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[Game Review] Sonic Mania

Well, after quite an irksome delay that set my review back a week or two, forcing me to go through Miitopia instead, Sonic Mania is finally out on Steam, and man, I was excited to play this! I wasn’t actually a Mario kid when I was younger, though I certainly became a big fan later on – I was a Sega boy through and through. I had all the Sonic games (not that I ever beat them). So, Sonic Mania has a whole childhood’s-worth of nostalgia to feed… can it pull it off?

The story of Mania starts on Angel Island, because it wouldn’t be a classic Sonic game if it didn’t feature Angel Island, where our heroes are racing to find a mysterious gem called the Phantom Ruby before Dr. Robotnik. Unfortunately, they arrive just as some of the good doctor’s goons are extracting the Ruby, and through what can only be described as ‘timey-wimey shenanigans’, the Ruby turns the egg robots into the Hard-Boiled Heavies, a series of elite douchebags who may answer to Eggman, but answer more firmly to the Phantom Ruby, and throws them, along with Sonic, Tails and Knuckles, back into the past. So, it’s kind of like Generations, but with a slightly more stable and interesting plot device than ‘world’s most convenient primordial time-travelling monster in space’.

So, as expected, when we’re in the past, we replay old stages! Yay! …Except that’s not always a good thing. For the most part, I like replaying the older stages. They seem to follow a theme for the most part where the first Act is a very close retread of that stage’s acts, complete with a remastered version of the music, and the second Act expands the stage, bringing in ideas from other stages, new mechanics and remixed music. It’s a good way to keep them fresh, like Oil Ocean’s flame-smoke mechanic which is eerily reminiscent of Sandopolis Act 2’s ghost mechanic, or Chemical Plant’s bouncy goo mechanic that calls back to Wacky Workbench’s bouncing floor. I like this a lot, because it allows Mania to pay homage to many other stages whilst keeping the number of zones fairly low. That said, this is the most zones Sonic’s ever had to travel through in a classic game, but it’s perfectly fine, because most of them don’t overstay their welcome like a creepy uncle who said he would just hang around until he found somewhere else to stay but has already been lurking in your basement for six years.

That all said, there are some new stages – of the 12 zones, 4 are new: Studiopolis, Press Garden, Mirage Saloon and Titanic Monarch. This, I find, I don’t like as much. The new stages are absolutely fantastic, jam-packed with interesting mechanics, fun bosses (for the most part) and unique visuals, but it feels like a wasted opportunity when they’re outnumbered by the 8 returning stages, which, whilst perfectly fun, we’ve all played in some form or another before. I would’ve preferred an even 6-6 for old and new stages, because I feel like Mania loses it’s identity at some stages. Sometimes, it feels like a Sonic game, but other times… it feels like a fangame with slightly higher production quality.

When I say higher production quality, of course, I mean it: Mania looks and plays fantastically. The music is wonderful throughout, a real treat to the ears with both old and new stages – my personal favourite has to be Danger on the Dance Floor, the mini-boss theme, but I have to give the remixed Flying Battery some props too, as one of my favourite Classic series songs. The sprite work is probably the best Sonic’s ever looked, with multiple unique running animations, shorter story segments between zones that animate well with plenty of frames, and overall all the characters have tons of personality, especially some of the Hard-Boiled Heavies, who have some of the most fun fights in the game. Sonic’s got a new move this time which complements the extremely taut controls – the drop dash, which allows him to charge a spin dash in midair and launch immediately once he hits the ground. It’s a great addition to Sonic’s repertoire, and in Mania it can be used to extreme effect to roll through stages effortlessly; it earns most of it’s keep in the Time Attack mode, though.

Then I asked myself the question, as I typed this at 7.30 in the morning because I had nothing better to do, can a game have too much production value? The answer is yes, and Mania proves it. I had numerous incidents where the collision detection was too precise and I got crushed by moving blocks, sliding objects and getting flattened into walls and floors, and only half the time was it intended by the developers. So that was only slightly less annoying than a four-year old child that won’t leave you alone because you briefly acknowledged it once.

Speaking of briefly acknowledged, the bosses. I like bosses and I’ve always liked Sonic bosses, but the ones in Mania are… for the most part, not hard. Typically a boss would have invincibility, like Robotnik’s machines that hid under the stage or flew just out of Sonic’s pitiful jumping range, but most of the fights here can easily be won by simply leaping at it during it’s invincible phase, then recollecting the rings and doing it again: the Sonic equivalent of gimping. It’s the fastest way of taking out half the bosses – Press Garden Act 1 and Chemical Plant Act 1 spring to mind for most egregious misuse of damage tanking. The final boss, Titanic Monarch Act 2, isn’t that hard either for a final boss. After one or two attempts, you’ll know everything the dumb machine can do and thus obliterate Robotnik with ease. I’ve yet to get all the emeralds, so I don’t know anything about the quality of the final-final boss.

Well, that brings me, messily and annoyingly, to discussing the special stages. Once you find the massive rings hidden around each zone, you can have a single try at them. The goal is to catch up to a UFO to get the emerald by jogging sweatily after it until it gives you the gem out of pity. You can increase your mach speed by collecting blue orbs dotted about the 3D environment, and collecting rings increases the time you can spend there, which is measured by a constantly-draining ring count. I find that this is a pretty interesting pair of mechanics, because you’re forced to balance the priorities – do you collect more rings, giving you more time to catch up to the UFO, or grab more orbs, making your time more efficient by going faster? Or, for a change, do you collide with spikes, losing 10 rings, then hurl yourself off the stage? Oh no, Sonic does that anyway.

Yeah, the special stages can be tough once you get about 4 emeralds in. At Mach 3, Sonic runs so ridiculously fast that he forgets to actually control well, and tapping left or right will have him hurl himself into walls, spikes, bombs or just off the stage, without you really intending to. Catching up to the UFO in these instances is really quite difficult, but I find that it’s an acceptable level of difficulty. I’m not going to say I don’t like these stages because I think they’re poorly designed. They’re well-designed, probably the best special stages of any Classic game. The reason I don’t like them is because I’m shit at them.

There’s secrets galore in the stages, not just the big rings for special stages – you can find power-ups and rings and lives to fill your boots with. The elemental shields make a return, and they are incredibly fun to use here, though they do remove the ability to drop dash. I found great enjoyment in defeating the Studiopolis Act 2 boss, which normally flies out of reach of Sonic’s jumps, by abusing the high-jump that the bubble shield gives you.

Bubbles aren’t always fun, though. I like most of the mechanics in each stage, but I find the bubble mechanic in Hydrocity to be a real pace-killer, like stopping a marathon every twenty steps to read a chapter of War and Peace. That’s probably the only mechanic I genuinely dislike (except maybe Press Garden Act 1’s spinning tops). I appreciate the thought that went into telling a story with each zone; the Act 1 and Act 2 are radically different in most cases, like Oil Ocean setting on fire in Act 2 or Press Garden getting frozen over in Act 2, which gives the Acts the difference in visuals and style that most games have failed to achieve. I actually feel like I’m making some kind of progress.

And now, just a few last bits of nostalgia wanking: god damn, I love the second Hydrocity boss where you get to be in the sucking-water-machine from Sonic 3’s Hydrocity, crushing Robotnik in your brutal swirling fans of doom. Metal Sonic’s fight in Metallic Madness is easily one of my favourite bosses in the game, with the running segments, the wall of death that chases you, and the multiple stages of the fight that introduce new and fun ways of damaging Metal Sonic’s cold soulless chassis. The music for Metal Sonic’s fight, the mini-boss theme and Press Garden Act 2 are all SO DAMN GOOD.

I can’t say that it’s a fun experience for all, because it’s clearly made for fans of Sonic, but speaking as a fan of Sonic, Mania is the best gift we as a group have ever been given by Sega, and I only hope that we get more like this. It’s easy to see past the faults, becuase Mania is imaginative, fun, well-presented and well worth your time. Besides, there’s a Knuckles and Knuckles mode, and what’s not to love about that?!

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