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Sonic Mania

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: PagodaWest Games
Release Date: July 17, 2018


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PS4 Review - 'Sonic Mania'

by Cody Medellin on Aug. 30, 2017 @ 1:45 a.m. PDT

Sonic Mania brings fans back into the 2D world of platform games with nostalgic pixel-style art and core classic gameplay by reimagining iconic Zones and Acts from Sonic The Hedgehog, Sonic The Hedgehog 2, Sonic CD and Sonic The Hedgehog 3 and Knuckles.

Buy Sonic Mania

Some of the Sonic franchise's 3-D games have fared well. Sonic Adventures 1 and 2 have loyal followings among Dreamcast and GameCube players. Sonic Colors was considered by Wii owners to be a very good game, and Sonic Generations was regarded well enough by fans that it has become the basis for an upcoming game, Sonic Forces. Despite this, 3-D Sonic the Hedgehog games have made a mediocre impression. The move to 2-D didn't help, either, as many would rather forget about the episodic Sonic the Hedgehog 4.

For those willing to delve into emulation and ROM hacking, the Sonic series never lost its luster. Various ROM hacks and original works from talented fan developers have kept alive the spirit of the 2-D games. Seeing their work in some excellent iOS ports of their Genesis and Sega CD titles, Sega decided that the best thing to do was to step aside and let the fans do their thing. The result is Sonic Mania, which makes a Sonic game unironically excellent and exciting again.

All of this starts with a plot that hearkens back to the original Genesis days, when cut scenes were minimal, in-game, and presented without dialogue. Once again, Dr. Robotnik is trying to steal the Chaos Emeralds and tap the power within to rule the world. This time, he has the help of some robots that became self-aware and refer to themselves as the Hard-Boiled Heavies. As Sonic and Tails arrive on the scene, one of the emeralds has been dug up and its power has been tapped, sending the heroic duo time-traveling into adventures past and future.

The first level is Green Hill Zone Act 1, and from the outset, nothing looks or feels different. Both Sonic and Tails look exactly like they did when Sonic the Hedgehog 2 came out, and Green Hill Zone looks exactly like it did in the original Sonic the Hedgehog. Enemy placement is the same, the rings are in the same location, and the springs are also where you remember them to be. Even the music is the same. More importantly, the game is presented completely in 2-D with exquisite sprite work. In short, the first level is an exact replica of past games, and while it's still a perfect introduction to  the game mechanics, it does leave one wondering what the fuss is about.

Give it a little time, and you'll notice the gameplay differences. The level may start off with the iconic loop, but you'll soon find that spiral from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. The flame bubble shield is here, but it now burns the wooden beams with spikes on it. Get the bubble shield, and you can perform a bounce attack. Hit a checkpoint, and the stars for the bonus stage appear, taking you to the large spherical worlds of Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Reach the end of the stage, and you'll be greeted with a boss fight instead of a large sign. What starts off as a carbon copy of an older level quickly morphs into an amalgamation of some of the best bits from other Sonic titles. It is a neat trick, and the mash-ups are expertly crafted instead of being haphazardly thrown together.

It would be fine if that's all the game were comprised of, but Green Hill Zone Act 2 changes up things dramatically. The level theme remains, but more elements are added in the background to make the worlds feel richer. Enemies are different, and the level layout is completely new and much larger than the original levels. Paired with new bosses and new music, the additions never feel out of place.

This continues throughout the title, with stages and themes that are both old and new. Chemical Zone introduces syringes that change the properties of some of the toxic liquid, so it becomes less deadly and more bounceable. Flying Battery has piles of junk that slow you down, while Oil Ocean fills the screen with smog if you don't take the time to vent the level at checkpoints. Studiopolis has you going through popcorn machines while watching old-timey cartoons of Eggman, and Mirage Saloon brings back the pinball bumpers and flippers while adding seltzer bottles and pistols into the mix for increased propulsion.

The remixed levels and newer stages work because the design team understood what made those older titles shine. Sonic is often thought of as a game about speed, and Sonic Mania embraces that ethos. Indeed, there are parts where you'll see the hedgehog and his two-tailed fox companion bounce around like mad pinballs, reaching speeds so fast that the camera has some trouble keeping up. It makes for quite the spectacle, and it feels that merely taking control might break the scene.

However, those who have played the old titles will note that those stages allowed for exploration if you're willing to slow down, and that is also accepted here. The path to the end of a stage has many branches, so if you're willing to look around and jump, you'll find a path with a few tricks you may not have seen during your first run. There are plenty of rings and power-ups to be found in those alternate paths, so going off the beaten path is likely to result in a good surprise instead of a dead-end or death.

Sonic Mania is nostalgia done right, since it celebrates what worked in the past and incorporates new ideas without breaking the original spirit. The physics feel right, as it does take some time to build up momentum or stop. There's the addition of new moves, like the drop dash, which lets you build up your spin dash speed in the air, but otherwise, you're not dealing with complicated controls. The boss fights are a highlight because they remix old encounters with something new. Some are pretty inventive, like the robot spider fight where you have to knock it into walls of spikes. Others are frantic, like the fight in a trash compactor. They're all good, but a special mention must be made for one fight that emulates Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine: the reskin of Puyo Puyo that was released on the Sega Genesis decades ago.

The game has numerous stages, and although it can be finished in a short amount of time, finishing it with only the Sonic and Tails duo robs you of the full experience. Both of those characters and Knuckles can go solo, and while Sonic's experience only differs in that you've lost an extra person to deliver hits with, everyone else's run is vastly different. Tails' flight and Knuckles' climbing abilities open up routes that Sonic couldn't reach, and, in the case of Knuckles, a different boss fight appears. As such, the game warrants multiple playthroughs to get the complete picture, and that's not counting the versus racing stages or the collection of Chaos Emeralds for the final fight and ending.

The bonus stages may be the only portion of the game that grows tiresome. Finding the large rings in each stage will take you to a chase sequence reminiscent of the one in Sonic CD. You collect orbs and try to gain speed to catch up to the emeralds, but the less-than-precise controls here make it a chore to navigate the courses. The bonus stages gained from checkpoints are much more fun, even if completing them only unlocks bonus games like a truncated version of Mean Bean Machine and the chance to replay those spherical stages. With that said, they're so numerous and the requirements to access them are so low that you'll encounter them quite often and may actively skip them just so you don't break your momentum with the current stage.

According to the developers, the presentation can be summed up as what would've happened if Sega kept the series in 2-D but were available on the Sega Saturn. For the most part, this means that the game looks like the Genesis version but with an increased sprite count and more colors. It still tries to remain faithful to the quirks of the console, like the color bloom present whene the game fades to black. The much smoother animation for all of the characters shows off the extra horsepower. As mentioned earlier, the sound effects and some of the music is the original material, but it's still fascinating how the new stuff matches without using extra sound channels to make things sound too rich.

Sonic Mania is a must-have title for platforming fans, retro enthusiasts, and Sonic fans of all types. It captures the essence of what made the series memorable, with a balance of high speed and thoughtful level design that guides you to secrets but always takes you to the end. Boss fights are inventive, and the title's replay value is immense, given the unlockables and various available pathways based on your chosen character. All we can hope for now is an official sequel, spiritual or otherwise, from these same fans-turned-programmers.

Score: 9.0/10

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