After two decades of mediocrity, the 'hog is finally back on track.
Are you sure we’re not back in the ‘90s?
With everyone playing Crash Bandicoot, Wipeout and a spiritual Banjo-Kazooie successor, we're starting to wonder whether we somehow passed out in a DeLorean during the New Year’s celebrations.
Most interesting of all these retro rebirths, though, is Sonic the Hedgehog. He was one of the biggest stars of the decade, but ever since? He crashed harder than Macaulay Culkin. That’s not down to any lack of trying on Sega’s behalf, either. We’ve seen Sonic undergo more reboots than Batman and James Bond combined.
But now, it seems Sega (with the help of developers Handcannon and PagodaWest Games) has finally figured out the best way to get their mascot running at full speed again – return him to his Mega Drive origins.
DASH FROM THE PAST
From werehog curses to swinging swords, Sonic’s gone through more oddball phases than a hormone-high teen. Thankfully, he finally appears to have resolved his identity crisis.
Mania cuts out all the gimmicks. In fact, it plays identically to Sonic games of old.
For starters, Sonic Mania shares the exact same controls: use the analogue stick to move and almost any button to jump or dash – and that's basically it. A new Drop Dash helps keep momentum going, but otherwise “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” was clearly the mantra here.
Even the retro 16-bit graphics were retained, doing their best to get you reminiscing for those good ol’ Mega Drive days. Not that I’m complaining – Sonic still looks better than ever thanks to an upgrade to 60fps.
But as successful as Sonic Mania is at creating those nostalgia feels, its dedication to the past is also its biggest downfall - rarely offering anything new to the now-26-year old formula. At the very least I’d have appreciated a new move to vary combat.
BACK IN THE ZONE
We’ve had plenty of Sonic the Hedgehog remakes over the years, and 30 minutes into Mania I was thinking it was yet another, just with a 'remixed' spin.
This is mainly because most of the 12 zones have already appeared in previous Sonic games. Sure, levels like Green Hill Zone have been 'remixed' with new map layouts, but a couple still feel overly familiar.
Later levels offer more innovation, but even these feel a little recycled. The underwater sections of Hydrocity are tense as you race to avoid drowning, while the airborne plane ride of Mirage Saloon offers a refreshing change of pace to the usual sprint-focussed stages. These aren’t new ideas for the series, but there are enough tweaks here to keep them feeling fresh.
Despite a couple of completely original zones and boss battles, it’s difficult to view Sonic Mania as an entirely new entry to the series. Rather, it's an accumulation of some of the greatest maps and ideas of previous 2D Sonic games.
Think of it as a “best of” album, and you’ll begin to get a clearer image of what Mania has to offer.
Sonic’s biggest strength has always been the high-speed thrill that comes from blitzing through the course, and Mania captures this perfectly. The zones are well laid out, feeling more like a complex racing course than your average platformer level.
Like any racer, you need to learn the track inside out - know when to jump, change direction and where every secret passage is hiding, so you can reach optimum speeds without the fear of impaling yourself in a spike pit.
All this means I'm much more interested in spending hours beating my record in Time Attack, compared to other platformers with similar time-challenge modes.
Split-screen multiplayer also returns, letting you race against your mates as either Sonic, Tails or Knuckles. Not got a competitive streak? Then your friends can accompany you in the main campaign as one of the fan-favourite rodents instead, each with their own unique ability.
For less than twenty quid, you’re getting a lot of features and a respectably lengthy game – and that’s forgetting the time it takes to hunt down all the Chaos Emeralds. Special stages borrow from both Sonic CD and Sonic 3, so there's plenty of challenge here.
Sonic Mania stays faithful to the original games, which is both a blessing and a curse.
On one hand, it feels every bit like the Mega Drive classics we fell in love with back in the '90s - it's fast, gorgeous in motion, and addictively challenging. On the other, it's tough to spot any major improvements over the originals, which peaked two decades ago.
Still, the fact that Mania could yet end up as 2017's best 2D side-scroller only proves the quality of those original games.
What’s important is that Sonic is finally heading in the right direction - even if he’s moving at a steady pace, rather than his renowned, genre-defining speed.