As a child, 1994 was a glorious year: The Lion King made everyone between the ages of 4 to 10 cry in the first 20 minutes, Power Rangers were the hottest thing on the planet and the 16-bit era of consoles was reaching a peak climax. Even as a humble young six year old, I knew I had to pick a side on the playground: was I SEGA or Nintendo? For me it was the Sega Mega Drive – or Geneses as it was known to our American cousins across the pond.
Many a Saturday morning I would spend in a cold conservatory on a busted TV that could somehow pick up my neighbour’s TV reception – handy as they were the first family in the neighbourhood to own cable TV. I would toil away on games such as Golden Axe, Super Hang On and Disney’s Aladdin, soaking up all the 16-bit glory I could muster, before I had to wait another fortnight to travel down to my father’s house and do it all over again.
However, there was a series of games I could never get enough of and those were the Sonic the Hedgehog games. As a child I was Sonic mad; watching all the cartoons, collecting Sonic: The Comic, which in turn acted like SEGA’s answer to Nintendo Power with all the walkthroughs and cheat codes that helped you become king of the playground, and of course, the games. Those treasured memories I would have of myself and my father at 7am on a cold Saturday morning trying to get through Sky Chase Zone on Sonic 2 or the delight we had when we first got to the Hidden Palace Zone in Sonic and Knuckles.
For me, Sonic the Hedgehog was more than just a game, it was a long lost memory, a memory of my father and I bonding, a game where the music is so engrained into my subconscious you can just hum the beginning of Spring Yard Zone and I will be shouting that song like a drunken club singer and the reason why I can’t go back into my local pub until I “sort myself out”.
For all the rose-tinted views I have on this franchise, I am the first to admit that the blue ball of “tude” has also had its fair share of atrocities that to this day, being a Sonic fan is considered taboo or at least gets you sneered at. What can I say? I am so sorry I didn’t fall in love with a fat red plumber as a child. Sonic has been through the wringer in his over 25 year history with more rise and falls then your average rockstar, yet I held on. I held on dearly that one day my patience and frustration at SEGA would pay off and it did, when Sonic Team announced Sonic Mania: a true return to form with no silly mechanics, just you, the joypad and 16-bit sprites with all the chiptune trimmings. I fell instantly in love, to say the least, and hoped that all the hype would not let me down. Thankfully it did not.
A warm feeling hit my black, artery clogged heart as soon as I heard the all too familiar SEGA jingle and was instantly immersed into a world of 16-bit graphics and enough eurotrash pop music to fill a dingy nightclub somewhere in Prague and keep my head bobbing or whistling along. The plot is simple: our blue hedgehog has just come back to Angel Island Zone to find that Dr Robotnik (I refuse to call him Eggman) is up to his old shenanigans again and this time he has a small robot army known as the “Hard-Boiled Heavies” to aid in his devious ways. With the power of the chaos emeralds, Sonic, Tails and Knuckles are warped to Green Hill Zone and various other zones of the first four Sonic adventures and also brand new zones to delve into. Its message is clear: the original gang of three has to save the world once again.
In the same vein to Sonic 3, you have a choice on whether to control, Tails, Knuckles or the classic duo of Sonic and Tails, where you can get a friend to pick up controller 2 and help you out as Tails as they guide you on your adventure to some bright, colourful zones including the aforementioned Green Hill Zone, Stardust Speedway Zone and Flying Battery Zone with tons of fun to be had. As is the norm with many of the classic 2D Sonic games, there are hidden paths, nooks and crannies to explore, almost begging you to go back and play through these zones again until you know where all bonus levels are, where all the extra lives are hidden and where all the checkpoints are. The replay value on this alone was worth the £16 I paid for this game.
I want to make this absolutely clear, Sonic Mania is not a game where they slapped a fresh coat of paint on some of the more nostalgic zones and hope for the best that the die-hard Sonic fans will eat it up – this is a completely new experience, a spiritual sequel to 1994’s Sonic & Knuckles. Though there are familiar zones for the Sonic veterans to get excited to play through all over again, there are new obstacles to face, new enemies to lose your rings to, and new zones and bosses that will keep you scratching your head until the credits roll.
Sonic and Knuckles’ individual level layouts cater to each of their abilities, while Tails flying can help you find more paths higher up. Trial and error has always been a key component in Sonic games and Sonic Mania is no different to this formula. There were plenty of times the game had me screaming at the top of my lungs, almost rage quitting at just how difficult some of these zones and bosses were but I would soldier on and get through until I was able to finally conquer the game.
The breakdown to each act of these zones are simple; if you’re an old school Sonic fan you will recognise that the first act is a mish mash of the two acts from the original games, just enough to recognise the layout, but doesn’t shy away from throwing the odd curveball at you to keep your senses sharp and think to yourself “well, that’s new”. You get a sub-boss at the end of each first act, which are relatively easy to deal with and then it’s onto act two. If you are playing one of the classic zones in the game, this is where the fun begins. They are challenges old school Sonic gamers will relish and cherish with each passing go.
I would just like to take this opportunity to say however, screw you, Hydrocity Zone. You were relentless to me as a child and to see it come back into my life, like an abusive bully I went to school with and be just as relentlessly stubborn and difficult as it was with Sonic 3 does mean there is no love lost between me and that zone.
The bosses are thankfully not necessarily just a mish-mash of the Robotnik bosses of old, though towards the end stages there were a few sub-bosses borrowed. Headcannon, for the most part, surpassed themselves with the overall creativity of the bosses. Each boss comes with its own strategy and while most are with the devious podgy villain, there are new bosses and stipulations thrown in to keep everything fresh. One of the more memorable bosses for me during my playthrough was in Chemical Plant Zone, where you challenge Dr. Robotnik to a round of ‘Bean Machine’. For those too young or for those non-hardcore SEGA fans amongst you, this is a throwback to 1993’s ‘Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine’, a game that worked like Tetris – match the beans to the machine and the first one to fill up the grid loses.
It completely threw me off as I have never quite experienced a Sonic boss like this before and my hat went off to the developers who conjured this up. it was just a shame there never any bosses quite like this after. There is, of course, tackling the “Hard Boiled Heavies” and I would rather not spoil the overall strategy for any of these bosses and let you figure it out yourself, but one boss does include Metal Sonic and he is fifty shades of pissed at you, creating one of the more memorable and more aggravating bosses of the game. You come to notice in this game that there are throwbacks to the classic Sonic games that, if you are in the know, will have you chortling and thinking “I see what you did there, good show”.
The Blue Sphere bonus round from Sonic 3 & Knuckles are back with furious vengeance. However, these bonus rounds are not for picking up the chaos emeralds, rather Silver Medallions which are awarded to players who complete the Bonus Stage and a Gold Medallion is awarded to those who manage to collect all the blue spheres and rings. It was nice to see that they are frustrating but none of it felt unfair, it was just my own shoddy missteps. The main bonus stages are found as big gold rings, just like in the old games, usually after taking the beaten path to find them and they are quite the challenge to find. You will be transported to an open racetrack world similar to the bonus stages in Sonic 3D where you will need to collect blue spheres in order to speed up to catch a chaos emerald. Rings serve as a way to extend the time limit and while not a huge challenge, accessing the portals to get to these levels are. This alone will take many playthroughs to get done and only the true hardened of completionist will want to rise up to the challenge.
Is there anything? Anything at all I can truly criticise? Not really, and I’m not saying that as someone with the rose-tinted glasses firmly on my face. As previously mentioned, I can accept when a Sonic game sucks and there have been some stinkers in his time. Perhaps I could complain about the lack of extras, a lack of new pick-ups in the games or lack of new modes except for split-screen battle and a time trial mode, but I think that would be unfair on an otherwise fantastic job done by all the developers involved in this project. This game deserves the praise it has so far gained as well as its many perfect scores.
For £16, SEGA and Head Cannon invite you to a world once forgotten.Many fans wanted to experience a down to earth old school style Sonic game and Sonic Mania set out what it needed to do to achieve that goal. It would be futile moaning over what could have been as what I experienced on my playthrough of Sonic Mania gave me a glimmer of hope that all was right with the world again. I hope I am speaking on behalf of a lot of old school Sonic fans when I say this, but this is the perfect old-school Sonic the Hedgehog game we have been yearning for since 1994.
Everything from the presentation to the music score is designed to keep the old guard smiling for a long time. I don’t expect new gamers, younger gamers or fans of chubby red plumbers to understand the sentiments behind this review, but finally the Sonic the Hedgehog we yearned is finally back. While the path ahead for the blue hedgehog may be uncertain, we have a Sonic game we can keep coming back to for generations to come and perhaps play with our own children, in our own cold conservatories.
Sonic is back, praise be, Sonic is back. Old school fans will relish the challenge and the attention to detail while younger gamers may able finally understand why Sonic was such a gaming icon in the 1990’s. But seriously, screw Hydrocity Zone.