Games : Sonic Mania Plus is another love letter to Sonic fans
The finest Sonic The Hedgehog Game because the ‘90s returns, with two new characters and 2D motion to make the Mega Drive proud.
If there’s a Guinness Book of Records award for the most mishandled video game franchise then that’s the one, and only, accolade Sonic The Hedgehog has deserved in the last two decades. But it didn’t use to be like that. Back in the early 1990s the Sonic games were critical and commercial darlings – all-time classics, beloved by all. Last year, Sega finally seemed to remember that with Sonic Mania. But if you missed out on its curiously lowkey release then don’t worry, because now it’s back and (slightly) better than ever.
If you are a Sega fan you’ll know that between Sonic Mania’s release and now we had the predictably awful Sonic Forces, by the reliably unreliable Sonic Team. The secret behind Sonic Mania’s success is that it had nothing to do with them and was instead developed by a group of fans led by Christian ‘Taxman’ Whitehead. He and others (including Tee Lopes remixing the music) have been making ports of the original games, and creating their own fan titles, for years. And Sonic Mania is essentially a combination of those two obsessions.
The end result feels like some sort of school project gone wild, something enthusiastic kids have made while the teacher was away and which far surpasses anything they were actually supposed to be doing. We’re not sure why the game ended up being a mix of remastered stages and brand-new ones, or why this director’s cut adds new characters instead of new levels, but at least we can now say there’s been two top quality Sonic The Hedgehog releases this millennium, instead of just one.
Sonic Mania is made up of a dozen zones split into two separate ‘acts’, roughly two-thirds of which are based on classic era stages, such as Green Hill Zone and Flying Battery Zone, and a third of which are brand new. The remastered ones are often substantially different, not just in terms of the layout but also because they feature new graphical effects and enemies.
At first glance Sonic Mania looks just like the old Mega Drive games, but it doesn’t restrict itself purely to those limitations. There are a lot more sprite-scaling effects than a regular Mega Drive game would be able to manage, particularly at the 60 frames per second that this runs at. This pushes Sonic Mania even further into dream game territory, as it becomes the sort of sequel you always imagined happening but secretly knew wasn’t quite possible with the technology of the time.
What is the same though is the way the game controls, and that’s the real key to the game’s success. Where games such as 2010’s Sonic The Hedgehog 4 got things so wrong is in the physics and movement of the characters. But rather than being some wrong-headed attempt to reinvent the wheel Sonic Mania handles exactly as you remember.
What you probably don’t remember though are Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel, from the ultra-obscure SegaSonic The Hedgehog arcade game. Their addition is the main new feature for Sonic Mania Plus, with Mighty having a powerful ground pound and being immune to spikes, while Ray’s gliding ability is satisfyingly tricky to get the hang of.
All five playable characters factor into the new Encore mode, which starts you as Sonic and forces you to unlock the other characters as you play, allowing you to control two at a time and switch between them whenever you want. There’s also a new bonus stage to go along with it, and while it’s hardly a game-changer it’s a fun challenge for those that are already familiar with the courses.
All these years of obsessing over (and porting) the original games has clearly given Whitehead and his accomplices a keen understanding of what makes good Sonic The Hedgehog level design. After all, Sonic is a very unusual kind of platformer, with the main character purposefully lacking in precision movement, as he navigates stage designs that often make it impossible to see or anticipate what’s coming up next.
But Sonic Mania understands this paradox perfectly, and new areas like the Wild West-themed Mirage Saloon Zone and TV-filled Studiopolis are almost indistinguishable in quality and imagination to the best of the Mega Drive games. Meanwhile, the remakes are often noticeably better than the originals with, for example, the Chemical Plant Zone adding additional variety through special pads that can stick you to the ceiling or pools of goop that can bounce you to different heights depending on how you mix them when you jump on a plunger.
The boss battles are also uniformly excellent, and again often more interesting than those in the original games. Sonic Mania clearly doesn’t feel constrained by the Mega Drive titles, but it does nothing to try and modernise the game’s approach to things like lives or the occasional instant or unforeseeable death. The Sonic games have never been particularly hard though, at least in terms of just getting to the end of each act, so that shouldn’t be a problem even for new players.
As you can imagine, the game is filled with fan service, most of which will go completely unnoticed by ordinary players. The game does have a proper story, appropriately set after the events Sonic & Knuckles (the last great Sonic game of the 2D era). But caring about the story in a Sonic game is where we part ways from the really hardcore fans, even if it’s not hard to enjoy things like the deliciously ‘90s animated intro.
Since it costs just £15.99, Sonic Mania has always seemed liked an absolute steal. For the first time it’s now also getting a physical edition, which includes a mini-art book and reversible Mega Drive cover for £24.99. Or, and this is where things stay nice and generous, you can download the new content as DLC for just £3.99.
It’s hard not to be critical of the way Sega has handled their mascot (and indeed the rest of their back catalogue) over the last few years but they certainly do deserve credit for engaging with fans and making Sonic Mania a reality. It’s easily the best thing to happen to the series in decades and while there’s still no sign that it’s anything but an exception to the rule at least it’s proof that Sonic’s appeal hasn’t run out yet.
Sonic Mania Plus
In Short: The ‘Plus’ additions are minor but this is still a touching, and highly playable, labour of love by fans that understand Sonic The Hedgehog better than Sega themselves.
Pros: Gorgeous pixel artwork and excellent level design in terms of both new and remastered zones. Tons of options, great remixed music, and amazing value for money. Mighty and Ray are fun.
Cons: A missed opportunity to add new levels, considering their paucity was the main fault of the original.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Price: £24.99 (physical edition)*
Developer: Headcannon and PagodaWest Games
Release Date: 17th July 2018
Age Rating: 3
*DLC price: £3.99, Sonic Mania: £15.99