Video Game Reviews

Video Game Review: Sonic Mania

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Sega has had a certain obsession with maintaining the relevance of Sonic the Hedgehog. The character has been taken into multiple genres, teamed up with other franchises, and even rebooted just to be quickly undone. In spite of all that, Sonic himself has only become more and more of a meme courtesy of game culture and the Sonic fandom being particularly committed and self-aware simultaneously. Sega seems to have finally accepted this reality in recent time, creating one of the most well-known “Brand Twitter” accounts and embracing Sonic’s fan community with wide open arms. That extends to the creation of Sonic Mania.

Developed not by Sonic Team but instead by developers that cut their teeth on Sonic fan games, Sonic Mania returns to the titles of the Genesis era to try to return the character to his glory of that time. But can fans properly revive the Sonic of old, and (maybe more importantly) was Sonic ever actually good to begin with? That’s ultimately the questions asked by the existence of Sonic Mania.

To answer the first question; the developers indeed pulled off making a good Sonic game. The 16-bit era is replicated deftly here, choosing to not soften the pixels like you’ll see in other titles intentionally invoking that period of time. Because of that, Mania looks a lot more like what an actually follow up to Sonic & Knuckles than the episodic and 3D rendered Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was for many fans. As someone who did grow up with the Sega Genesis, firing up Mania and seeing Green Hill Zone faithfully recreated on a modern console was a big slap of nostalgia to the face, or at least it was until the recreation peeled away and showed off what kind of game that Sonic Mania really is.

Given the keys to the Sonic kingdom, the team wasn’t content with faithfully recreating what games of the past were like. Finally able to make their turn their own passion into a game that can be properly shared with others; they’ve gone wild with their power. They give players about half an act to get settled back into this kind of game, and start throwing remixed challenges and enemies at you. The classic sense of speed is back, encouraging players to blast through levels; but constantly reminding them the hard way that there are going to be hazards popping into the screen at will by yanking your coins away for being careless. Simply put, it doesn’t play around.

While the cast is severely reduced compared to other modern Sonic titles, the characters included create multiple ways to tackle the game’s levels. The default is the combo of Sonic and Tails, (which makes sense as including Tails was easily the best innovation the Sonic series ever had) but you can also select Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles individually. Additionally, a second player can take on Tails’ role. Obviously playing as only a single character ups the difficulty a little, with Knuckles getting a tradeoff in speed and recovery for the ability to climb the stage. If you’ve played a classic Sonic title, you won’t find this surprising; but each character is faithfully recreated here in a way unseen for what feels like forever. In terms of characters, that’s about it. Half the bosses are players going up against Dr. Robotnik Eggman’s various piloted mechanical death traps, and the others are against the good doctor’s self sufficient mechanical servants. With the exception of a single surprise appearance that works pretty well, the rest of the canon’s characters are nowhere to be found, and the game’s better for it.

As nice as the bosses are, and they’re great, the stages are the real stars of the show, as these designers decided to throw everything they can into the pot, and there are some genuinely impressive sights to be had. For example, a return trip to the Chemical Zone requires more mixing of chemicals to make a substance to bounce off of, so Sonic and crew have to work in a more upward direction than normally seen in a stage. This creativity is employed in each act of the zones-there are only two per zone-as transitions happen immediately and actually give a sense of progression in a piecemeal way. In some cases, it can feel like you’ve transported to another zone in the middle of the process. Each act is also given it’s own score that has connected notes, but really does make each individual act feel carefully made. The music is incredibly well done also, courtesy a loving score by Tee Lopes. Sounds and familiar chords are sampled just enough to serve as a foundation for a powerful and memorable score all its own.

While these folks have clearly had the Genesis games on the brain for years, most of us players haven’t. There are a few moments throughout the game that are more frustrating than necessarily innovative and that does hinder the sense of awe a bit. The more I played, the more often it felt like I was lucking my way through various sections, rather than making my progress through a growing skill. That feeling isn’t all the time, but enough to be notable. Mania has challenges, but a decent amount of dedication will get you through the game in a long afternoon. That isn’t a bad thing, as the different characters and other challenge modes encourage a replayability you wouldn’t get in a longer game. There isn’t a lot of online components either, save for the ability to share your time attack scores. Altogether there feels like just the right amount of content, especially if you go back through to find all the callouts to the franchise’s legacy and the fan community at large. There are some really hilarious bits, interesting development secrets, and even some touching tributes all hidden throughout.

If I had any complaints, it’s that the special and bonus stages accessible throughout the game are also heavily inspired by Sonic’s history, but in a not so stellar way. These use pseudo-3D mapping, like Sega’s early experiments with 3D elements in their games while unable to actually render full 3D environments. As a result, these don’t look nearly as good and control like a bad tank simulation. These need to be completed in order to unlock the real ending and other extras, which is a shame as they detract from the really good stuff.

Looking at the performance, the game runs pretty much exactly as you’d expect. I didn’t experience any performance issues, and the only possible glitch I experienced is due to my own failure to follow platforms than something I’d chalk up to being broken. There’s not a lot taxing the hardware, so I would imagine the experience is the same across the board. I should mention however that the Switch version is what I played, and the game is kind of weird about actually using the Switch’s own system functions. There’s a delay in doing anything: taking screen shots, going to the Home menu, or even putting the console to sleep. It’s more bizarre than problematic, and a fix is apparently incoming, but at the time of this writing has not been resolved. That said, the game’s director seems to have it on his mind, his response to the issue is the pinned tweet on his Twitter account. 

The second questioned posited by Sonic Mania is “Was Sonic ever actually good?” That’s a difficult question to answer, as going in blind is almost impossible, and the Sonic franchise in particular has been all over the place in terms of game design and quality. However, what I can say with certainty is that Sonic Mania is a very good game. Mania is filled with expression, passion, and a genuine desire to push the envelope for a franchise that forgot where the envelope even was at times. This isn’t the kind of game that comes from a love of a franchise that isn’t worth remembering at all. For this moment at least, Sonic the Hedgehog is actually good.  

 

Developer: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, PagodaWest Games, SEGA of America

Publisher: SEGA

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC

Released: August 15th, 2017 (Consoles), August 29th, 2017 (PC)

Copy Purchased By Reviewer