The early 90’s was somewhat of a golden-age for the video games industry. The NES and Master System had successfully revived the industry and everything was set for the second act. Back then the major industry players, Nintendo and SEGA, were in a direct head to head for your money and leading the vanguard were their respective mascots Sonic and Mario. Playground banter back then often revolved around determining who was best, who was winning and who ate who for breakfast but things now are very different. Mario has moved on to bigger and better things whilst Sonic lives in the squalor clouded by the bitter disappointment of many failed attempts to rejuvenate him for the modern era. I myself have very found memories of the Sonic games from my childhood, in particular late nights sat in bed long after I should’ve been asleep draining yet another set of batteries playing Sonic on my Game Gear – in fact as I write the theme from the Scrap Brain Zone is strumming away in my head. In recent years I’ve come to terms with the fact that i’d never see a decent modern Sonic game, and as such i’ll start proceedings with a clear statement. Sonic Mania is good, really good as far as Sonic Games go. So get ready to clear your throat of decades worth of disappointment and read on.
From the start Sonic Mania feels incredibly familiar and with good reason, the first stage is an exact carbon copy of the first level from the Megadrive original. This however is not in any sense a remake, it simply starts that way. The first perceivable difference is the boss battle at the end of the first act, and this leads into a second act that takes all the assets from the first and remixes them into a new layout that manages to somehow feel both old and new. From here, the game flitters between the old and new, completely new locations are followed by returns to old favourites keeping things fresh with the occasional pinch of nostalgia. Gameplay and structure are however firmly locked down, a faithful replication of the original throughout. Character movement feels perfect, and the game retains that great feel of scale and speed. Each level captures that maze like sensation, each stretching out vertically as well as horizontally with many different paths to explore which seamlessly converge at points. The level design is clever, and despite the speed leaving you a little disorientated at times you’ll rarely find yourself lost or accidentally backtracking. Each location is distinctly unique in look and mechanics, with new elements added to freshen up the platforming and overall it’s decent blend of the classic and new.
Setting the rose tinted glasses aside, and the game does suffer from some niggles that dampen things slightly. Some newer mechanics suffer from a lack of intuitiveness with the controls feeling like trial and error attrition. Plasma Balls, which appear later in the game, are a specific example for which I’m still not sure I entirely understand which control stick direction moves Sonic the way I want. Enemy placement also feels frustratingly cruel at times. It’s amazing how easy it can be to get hit by almost all the enemies in a stage even though they total so few. Minor issues aside my major gripe with the game is the Special Stages, which are plentiful throughout but lack any sense of enjoyment. I was never a fan of the blue orb collecting mini-game from Sonic 3, and seeing it feature so prominently here hasn’t changed my mind. For those not looking for the best ending, or to 100% everything then they are easily bypassed. But they feel so outdated, hardware technical demos from an era long gone. They are faithful recreations but they suffer for it, feeling neglected compared to other aspects of the game.
Regardless of the above however, the real question is in a modern setting how well does the gameplay stand up to modern expectations. Capturing the essence of what made games great in the past appeals to nostalgia, but potentially alienates the newer generation of gamer. Great games remain great games, but tastes change and it’s here that not all old material can be successfully revived. I’ve been critical of quite a few games that have been perfect recreations of their forebears, but suffer from gameplay that has aged and withered. Here however I do feel a spark remains, the blistering pace of movement, the scale of the levels and the well woven inclusion of spin-off material that appears out of nowhere all come together to create a Sonic experience that feels so right. Some elements of the game have certainly suffered, however the core gameplay still feels distinctly unique and there isn’t anything else around quite like it.
In summary, this is a true return to the roots for the Sonic series caringly prepared for a modern audience. The approach to start with the familiar and then evolve it into something new through progression is clever in both its conception and implementation. For the price, a very reasonable £15, you get plenty of game and for those fond of the series of old harking for a return this stands head and shoulders above the many failed attempts. For those of you that haven’t so far understood the fanfare around Sonic games and are looking for some insight into why many older gamers speak so fondly of Sonic games, then this is the game best placed to answer those questions.
Sonic Mania was provided to us by Xbox/Sega via a digital code for Xbox One.