Being a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog is a bit like being in an abusive relationship. The character has been slowly dying for many years now, with hopes dashed every time a new game comes out and we, as fans, proclaim that “it will be different this time” like a beaten spouse returning to their alcoholic ex partner. He’s changed so much that we no longer recognise him and the romance that was once there is no longer obscured by rose tinted glasses. Could Sonic Mania be the ten-step program that finally makes us love the little fella again?
The first thing that you’ll notice when you start up the game is the striking resemblance to the older titles. This isn’t just a modern spin (pun intended) on the 2D classics like Sonic 4 was, this is a full on facsimile of them. The colour palette used, the design of the characters, right down to the game having an option to add scanlines, making it look like you’re playing on an old CRT television. Honestly, if you told me that this was a long-lost Mega CD project then I wouldn’t believe you because I’m a journalist and I did my research like I’m supposed to. Had I not done enough research though, I’d absolutely believe you. This is a game that is clearly a labour of love and every effort has been made to capture just what it was that made the original games so good, right down to an authentic look and feel.
One of the things that I felt made the original games so good was their level of accessibility. You could just load up a Sonic game and start playing. That’s the case here, it doesn’t try to get too clever and add unnecessary characters and backstories. Sonic has to run fast to collect emeralds and defeat enemies because Robotnik is evil and that’s all we need to know. There are cute little animated cutscenes between each level and they help show the transition between zones.
That’s not to say that the game is easy though; it’s just as tough as games were back in the nineties, and you have limited lives, but a save system like in Sonic & Knuckles means that you won’t be left starting from Green Hill Zone all over again when you run out of lives. Many of the unlockable extras also persist between playthroughs, so you won’t lose that cool thing you’ve unlocked.
Talking of unlockables, there are a few of them, and they help keep some replay value to the game. There’s a version of Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine (aka Puyo Puyo), there’s the option to play with Knuckles as a tag-along instead of Tails (even if you’re playing as Knuckles, giving an in-game Knuckles and Knuckles meme!), and there’s also a mode that allows you to play all the special zones on their own. Although, if you’ve mastered 30 special zones in order to unlock that, you’re probably sick of the sight of them!
The special zones themselves are good fun, if a little frustrating. There are two kinds. The first is obtained by collecting 30 rings and running through a checkpoint and it is the blue spheres stage from Sonic 3. The second, which is the most fun in my opinion, takes the form of a pimped-up version of Sonic CD’s “catch the UFO” special stage. It’s these second ones which unlock the Chaos Emeralds you will need to get the best ending. The sphere levels are used for the aforementioned unlockables.
But this isn’t just a nostalgia trip and a bunch of level remakes, there’s four new zones included, all of them remaining true to the old fashioned style. One in particular that impressed me was the Press Garden Zone, which I was convinced I remembered from an older game (It feels like it should be in Sonic 3). When I looked it up however, it turned out to be an original zone created specifically for the game. The levels which are returning from previous games are heavily expanded upon and remixed, with new areas and additional features throughout.
The audio has been approached with just the same TLC as the visuals, featuring a slew of original tracks, each of which sound like they belong in the 16-bit era. There’s a few with small speech samples, but no cheesy radio-friendly rock music like the later games had. It seems like something which could have been done back in the day, but with a little bit of spit and polish added to it.
It’s the little touches that make this stand out from other attempts at a 2D Sonic resurrection. The rings move more fluidly, without the slowdown the Mega Drive had, and they appear to pop out towards the screen occasionally. The background areas have some stunning looking parallax scrolling and there’s plenty of little animations going on to add a feel of expansiveness to all of the levels, not to mention all the subtle nods to other Sega games hidden throughout. Each act ends with a boss or mini-boss, and there’s a great deal of variety with Robotnik coming at you in a variety of vehicles, as well as various beasties after your precious lives, including a fan-favourite enemy who I won’t name to avoid spoilers.
Honestly, it’s very difficult to find any fault with the game at all, it really is a joy to play. This isn’t just one of the best Sonic games of recent years, but this is up there as one of the best games in the series overall. Since picking the title up, I’ve done very little but play it, talk about it, and write things about it. When I’ve stopped playing, it’s been because I have to do some kind of boring adult thing, or because my thumbs have started to ache. Christian Whitehead has done the impossible and released a Sonic game which is just as addictive and fun as the originals. An absolute must-have for anybody who likes platform games.
Sonic Mania (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
Outstanding. Why do you not have this game already?
Finally, we have the return to form that Sonic fans have been waiting for all these years. This isn’t just one of the best Sonic games of recent years, but one of the best Sonic games full stop. You owe it to yourself to get a copy of this masterpiece.