Developer: Christian Whitehead / Headcannon Games / PagodaWest Games
System: PS4 (tested), Xbox One, Switch, PC
It’s always nice to see game developers embracing the creativity of their fans. Nintendo’s Super Mario Maker was a great example of what could be achieved by doing so – by providing the level design tools previously only available to ROM modders, it made a bunch of money and created a YouTube phenomenon. Of course, the problem was that your play experience was dependent on the skill of the designer, so things could be a bit uneven. Sega has decided to utilise the talent of fans for Sonic Mania, but it has taken a different approach by simply hiring the cream of the crop to lead a development team.
In many ways, the remix culture of ROM modders and fangame creators is the perfect fit for Sonic Mania, as the majority of the game’s 12 zones are heavily reworked stages from the classic 16-bit Sonic games. The changes can be quite large – Green Hill Zone gains a network of ziplines and a cavernous background and Oil Ocean Zone gains submarines to explore. The remaining four are brand new, and range from the film-inspired Studiopolis Zone to the wild west-themed Mirage Saloon Zone. Each stage is large and packed with enemies and obstacles, with plenty of scope for exploration – and you’ll need to look around if you’re trying to find the giant rings which allow you to enter the Special Zone. If you just want to go fast, that’s fine too, but as in the classic games you’ll have to earn your fast times with practice.
You can play as Sonic and Tails, either of them individually or Knuckles, and all of them have their characteristic abilities – Tails can swim and fly, while Knuckles can glide, climb and access exclusive routes by smashing through walls. Sonic has a new move, the Drop Dash, pulled off by pressing and holding the jump button during a jump. When Sonic lands, he’ll gain a burst of acceleration and roll off in the direction he’s facing. It should be very useful in the Time Attack mode, but will require practice to deploy effectively.
The best thing about Sonic Mania is that it addresses one of the weakest aspects of the original games – the boss fights. The new ones in Sonic Mania are exciting but more importantly, they’re inventive. Without wishing to spoil too much, the new Studiopolis Zone has one in which you have to watch the TV weather report in the background to know what Robotnik’s next attack will be. Others have you battling in a lift, limiting your jump height, or fighting as a miniaturised Sonic. These can put up a real fight – we’re pretty good at Sonic games, but some of the tougher bosses (especially Oil Ocean Zone’s main boss) made the possibility of a Game Over screen worryingly real.
Visually, the game has been designed as if it were for the Saturn, rather than the Mega Drive. Though the stages have been cribbed from a variety of games, it’s clear that work has gone into bringing the various art styles together. Sprites have fantastic animation, with more frames than the Mega Drive originals, and the colours on screen are far beyond what the 16-bit machine could have displayed. In limited cases, low-polygon 3D models are even used to spice things up a bit, but these are mostly reserved for the game’s brand new Special Zone.
In the Special Zone, you’ll chase an emerald-carrying UFO while collecting blue spheres to speed up and rings to extend your time limit, but avoiding hazards such as bottomless pits and spiked balls. Sonic’s handling here definitely requires some getting used to and getting all seven emeralds will test your skills as a result. The “Blue Spheres” bonus stages also returns from Sonic 3 & Knuckles. There are 32 of these, and completing them unlocks additional bonuses such as techniques from older games.
Heavily invested Sonic fans will be pleased to know that the game is full of awesome nods to the history of the series – scrapped enemies finally get their day in the sun, long-forgotten characters show up in the most unexpected places, and at least one spin-off forms a key part of the game. Even the Master System and Game Gear Sonic games, which tend not to get a whole lot of love since they were developed outside of Sega, get their own references.
The “greatest hits” approach to Sonic Mania’s content serves the game very well – it reminds you just how good those original games were, with the changes ensuring that you’re not just retreading old ground. It also highlights the quality of the brand new content, as it fits right in with the classic stages and concepts. In fact, the weakest areas of the game seem to be those rare points where too few changes have been made to the classic stages. Maybe that’s just familiarity talking, mind.
If you’re a big Sonic fan, this game has been developed for you by people like you, so you’ll love it. For everyone else, it’s a very good platform game filled with fast action, plenty of secrets and gorgeous sprite work, and comes highly recommended.
In A Nutshell
Thanks to an intimate understanding what made the 16-bit Sonic games so good, the Sonic Mania team has created an excellent platform game which delivers new thrills and nostalgic comfort in equal measure.