around a 3-D track to collect rings and blue balls alike to catch Eggman’s ship - suffer from poor controls and frustratingly tight time limits. To make matters worse, these are the stages that also hold the Chaos Emeralds. True to tradition, you’re also not entitled to see the game’s real ending without collecting all seven of them - which means slogging through a genuinely irritating part of the game to see everything it has to offer.
But then I suppose it wouldn’t be Sonic without the minor irritations. They may not be endearing, but they are at least authentic. The same can be said about literally every ounce of effort that has been squeezed into Sonic Mania’s experience too. Is it enough to win over new players? Well, it might - thanks to the indie scene, 2D platformers have had something of a resurgence. And whether it’s born of a maniacal dedication or otherwise, Sonic Mania is unquestionably a renaissance for Sega’s long-maligned icon. Whether you give a damn for Sega or the blur in blue in question, Sonic Mania deserves the attention of any gamer keen to remember - or discover - what the fuss was all about in the first place.
Sonic Mania is officially available for purchase on Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC.
Also, if you're wondering why some of the vids and screenshots have some grainy lines running through them, that'll be down to me taking caps with one of the scanline modes set. Looks great on a big TV - not so much in web format. As always, we strive to run a professional operation here ;)
Media utilized in article is property of: Sega / Christian Whitehead / Headcannon / PagodaWest Games