Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Sonic Mania Review

Back in the 90s, Sonic was a pretty big deal. Sonic Mania was running wild. The first game was such a hit that it became the pack-in game for the Genesis. Sonic had a line of canned pasta, Sonic themed soft drinks, an animated series, and the launch of Sonic 2 taught kids what Groundhog Day was. Sonic could do no wrong. And then the 16-bit era ended and Sonic’s downward spiral began.

Sonic Mania tries to go back in time and fix the timeline, like in a Sonic CD level. In this timeline, Knuckles Chaotix never happens and Sonic Mania is the true follow-up to Sonic & Knuckles. This game is actually not developed by Sonic Team. The developers of Sonic Mania are people who have made Sonic fan games and worked on ports of Sonic games. The game runs on the Retro Engine, an engine created specifically for making 32-bit Sonic games. This same engine was used for the mobile ports of Sonic 1 and 2 and the 2011 re-release of Sonic CD.

This game feels like Sonic & Knuckles 2. It’s like a new addon cart that also works with Sonic CD. It takes many zones and themes from the 16-bit games, mixes them up, and presents them in new ways. There’s stuff from Sonic 1-3, Sonic CD, and Sonic & Knuckles. There’s 12 zones, with 2 acts in each. Eight of them re-use themes from the 16-bit games and 4 of them are new ones inspired by the old games.

Sonic Mania has 3 gameplay modes. The main campaign mode is Mania Mode. In Mania Mode, you can play through the game’s 12 zones with Sonic & Tails or Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles by themselves. You can even play co-op with Sonic and Tails. You can’t change characters after you’ve started a game, but there are 8 save slots, so you can have a save file for each character if you want. There is also an option to play a game with no saving at all, for the hardcore Sonic fans. You can also collect Chaos Emeralds in 3D bonus stages, like the ones in Sonic CD and Sonic & Knuckles here. And yes, they still suck.

Competition mode is a split-screen multiplayer race, just like in Sonic 2 and 3. And just like in those games, it is stretched and looks horrible. You can play as any one of the 3 characters and race on 12 of the 24 acts in the game.

In Time Attack, you can do time trials in 23 of the 24 acts. The only act not available in Time Attack is act 1 from Mirage Saloon, which is an auto-scrolling level with Sonic jumping around on top of Tails’ biplane. You can play as any character in Time Attack, and it has online leaderboards, so you can compare your times with others’ online.

The first act in each zone is usually a remake of an old level with some new stuff and the second act is an all-new level that introduces new elements to the zone. The game starts off with Act 1 of Green Hill Zone from the first game and act 2 is a new level, which and adds ziplines and corkscrew ramps, for example. Some of the other returning zones include Sonic 2’s Chemical Plant Zone, Sonic & Knuckles’ Flying Battery Zone, and Stardust Speedway Zone from Sonic CD. The only Sonic 3 zone theme used in the game is Hydrocity, a zone which is mostly underwater and is one of the worst zones in the game. It looks like they didn't like the original either, because neither of the levels is a remake. I guess they just wanted to try making a water area and liked that theme. Hedgehogs and water still don’t mix.

One of the 4 new zones is Mirage Saloon Zone. It’s a zone inspired by the unused desert zone from the 2011 Sonic CD re-release and the unused desert level from Sonic 2. The first act has Sonic jumping around on top of Tails’ biplane, the Tornado, just like in Sky Chase from Sonic 2. The second act is a more traditional level with an Old West saloon theme. This is probably the coolest zone in the game. The music and graphics are great and it’s full of little references to old Sonic games. And it’s just awesome that it's based on old unused levels.

Another one of the new zones is the Press Garden Zone. It takes place on a snowy mountain area with lots of cherry blossom trees and stone lanterns in the background. This might be the most beautiful zone in the game. The first act takes place inside an overgrown printing press and has Sonic bouncing on conveyor belts. The second act takes place outside and uses a mechanic that freezes Sonic in a block of ice and throws him around.

Sonic Mania looks a lot like the 16-bit games. A lot of the sprites look like they're ripped right out of the old games. I heard everything has been remade, but you could have fooled me. Most of the environment sprites look like stretched and recolored versions of the old ones. The work done on the backgrounds is much more obvious. All of the backgrounds have been touched up in some way, some more than others. For example, the Oil Ocean Zone has new buildings in the background and the Green Hill Zone has huge totems more scrolling background layers now. The sprites for Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles are all-new sprites based on the old ones. They look like they’re in a higher resolution, have a lot more frames of animation, and they have a slightly different style that looks a little more like the old games’ key art. The game also runs much better than any 16-bit Sonic game ever did. The framerate drops a little in the Sonic CD-like 3D bonus zones on Switch, but it’s always a solid 60FPS in the rest of the game, even when Sonic hits something and all his rings come flying out.

All the music has been remade by a YouTuber known for his Sonic remixes, “Tee Lopes”. The remade acts have the same music composition as in the old games and the new acts have new music inspired by the old music. All the tunes sound great, but maybe it would have been nice to have an option to use chiptunes too.

Sonic Mania is a good game. It’s a Sonic game made by people who love Sonic games, for people who love Sonic games. If you don’t like the old games, this one won’t change your mind. I liked the old Sonic games, but they were never my favorite platformers. Sonic was always more about style and flash than great level design. The best part of Sonic Mania is the new stuff. The new acts have the best level designs and play around with the Sonic mechanics in fun new ways and the new zones have the best graphics. I would love to see a sequel with nothing but original zones. I think the developers of Sonic Mania have proven that they’re up for the task with this game.