LOS ANGELES—Sonic Mania is far from Sega’s first stab at returning to the blue, spiky bomber’s good ol’ Genesis/Mega Drive days. Every time we’ve heard Sega’s nostalgic promises, they’ve been followed by the series’ handlers coming up high and dry.
Over the past year, I’ve reluctantly enjoyed promising demos of the company’s latest 16-bit Sonic homage. Everything has played smoothly so far, but I’ve bitten my tongue, lest I hype something that ultimately turns out as unevenly as Sonic 4.
Last month, Sega finally tipped me over the edge. Enough playable Mania levels exist, with new twists and refreshing returns, that I’d happily buy the incomplete package for the August game’s eventual $20/£15 tag.
As has already been announced, Sonic Mania comes courtesy of Sega’s first-ever fanboy development team. Two of its primary members, Christian Whitehead and Simon “Stealth” Thomley, are better known for authentically porting older Sonic games to newer systems (often with awesome upgrades like widescreen support). They are partnering with PagodaWest Games, whose 2011 title Major Magnet is as close as anyone’s gotten to a Sonic-caliber game restricted to smartphone taps and swipes.
I remind you of this dev team because Whitehead and Thomley are better known for loving old Sonic games than for one-upping the originals. Sonic Mania may very well do just that.
The newest and most impressive example comes from today’s newly unveiled Chemical Plant Zone. This builds from the foundation of the Sonic 2 zone of the same name, which was characterized by metallic rollercoasters and high-speed warping tubes. Those return, and they serve as the foundation for a series of new level elements and design ideas.
The zone now feels more chemical, primarily thanks to a series of pools full of flubbery goo. Depending on their color, these bouncy pools will send Sonic bouncing a certain distance above. Early in the level, Sonic discovers that the color can be changed by hitting a switch and dumping more chemicals. You can do the usual Sonic thing of madly dashing from left to right, but some of the levels’ fastest routes and shortcuts only emerge once you solve a puzzle of navigating toward a particular pool. Like the one you just ran past.
Paired with this mechanic is a beefed-up version of series’ “bubble shield,” which can be opened up by opening a bonus-item box. With this equipped, tap the “jump” button in mid-air to slam down to the ground and bounce back upward. I mistakenly thought this was a new series power-up because it’s so much bouncier and faster than in Sonic 3—and it lets Sonic now stay in his “attack” state while in mid-air. I used it to great effect to run-and-jump to new points when I went back to retry one CPZ level. (Speedrunners will appreciate the shield’s upgrade, methinks.)
Players can also stick to, and very quickly fling off of, bouncy pads that crawl along ceilings and walls, and they can now pick directions to slide within the Chemical Plant Zone’s series of super-fast tubes. Some of the new level bits, like corkscrew warp tubes and DNA-styled elevators, are mostly aesthetic, but these serve as welcome punctuation between the level’s open bursts of speed. (You’ll also run into the original CPZ’s momentum-stopping moments, like slowly rotating platform blocks and underwater passages, but both are infrequent and brief.)
Chemical Plant Zone has not been mined as repeatedly as Green Hill Zone in Sonic rehashes, so it’s good to see an iconic series location come back with all its best bits preserved. Even better, all of the aforementioned tweaks and changes open up what feels like a half-dozen legitimate run routes; some are vertical, while others creatively get players running leftward.
Green Hill redemption
Seven levels were unlocked in the build, including the second half of the opening Green Hill Zone. I recently complained that Sega needs to permanently retire Green Hill Zone, but more of Mania‘s second GHZ level was also revealed at the May media event, and it kind of made me eat my words.
For the most part, Mania‘s second GHZ level is best described as a piece of finely honed platforming goodness, with a nice mix of hidden paths and breakable walls for exploring’s sake, as opposed to new-system tweaks or gimmicks. All of that is nearly overshadowed by its splendid boss fight against Dr. Robotnik. In this fight, your foe continually marches rightward, destroying and deforming terrain by stomping on it with his robosuit. As Sonic runs rightward in kind, he must take advantage of newly appearing terrain to get a good jumping angle on Robotnik to take him out. This classic 16-bit boss goodness finds the right balance between predictable patterns and on-the-fly panic.
The other zones on offer have appeared at other press events, including a Sonic and Knuckles return (the Flying Battery airship) and two brand-new designs. The neon-loaded Studiopolis Zone is probably my least favorite, as its perks and twists are mostly aesthetic (including some very cool behind-veil, silhouette moments). Mirage Saloon Zone, on the other hand, thrills by combining the Sonic Spinball motif of bounce-everywhere design with some really wild “terrain can disappear at any moment” tension. (Oh, and “outlaw” animals appear on occasion in this Saloon, who are teased by “wanted” posters scattered around.)
When presented as separate drip-fed teases and reveals, it’s easy to overlook Sonic Mania‘s elements as unproven returns to Sonic’s old glory. But as a combined seven-level package, I was absolutely charmed—particularly by the feeling that I’d missed so much exploratory content in my first go-through. I only had time to replay one Chemical Plant Zone level, in which I exploited some bouncy-pool areas to find new high-speed pockets. I wanted badly to do the same with the others, to replay this 30-minute chunk of throwback platforming and bring my times down or ring-counts up. Additionally, this is an aesthetic wonder to run through, with sprite and animation design more befitting Sega’s glorious Saturn era and brand-new music remixes that tip into high-gloss 32-bit goodness.
The final game, coming to PC and all modern consoles (including Nintendo Switch) on August 15, probably won’t be that much bigger, if we assume these five zones contain two levels each and maybe 1-2 more zones remain to be announced. (Sega declined to confirm to Ars exactly how big the final game will be.) Sonic Mania‘s $20 price will probably fetch you as much platforming as $60 used to in a single Sonic cartridge—but if the remaining levels are even half as good as the ones I played, count on a package well worth its cost and time.
This article has been updated to clarify info about the game’s power-ups.
Listing image by Sega of America
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