“Nope, nope never happened” – @Sonic_Hedgehog about Sonic ’06
Very few video game characters have attained the status of Pop-Culture Icon. To gain this status, a series must succeed with a combination of both clever marketing strategy and releasing a groundbreaking game. This creates a foundation of excellence to which subsequent titles must build upon.
Sonic the Hedgehog was the strong base that initially spawned great sequels in Sonic 2, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles. Things quickly soured when Sega tried to play catch up with Nintendo and transition Sonic to 3D gameplay. Ever since then Sonic as a series has been a constant cycle of optimism when Sega announces a new game. “Hey maybe this will be a somewhat decent sonic game that doesn’t control like an unresponsive and disorienting mess!”
And then being met with what we’ve been accustomed to for the past 20 years with each new release.
Sega has called back to better days with Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, but the 3D oriented controls were at odds with the Genesis-era gameplay that brought the series its initial acclaim. But now we finally have a worthy successor to that era.
“I am compelled to move rapidly”
Sonic Mania is a game with a singular focus: Be a fantastic 2D sonic game. The game drops you immediately into the Green Hill Zone and instincts take over. What is immediately noticeable is how tight the controls are and the hurdle physics allowing for well-timed platforming. The gameplay is instantly familiar to anyone familiar with these games, but for rookies: you press right on the d-pad and dodge or jump on enemies while trying to avoid obstacles. Unlike other platformers though, the levels are designed for breakneck speed and high-flying jumps.
The levels of Sonic Mania are a greatest hits collection of sorts. Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant kick off the game with familiar aesthetics hitting a soft spot, but the level of polish and attention to detail is unprecedented. With double helix structures carrying you along high speed paths, TV signals launching you into popcorn makers in the Studiopolis Zone, and getting shot out of gun in the Western-themed Mirage Saloon Zone these levels have the most personality in any Sonic game to date.
There are 13 levels of platforming action that progressively amp up in difficulty and gimmicks. Each distinct level can get frustrating at times because of how some objects in different levels behave. The power-ups from Sonic 3 make a welcome reappearance as well to level the playing field between the more difficult acts. You are able to play through the campaign as either Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles with the levels featuring some different layouts depending on who you are playing as. This only adds to the feeling that this game was made by the most zealous of Sonic fans and expresses a scholarly appreciation for the series.
Homing Attacks Not Need Apply
There are a bevy of secrets and references buried in the game including references to some more obscure Sonic spin-off titles. There are also different abilities from other games of the series. But best of all is a secret ending for gaining all the Chaos Emeralds in the game. Chaos Emeralds and medals are obtained via completing the special stages found within each level. The gameplay will be immediately familiar to anyone who played Sonic CD or Sonic 3. While these stages are a cool throwback, it was still a bit jarring for me personally to get used to the different set of gameplay, physics, and the 3D visuals. These are optional however and don’t really detract from the overall experience.
The music only adds to your engagement with each level. Each Zone has a theme that changes between the two Acts that range from orchestral fanfare to jazzy melodies. Chiptune earworms aside, there are times when I found the sound a bit oddly mixed. The menu music sounds much louder than the in-game soundtrack. I don’t have a way to confirm this nitpick but it did feel odd.
The other growing pain I have with Sonic games is that they can get frustrating. Especially once you get to the later stages. That is remains true here in Sonic Mania. Some of these levels have tough hurdle timing that is going to test you. Playing on an Xbox One controller was less than ideal, personally. I am also sad to report that the cheap clipping deaths in which your character jumps between two objects in movement are back. But ultimately it only adds to the feeling that you are having the most authentic Sonic the Hedgehog experience in over 20 years, warts and all.
Sonic Mania is the game that fans of this character, and his most vocal critics, have wanted for years. Beat the game once, but am eager to steep myself back into the campaign as one of the other characters.
Available on: Xbox One (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Windows. Publisher: Sega; Developer: PagodaWest Games, Headcannon; Players: 1-2; Released: August 15, 2017 (Worldwide); ESRB: E; MSRP: $19.99 USD/$25.99 CAD
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a Xbox One Retail copy of Sonic Mania purchased by the reviewer.