What's old is new again.
By Louis Balzani
Posted 8:46 pm on Aug 22, 2017
PLAY THIS IF:
- You enjoy the classic Genesis Sonic games.
- You appreciate retro, old-school game design.
- You’re ready to experience one of the best retro-platformers in many years.
DISCLOSURE: This review was originally posted on TSSZ News and is based on an Xbox One review copy of Sonic Mania provided by SEGA.
In the run-up to its release, Sonic Mania garnered accolades and levels of praise from the media that the Sonic franchise hadn’t seen in years. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; for millions of people, their fondest memories of Sonic are those related to the Genesis classics. Because so many people love those games so much, any attempt to closely replicate that experience will undoubtedly get some serious attention – and face some serious scrutiny. There’s a lot riding on Sonic Mania to get the whole thing right, and fans of the series will be delighted to know that it absolutely does.
Unlike other recent Sonic side-scrollers, Sonic Mania is a dyed-in-the-wool return to the pixel-driven, high-speed platforming action that first put the franchise on the map. With the classic trio of Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles returning as playable characters, gamers will blast their way through multiple zones and fight their way to the finish just like they did back in the early 1990’s. To keep the nostalgia factor high, the game brings back iconic zone themes from the originals and re-imagines them alongside all-new settings built from scratch for Mania. In many ways, the game aims to feel like a natural extension of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, a love letter to the franchise’s heyday that looks and feels like a Saturn-era game that never saw the light of day.
The most critical component of any platforming game is its control, and movement feels fantastic in Sonic Mania. The technical underpinnings of the Retro Engine help Mania mirror the physics and platforming of the Genesis classics perfectly. No approximations or misguided emulations here – this is the real deal. This level of polish and execution extends to the new moves as well; the Drop Dash, which lets you perform a mini-Spin Dash upon landing from a jump, is satisfying to pull off and helps keep the flow of a level going if you hit a wall or need to backtrack quickly. There’s no fighting with the controls in this one, and if I’m being honest, this might just be the smoothest Sonic game I’ve ever played.Once you start moving around, you’ll find that levels feel just as large and expansive as they did in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, perhaps even more so in some cases. Everything you’d expect from a classic Sonic game is here: branching pathways, creative gimmicks, and plenty of open road to speed through. Methodical exploration often results in finding hidden goodies, as does quick thinking during high-speed moments when items and access to faster routes often fly by. The return of character-exclusive paths also means that you’ll need to take control of Tails or Knuckles at some point to see everything a zone has to offer. The difficulty curve remains manageable throughout, with earlier zones preparing you nicely for the challenge of later stages. It’s not an overly difficult game, but even series veterans will likely struggle at times on their first go.
There’s a fair bit of game to play through, too; Sonic Mania features twelve zones in total. Remixed stages from older games outweigh the newer offerings two-to-one, but they’re far from a straight conversion of the old layouts. Most of the level designs are entirely new, and many of the zones’ second acts do a great job of putting a fresh spin on these familiar environments; Chemical Plant gets gooey, for example, while Flying Battery hits some rough weather. Other zones, like Stardust Speedway, adhere more closely to their original counterparts, but at no point do they feel like a blatant rehash.
That said, the brand-new stages are where the game shines brightest. As I discovered a new zone for the first time, exploring the fresh gimmicks and taking in the scenery, something strange happened – I felt like a kid again! The experience panned out exactly like it did when I first played through the Genesis classics, when the levels were fresh and new to me, and if you remember the first time you stumbled through those games, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Lots of Sonic titles have tried to recapture that fleeting feeling of childhood wonderment and awe, but Sonic Mania takes it one step further – by actually doing it.
In both its new and remixed zones, Mania follows the Sonic 3 template with its boss fights, which means Act 1 always ends with a mini-boss and Act 2 ends with a clash against a big baddie. While many of these fights are original battles, some present creative takes on past encounters, such as the Death Egg Robot returning right off the bat in Green Hill Zone. Those fights that take new and interesting risks pay off handily for the most part; that said, the unique Chemical Plant fight, while a great nod to another Genesis classic, is a bit of a momentum-breaker.
Naturally, Special Stages make a return, and you’ll need to track down giant rings hidden throughout the game to gain entry to them. The stages draw inspiration from Sonic CD in that you need to chase a UFO through a flat, sprawling stage, but the mechanics and presentation here are all new. You’ll need to collect blue spheres to gain speed and start catching up to the UFO, while collecting rings will add to your constantly-ticking timer. The controls do take some getting used to insofar as Sonic runs and turns with a pretty weighty momentum, but once you get the hang of it, seasoned players should be able to collect all seven Chaos Emeralds with relative ease – and I’ll let you imagine what happens once you do.
On top of that, hitting a checkpoint with at least 25 rings lets you play a Bonus Stage in the form of Blue Sphere, and these stages play out exactly as you remember. I’ll openly admit that I’m a rabid Blue Sphere junkie, so if you’re at all like me, seeing these iconic stages reborn in HD will be a real treat. It’s true that these stages are less in-and-out than the gumball machine bonus stages of Sonic 3, but they’re completely optional for overall game progression; they are, however, necessary to unlock the game’s extra features. Completing a stage will net you a silver medallion, which will be upgraded to a gold one if you collect all the rings and get a “perfect”; for every handful of medallions you collect, you’ll unlock a new surprise. There are some very cool features to be had if you see this part of the game through, and it’s worth taking the time to unlock everything.
How aggressively you pursue these extras will also help determine the overall length of Sonic Mania. A no-frills, straight-to-the-finish run should take most players around three hours or so; going for 100% completion by tacking all Special Stages and collecting Blue Sphere medallions will bolster that time considerably. Of course, once you add in the Time Attack and Competition modes, dedicated players will likely find nearly-endless enjoyment here, just as they did with the classics.
That’s to say nothing of the extreme levels of fan service peppered throughout the game. Given the nature of a by-the-fans, for-the-fans project like this, one would expect some inside jokes and references, but Mania takes it to a whole new level. Clever nods to obscure Sonic lore surface throughout the experience, and you’ll find callbacks to the 8-bit titles if you look and listen hard enough. In a fun meta twist, the game even alludes to its own development cycle and marketing push! For those of you who like to hunt for every last hidden secret and reference in games, Mania should keep you busy for a while.
Many of these visual references are made possible by the detailed and expertly-crafted pixel art – this really does look like the Saturn-era Sonic platformer we never got. More elaborate sprite work means Sonic and crew animate fluidly and with even more personality. Zones sport more advanced visual effects, a broader range of vibrant colors, and complex background elements that the Genesis could never have handled. Even the Special Stage in all its low-poly glory seems to adhere closely to the Saturn’s known technical limitations, and all of this graphical prowess whizzes by at a locked 60 frames per second. If you’ve been waiting for the triumphant return of the classic pixel-art aesthetic, well, it doesn’t get much more triumphant than this.
So far, we’ve seen Sonic Mania play and look the part – but does it sound the part as well? The answer is a resounding yes! The soundtrack does an exceptional job of retaining the spirit of the Genesis music while creating a rich and distinct soundscape all its own. Like the graphics themselves, the music in the first acts of the remixed stages tends to stick closely to the source material, while the tracks for the second acts take more liberties and put a different spin on what you’re used to. In addition, the original compositions for the new zones very effectively convey fresh moods and feelings; in particular, the music for the final zone ratchets up the tension and pressure quite impressively. Sound effects are as appropriate as you’d expect, with new sounds slotting in effortlessly alongside the more familiar fare. Sonic games are known for excelling in the audio department, and Mania is certainly no exception.
When you put all of this together, it’s clear that Sonic Mania takes the rock-solid foundations of the Genesis classics and improves upon them in every way. The gameplay mechanics are tighter and more satisfying than ever. The graphics are incredibly vibrant and animated. The attention to detail and fan service is staggering, and the ultra-accommodating $20 price tag makes the game a remarkable value proposition. Some will inevitably wish for more original stages, a sentiment any future games in this vein should take to heart, but as an overall experience, there’s remarkably little to criticize.
So there it is, folks. Sonic Mania is every bit the classic renaissance we hoped for, and it’s the first Sonic game in decades that I can wholeheartedly recommend without reservation, even to casual gamers and non-fans. If you’ve ever longed for a true return to this franchise’s glory days, this is your chance to experience that glory again. In creating the ultimate celebration of past and future, the Sonic Mania team have also created something else – the best Sonic game of all time.