Game: Sonic Mania
Developer: PagodaWest Games, Headcannon
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review code provided)
Poor old Sonic, he’s had something of a tough time of late. After a series of unbelievably disappointing attempts to try and emulate his moustachioed platform rival’s jump to 3D, as well as a somewhat flakey effort at a numbered 2D spin-em-up, Sega gave the development rights on a new game to Christian Whitehead and Headcannon Studios, to produce what can only be described as the best Sonic game for decades.
The thing is, if you were to just pick up and play Sonic Mania from the beginning, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is just another straight up remake. Green Hill Zone is as lush and saturated as it has ever been, and the music tapped into a vein of nostalgia that felt so good, it should probably be illegal. Nostalgia is a trope that runs through Mania from the get go, and yet it never feels like it’s overplaying its hand. Underneath the pin-sharp recreations of certain areas from the original games lies a sense of confidence that that little blue bastard has found his rhythm again, and isn’t about to let it go. From the not-so-subtle nods and easter eggs that litter each zone, to the astonishingly complex design of some of the “Act 2” areas, it’s a game that reminds you just how much fun it is when you’ve gotta go fast.
Alongside some boss fights that hark back to the glory days of the Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you’re over the pond), there are some incredibly inventive new bosses that have been created for this outing. They range in scope from the fun and straightforward to the infuriatingly obscure, until you find the exact way to beat them in 3 relatively simple hits. It’s the tried and tested Sonic formula, but this time round, unlike Sonic 4’s slightly looser physics, this just feels “right”. Jumps are responsive, and the sense of speed is something that has been sorely lacking from any console that’s had more than 16 bits. This is helped along by the new mechanic, allowing you to prep a spin-dash in mid air by pressing and holding the jump button before you land. It provides a short yet satisfying burst of speed that will allow you to bust through walls, smash into enemies and pop power-up boxes throughout. It’s an addition that’s as welcome as it is fun, and something that you didn’t realise that Sonic needed until you’re deprived of it. Similarly new is the “blue ring box”, which makes any of the golden hoops spilled by Sonic a lot larger, and containing a multiple of rings in them. It makes it much easier to recover as much as you can if you get hit when the power up is active, enabling you to keep your sights set on the big numbers at the end of the level.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Sonic game without some companions, and Mania is no exception. Knuckles and Tails make appearances, and you can play through the entire game with an array of combinations of the three. It’s a lovely way to bring back couch co-op in the most basic of ways, but it works, and it’s given me fresh eyes on a seemingly tired partnership. Sonic and Tails feel like a great duo in this game, and Tails actually helped me out of a few tricky spots, be it with his flight mechanic or spinning into an enemy that had me trapped at an inconvenient moment.
Graphically, the game looks beautiful. If you’ve got any fondness for the pixel art/16 bit style, then you can’t go too far wrong with what Sonic Mania has to offer. However, like Shovel Knight before it, it doesn’t attempt to emulate the hardware that things have run on in the past, but utilise the power available to them today with a view to create something that looks “old” whilst still feeling fresh. A prime example of this is when Sonic loses his rings. Previously they’d fly all over the place, but with Sonic Mania, they really do fly all over. They fly toward the camera, they fly away from the camera, and it adds to the chaos in a fantastic manner. It’s a subtle tweak, but once you’ve noticed it, it’s impossible to un-see.
Let’s talk about platforms for a second. Approximately 30 minutes after getting the review code through on the PS4, I immediately went out and bought the game on the Nintendo Switch. And Nintendo’s handheld is the perfect platform for Sega’s mascot. Imagine going back to 1992 and telling that to anyone who’d listen! The ability to go from handheld to docked is wonderful for a game with this look and feel, and the numerous graphical options add a gorgeous touch of flair to both modes.
There’s more to the game than just the main mode though. If you’re willing to poke and prod beyond the initial story run, you’re presented with a whole host of new modes, as well as some brilliant nods back to the nineties that you’ll definitely not want to miss.
Whether or not you have any fondness for Sonic or Sega in general, Sonic Mania is an excellent platformer, with the sheer wealth of creativity far outstripping any possible over-reliance on nostalgia. It’s inventive, it’s infuriating at times, and it’s fast. I think it’s safe to say that Sonic is back. I just hope it’s for good this time.