Since 1996 Marmite have popularised the slogan, ‘You Either Love It Or Hate It’. A phrase so popular and well-formulated it remains part of our culture even today. Similarly, Sonic Mania Plus spins onto your screen with the energy and enthusiasm of the nineties relics that first cemented ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ in the public consciousness. However, the gameplay of Sonic, at least anecdotally, seems to have experienced the ‘marmite effect’. When discussing Sonic Mania there seems to be two reactions, either enthusiasm or disdain. Mostly to blame are the recent incarnations of the blue blur that have been, to put it charitably, less than perfect.
Yet, I am pleased to say, Sonic Mania recaptures the magic of the original games that made Sega and Sonic the household names they deserve to be. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Sonic Mania instead adds spokes and perfects the design of a formula that has stood the test of time. With perfectly appropriate stylised graphics, incredible pace and addictive gameplay, Sonic Mania Plus is an affordable must-buy for anyone and everyone.
Rolling Around at the Speed of Sound
The story of Sonic Mania is almost so hilariously irrelevant that the game spends barely any time dwelling on it. This seems like an excellent creative decision, as instead the game launches the player straight into the gameplay. Beginning in the famous ‘Green Hill Zone’, almost every gamer will get a sense of nostalgia from simply hearing the first few chords of the iconic stage music. This nostalgic feel pervades the entirety of the gameplay of Sonic Mania. The game relies on the solid foundations of the classics that first popularised the blue blur. Moreover, it barely changes the addictive gameplay that made Sonic the hedgehog icon he remains today.
Upon starting a new game in Sonic Mania, the game asks you to make a choice of what character to pick. The default being a combination of both Sonic and Tails. Both recognisable characters in their own right. Yet, you can also choose individual characters such as Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and, with the ‘Plus’ features, ‘Mighty the Armadillo’ and ‘Ray the Flying Squirrel’. The latter two will be explored later. The first three are as identifiable as they are fun to play, each one coming with their own unique move-set. Tails can use his two tails to fly above levels, not avoiding what is there, but instead seeing parts of levels that previously were either inaccessible or extremely difficult to get into as Sonic or Knuckles.
Heads or Tails?
Tails can use his two tails to fly above levels. Not avoiding what is there. Instead, seeing areas that previously were either inaccessible or extremely difficult to get into as Sonic or Knuckles. Instead of gracefully fluttering above the sights, Knuckles uses brute force to smash through obstacles and enemies alike. Sonic plays and controls the exact same way he did all the way back in 1991. A control scheme almost so perfect it requires no changes to hold up today. But there is one quality of life change that proves useful and innovative: the ‘drop dash’. Only Sonic can perform this move. It overcomes an oft discussed flaw in Sonic games that a single hit can entirely eliminate your momentum.
Depending on your perspective this may be a feature of the Sonic games. Although it remains in part here, it is made much more manageable by the new drop dash move. By jumping and holding the same button in mid-air, Sonic will land and perform a small dash instantly getting back up to speed.
All of this is to say that the gameplay of Sonic Mania has perfected its application of 2D platforming to a tee. The platforming is accurate and controls well. The changes in pace from slow, methodical jumps to long dash sections feels satisfying and addictive. The level design does not only compliment this gameplay but actively enhances it. Although under half of the levels are slightly remixed stages from the original games, there are just enough tweaks to keep your attention and desire to explore. Moreover, the second act of all these stages completely reinvent the level, adding new mechanics that revive decades old concepts into something that feels much more recent.
There is also a scattering of brand new levels that seem to go completely above and beyond the designs of the original levels, constantly introducing new ideas whilst not completely overshadowing the other remixed stages. These levels, as well as the remixed old ones, prove the game was made by, and for, fans. Jam-packed full of easter-eggs and branching paths, Sonic Mania is a game that can, and will, get under your skin and demand multiple play-throughs.
Over and Over and Over Again…
It becomes increasingly apparent that the development team carefully considered how to make the game as replayable as possible. As is the case with previous Sonic games, there are hidden ‘chaos emeralds’ scattered across the levels. When collected, they unlock another ending and bonus content. This adds to the replayability as it is extremely unlikely a player will find all of these emeralds their first playthrough without guidance, so going back through levels to claim them will prove as addictive as it is satisfying. These emeralds are also locked behind ‘bonus’ stages which make a welcome return to the franchise.
The base game of Sonic Mania includes two bonus stages. One which comprises a maze where you have to collect blue spheres. Another where you race a robot for a chaos emerald. The blue sphere stage is taken straight from previous Sonic games but the racing stage is entirely new. Beating it is the only way to unlock chaos emeralds. Sonic Mania Plus actually adds another bonus stage to this mix. The player character is a pinball and must continually score points. These stages all come with their own unique charm and finding/playing them all will necessitate multiple playthroughs.
Moreover, Sonic Mania keeps you coming back for more in different ways unique to this entry in the franchise. First, is the completely expanded branching paths available to players. This will make replaying the level feel an almost entirely different experience when choosing a different path to go down.
When starting a new game, the ability to choose different starting characters. Although not new to Sonic games, it definitely turns the usual chore of 100% completion into something more unique and interesting with every playthrough. The other benefit Sonic Mania has going for it is that it is short. Usually this is a curse for most games. As Sonic Mania is so affordable and jam-packed with good ideas it leaves the player wanting, not for more stages. It leaves them wanting to play through the same ones again, and again, and again. In addition, since the retail version of Sonic Mania now includes the ‘plus’ content, there are even more reasons to revisit the near flawless stages one final time… and maybe just once more... and another after that…
Sonic Mania, originally released with only a few game modes, the most substantial being the ‘Mania Mode’ which is the main way of playing through the game. This was coupled with a time trial mode that involved racing through the Mania levels as fast as possible. Already, these modes are substantial enough to justify purchasing Sonic Mania. But ‘Sonic Mania Plus’ adds enough content to make the game an absolute steal at roughly the same price.
Right out of the box, Sonic Mania Plus adds two new characters with their own unique move-sets. They are distinct enough from the others to not feel boring. Yet familiar enough that they feel like they belong within the mechanics of the game. Both ‘Mighty the Armadillo’ and ‘Ray the Flying Squirrel’, despite feeling fresh to many Sonic players, have actually appeared in prior games. In fact they appeared originally in the same game, an arcade version of Sonic released in 1993. It is no wonder then that these two characters fit into this world and its mechanics like a snug fitting glove.
Mighty plays a lot like knuckles, opting to smash through objects rather than soaring above them. In this way, he can perform a ‘ground slam’ crushing anything and everything beneath him. As well as his shell which, when in ball form, will protect him against the spikes that plague every Sonic player’s high-speed coasting. Ray, on the other hand, is more akin to Tails. Preferring to glide above stages without losing altitude like Knuckles gradually does.
That's a Plus!
Plus also adds one new game mode and expands another. ‘Encore Mode’ essentially reworks the already reworked stages from the base ‘Mania’ mode. Adding new paths and possibilities to stages that already had an eye-watering amount of care and attention put into them. There is also a surprise for Sonic fans! The first stage of Encore Mode is ‘Angel Island’. A location not visited in the main game but features in the opening cut-scene to the game.
Competition Mode, on the other hand, is expanded to a four player experience compared to only having two players in the base game. This mode is a local multiplayer game mode. You and your friends can compete to see who can race through the stages of Mania mode the quickest. Although the additions to Competition mode are not very substantial. It is certainly a welcome addition and makes playing the game with others a bit more fleshed out.
Overall, the Plus content is more than a nice small addition to an already incredible game. Adding these new characters and game modes just keeps the players coming back for more if they already own the base game. It gives a huge amount of content to sift through for those who are just starting the experience.
Initially in this review I compared playing Sonic to Marmite, both concepts that people either adore or revolt against. Yet, now I feel as though the true comparison between Sonic and a foodstuff slogan is Pringles. Once you pop in Sonic Mania to your disk drive, you simply can’t stop. And, just like Pringles, Sonic Mania is light and endlessly moreish. The length of the game may be an issue for some players. I ended up playing for tens of hours past the initial playthrough of Mania Mode. The length only helped that. Instead of it being a chore to plod through many stages, the condensed nature of the game means that each level is distilled to its best elements and unique from all the others.
It is difficult not to get excited when playing Sonic Mania. Everything from the visuals to the gameplay and even the amazing soundtrack has had so much love and attention poured into it that you can’t help but feel engaged. For anyone dead-set on refusing to enjoy anything blue, fast-moving and spiky, this will not be the game for them. However, for everyone else, especially those who may have fallen out of love with Sonic in the last few years, will be reminded why these types of games are so well remembered. They will recognise that Sonic Mania is the perfection of a decades old process. From the outside, Sonic Mania Plus may appear basic to many who can compare it to other powerhouse games available this generation; but for my money, few of them are as entertaining and as fresh as Sonic Mania.
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