Sonic Mania Review

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! 

The Top 10 Games 2017

Back in the N64 era, I noticed my games collection was slightly imbalanced. The vast majority of games on my shelf were football titles. My teenage self set the target of addressing the balance and making sure I had – in loose terms – one of each genre. What resulted was a mini-golden age of gaming. I could only have one shooter (obviously Goldeneye), one football game etc etc and through trading in and careful curation I made sure I only had the cream of the crop. I have 188 games on my PlayStation 4 through carried over purchases from PlayStation 3 and Vita, PlayStation Plus and hoarding in flash sales. In the download era it would be impossible to purge these games from my account but it got me thinking; what are the best games to play today? Top ten/hundred lists usually start getting predictable near the top, dominated by the likes of Mario 64. So, we are aiming to do something different. What are the best games to play in 2017? Nostalgic feelings and historical impact (we’ve got another list for that) on the industry are not applicable. Yes, San Andreas was important in 2004 but we’ve come a long way since then. Genres are defined by pennilessdads and we’ve also ignored sports titles as we felt that was too broad a heading. We aim to update this list at least 3 times a year. Some genres are unrepresented – sorry in advance!

2D era inspired game – Shovel Knight

The last ten years has seen a resurgence of 2D games and the tip of the spear is Shovel Knight. Riffing on sooo many games of yesteryear, this polished platform – which now has 3 campaigns – is great value. We await to see if August’s Sonic Mania can challenge Shovel Knight’s title. 

First person shooter – Destiny

Since 2014, the question I have asked when playing every game with a hand and a gun is: does it feel like Destiny? This is testament to the quality of Bungie’s epic online playground. As the journey of the original Destiny comes to an end, there’s one last chance to experience this great, genre defining experience. Will Destiny 2 overthrow it?

Racing – Mario Kart 8

Once upon a time, racing games like SEGA Rally, Daytona, Gran Turismo and Ridge Racer were tentpoles of console line ups. These days ‘serious’ racers are no longer at the forefront. The Forza series is arguably the best of these but the Switch’s recent deluxe version of Mario Kart 8 conquers all.

Story based action game – The Last of Us Remastered

There are so many games which could feature here. However, The Last of Us is a standout title and perhaps the game which elevated Naughty Dog to the highest tier of games designers – keeping company with the creme de la creme of games developers.  

3D collectathon platformer – Super Mario Galaxy 2

Following last gen’s trend of semi-sequels, an uncharacteristic Nintendo sequel to the fantastic Super Mario Galaxy is a varied collection of creative challenges which will change the way you think of a Mario game. Yes, Super Mario Odyssey will probably knock Galaxy 2 off its perch but we’ll have to wait until October for that. 

Crafting game – Fallout 4

Controversy! Minecraft inspired this element in many, many games but Fallout 4 has a – much maligned- base crafting feature which gives a nice change of pace with the rest of the game. Every settlement in Fallout 4 I come across now has a much refined plan to create an armoured, impervious foretress (concrete block the perimeter, guns intermittently around, robot protectors). A great aside to a great game which has unfair criticism in my humble opinion. 

High fantasy adventure – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

It was a three horse race between this, Skyrim and Witcher 3. BotW changes everything. This is as close to a perfect game as there has ever been. The end. 

Puzzle – Puyo Puyo Tetris

Harking back to the Gameboy game which catapulted tetrominoes into popular culture, this quirky crossover has a great array of modes and a manic story mode. Multiplayer puzzling has never been as much fun. An honourable mention would be The Witness. 

Turn based role playing – Persona 5

Final Fantasy 13 ushered in a lapse in quality of Square Enix’s epic series. Persona saw the gap at the top and grasped the opportunity. The latest Persona has caught public opinion dominating conversations in and around various games podcasts. Style and substance combined make this the current pinnacle of JRPGs. 

Horror – Until Dawn

The 32bit era sewed the seeds of survival horror with Resident Evil, refining it the point of (then) perfection in the fourth iteration in the next generation. Between 2005 and 2015 though, the genre suffered as the balance between action and scares became more one than the other (clue: it’s not horror). 

Enter Until Dawn. Recently available on PS Plus as one of the free games on PS4, this seemingly by the numbers teen horror movie matters so much more when you’re calling the shots. Within five minutes of starting, you’re already wishing one of the douchebags dead. A great twist on the Telltale style experience and great for couch co-op. 

Mike drop…

If you disagree, correct us in the comments on the site or on Twitter @pennilessdads

Top 10 GameCube games we want remade in HD on Switch

  1. Super Mario Sunshine
  2. F-Zero GX
  3. Luigi’s Mansion
  4. Paper Mario the Thousand Year Door
  5. Metal Gear Solid the Twin Snakes
  6. Viewtiful Joe
  7. Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg
  8. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles
  9. Zelda: Four Swords
  10. Mario Kart Double Dash

Honourable mentions:

  • Zelda: Wind Waker (give us the HD Wii U version)
  • Resident Evil 4
  • Metroid Prime 1+2 (widescreen as in Wii versions)
  • Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2 and 3

Speeding Towards Adventure

First of all, kudos if you get the article title. 2017 is amongst other things the return of the mascot platformer/collect-a-thon. Yooka-Laylee, Crash Bandicoot and Mario Odyssey make up a holy trinity of games which hark back to the foggy days of PS1, Dreamcast and N64. In between these releases comes a double-edged spike ball of fury (furry?); Sonic. Could this finally be the return to glory for one of gaming’s original trend setters?

In the 90s, 2D Sonic arguably peaked with Sonic 3 & Knuckles – the ‘complete’ version of Sonic 3. The game refined power ups and level variety whilst having the best balance of furry sidekicks which would in later games get out of hand. The transition to 3D was as awkward as a human-hedgehog romantic relationship. Sonic Adventure wasn’t Mario 64 quality and is difficult to play in 2017 due to some extremely clunky 3D work. However, it was fun and had some memorable, iconic moments. The 3D games got progressively worse – always trying to shoehorn in alternate mechanics which were at odds with Sonic’s simplicity. No wonder Knuckles always loses the Master Emerald if all he has is that annoying blinking radar thing. 

Over in 2D Sonic world, there has been more consistent content. Sonic Advance and its sequels were good and were followed up with strong Nintendo DS games. However, monstrosities like Sonic 4 (both episodes) and the first Sonic Boom smart like spring jumping straight into a Buzz Bomber. 

Back in 3D land, things got weirder. Sonic became a werewolf, went to Camelot and vastly expanded his band of forgettable sidekicks. For the record, the Chaotix crew is where the line should be. Shadow, Silver and any other X the Z diluted the already diminished quality of the series. False dawns like Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 rubbed salt in the wounds of SEGA fans who had already begun to accept the seemingly inevitable. Occasionally a game gave a speck of hope. Sonic and the Secret Rings on Wii begun the ‘rollercoaster’ style game style and was built on in Colors and Sonic Unleashed. An uneasy balance was finally found in Sonic Generations which reimagined stages from all eras of Sonic, mixing 2D and 3D gameplay. It was great fun and most importantly wasn’t a chore to play. All non-Sonic shenanigans were optional. This all brings us to 2017’s offerings…

By the year’s end, we should have 2D retro-inspired sequel to Sonic 3 & Knuckles; Sonic Mania as well as Generations-esque Sonic Forces. Between the two games there looks to be something for everyone and – hopefully – games which finally restore the honour to Sonic’s name. Like Mario, it was once a symbol of quality and you knew exactly what you were going to get. The faux 16-bit graphics of Mania will draw the attention of lapsed gamer 30-somethings who will instantly recognise the blue blur. Plus for a sub-£20 price tag it is a no brainier purchase. Sonic Forces aims to build on Generations’ more consistent 3D environments and deliver a 2017 Sonic adventure. Interestingly the ‘build your own sidekick’ feature seems like a master stroke. No one can moan of the suspect supporting cast if they are user created. It gives big kids like us the chance to recreate great characters like those from the UK’s now defunct Sonic the Comic or more recent fan-favourites like Big the Cat. 

We wait with bated breath to see if these two Sonics can deliver after 20 years of false starts. As the Sonic Adventure theme says: 

‘Gotta open your heart!

Can’t hold on much longer!

But I will never let go!

I know it’s a one way track!

Tell me now how long this’ll last!

I’m not gonna think this way!

Nor will I count on others!

Close my eyes and feel it burn!

Now I see what I gotta do!

Open your heart, it’s gonna be alright! Yeah!’

We hope!