Now ’tis the age of nostalgia. It seems like most of the releases that span the multitude of media that we consume daily are based on something from either the 90s, the 80s or sometimes even further back. With the recent success of Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, it seems like the current wave of nostalgia won’t be ending any time soon. Sonic Mania is jumping onto the nostalgia train with both feet and heading straight to the food car.
Sonic Mania breaks a tradition for the world-famous series in that it wasn’t developed by Sonic Team, which adds to a very short list of titles. Instead, this game has been developed by a positive handful of people, not limited to Headcannon, PagodaWest Games and Christian Whitehead. If that last name on the list seems familiar to you, it’s probably because Christian is the Australian programmer behind the phone and tablet ports of Sonic 1, Sonic 2 and Sonic CD. It should give many fans a great boost of confidence to learn that Christian Whitehead is the project lead on Sonic Mania, considering the overall love and quality that went into those recent ports.
The story of the game concerns Sonic (the Hedgehog…duh) and his friends (or friend and rivals if you want to be technical about it), Tails and Knuckles, as they come across their regular enemy, Dr. Ivo Robotnik (or Eggman. This is confusing), interfering with a mysterious crystal on Angel Island. During the confrontation, the mysterious crystal becomes activated, and both sides find themselves warped to the Green Hill Zone, the first place that their adventures began. And once again, Sonic and his friends must try and stop Robotnik before he can complete whatever evil plan he has in store.
It must be admitted that much of that above story is extrapolated from the goings on in the game directly, instead of any sort of dialogue or text. You might be able to tell that Sonic Mania goes for the classic style of story delivery, i.e., not very much at all. There is a cutscene in the beginning, one in the end. and everything that happens between basically consists of your main characters chasing down and beating up a chubby scientist and his life’s work.
While it is true that there are only two cutscenes in the traditional sense, they should not be entirely discounted as both of the cutscenes are traditionally animated, or at least they look that way. It looks like something that you would expect to see on a Saturday morning cartoon back in the mid-90s, or more accurately, it looks better than something you’d see on a Saturday morning cartoon in the mid-90s (*thinks of ‘The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog’…shudders*).
The gameplay has been one of the most surprising elements of the game, if only because somehow the developers managed to not change the basic formula, or at least to not change it in stupid ways which make the game, as a whole, worse. Gameplay basically consists of two commands, pressing a direction to move or look in and then pressing the jump button to jump and head in that direction. As with every game since Sonic 2, you can also hold down while jumping to spin up a charge attack which makes you invincible to most damage and destroys most enemies.
Every control and action that you can take feels like it was taken directly from the Sega Mega Drive, in a very similar way to the previously mentioned tablet and phone ports. There is none of the Sonic the Hedgehog 4 sluggishness here. You move very slickly through all of the loop-de-loops, and momentum very rarely slows down while still managing to keep the game from devolving into being almost pre-animated.
On top of the very well designed moveset lifted straight from the old games, you also have a new move that allows you to charge up a spin attack while still in mid air, meaning that you can actually go straight from jumping to zipping forward without a sudden drop in momentum, or at least without too much of a drop in momentum. While this new move isn’t anywhere near as fast as a normal, ground-based spin attack, it is a useful tool for maximising your speed through each of the different areas.
There are a slew of power-ups in the game both old and new. There are various elemental shields from Sonic 3 which add a variety of effects to your jump if you’re playing as Sonic himself. Fire adds a fire dash, Electricity adds a double jump and sucks in rings, and Water adds a drop attack. There is also the return of the vanilla shield which does nothing but protect you from a single hit. Normally when you take a hit, you lose all the rings that you’re carrying and must collect them to remain protected; however, there is a new blue ring power-up that makes it so that your rings fly out in groups of 4, making them easier to pick up.
The game is split up into a series of zones, with each zone consisting of two acts, the same as Sonic 2. Some of these zones are taken from previous Sonic games, but there are also a fair number of entirely new zones designed specifically for the new game as well. It would have been very easy to have simply taken these old levels from previous Sonic games and copy them wholesale into the new game, but fortunately the game’s designers decided against this and have put a fair amount of work into revamping these already famous zones while still keeping their old school spirits alive.
Part of the reason for this revamp to the classic zones is probably because of the additional characters you can play as. Back in the day, it was possible to play as Sonic and Tails (sort of) in Sonic 2, though you could technically play as Knuckles if you had the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge adapter as well. However, most of the game’s levels were not designed for Knuckles’s particular skillset, and playing as Tails was basically just controlling an immortal idiot who had no control over where the camera went. Let’s not even talk about trying to play as either of these two in Sonic 1, because neither of them existed yet, and you’d get an error if you tried to plug that adapter into the first game’s cartridge.
Fast forward to 2017 and it is now possible to revisit some of those classic locations, not only as Sonic and Tails together, but either of them separately and Knuckles as well to boot. Both Tails and Knuckles have different abilities from Sonic: Tails can fly for a short period of time, allowing him access to certain far away places and giving him a huge advantage on speed running courses. Knuckles can both glide and climb up any flat wall. In the first trilogy of games, these abilities were rarely catered for (excluding Sonic 3 in which both characters were a major focus of the level design), but now that’s a different story.
Thanks to the new reshuffle of the level design, it actually feels like there are areas and paths specifically designed to be reached only by the powers of each individual character. At certain points the levels are also actually changed to reflect playing as Knuckles instead of Sonic or Tails, giving the relatively short campaign much more replay value.
The bosses are also a complete triumph. Each act ends with a boss, usually a smaller, slightly easier boss for the first act, followed by a harder boss for the final act. Some of these bosses are based on concepts from other Sonic games. One in particular springs to mind as something you never thought you’d see as a boss fight in a Sonic game, but others are built entirely from scratch. While most of these bosses are stunning and well worth the struggle required to get to and beat them, there is one boss that lets down the pack. The act 1 boss of the Studiopolis Zone is a total test in frustration. While it didn’t take long to get around the way it felt to play the level, it doesn’t feel like a well-designed boss, and you’ll be glad to be past it every time you play the game.
For those classic Sonic fans, it will be no surprise that the game includes special zones which must be completed to unlock the 7 Chaos Emeralds. These special zones are an interesting blend of the special stages from Sonic CD and Sonic & Knuckles. The main point of the stages is to chase down a UFO that possesses an Emerald. You can grab blue balls to slowly increase your character’s speed, and rings will increase the overall amount of time you have to catch up to your quarry.
Apart from special zones for Emeralds, there are also bonus areas that are taken directly from Sonic & Knuckles. Instead of traditional Emeralds, you receive either silver or gold coins which unlock items on the extras menu over time. For those who don’t know, these special stages require you to collect blue balls while avoiding red ones. If you complete a square of blue balls, they turn into rings which you also need to collect. If you collect all of the rings in a stage before collecting the last blue ball, you get a gold coin; failing that, you get a silver one.
As was previously mentioned, the game might feel a little short by today’s standards. With only 7 zones to play through, not including special stages, it will take you barely two hours to ‘complete’ the main story your first time through. This is at least partially remedied by the inclusion of the three separate characters who all have different playstyles, as well as the extra battle and time attack modes.
Graphically, the game looks a lot like the classic Sonic games, pixel graphics abound. However, the graphics have been substantially polished up from the old versions, and there are some feats of animation that you just wouldn’t be able to get out of a Mega Drive. In particular, the 3D effects in certain boss fights and special stages are quite stunning, if only because of how well they’ve been blended into a 2D environment. If the game looks too clean for you, you can switch the graphics back to a more harsh and jagged version instead, on top of that there are also two varieties of CRT overlay to choose from. No matter how you used to play the Sonic games, your nostalgia-blinded vision will be catered for here.
The music is another stunning addition to the game. For the most part, the music from the original zones has been left exactly as it was, although there may have been a few tweaks here or there. It is sometimes difficult to tell if the way these tracks sound now is due to the difference in composition or if it’s just the increased ability of modern hardware to squeeze extra frequencies out of our speakers. The music tracks which have been composed for the new zones fit perfectly with the stages they have been designed for, and they also do a pretty decent job of fitting in with the Sonic series overall. This will be one of the first games in a while that has an 8-bit style soundtrack which is actually worth buying and listening too.
Developer: Headcannon, PagodaWest Games
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Release Date: 15th August 2017