After decades of disappointment there’s finally a new Sonic The Hedgehog game that’s just as good as the ‘90s originals.
If you’ve been a Sonic The Hedgehog fan for any period in the last 23 years we’ve no idea how you made it this far. If there’s a Guinness Book of Records award for the most mishandled video game franchise then that’s the one, and only, achievement Sonic has gained in more than two decades. But it didn’t use to be like this. Back in the early 1990s the Sonic games were critical and commercial darlings – all-time classics, beloved by all. And finally, Sega seems to have remembered that.
Not that Sonic Mania really has all that much to do with Sega. For while developer Sonic Team works away on the unexceptional-looking Sonic Forces they’ve left Mania up to a group of fans led by Christian ‘Taxman’ Whitehead. He and others (including Tee Lopes remixing the music) have been making ports of the original games, and creating their own fan titles, for years. And Sonic Mania is essentially a combination of those two obsessions.
The end result feels like some sort of school project gone wild, something enthusiastic kids have made while the teacher was away and which far surpasses anything they were actually supposed to be doing. We’re not sure why the game ended up being a mix of remastered stages and brand new ones, or why it’s only being sold as a download, but we’re just glad to say that Sonic is finally back to being a top tier platformer.
Sonic Mania is made up of a dozen different zones split into two separate ‘acts’, roughly two-thirds of which are based on classic era stages, such as Green Hill Zone and Flying Battery Zone, and a third of which are brand new. The remastered ones are often substantially different, not just in terms of the layout but also because they feature new graphical effects and enemies.
At first glance Sonic Mania looks just like the old Mega Drive games, but it doesn’t restrict itself purely to those limitations. There are a lot more sprite-scaling effects than a regular Mega Drive game would be able to manage, particularly at the 60 frames per second that this runs at. This pushes Sonic Mania even further into dream game territory, as it becomes the sort of sequel you always imagined happening but secretly knew wasn’t quite possible with the technology of the time.
What is the same though is the way the game controls. You can choose to start with any of the three main characters, or take both Sonic and Tails into a zone at the same time, and they all have signature moves culled from various of the original games. But that’s the easy bit. Where games such as 2010’s Sonic The Hedgehog 4 have previously got things so wrong is in the physics and movement of the characters. But rather than being some wrong-headed attempt to reinvent the wheel Sonic Mania handles exactly as you remember.
All these years of obsessing over (and porting) the original games has clearly given Whitehead and his accomplices a keen understanding of what makes good Sonic The Hedgehog level design. After all, Sonic is a very unusual kind of platformer, with the main character purposefully lacking in precision movement, as he navigates stage designs that often make it impossible to see or anticipate what’s coming up next.
But Sonic Mania understands this paradox perfectly, and new areas like the Wild West-themed Mirage Saloon Zone and TV-filled Studiopolis are almost indistinguishable in quality and imagination to the best of the original games.
Meanwhile, the remakes are often noticeably better than the originals with, for example, the Chemical Plant Zone adding additional variety through special pads that can stick you to the ceiling or pools of goop that can bounce you to different heights depending on how you mix them when you jump on a plunger.
The boss battles are also uniformly excellent, and again often more interesting than those in the original games. Sonic Mania clearly doesn’t feel constrained by the Mega Drive titles, but it does nothing to try and modernise the game’s approach to things like lives or the occasional instant or unforeseeable death. The Sonic games have never been particularly hard though, at least in terms of just getting to the end of each act, so that shouldn’t be a problem even for new players.
As you can imagine, the game is filled with fan service, most of which will go completely unnoticed by ordinary players. The game does have a proper story, appropriately set after the events Sonic & Knuckles (the last great Sonic game of the 2D era). Caring about the story in a Sonic game is where we part ways from the really hardcore fans, although at the same time it’s not hard to enjoy things like the deliciously ‘90s animated intro.
The bonus stages are also taken from Sonic & Kunckles, plus there’s a new special stage that looks and plays like a cross between the bonus stages from Sonic CD and SNES era F-Zero. With a time attack and two-player competitive mode Sonic Mania is an absolute steal at the price. To the point where it almost seems demeaning to charge so little for it, given the full price dross that has been released under Sonic’s name in the recent past.
It’s hard not to be critical of the way Sega has handled their mascot (and indeed the rest of their back catalogue) over the last few years but they certainly do deserve credit for engaging with fans and making Sonic Mania a reality. It’s easily the best thing to happen to the series in the last two decades and we can only hope that Sega treats it as a new beginning for both Sonic and all their other retro franchises.
In Short: A touching, and highly playable, labour of love by fans that understand Sonic The Hedgehog better than Sega ever has in the last 20+ years.
Pros: Gorgeous pixel artwork and excellent level design in terms of both new and remastered zones. Tons of options, great remixed music, and amazing value for money.
Cons: The remastered stages are all very good, but it’s a pity they outnumber the brand new ones.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Developer: Headcannon and PagodaWest Games
Release Date: 15th August 2017 (29/8 on PC)
Age Rating: 3
[Source : Metro.co.uk]