It’s fair to say that, whether you’re a die-hard fan or not, we can all admit that Sonic The Hedgehog hasn’t had the easiest of times over the past decade. With developers that are seemingly keen to reinvent the titular blue mammal at every given opportunity, Sonic’s reputation in the year 2017 bears the ugly scars of many half-baked ideas and failed attempts to keep things fresh in the modern 3D era. Though it’s not all been doom-and-gloom during this time, for every title to hit the sweet-spot and successfully blend the new and old, we’ve also received some inexcusable tosh along the way that has only sullied the name of a once untouchable inductee of gaming’s hall of fame.
Truth be told, it’s been difficult to watch such a world-renowned icon fall so far from the tremendous height they first sat upon 26 years ago. With a current identity that resembles little else than a muddled mess, the poor hedgehog has had a hard time planning his next career move despite the series’ deep-rooted potential. Desperately in need of a solid release to remind us all why he’s so special, the Hedgehog might just have scored himself a lifeline with his latest outing.
Playing through Sonic Mania, it’s clear to see from the opening seconds why Sonic The Hedgehog came to be one of the greatest game series of all time. With developers Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games collaborating to bring back the old-school gameplay first seen on the MegaDrive back in 1991, Sonic Mania is survived by more than just its nostalgia factor. With a well-preserved core sitting at the heart of it all, it’s remarkable just how solid the retro action still feels after all this time. Building up speed and blitzing through each and every level is still just as exhilarating, and thanks to the simple control scheme the minute-to-minute gameplay retains its purity. Speeding, jumping, climbing and bouncing across the game’s 13 unique stage’s has never felt so fun, and the passion from each developer has resulted in a ‘Greatest Hits’ package of sorts.
Though the cynics amongst us would likely believe the title leans too heavily on the concept of nostalgia, Sonic Mania actually breaks its action up by presenting a collection of classic stages mixed in with totally brand-new concepts for added variety. Amongst those stages returning are Chemical Zone, Hydrocity Zone and, of course, Green Hill Zone – all reworked to offer something familiar-yet-fresh despite their long-standing history. Donning classic 16-bit visuals and an infectious soundtrack, each level is brought to life with the same creative spark found within the original titles that, thanks to inventive design and level-specific mechanics, all play as differently as they look.
Still split over the course of two separate acts, each section provides enough diversity to keep the proceedings as engaging as ever. With boss encounters at the end of each stage too, many of which are some of the most creative seen in the series thus far, it’s easy to enjoy your time spent thwarting the evil Dr. Eggman and his army of robot cronies. Thanks to the branching level designs that accommodate for multiple routes and even hidden passages, there’s always something new and interesting to run into along the way, even on multiple runs. Playing through Sonic Mania is absolutely a joyous old-school romp, but despite the established charm and ingenuity packed within, the game is also not without its problems.
Reviving the classic gameplay may have reminded of a simpler and more innocent time, but as a result of more than two decades worth of hindsight and substantial development leaps, it’s easier now than ever to see the cracks within the traditional formula. Sonic’s accelerated movement, for example, can be your undoing in platform-heavy segments that require quick and calculated responses, an issue that becomes a particular headache during boss battles that require precise jumping and dodging. It can also be hard to tell which enemies can be harmed and when, not to mention that getting crushed by obstacles still results in an instant death – a particular grievance that’s often the outcome of the aforementioned ill-fitting platforming controls. While never enough to totally disrupt the flow and enjoyment, these annoyances do enough to make you wonder why they were never addressed in this release, growing particularly frustrating when forced to repeat entire stages from scratch should you run out of lives.
These issues aside, Sonic Mania remains what is without a doubt a solid package for fans and newcomers alike. Featuring special stages throughout that offer 3D challenges to unlock medals and Chaos Emeralds, you’re encouraged to revisit levels countless times over in order to reach full completion. Players can even choose to play as Tails or Knuckles too, each bringing something different to the experience thanks to their flying and climbing abilities. All of this is further strengthened by additional bonus content that’s all unlockable on top of the regular ‘Mania Mode’. A Time Trial mode, split-screen Competitive mode, and even a set of cheats and further extras are up for grabs that, while unlikely to offer the same amount of replayability as the main experience, make welcome additions to a game that truly celebrates the illustrious heritage of the franchise.
Representing far more than just a trip down memory lane, Sonic Mania is a reminder that this old dog hedgehog still has plenty of spring in his step. While it’s true that the game stands out against the backdrop of today’s very different gaming landscape, its appeal isn’t a direct result of this hearty-dose of nostalgia. Expanding upon the classic foundations of old and blending in newer ideas, the developers have, ironically, created the freshest series entry in years – a winning combination that is hard to resist. Sonic has always felt at home on a 2D plane with tried-and-tested gameplay, and this particular release is evidence of that fact. It’s been a rocky ride for the poor guy, but with the release of Sonic Mania, perhaps the future will start looking brighter for SEGA’s popular mascot – after all, he deserves it.