Review: Sonic Mania
There was a time when Sonic the Hedgehog was one of the most popular characters in the videogame industry. Sega’s mascot was such a prominent figure that he was a legitimate rival to Nintendo’s very own Mario, which resulted in a constant battle for popularity during the SNES/Sega Genesis years. This rivalry eventually ended when both companies made the jump to 3D game design, where Nintendo dominated the market with their first 3D Mario title: Super Mario 64. Sega tried to follow that success, but quickly lost their once powerful status as a videogame developer when it became obvious that Sonic the Hedgehog is not an easy franchise to implement in a 3D setting. Many years and failed attempts later, Sega finally realized that a 2D Sonic game would probably have more success than a 3D one and decided to let a group of fans develop a new Sonic title that would be a love-letter to its former days of glory. Thus, Sonic Mania was born and is now finally playable on almost every platform.
Nostalgia with upgrades
Sonic Mania is a passion project from Headcannon and PagodaWest Games, two independent studios that are prominent names in the Sonic fangame community. After spending several hours with the game, I can un-doubtfully say that Sonic Mania is a faithful adaptation of the early Sonic games. I would even call it one of the best Sonic games period. The game contains both old and new zones that are expertly crafted. For example, Green Hill Zone is a well-known zone in the Sonic community. The first stage of this zone is designed the same as in the early Sonic titles, but with some changes and new paths to follow. However, the second stage is a completely new design that offers fans a fresh take on the zone. This way of redesigning a zone is applied to all the old zones in Sonic Mania. The new zones are then filled with colorful and detailed visuals, fitting perfectly in the Sonic universe.
All the zones are also filled with secret stages that reward you with bonus features, like an AI Knuckles that follows you like Tails does, and Chaos Emeralds. There are two types of secret stages: Bonus Stages and Special Stages. Bonus stages is a return of the Blue Sphere minigame, in which you have to collect all the blue spheres on a 3D globe by turning your character in four directions. This minigame plays exactly like it does in earlier Sonic titles and is a nice change of pace, although they do increase noticeably in difficulty. Completing a Bonus Stage rewards you with extra features that aren’t necessary to complete the game, but offer some extra replayability.
The Special Stage is also a minigame, but one that is entirely new to the series. In ‘Catch the UFO!’ you have to run along a track and catch a UFO that is trying to flee from you. Scattered along the track are obstacles that you have to avoid and blue spheres that increase your speed, which is necessary for catching the UFO. If you succeed, you’ll be rewarded with a Chaos Emerald. There are seven Emeralds to be collected throughout the game, which unlock the true ending if you’ve found all of them before reaching the final boss. Catch the UFO is a great addition to the game and feels like it’s been a part of the Sonic franchise for several years. The only minor issue I have with it is that the low polygon rendered 3D objects make it look like an unfinished part of the game, but that can be seen as a nitpick since it was probably made like that intentionally in order to make it truly play like a Sega Mega Drive game.
Rolling around at the speed of…
The gameplay is almost exactly the same as in the early Sonic titles. You have to reach the end of a stage while collecting rings and avoiding (or destroying) enemies. The faster you run, the less time you waste which rewards you with a higher score at the end of the level. There are some minor upgrades to be discovered while playing the game. The most noticeable one is that the game has a widescreen aspect ratio, which makes it a little easier to see upcoming hazards and dodge them. Widescreen is not a new feature in Sonic games but previously this was only available in ports of the old games, not in the originals themselves. The problem is that it still doesn’t completely fix one of Sonic’s major issues that are apparent in almost every 2D title in the series. When you’re walking at a normal pace, it’s pretty easy to collect all the rings and avoid hazards. However, Sonic games constantly want to encourage you to run at top speed with the charge dash move and time attack modes. The problem is that running at high-speed in a 2D setting means you don’t have the ability to see upcoming hazards, resulting in constantly hitting spikes and enemies, which makes you lose time and rings. Sure, you can replay the zones many times in order to memorize the locations of hazards, but I don’t think the majority of players have the time nor the patience to do this.
Another minor change is the Drop Dash move that gives Sonic the ability the charge up his famous rolling ball move while being in mid-air. This means that you can either stand still and charge up your dash move or jump in the air and immediately perform the dash when touching the ground. It doesn’t change the gameplay that much, but it’s there for the hardcore players that want to make use of everything that can shorten their time to complete a zone in order to get a higher score. It’s also a little tricky to pull off with the floaty controls, which is another issue that’s been prominent throughout several Sonic titles. The controls are fine when you’re running, but jumping and swimming can sometimes be a little frustrating. It’s not easy to control Sonic, Tails and Knuckles when they’re in mid-air or underwater since they don’t always go where you want them to go. This is especially annoying when you have to avoid enemies or follow a specific pattern to get past a hazard. I understand that the devs wanted to make Sonic Mania as authentic to the originals as possible, but they could have made the controls a little better.
The soundtrack of Sonic Mania is simply put fantastic. Its chiptune style of music is a delight to listen to and will get stuck in your head after several hours of gameplay. Each zone has two different tracks, one for each stage and all of them fit perfectly with the designs of the zones themselves. It’s obvious that the soundtrack was also composed by a fan of the series. If you’re a fan of the soundtrack in the original Sonic titles, then get ready to feel like a kid again because Sonic Mania’s soundtrack will take you back with its tracks.
Sonic Mania is a well-made recreation of the glory days of the Sonic franchise. It looks, sounds and plays exactly like a 2D Sonic the Hedgehog game. All the strengths of the originals are kept in, but sadly most of the weaknesses as well, although some of them have been improved a little. If Sonic games never interested you, then Sonic Mania won’t change your mind. After all, it’s a game made by and for the fans. If you’re a fan of the series, then get ready for one of the best titles in the franchise.