Sonic Mania Review

For maniacs, by maniacs!

About… 2 years ago— goodness, I am bad at scheduling follow-ups— I reviewed the four mainline Genesis-era Sonic games with Sonic 1, 2, CD, and 3 & Knuckles, ultimately finding them to border between genuinely unabashedly bad and pretty alright, much to my segrin and desire to like the games more.  But after going through the attempted revitalization of the series that was Sonic 4, and… just about every other mainline Sonic game there is, aside form 2006, it’s finally time to end this long and winding saga with Sonic Mania.

Sonic Mania Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Developers: Christen Whitehead, Headcannon, PagodaWest Games, and Hyperdrive
Publisher: SEGA

Sonic Mania functions as a very peculiar attempt at a sequel, caught somewhere between a condensed remake, a fan envisioned remix, and a direct continuation of the concepts and style established in four aforementioned predecessors.  Narratively, it centers around Eggman revisiting the site of Angel Island where he receives the Phantom Ruby, a gemstone capable of warping space and time that sends Sonic, or an assortment of Sonic’s classic buddies, across a series of familiar and unfamiliar locales.  With each new location offering them a new way to stop Eggman from using his machines to cause various forms of havoc, as that’s sort of his thing.

The gameplay is what one would largely expect, being a very direct feeling translation of the Genesis titles that was recreated and rebuild by people who clearly have a deep affinity for the classic games, so it feels about the same, but a bit tighter.  Thus resulting in a high octane speed and momentum driven platformer where the objective, other than getting to the end of each stage, is doing so in a speedy and stylish manner, though there does not really exist any sort of ranking system to necessitate of explicitly encourage that.

Now, I went on tangents about the level design and momentum base movement of this series years ago, finding the 4:3 screen ratio to be greatly detrimental to the act of progressing through each stage, and the game being prone to throwing obstacles my way, without granting me the time to recognize and react to them.  Or if I did react, I would not be moving fat, or I’d time something wrong and I would be met with the sweet jingle of rings scattering for my achievement. Much like with the PC version of Sonic CD, the 16:9 ratio does mitigate a lot of this level design problem, but it still persists, turning certain stages into memorization driven challenges, where enjoyment comes from being Mr. Cool Hedgehog, traversing along the fast lane in these sprawling layouts.

I would not really mind this approach, if the basic inner workings of this momentum based gameplay felt a bit less loose and unwieldy.  Rather than having, say, a walking, jogging, and running speed, Sonic and his merry band of animal allies have a very wide spectrum that is used to define their speed, which is predominantly influenced by the environment they are in.  This variability, combined with how momentum is affected by terrain often made me unsure as to how far I would go with each jump, and overall made the act of movement at high speeds feel uneasy. While this same loose approach has defined the series even in the third dimension, something about varying speeds and 3D just mesh better in my brain than varying speeds and 2D.

Though, there is also the matter of visual clarity.  The level designs used here are absolutely lavish and brimming with detail, but due to the high speed of the game, richness of the backdrops, and a vibrant color palette, it is all too easy for enemies to blend in with their surroundings.  I’m not sure if I have some sort of vision disorder, but when a lot of things are moving at high speeds, I have trouble keeping up with them, and I do not think there are any titles where this issue is more pronounced than sprite-based 2D Sonic games.

While I will criticize this gameplay system, I will not deny that when it works, it’s great.  Moving fast through these stages with a sense of control and understanding is an absolute delight, but I just have such a hard time getting to that level that I become frustrated and begin to fixate on the aspects of this design that do not mesh well with my brain.  However, I will say that the core game is, like basically every other classic Sonic game, an absolute gem in comparison with the special stages.

Sonic Mania chooses to adopt some level of variety with its special stages, boasting a total of 32 of those pseudo-3D Blue Sphere stages from Sonic 3 and 7 stages where the player character must chase and destroy a UFO in a Saturn 3D environment to get the chaos emeralds a la Sonic CD.  I spent 7 hours on the Blue Sphere stages, gradually losing my composure and patience, and I spent an hour on the UFO stages, but gave up after failing stage 2 of 7 the sixth time.  Y’know, I actually could tolerate the stages from the Genesis games, and Heroes, with the aid of save states, but without them?  It is a goldarn nightmare factory.

The Blue Sphere stages are accessed by hitting a checkpoint with 25 or more rings, and by jumping into the sparkling ring that appears, much like in Sonic 2.  In doing so, the player character is sent into one of a rotated assortment of puzzles where they must steer and jump the player character throughout a rotating sphere of impossible space while touching every blue orb, turning them into red orbs, and avoiding every red orb, or else the player is met with instantaneous failure, and is sent onto the next stage in the rotation.  So it is a harsh sequence that relies on mechanics not found elsewhere in the game, incorporates visual imagery with unaliased rotating pseudo-3D sprites, sharp turns, an aggressive tile-based landscape, and involves time-based increases in speed. This all turns what is ultimately a puzzle section with a detrimental camera angle into one of the most tense sections I have played in any game, as if the player slips up once in any stage, they may as well just give up.

To reiterate, I spent 7 hours attempting to complete these sections.  7 hours of restarting Green Hill Zone Act 1, rushing to the first checkpoint in 15-20 seconds, trying to complete a stage to get a medal, failing, spending 5 seconds to get to the next checkpoint, trying to complete another stage, failing, and restarting the whole process over again and again and again.  At least 2 of these hours were dedicated to one single nightmare furnace of a stage that manages to be both the most simple and basic of these Blue Sphere challenges, but is also the most difficult. The player must time a jump to only avoid the obnoxious fun shattering bumper ball, turn left, jump, left, jump, left, all while the distance between inputs shrink, and the inputs become harder to make, with just one mistake sending the player back to the beginning, to repeat the process, in hopes that next time will bring success.  

But I did it… I did it all before I ever cleared bloody Green Hill Zone because of how I knew I would be torturing myself with these stages all game otherwise.  Meanwhile, the UFO stages are borderline impossible for me to play due to their fast speeds, loose controls, and precision requirements that go beyond what I am capable of performing.  Just thinking about them filled me anxiety. Unlike the Blue Sphere stages, which makes me think of child rape, because that’s where my brain goes when I’m exceedingly frustrated, and I’m edgy like that, yo.

For as much as I criticize the inner workings of mechanics and the visual clarity of things, that does not mean that I think that Mania’s presentation is in any way poor.  It is an extravagant evolution of where the Sonic series was circa 1994 that is adorned with all the benefits of modern sprite art and related tools in order to create one of the most lavishly beautiful sprite-based games I have seen in quite some time.  From the small and subtle stage-specific animations, the variety of enemies, the creative designs of many bosses, and some utterly gorgeous looking level themes, the game has clearly had the time and resources needed to look its absolute best, and it’s hard to imagine it looking much better.  

Similarly, the soundtrack also impresses with a variety of remixes of classic themes in addition to new tracks that further the auditory aesthetic of this era of Sonic without needing to worry about the limitations of the Genesis sound chip.  While it certainly isn’t my favorite soundtrack in the series, that’s mostly because even when Sonic games are mediocre, and they often are, they usually have a pretty jamming OST.

So after 2 years and 6 other reviews, I am finally done with the mainline 2D Sonic games, and I think I can safely say that I am not a fan of their underlying gameplay, as in most cases it just frustrates me after a point.  They are games where flow is essential to achieve a sense of greater enjoyability, but in order to achieve this flow the player needs to memorize the level layouts and have overall great reflexes.  Also, the special stages are always rubbish. While Sonic Mania does ultimately represent a peak for the subseries, and remains the most enjoyable collection of stages I have gone through in a dedicated 2D Sonic title, it is still susceptible to these frustrating elements.  Thereby making it a title I can respect and enjoy parts of, but vehemently dismiss as a title that I just can’t seem to enjoy as much as a normal human being.

…Huh.  After all of that I’m still in a bit of a Sonic mood, but I’m not really keen on any of the spin-offs, so… screw it, I’ll just revisit the Adventure games once again!

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