“Lovingly Crafted” is not a term you usually hear when it comes to video games these days, but Christian Whitehead’s Sonic Mania reads as a love letter to all those long suffering Sonic fans out there who have been waiting decades for a game that could possibly be better than Sonic & Knuckles. If you’re like me, you often looked at failed attempts at Sonic games like Sonic 4 Parts 1 & 2 and thought ‘give me your resources and I will produce a Sonic game that will blow people’s minds!’ Because as a Sonic fan, you know what those games were missing right? Well, Christian Whitehead is the lucky chap who got to make that dream a reality. Sonic Team handed the keys to him and his mates and this is what he came up with!
If you’re looking for some sort of in-depth story like that of the Sonic Adventure series then you’re looking in the wrong place. Sonic Mania uses the same story telling method as Sonic & Knuckles. No dialogue, just animated sprites and short cutscenes. Being a Sonic game, you really want to be kept in the action as fast as possible and not tied down by story. This game gives you just enough so you know what Robotnik’s up to (YES! ROBOTNIK! I’m having none of this Eggman malarkey!) and who the bad guys are. Robotnik is at it again, stealing a Chaos Emerald in order to power his Death Egg. This time though, he has built an army of henchmen he calls his Hard Boiled Badniks (get it?) and they serve to be mini bosses at the end of some levels. Think of them as being like Bowser’s kids from the Super Mario franchise. They are all quirky in their own way and some of them are quite challenging to defeat. Overall I think the story suits what it should be, just enough plot to tie the action together.
One thing Whitehead had to get absolutely right is that Sonic had to move and feel exactly like Sonic. He had to jump right, run right and spin right and of course he nailed it! This game picks up right where Sonic and Knuckles left off. You can play as Sonic, Tails, Knuckles or Sonic and Tails. You run around collecting rings and jumping on to boxes as usual. You can still pick up bubble shields, fire shields and electric shields and they all have the same abilities they had previously. One thing they’ve added to the electric shield is immunity to electricity. Just for good measure they have thrown in the original shield from Sonic’s 1 & 2. All of the characters have retained their unique abilities. Tails can still fly and swim and Knuckles can still glide and climb. They’ve handed Sonic one more ability that allows him to dash as soon as he lands after a jump. Very handy when you know you’re going to be bouncing around at high speed. One new mechanic they have added is a Blue Ring Box. Smash one of those open and nothing happens except your ring total turns blue. If you subsequently get hit your rings escape from you as rubbery bands and recollecting them nets you four rings instead of one.
This game is hard! The assumption has been made that you have played all the other classic Sonics from one right through to Sonic CD and that not only do you know what you’re doing, but you’re ready for the next challenge. Each zone (of which there are 12 of) has two acts and the second act adds a mechanic that’s new and exciting that you didn’t expect. I’ve been a gamer for a very long time and sometimes I feel like nothing can surprise me. However, there were multiple times I spent staring wide eyed at the screen because the game just did something awesome and clever. I don’t want to spoil them here, so I strongly urge you to see for yourself. Out of the 12 zones, less than half of them are original creations that aren’t based on previous zones from other classic Sonics. But the stages that have come from other games are not simple carbon copies. They have been completely reimagined and have had all-original game mechanics sprinkled in. This ensures that every single zone is a fresh and highly enjoyable experience.
You just wouldn’t be a Sonic fan if you weren’t curious about the special stages. Here I was left slightly disappointed and wish they could have put a little more thought into it. Just like Sonic & Knuckles, you jump through giant rings to get to Chaos Emerald Stages and you trip checkpoint markers with enough rings to get to the other special stages. Chaos Emerald special stages hail from Sonic CD, where you have to race around a Super Mario Kart style track chasing down a UFO. I was hoping for something original and inventive here as every other classic Sonic game took pains to make sure their special stages were unique. As for the checkpoint special stages, they have been borrowed from Sonic & Knuckles. It’s the ol’ run around a giant sphere turning blue blobs into red blobs number. In Sonic & Knuckles, checkpoint stages were a way to try and get the shield you really wanted. In this, your reward for completion is a silver coin, but if you manage to score a perfect run you are awarded with a gold coin. The coins unlock stuff but after a while it feels like a lot of effort for very little gain so towards the end of my run through I started to ignore them.
I remember walking through the school yard as a young nerd, with songs from Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 playing over and over in my head. They were repeated in a loop over and over again, sometimes for 5-6 minutes straight, and they never got old. I knew this would be the true test of whether or not Sonic Mania would be a true successor to the classic Sonic games. In Sonic & Knuckles, act one would have the zone’s theme song, then act two would have a variation of the same theme. In Sonic Mania we see a similar pattern. Act one has a modern arrangement of the original theme song for the zones that are being reimagined (or just a damn good theme for the new zones), whereas act two has a more complicated arrangement that reflects the added complexities of the zone itself. The music is that good I am seriously considering buying the soundtrack. As for sound effects, just about every single sound effect from every single classic Sonic game exists in this game in some form, making it feel like an authentic Sonic experience.
Unlike the other classic Sonics, this game is designed to run in crystal clear high definition at 60fps. Most importantly though, it runs in the 16:9 aspect ratio of modern televisions. That means you have that little bit of extra space on either end of the screen to help you react to what’s coming (not that that offers you a huge advantage). Sonic Mania is animated in the style of the 16-bit era, but sometimes the visuals share a striking resemblance to the Metal Slug series with regards to just how much is going on at once. Gone are the days of six frame sprites – all of the character animations are smooth as silk, from Sonic’s red shoes running in a blur, right through to Robotnik’s angry outbursts. Sonic Mania is capable of breaking well past the boundaries that would have constrained it had it been written onto a cartridge for the Sega Megadrive. This has resulted in more than a few “wow” moments that make this game truly memorable.
Aside from the catchy tunes that keep you wanting to come back there’s not a lot else on offer for this department. The game has a Time Attack mode and a Competition mode. Time Attack, as the name suggests, has you posting times for both a local and online leaderboard. Once you’ve beaten each zone, it becomes available to you in Time Attack mode. Competitive mode is kinda like Sonic 2 but not. Sonic 2 had by far the best vs mode. It wasn’t purely about speed. You were scored on six categories; time, total rings collected, current rings on completion, points and television’s busted. Whoever won the most categories won the act. In the case of a tie a special stage was used as tiebreaker. In Sonic Mania, it still tracks those categories but it still seems like the winner is whoever got to the sign first. Boring. I would much prefer something that uses similar mechanics to Mario Kart but applies it to a side scrolling platformer. Imagine up to four players scrambling for the sign but item boxes gave you weapons. For example; teleportation that swaps your place with another player’s, a box that inverts your opponent’s controls for a short while, a box that sends dive bombing badniks after the leader, a box that makes everyone else really small for a short while and then the usual suspects like shields, speed boots and invincibility. That would be fun for me, but I guess you can’t have everything.
Overall Sonic Mania is a whole lot of fun and it deserves the title of Sonic 4 far more than the actual Sonic 4 ever did. It is the perfect balance between old and new and Christian Whitehead and his crew have cemented their place as being worthy of carrying the torch of classic Sonic games forward for the foreseeable future. Well played!