“Back In The Race Again.”
(note: I was unable to test out the competition mode with another player, so this review is based solely upon the single player portions of the game)
Lets face it – Sonic the Hedgehog has seen better days. More or less his entire 16 bit catalog sprinted past its competition, with the 4×100 meter relay winners being Sonic 1-3 + Knuckles. You couldn’t touch Sonic on the Sega Genesis; not just because he was lightning fast, but the combination of catchy music, inspired level design and an exhilarating sense of speed that no game before it managed to capture, all made for a memorable and enjoyable series.
His 3D transition was no doubt where Sonic began to stumble. The proper transition of Sonic’s gameplay and speed into a third dimension proved harrowing for both developer and player. Mario’s transition arguably had less intricacies to worry about; Sonic had blistering fast speeds balanced with transitioning through loops and general platforming. Sonic Adventure and its sequel did a commendable job, wonky camera notwithstanding.
The years after Sonic Adventure 2, it seemed as though Sonic was having an identity crisis. Between the underappreciated Game Boy Advance 2D titles and the absent minded Nintendo Wii and other console releases, no one knew what to make of the franchise for well over a decade. If he wasn’t wielding a sword he was turning into a werehedgehog, and if he wasn’t turning into a werehedgehog he was sharing a game world with proper form human beings. When there was a glimmer of hope (Sonic Generations), there was always a proverbial foot sticking out and tripping the franchise time and time again (Sonic 4 Episode 1 & 2, Sonic ’06).
On the 25th anniversary of the debut of Sonic the Hedgehog, a new game was released to help celebrate the legacy the blue hedgehog had left the gaming industry with his original titles. Dubbed Sonic Mania, this was to be the Sonic game that us old timers have been craving for so long, but was long thought dead. This wasn’t some misguided adaptation to the modern era though, much like Sonic 4 Episodes 1 & 2 were, as the project was under the guidance of one Christian Whitehead, who’s had his hand with the Sonic series, most notably authoring a “proof-of-concept” video of Sonic CD running on the iPhone, which was first put under cease and desist but later utilized by Sega themselves. His passion projects landed him what many would consider to be the unenvious task of creating a title that celebrates a major milestone to a franchise thought long past its prime.
Thankfully for us, between Whitehead, his studio called Headcannon, and developer PadogaWest Games, Sonic finally got the long deserved upgrades from his worn down Reebok Pump of the early 90’s, and is everything good (and bad) about the early years of the franchise and retro gaming, done in 2017.
Sonic Mania‘s title is fitting – finally a Sonic game that, right out of the gate, has had gamers enthusiastic over. None of these misguided and ill-fitted gimmicks being shoehorned in; Whitehead and team focused upon the classic titles and their influences in both the franchise and gaming. The end result is what truly feels like a retro game with proper modern day enhancements, and a Sonic game that deserves to be called Sonic the Hedgehog 4 more than the abomination that already claimed that title.
Most gamers think speed and nothing but speed is they key to a successful Sonic game, and that’s a bit disingenuous. Each stage has a myriad of loops, bursts of speed through long stretches and such, but each stages theme has much to do about the games success as anything.
And that is where Sonic Mania both grabs the gold, yet doesn’t place – it all depends on perspective.
These zones are almost all quite familiar if you’ve played any 16 bit Sonic game, from names to themes, etc. The familiarity lends to the notion that Sonic Mania was trying to “play it safe” as possible with utilizing nostalgia, while still changing the flow of each stage. What helps settle some bouts of dejavu is how each zone and act layout doesn’t feel like a complete retread of past games.
Aside from the final zones in the game, including the aggravating energy balls unearthed from the bonus stages of Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic Mania’s zones and acts are all polished to the classics standards. There’s stretches of blistering speeds through each stage, as well as platforming portions and other nuances familiar with the classic gameplay. As with the older games, there are also those spots where memory will need to take precedence in jumping at a certain time to avoid something, though Sonic Mania seems to have way too many of those moments peppered throughout the final three zones. These spots do drag down the final third of the game way more than it should on the first, and even second playthrough, though these screw spots are not foreign to fans of the series.
Having three playable characters with wildly different methods of traversing through each stage, players will start to see just how complex and layered each act truly ends up being. Sonic can spin through, run and jump through each area, while Knuckles can use his fists to climb up some walls and glide ahead, and Tails can reach heights faster and farther than the aforementioned with his temporary flight ability. This further disrupts any monotony that would be gained from replaying the game after completing it once or twice, as players will encounter newer areas they hadn’t seen with a previous character.
The throwback visuals are, of course, aided by modern advancements, from smoother sprites to widescreen, to even bonus frames of animation. Just watching Sonic and his friends move around, or even stand idle, is a thing of prettied up retro beauty. There are even a couple of visual filters that allow for scanlines, which looks fitting and not only did they not detract from the graphics, but it helped instill this feeling that I was playing an old school Sonic game.
Each zone has two acts, with familiar music playing through each stage, and a phenomenal remix usually coming into play on the second act. If anything, one of Sonic Mania‘s biggest strengths is is phenomenal audio, with throwback sound effects as well as familiar times that are sometimes remixed, as well as some that I do not recall hearing from earlier Sonic installments. The final boss theme has become hands down one of my all-time favorite final boss themes ever, even outdoing Sonic & Knuckles‘ final boss theme. The early days of the franchise were known for some slick audio productions, and Sonic Mania one ups the previous installments.
Sticking with the tried and true formula, Sonic Mania does little to change up the controls. Spin dash is once again available, as well as Knuckles’ air glide on a double jump and Tails’ temporary with repeated presses. The one new move added for Sonic, called the drop dash (press then hold jump once you’ve already jumped) actually does add to the gameplay in a positive and meaningful manner. Getting an instant speed boost once the player lands further sets the pace in speed. It’s surprisingly useful in most jump situations throughout the game, and probably the one worthwhile gimmick that could be added while staying as true to the original formula as possible.
Sonic Mania‘s biggest strengths will also go down as its Achilles heel, depending on which side of the track you’re running. It’s a spruced up 16 bit platformer from an era where games did not hold your hand. Those looking for something new from Sonic… well… one can say you’re a part of the problem with the franchise, but I digress. You will become severely aggravated at points, likely using a list of four letter words in rapid succession.
But I’m completely fine with that. Going into Sonic Mania at E3 and then its retail release, I fully understood that this was a throwback to the glory days of gaming; a 16 bit love affair that begs for me to put one of its many golden rings on its finger. A three hour playthrough the first go, there’s enough replay value to go run through the game with each character, as well as give the time attack option a go.
So long as you’re coming into Sonic Mania understanding that it’s a 16 bit game at heart with a fresh pair of kicks to look at, you will more than enjoy your time running laps and loops all around each zone. If you need a game that laces up your boots for you and puts you on auto run through its game, you will be severely disappointed with Sonic Mania. At only $20, even with its brevity, the price is well worth it. It plays heavily off nostalgia, but if that’s your cup of tea, you’ll find very little to be bitter from each sip.
After seeing how far off track the Sonic franchise has gone over the years, it’s almost surreal seeing the series return to its roots, and end up being one of, if not my favorite installments to the franchise.