When I first booted up Sonic Mania I was met with the most interesting feeling of nostalgia washing over me like a wave. From the classic intro and blocky logo, right down to the levels you’ll play on and the music that accompanies it, this could very well be a lost Sonic title had we not known better. Instead, it’s simply a great game. Not utterly amazing maybe, but certainly great.
To begin, it’s set up very much like the classic games; two acts per locale style, a boss at the end of each act, and you need to beat both acts and their bosses to advance to the next locale. You’ll have a limited amount of lives to accomplish this (3), though checkpoints and the presence of lives hidden around the various areas may aide you if you’re lucky. The gameplay itself is platforming with a speed-based aesthetic and focus; split second decisions and tight moves being your best chance to survive.
In your move arsenal is a charged dash (down and B), spin jumps (B), and the ability to run at a pretty decent speed. Sonic can also do a Drop Dash (hold B in the air), which allows a charged dash on landing. With Tails you’ll also be able to glide/fly for a limited amount of time (hold B in the air to glide, then tap B to fly), swim (tap B), and if you’re playing with Sonic and Tails he can even carry your Sonic (hold up and jump with B, then hold B in the air). Knuckles can glide (hold B) and climb walls he’s run into via gliding (automatic grab, up and down to climb). It’s all pretty easy to learn and execute, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the controls.
Another thing you’ll want to familiarize yourself with is the idea of reaching for the bonus modes. Getting to a checkpoint (there are several in each level) with a certain amount of collectible rings will open a portal to a bonus area you might want to check out, and there are giant rings hidden around the acts that might net you a chaos emerald if you complete the task within. That’s not even mentioning the fact that there’s a hidden ending one can unlock, along with hidden modes and more.
As for the levels you’ll be playing through, they’re very much laid out such that there are multiple routes to the end. Go low, go high, go middle, mix and match, or use all the little tricks in between. There are so many ways to get things done in Sonic Mania that you’ll rarely run the same route twice unless on purpose (and even then it may be a bit of a chore). The places Sonic visits all have very different aesthetics, hazards, and ways of doing things, so you’ll either be using logic or trial and error to persevere over that which comes at you new. If you’re anything like me however, you’ll simply be playing the same levels over and over like a too-slow chump.
I’m not a poor gamer, but I found Sonic Mania to be quite hard at points. It’s throw your controller, scream swears at the room, text your bestie to tell them how fucking mad you are kind of hard. The thing is though, the difficulty is such a good thing in this case that it’s borderline nuts. So reminiscent of the days of old is this hard but satisfying gameplay that you’ll often find yourself putting down the controller or system in frustration – only to pick it right back up again for another one, two, three, or more goes. It’s addictive in the best ways, hard in the best ways, and classic in the best ways. It’s a lot of the greatest bits you’d want from a 2D Sonic game, and that’s obvious once you’ve played for just a small amount of time.
Another observation I had early is that one of the best things about Sonic Mania is also the bit that’s as close to online multiplayer as this one gets; Trial Mode. Trial Mode is based on the concept of timed runs, and levels (or rather acts) unlock here as you complete them in Mania Mode. Once completed in Mania, you can use this mode to home your skills and check out the levels in a less “do or die” type situation. The repetition actually allows you to improve your skills in a lot of great ways. Once you’ve found a good path through any one act you can even start to put up some good numbers for time, and – of course – take it to the online and/or friend leaderboards for comparison. It’s not head to head or cooperative, but it’s a way of playing with your friends that’s a little more global than local multiplayer. In that, it’s a good first step.
Speaking of local multiplayer, there’s a hidden mode that some might not realize they have access to; cooperative Mania Mode. Simply connect a second controller such that it identifies as player two and you’ll be able to take control of Tails when you choose Sonic & Tails together as your character choice. You’ll have to follow Sonic closely as he has control over the game’s camera (it’s not split screen), but it’s workable if you’ve got the skills. I took it for a run with a family member, and we got along fine. 😉
Competition Mode is a more properly advertised (offline) multiplayer mode centred around a two player battle, and including rule options such as changing up the items in items boxes, or the number of rounds you’ll play over. You can pick through any level that’s been unlocked for Trial Mode play, and you can choose your character as well. What you’ll be aiming for in Competition Mode is a high score across five categories; rings, total rings, score, items, and time. The best of those five categories will win, so be sure to do your best in as many of them as possible. As for how competition mode is presented, it’s a split screen affair; one player playing on the top of the screen, and the other playing on the bottom. The perspective is squished to give you the best view of the most space possible, and once one player finishes the level the other player has a minute to make it (complete with on-screen countdown). Just like the old days, it’s still all about being quick in the end, but what did you expect? 😛
Taking that “old days” mention to the next level, the style of the graphics presented in Sonic Mania are old school. This game is not pushing the boundaries of realism or 3D effect, and you shouldn’t expect that. Based on what it’s aiming for visually however, Sonic Mania hits the mark and then some – offering crisp visuals with the old school nostalgia factor intact. Never has Sonic been so clear before my eyes and yet looked so much like I remember him instead of someone’s new age interpretation. It really is a best of both worlds experience for your eyes.
The music is much the same as I remember, with the old school flair forged within brand new tracks. Whether it’s the opening Sonic theme, the first few moments in the Green Hill Zone, or the final battle with Dr. Eggman; it all has that “playing on a Genesis” feel. They’ve really done a good job embracing the old while honouring the new, and I’m sure those who’ve played Sonic on classic systems will enjoy it as much as I do.
Of course, with any throwback style release you also have that other side of the fence factor where you’re introducing an old school type of title to a new school of gamer – and I think that the new school has been appeased somewhat with this release, though Sonic Forces is more obviously going to be their jam. Sonic Mania seems a bit hard for the average modern gamer, and both the graphics and the audio may be off-putting to those who don’t feel nostalgic for its style. That’s not to say that it won’t be enjoyed, but it may be seen through less rose coloured lenses than I’d admit I’m looking through.
In the end though, and with all factors and angles considered, Sonic Mania is very obviously an above average game. It doesn’t offer the online multiplayer options I would’ve hoped for from a modern Sonic game, but it honours its platform and modern styling though local multiplayer and exceptionally vibrant and crisp graphics – despite its old school look. It offers twenty four levels in its main mode, a time trial for each of those levels, a competition mode, a hidden cooperative Mania Mode, unlockable hidden goodies, and more. It feels like a Sonic from the old age built to the specs of the new age, and it’s quickly becoming my favourite of all time.
Now that you’ve been informed, I’ll see you later. I’ve got to go fast, and there’s no time like the present to get back to it. 😉