Preview: Sonic Mania

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Sonic the Hedgehog has turned 25 this year, and to celebrate this momentous occasion there’s a brand new game on the way – Sonic Mania! Initially announced at Sonic’s official birthday party at San Diego Comic Con, this upcoming title is a retro 2D side-scroller in the vein of the classic Mega Drive games, developed by programming whizz Christian Whitehead (the man responsible for the excellent Sonic CD remake – read my review here). I was fortunate enough to get some hands-on time with a demo version of the game at this weekend’s Summer of Sonic 2016 convention, and I’m very pleased to say that I’ve come away with hugely positive impressions.

I hate to bring it up because it feels like flogging a dead horse at this point, but Sonic really hasn’t had a steady run of quality games since… well, probably the 1990s if we’re being completely honest. Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations were fantastic returns to form, but since then we’ve only had the divisive Sonic Lost World and the frankly abysmal Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric to tide us over, which means it’s been 5 whole years since the last genuinely good Sonic game. Even in the 2D realm, where Sonic usually shines, he’s had some missteps as of late – the ill-fated Sonic 4 failing to live up to expectations and nowhere near worthy of its prestigious title (read my review here). For a while it’s felt like, with the odd exception of brilliance, Sonic fans have once again become doomed to accept mediocrity at best.

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Well, worry no more, because Sonic Mania is exactly what Sonic 4 should have been. I only got to play the game for about five minutes, but that was plenty to realise that things are in very safe hands. The demo contained two levels – a reimagined Green Hill Zone and the all-new Studiopolis Zone – but, seeing as the queues were exceedingly long and there were other things I wanted to fit into the day, I was only able to try one of them out. As such, I opted for the latter choice, wanting to see what original material Sonic Mania would be bringing to the table… and boy, was it a blast! Studiopolis Zone is in itself a unique level trope for a Sonic game, giving off a film and Hollywood vibe with spring-loaded director’s chairs to hop on and Disney-style Eggman animations playing in the background. It’s amazing how a single zone – nay, a single act – of this game oozes infinitely more creativity than Sonic 4 managed to do across two episodes, with clever designs and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references to Sonic and SEGA scattered around every corner. Despite being a throwback to the classic Sonic trilogy, Mania actually felt more like a spiritual successor to Sonic CD – and that’s not a bad thing by any means. The graphics are bright and engaging, popping with vivid colours, and the music… oh my, the music! This, perhaps more so than anywhere else, is where the Sonic CD influences show. Tee Lopes, who’s composing the soundtrack, has done some amazing Sonic remixes in the past and he looks all set to deliver a stunning OST for this 25th anniversary celebration. Check out Sonic Mania’s title screen, invincibility, and Studiopolis themes for just a taster of what goodness we can expect:

As far as the gameplay itself… it’s classic Sonic, and I mean that quite literally. Everything feels exactly like it did back in the good ol’ days, with proper momentum based physics and wide-open level design – again, and I can’t stress it enough, it’s Sonic 4 done right. Even down to the little touches, like the three elemental shields (fire, bubble, lightning) returning from Sonic 3 & Knuckles – after being unceremoniously scrapped in Sonic 4 – and all functioning just as they did in 1994. It’s not entirely old-school though, with one notable new addition joining Sonic’s moveset: the Drop Dash, activated by holding the jump button in mid-air and then hitting the ground. Basically it’s a speed-runner’s dream, helping you to keep the pace going after a jump in much the same way that the Spin Dash does when you’re on the ground. But that one move aside, you really don’t need to have actually played Sonic Mania to know what to expect, because it’s all but one-to-one with the original titles – except, at long last, we’re finally going to be able to speed through some exciting new levels! Speaking of which, the stages themselves certainly encourage exploration and replayability through the presence of multiple pathways – and while the demo only starred Sonic, you’ll be able to play as Tails and Knuckles too in the final version, so there’s sure to be plenty of hidden secrets and goodies to hunt down.

In summary: what else is there to say? This is the most promising Sonic game in a long time and, considering the foundations it’s built on and the talent behind it, it’d take nothing short of a disaster to ruin hopes now. Some may say it’s SEGA playing things a bit too safe, but you know what? When the game is this good… who cares! The only downside is that we won’t be able to play it fully until Spring 2017, but I’m sure it’ll be worth the wait. Gotta hype fast!

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