(Mostly) Manic Fun
Developer: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, PagodaWest Games
Platform Reviewed: PC
Release Date: August 15, 2017
Acquired via: Purchased by Reviewer
I feel that there is something I need to get out of the way before I talk about Sonic Mania. We’ll call it full disclosure, so I can sound more like a journalist and less like a moron who writes about video games.
I have never been a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog.
That is mentioned up front so readers understand my frame of mind while I played Sonic Mania. I am not a “professional” reviewer, but I feel people need to know where a person playing and reviewing a game stands before he reviews a game. Even if it’s someone on a website that plays games and spews words out afterward (like me), it’s good to know where his or her head is at before he or she says stuff. So know that I was never a fan of Sonic’s games before I give my opinion.
Here’s my opinion: Sonic Mania is pretty damn good. It’s not earth-shattering; it’s not even all that original. But it’s what I consider to be the best game in this series. And it’s a pretty good game on its own merits, faults and all.
Gotta Go Fast!
First, a little backstory. In the early 90s, I was firmly entrenched in Camp Nintendo. But that didn’t mean I was sworn to only them. In the time it took for the SNES to release in 1991, I had purchased both a SEGA Genesis and an NEC TurboGrafx-16. Because I ain’t no blind fanboy.
I bought a Genesis soon after its release in 1989 and played some great games, like Altered Beast and Phantasy Star II. However, there wasn’t a Sonic game at first. The first title in the series didn’t arrive on my shores until two months before the SNES launched Stateside. I played it, and I wasn’t impressed.
It was the speed. Well, sorta.
When I played the early Sonic games on the Genesis, I was turned off by its emphasis on Sonic’s speed and its seeming lack of control. When playing the original Sonic the Hedgehog on my Genesis, I would get frustrated with all the roadblocks and cheap hits I would run into. The emphasis on speed meant that actual gameplay elements like platforming and evading obstacles were scaled back. Sonic’s whole shtick was that he was supposed to be fast. Running into walls and getting hit by enemies I can’t react to quick enough was antithetical to the whole “GOTTA GO FAST!” mentality. I can’t go fast if all this shit is slowing me down!
True, the game and its sequels did encourage some traditional platforming and exploration to find different paths. But back then, all the bullshit talk about “BLAST PROCESSING!!!” consistently underscored their inherent desire to sell you a mascot that ran at blisteringly fast speeds. And when the blue rodent got wound up and the road ahead was clear, he BOOKED!
Until he hit a wall or enemy. Which was nearly constant. And in later levels, the whole speed gimmick was thrown out the window. In later levels, Sonic the Hedgehog became a buck-standard platformer. And forgive me, SEGA fans, but any Super Mario Bros. game on the NES and SNES beats Sonic’s ass in that department.
At least they did until Sonic Mania.
Maybe it’s the fact that I am approaching this with a different mindset. When I first played Sonic the Hedgehog, I was expecting a super-fast game that degenerated into a somewhat decent platformer. When I bought Sonic Mania, I was just hoping for a game that was better than Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. Maybe the severely lowered expectations helped sell me. Or maybe it’s that someone who was passionate about the blue hedgehog and his games was at the helm. Whatever it is, I like the result.
Don’t Fear the Taxman
Credit for the awesomeness that is Sonic Mania has to go to Chris “Taxman” Whitehead and Simon “Stealth” Thomley. The former is the brainchild of a custom-made game engine that would eventually become the Retro Engine, and the latter is the founder of Headcannon. Together, both contributed to the framework that eventually became Sonic Mania. For a more in-depth look at the circumstances that led to this game, check out YouTuber Super Bunnyhop’s video on the topic. The result of their collaboration can be best summed up in this sentence:
I wish Sonic Mania were the game I played back in 1991. I would have been much more pleased with the series if that were the case. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but it’s much more pleasant than what was offered back then.
Sonic Mania is very much a return to the 2D insanity of the original games. In fact, it canonically slots in after Sonic the Hedgehog 3. The story sees Sonic and Tails locking horns again with Dr. Robotnik, but it takes a hard detour from there. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the first zone.
The biggest reason why I feel Sonic Mania works as well as it does lies in the first zone, Green Hills. This level apes many of the cues of the synonymous first level in the Genesis’s Sonic the Hedgehog. The difference is that the first area in this zone feels much better in Sonic Mania. The speed is still there; I still ran into a couple of obstacles during my first run-through. But unlike the original game, Sonic Mania allows players to regain speed quickly. Just the ability to rocket forward again quickly is a good thing.
It further helps that the platforming is deeper this time around. Sonic 2 improved on the original’s level layouts, but they weren’t all that interesting except for hardened players and, later, speedrunners. The zone is much more interesting now. Hitting an obstacle and losing forward momentum often led me to lots of nooks and crannies, many of which led to other paths. There is a massive amount of content hidden off the beaten path, and it actually encourages exploration. This is something I felt was missing from the original games. Moreover, even these little alcoves had ways to boost Sonic back up to ludicrous speeds.
(This should not be confused with Ludicrous Speed. No plaid is shown in Sonic Mania.)
Green Hills Zone is a great example of the updated approach Sonic Mania takes. It remixes some levels from the original 2D games, and throws in a few new twists to other stages. Green hills is tweaked enough to feel new but familiar enough to elicit warm feelings of nostalgia. The original soundtrack is ever-present, and it definitely put a smile on my face as I played. The Green Hills tune is iconic, and later tracks, both new and remixed, are equally great.
Another departure concerns the boss fights players encounter. Unlike the original games, which only throw a boss fight at the last area of a zone, bosses are waiting at the end of each act. Not only are there more bosses, but their mechanics are way more imaginative. Polishing off some of the later bosses will both vex and please Sonic fans.
More important than the new topography, speed boosting, and boss encounters is the game’s control. The game just feels more responsive. On many occasions while playing the original Sonic the Hedgehog, I felt that my control was yanked away because of the insane speeds the original designers wanted to convey. I often couldn’t point Sonic in a direction I wanted him to go; I just had to hope he’d hit a wall so he can come to a dead stop and hand control back to me. In the 3D games, control was even worse. I won’t rehash my struggles with Sonic Adventure; you can read my comments here for that.
Here, things are different. First off, Sonic feels more responsive from a dead stop. The long windup before Sonic hit his stride is gone. He doesn’t bolt out of the gate like a spurred horse, but it feels better to get him moving. Once moving, there are much shorter stretches where it feels like control is lost. Seasoned Sonic vets can blaze through the areas effortlessly, memorizing the layouts and making timely button presses to zoom past. Newcomers and the exploratory types can just let Sonic do his thing until he comes to a stop. The time spent watching him whir by will be short, and you will have plenty to do once he stops.
When Sonic does fly through at speed, the game doesn’t become a blurry mess like before. The visuals are more than able to keep up with Sonic’s subsonic speeds. That is another noticeable difference from the originals. The environments maintain the same 16-bit look but add tons more depth. There are many more levels of parallax scrolling in the backgrounds, and the visual fidelity does not suffer at speed. This is due to the robustness of the Retro Engine that Taxman pioneered and folks like Stealth honed. Seriously, this game is pretty.
Not All Roses
The hidden areas, as well as the more traveled paths, hold plenty of entry points to bonus stages. If Sonic has 25 rings when he reaches a Star Post, a Star Circle will appear above it. Jumping into it will transport Sonic to a Blue Sphere Stage that calls back to the Special Stages in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. If a player finds a giant ring and points Sonic to it, the player will enter a UFO Stage. Both of these are pseudo-3D areas where players can collect bonus modes or Chaos Emeralds.
It’s in the bonus areas where I started souring on Sonic Mania. They’re not necessary to complete the game; I was able to finish the game without collecting the Chaos Emeralds. But they did detract from my enjoyment of the game when I played them. That’s a personal issue; your mileage may vary.
Even though the amount of time I had little control was sharply reduced from before, I still had too many moments where I felt like a furry pinball bouncing off bumpers and swishing through tubes. I like to have full control when I play a platformer; the fact Sonic has a mind of his own and takes control away from me grates at me a bit. That is endemic to all games in the Sonic series, so it’s a given that it’ll happen. Yes, I could just jump and slow my momentum, but isn’t the whole speed gimmick the point to Sonic games? Thankfully, those moments are not as long and as boring as the moments in the 3D Sonic games. Still, I don’t like it.
Do those elements I personally find flawed inhibit my ability to play Sonic Mania? Not at first. Playing through the game the first time around was fun. The combination of cues to the past and changes for the present gave me a satisfying experience. But now that I’ve played it, I don’t have much urge to revisit it. Sure, I can gun for the Chaos Emeralds, and there are Time Attack modes that I can tackle. But I don’t have the inclination to go there again anytime soon. In my case, replayability is non-existent.
Of course, my original bias against Sonic could be at play here. I recognize that and temper myself accordingly. Still, this is the first 2D Sonic game that I wanted to play till the end. It made me appreciate the original games so much, I actually fired up my Genesis and replayed the original two games (the only ones I physically own). I still disliked the originals, but Sonic Mania made me want to just try.
I don’t think Sonic Mania is incredible, but it is, without a doubt, the best Sonic game I have ever played. I’m not a fan of some elements, and I don’t foresee repeated playthroughs in my near future. But the game itself is a whole lotta fun the first time around. That’s way more than I could’ve said about the original 2D games.
I’m still not a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog. But thanks to Sonic Mania, I do appreciate him more now.