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Sonic Mania review: 16-bit return breathes new life into the series

Sonic Mania review: 16-bit return breathes new life into the series
Game Name: Sonic Mania
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC
Publisher(s): Sega
Developer(s): Christian Whitehead / Headcannon / PagodaWest Games
Genre(s): action-platformer
Release Date: August 15, 2017 (August 29 on PC)
ESRB Rating: E

Sonic Mania has finally made what various arms of Sega, including the official Sonic Team staff, haven’t pulled off for decades: a great old-school Sonic game. That’s a monumental thing in and of itself, considering how long Sonic has struggled as a series—and how many times his major contemporary rival Mario has lapped him, in both modern and retroflavors.

With that hindsight in mind, it’s tempting to overlook some of Sonic Mania‘s shortcomings. This is a lean game, weighing in at around 3-4 hours for a first playthrough—which, to be fair, is comparable to how much you’ll find in a Genesis or Mega Drive Sega game. A few peculiar design decisions (and, at launch, bugs) can hinder the fun you’ll have in your first playthrough. And this game has no interest in holding your hand, so don’t expect a relaxing reintroduction to the blue bomber.

The last 16-bit mainline Sonic game was 1994’s Sonic & Knuckles. Through the power of Lock-On-Technology, players could combine that game with Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and create one the greatest platformers of all time, Sonic 3 & Knuckles. While Sega has released an assortment of 2D Sonic games since then, none have come close to capturing the magic of those early Sega Genesis entries until now. Sonic Mania takes players on a nostalgia-filled adventure that feels like the Sonic 3 & Knuckles follow-up that Sonic fans have been forever waiting for.

Sonic Mania features a mix of brand new Zones along with many returning favorites. Just like in Sonic’s Genesis debut, players begin the game in Green Hill Zone. It’s important to note that the returning stages have been heavily remixed. Bits and pieces of the original level design show up, but for the most part the returning Zones feature completely new layouts in the style of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. The little nods and gimmicks that reference past Sonic games were pleasantly surprising. For example, Green Hill Zone now includes the corkscrew paths that originally appeared in Sonic 2’s Emerald Hill Zone. Just because your favorite Sonic Zone is absent from the game’s roster, doesn’t mean a sly nod to it won’t show up at some point. Overall, the level design is extremely strong and does a great job at balancing nostalgia with new ideas.

One of the largest criticisms leveled against Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was the game’s physics. The physics are not a problem in Sonic Mania thanks to Christian Whitehead’s Retro Engine, which perfectly replicates the physics of the 16-bit Sonic games. The game’s 3 playable characters, Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles control exactly like you remember. Sonic does have one new trick in his arsenal, a Drop Dash, where Sonic can perform a quick boost immediately after landing a jump. I rarely used the Drop Dash during regular play, but it is a handy tool for the game’s time attack mode.

The new Special Stages in Sonic Mania are discovered in the same fashion as those in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, by finding giant rings hidden throughout the game’s levels. In these, players enter a 3D arena and must chase a UFO carrying an emerald. If players run out of rings, the Special Stage ends, so collecting blue spheres to gain speed is integral while keeping an eye on the rings counter. These stages are quite challenging, but also a lot of fun. The Blue Sphere bonus stages, where Sonic must collect the blue orbs on a giant globe, also return. To play the Blue Sphere stages, one must simply have 25 rings when reaching one of the numerous checkpoint star posts. While it’s entirely optional to enter the bonus stages, I almost wish the ring count was higher for entering the Blue Sphere stages because you’ll constantly be breaking up the action if you enter them at every opportunity given.

Sonic Mania definitely took me by surprise. In a time where reboots and re-releases crowd the video game market, Sega took a chance on creating a brand new Sonic adventure for the long time fans. However, by adding new power-ups, new bosses, and running in 60 fps, Sonic is now approachable to modern gamers.

From the beginning to the end, I couldn’t seem to put Sonic Mania down. One playthrough, without collecting all the Chaos Emeralds took me about six hours, I never said I was the fastest Sonic player.

Sonic Mania has helped me rediscover what it was I loved about Sonic when growing up and it took me back to a time where I could just pick up a game and have fun. This if for Sonic fans everywhere and it will not disappoint.

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