Version Reviewed: Xbox One
In the opening cinematic to Sonic Mania, a countdown timer goes from 1 to 2 to 3 then Knuckles before arriving on Mania. Sonic 4 (both episodes), the plethora of 3D adventures and werewolves are left at the door. The question everyone wants to know upon this games’ release; is this really the successor to the evangelised – by some – Megadrive games?
Upon booting up Sonic Mania, the nostalgia strings of your heart are pulled. The game, which begins the only way it can, follows Sonic (with or without twin-tailed sidekick) hunting Dr. Robotnik across a mix of newly created zones – some based on themes from earlier games. Hydro City- one of my most despised Zones from Sonic 3 – is present yet feels completely different from its 16 bit ancestor. As with all of the ‘remixed’ zones there are familiar traps, architecture and enemy placement which rekindle forgotten memories of yesteryear. Each feels fresh and exciting whilst have a warm sense of happy familiarity.
The moment to moment gameplay is exceptional for two reasons. Firstly, the game understands what makes Sonic fun. When uncertain of the road ahead the blue blur throws caution into the wind and speeds towards adventure whilst never feeling on-rails. Secondly, the game removes many of the grievances of past Sonic games. Our hero’s struggles in 3D aside, the Megadrive games have not aged well – particularly the pace and structure of the levels. Sonic Mania rectifies this by ironically taking a few lessons from the Mario school of game design. In the same way the environments in Mario guide and teach you the rules of the world, Mania’s subtle design choices do the same. In one zone, Sonic can be frozen in an ice cube which can be shaken off with a few presses of the jump button or moving. Instinctive, yet a puzzle in this level requires you to use the ice to forge ahead. There’s a cleverness and confidence in the level design which has been missing from many of Sonic’s 21st Century outings. Plus it excels in one area more than others.
Without spoiling the best parts of this game, the boss fights are inspired. Fan favourites – and we mean hardcore fans’ – return in unexpected places with possibly the most creative, smile-spreading end of level battles ever created. To give examples would rob you of this but trust us; they are good! As with Sonic 3 and Knuckles, each act has a boss. Each level has you sat on the edge of your seat waiting to see what concoction of terror awaits; like a furry, sugar coated My Little Pony/Saw mash up.
As with Sonic 3 and Knuckles, players can choose different combinations of the three (best) Sonic heroes to play as. The game plays homage to the above games’ special stages and the ‘UFO’ style stages from Sonic CD. These help to vary the gameplay though it is always welcome to return to the main body of the game. Also, if you remember the Sky Chase Zone from Sonic 2 or Sonic Adventure, a brief homage is made in the Mirage Saloon Zone. Again it looks like we remember Sonic 2 but upon closer inspection extra details and better animations are present. In this review, I’ve tried to steer clear of comparisons with previous Sonic games but this is perhaps unavoidable; this is the best Sonic game to play today.
Every corner of this game oozes with the developers’ love and passion for this series. Despite the 16 bit stylings, the game is anything but. Like Shovel Knight, the animations are detailed and sleek. The original music and backgrounds have added layers which pop in 2017 HD. Added visual effects like fallen rings hurtling in and out of the screen add to the high production values in this game. Having recently revisited Sonic 3 & Knuckles on Xbox 360/One, PC and Nintendo DS, it is worth identifying that Mania’s controls are tighter than its predecessors. No death feels unfair – another stark difference to the Megadrive games. Again akin to Shovel Knight, the addition of further remixed stages to play through as Knuckles adds value to what is already a substantial package – the game is much bigger than Sonic 3 FYI…
Having spent much of 1993 reading Sonic the Comic or Mean Machines SEGA gawping at screenshots of Sonic 3, I remember scraping enough money through odd jobs to buy the game on its release. The same buzz of popping that game into my Megadrive is felt when loading up Sonic Mania. It understands why that era of gaming is special. There is something about Sonic which appeals to the child at heart. Playing Mania for review with my 1 year old son, he too was mesmerised by every loop, spin and dash. Sonic Mania is a masterpiece which is successful in every goal it has set out to achieve. It is the Sonic 4 fans have dreamt of for decades. In the same way many DC fans say Batman V Superman is the perfect film for them, there is no better reward for Sonic-ites hungry to see his return to glory. And crucially, at under £20, it is outstanding value for money. Highly, highly recommended. If you owned a Megadrive, this game is essential!