Game Overview: Sonic Mania

Fri, 2017/09/08
After a somewhat agonizing wait, Sonic Mania, the latest entry in the 2D Sonic the Hedgehog game series, arrived on PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch on August 15, 2017, with the PC version released August 29 through Steam. Due to being very hit or miss over the course of the last ten plus years as a series, Sonic has been somewhat of a controversial franchise, regarded with strong opinions in defense of and in criticism of. With the last well-regarded Sonic game having been released in 2011 (Sonic Generations), will Sonic Mania be the game to quell the flames of the Sonic fandom?

Beginning with gameplay, we have the standard fare for a Sonic game: running, jumping, collecting rings, and rolling. Now, at this point it's worth nothing that you can play as three characters, those being Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles, each of which have their own unique attributes that affect how you play the game and even how some levels are laid out. Tails has the ability to fly around levels, making him the best for reaching higher areas more readily. Knuckles has the ability to glide and climb up walls. Sonic is unable to fly, as expected, but there are additional gameplay options, such as being able to instantly gain a speed boost when landing with a perfectly timed button press. More abilities for Sonic can be unlocked, and they all come from a previous games in the 2D Sonic series, providing both nostalgic and added gameplay value. In addition to abilities, players can also unlock additional game features such as the Debug Mode and the "& Knuckles" mode, the latter of which allowing players to have Knuckles as an in-game buddy character, even with himself (this was perhaps included to address the multitude of internet memes addressing this possibility). Unlocking these features comes as a result of completing Blue Sphere stages, which are bonus levels reached by obtaining 30 rings before hitting a checkpoint; these stages involve collecting blue spheres and rings on a 3D plane while avoiding obstacles and dealing with a constant speed-up. In addition to Blue Sphere stages are Special stages, which to the joy of many fans, also takes place on a 3D plane and involves running around a course while trying to catch a UFO, much like the Special stages in Sonic CD. Completion of these stages awards the player a chaos emerald, of which seven can be obtained, allowing access to an extra stage at the end of the game. Most of the things noted, with the exception of unlockable features, have been present in some form throughout the entirety of the 2D Sonic series, so while there is certainly nostalgia going for this game, the gameplay alone is not the reason it shines.

Sonic Mania's development team was not purely Sega, and in fact, much of the team involved had previously been developers for Sonic fan game projects. One of the most notable developers on the team, Christian Whitehead, was especially noted for his ports of Sonic CD and other classic Sonic games to the iOS and Android platforms, which often were more than just ports, featuring additional playable characters and additional menu options to make the game more fun and more mobile-friendly. What having Sonic fan game developers on the team meant was that Sonic Mania would be made for Sonic fans by die-hard Sonic fans, which really comes through in the game design and music. Throughout the game there are so many minor yet game-making details, such as a slew of additional running and moving animations for every character and very clever level design, even in stages that made a return from previous games. All these details and attempts to push the limits of the 16-bit aesthetic to its limit are what push this game to the top of my list for 2D platformers. Briefly expanding on level design, a problem (if you see it as one) that plagued most of the previous games in the 2D Sonic series was the struggle between Sonic being a lightning-fast game and a platforming game at the same time; players of these games would have short bouts of fast gameplay and then have to slow down for precise platforming with imprecise controls. Sonic Mania's level design remedies this by allowing the player to just zoom on through if they please, or take some extra time to explore the entire level, feeling like a rewarding experience regardless of how you play. Previous experience with 2D Sonic games taught me to be scared for my life, not knowing if I would go fast and suddenly die from unfair or unexpected level design issues like random death traps or if I would survive just speeding on through. You could look at it as me being unskilled, sure, but stressing out over dying from some random part of the stage design is not my idea of a good time. Whenever I died in Sonic Mania, it felt fair for the most part and made me feel the need to analyze a slight bit here and there, but not so much that I lost interest in playing altogether.

As with most Sonic games, regardless of the gameplay and level design, the music tracks are solid and memorable, with sounds spanning rock, funk, and jazz, all happening separately and together at different points. In returning stages such as the classic Green Hill Zone, there's more to the sound than the original soundtrack, with the second half of the zone typically being some kind of completely off the wall variant of the first half. The latter has been a musical future of most 2D Sonic games, but having been a heavy listener of wacky remixes of soundtracks from the series, there was something distinctly fan-made about the music, especially in the new Studiopolis Zone, which features a very over the top and exciting jazz funk sound, with MIDI horns anything but seldom. No offense to Sega, but these guys outdid quite a few of the classic compositions (even if they did have a basis for a few of the tracks). Obviously 16-bit MIDI sound effects don't do it for everyone, but otherwise the soundtrack is very listenable just for the musical experience alone. In fact, the soundtrack is coming to vinyl thanks to Data Discs, who I've reviewed a record from before in TechNews.

So, some conclusions. I feel that if Sonic Mania was enough for me to appreciate 2D Sonic games more and act as the second game in that style (next to Sonic 4 Episode II) to show me a good time, then it is certainly a great first Sonic game, 2D or otherwise, for anyone new to the series. If you're a fan who has been disenchanted with how the state of the franchise has been, this game will give you a blast of nostalgia while also feeling new and refreshing, which can't always be said for games that emulate an older style. The game can be purchased digitally on all compatible platforms for 20 dollars and is well worth the money.