Sonic the Hedgehog has had a fascinating career over his 25 plus years, for a number of reasons both good and bad. Back in the 90s, he was a real force to be reckoned with, even giving Nintendo’s mascot a good run for his money. Then, like the portly plumber, he made the jump to 3D and while Mario’s adventures were, and continue to be, universally praised, it’s here where Sonic’s fan base instead decides to split.
While some have enjoyed the Sonic Adventure titles and later attempts including Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations, others felt that things like broken cameras, clunky controls, an ever expanding cast and a bigger emphasis on speed rather than actual platforming, have hurt the experience considerably. Put simply the blue blur’s best days were, and still are, well and truly behind him.
Fast forward to 2016, though, and SEGA announced two new Sonic titles. The first, Sonic Forces, teases another “modern” inspired effort, while the second title is a much more surprising one. A 2D Sonic game that looks and feels just like the pixelated Mega Drive classics, and being worked on by independent studios and individuals like Christian Whitehead who are all known for their strong passion for the series and making retro fan games. It would, in essence, be the return to roots many of the fans were begging for. How could it possibly go wrong?
Sonic Mania takes place after the events of Sonic 3 and Knuckles and sees our heroes racing against Dr. Eggman in order to discover the source of a strange, and potentially dangerous, energy reading – a journey that takes them through a number of colourful Zones that you’ll need to navigate with your platforming ability.
The story, while light, tries to add some narrative by injecting short ‘cutscene’ moments between Zones. This might show how you end up going from a city littered with studio equipment one moment to a flying ship the next, for example. Unfortunately, these feel randomly placed, with many Zones seeing no transitions whatsoever, especially later in the game. It feels clumsy especially when these moments are so inconsistent.
Each character has their own abilities: Tails can fly and swim for brief bursts; Knuckles can glide, climb walls and bust through areas otherwise inaccessible for the other two; and Sonic can perform the new drop dash, which sends him speeding off in a ball after a jump. It’s worth trying out all three for the chance to explore new areas and shortcuts, and it adds good replay value to the package.
Unlike more recent Sonic titles, in Sonic Mania you feel like you have direct control over the character. Even with the faster elements thrown in, I was able to leap and hop around with the precision needed for some of the game’s tougher routes. You are playing the game instead of the game merely playing out for you. Momentum also feels perfect where half-pipes and loops can be used to pick up speed in a way that feels both natural and fun. The game does a great job at striking the right balance between the roller coaster-like moments we all know and love, but also the slower more platforming-heavy ones too. There may be a few points where the environment can feel too busy with traversable platforms blending a little too easily into the background, but these are things that become less of an issue as you become more acquainted with each Zone.
The main adventure can essentially be split into two types of Zones; returning and new. Of course, if you are fresh to the series the term ‘returning’ becomes a little more irrelevant. However, those more familiar with Sonic’s 90s outings that are expecting entirely new locations may be disappointed to find only a third of the game actually takes you to truly new environments. Don’t let that fool you into thinking the game has nothing to offer in terms of a surprise, though. Far from it.
Although we may all recognise that famous Green Hill Zone tune along with its lush green slopes, totem poles and tall palm trees, Sonic Mania does a remarkable job at making returning Zones like these feel fresh and new, even to gamers like myself who may have played the originals countless times already.
While the first Act may replicate certain sections of its original Mega Drive/CD counterpart – sprinkling in the odd dash of the unexpected here and there – by the time you have moved onto the second Act things really get interesting. Everything you remember about that Zone is now turned on its head; zip lines from Sonic 3 in Green Hill Zone or sticky walls making their debut in Chemical Plant Zone, for example. Even the music has seen an update for all returning Zones. And, while we’re on the subject of the soundtrack, whether we’re talking old, new or remixed, the tunes in Sonic Mania are truly fantastic and especially catchy.
End of level bosses appear in many forms over the course of the game and include taking on the main man Eggman himself, one of his Hard-Boiled Heavies or simply a bigger robot enemy. Much like the level designs, you’ll see a blend of original concepts and recycled ideas, with a few clever twists for good measure. One such example saw me facing off against the final boss from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in the very first Zone while others go far and beyond what you’d expect from any Sonic game – that I won’t reveal here! Part of the fun is finding these things out yourself. I did find a few of the battles a little frustrating though; especially the ones where you need to keep running forward that made landing attacks a far more tedious and troublesome process. There were also one or two where the solution wasn’t immediately clear. Minor hiccups, though, for what is overall a strong and surprising enemy line-up.
Hidden Special Stages also make a return rewarding players with Chaos Emeralds upon completion. Here, you’ll need to chase down a UFO in a 3D racetrack environment on which collecting rings awards you more time and blue spheres increase your speed. I’m sure you can all guess what collecting all seven emeralds does. The Sonic 3 and Knuckles Special Stages also make a return, too, with over twenty to perfect. These see you navigating a checkered environment collecting blue spheres whilst avoid red ones. Complete enough, and you unlock a few extra bonuses for your trouble.
Sonic Mania definitely feels like a game that rewards long-time fans of the series with winks and nods to past games both big and small. Working through the game’s surprisingly lengthy quest it was tough not to pause and take note of every little callback be it familiar enemies, obscure references or entire gameplay gimmicks. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that pretty much every Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and Sonic CD has some sort of presence here, as well as plenty of genuinely unexpected references beyond these, too. As a fan, it was a true delight discovering as many as I could with plenty more I’m sure still left to discover.
Once you’ve beaten the game’s main adventure you can then try your hand at speeding through each Zone in Time Trial mode, which comes complete with online leaderboards. Even after a few attempts on the opening levels I already feel the need to return and shave off more seconds to rise up the ranks. It’s here where you start to see just how branching the level design really is. Sonic has always been for speed-running and this mode should scratch that itch perfectly.
Two player split-screen makes its return over from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 with half of the game’s stages available to race through. Players aren’t just graded on speed here, however, with every competition ranking players in five key areas – rings on completion, total rings gathered throughout the act, score, finish time and number of items collected. It’s a great little extra that works especially well on the Nintendo Switch thanks to the ease of breaking off the two Joy-Con wherever you are.
The only Nintendo Switch-specific cause for the concern is that the game induces some noticeable lag with the console’s operating system, causing a delay when taking screenshots and an 8-second wait when returning to the HOME Menu. But, I’mm hopeful that this can be fixed quickly.
Sonic Mania is a true love letter to the blue hedgehog’s 16-bit days, developed by a team that you can tell have put everything they have into making sure that it not only lives up to fan expectations but gamers in general. And, while there is certainly plenty to be gained here if you’re a Sonic enthusiast, Sonic Mania is an excellent standalone platformer in its own right, too, and one that will hopefully open the door to more retro-inspired ventures for some of SEGA’s older IPs.