It’s hard being a SEGA fan……and even harder being a Sonic fan. Both the mascot and the company that I grew up with have been conspicuous by their absence for many years. Sure, they have been present in the most literal sense of the word, but come on, when was the last time that SEGA was truly the SEGA of old? And what of poor Sonic? Once a genuine contender to Mario’s crown, the blue blur has been mismanaged to the point of self-parody. The fact that both he and (to an extent) SEGA remain popular today is testament to just how beloved they were in their prime.
Of course, many with tell you that it has been nothing but doom and gloom since the Mega Drive era, but despite an array of absolute stinkers (so many stinkers), there have been fleeting signs of life; Sonic Generations was a largely brilliant game, as was its predecessor, Sonic Colours. The recent Sonic karting games too, despite being oddly overlooked by many are, in my opinion at least, the best kart racers that don’t have Mario behind the wheel (yes, they are much better than Crash Team racing). Then there is SEGA – again, there has been a lot of drivel, but last generations’ largely unheeded spate of arcade classics on PS3 and 360 proved a brief but utterly magnificent return to form. If you haven’t had the chance to try OutRun 2 (one of the greatest racers ever made), Afterburner Climax or SEGA Rally Online, you really should give them a bash as each are home to that little bit of blue sky SEGA magic, something that is so often missing from an industry that is moving towards a boringly predictable games as service-driven future.
Still, as good as Sonic Generations and Sonic Colours might have been (yes, there is a ‘u’ in ‘Colours’), what the majority of Sonic fans have really been waiting for is a fully-fledged follow up to the classic 2D Mega Drive era of games. Sure, SEGA did release Sonic the Hedgehog 4, but, well, we all know what happened there. It certainly looked the part, but as soon as you picked up the controller and felt that odd sense of inertia, you knew something was wrong. Sonic Mania though, that doesn’t have those problems; this looks like a 2D Sonic game should, and above all else, it plays and feels like a Sonic game should. A combination of remastered classic stages and all new levels, this is the Sonic game that fans have been waiting for.
So, what’s the difference? Why have SEGA finally got it right this time? Well, that’s the thing isn’t it – this wasn’t actually made by SEGA. With SEGA busy at work on the triple-A budgeted Sonic Forces (which actually looks pretty decent), a team of Sonic fans headed up by Christian ‘Taxman’ Whitehead have combined to create what is in many respects, the ultimate ‘fan’ game. A game by fans for fans if you will – it shows too. This love letter to 16-bit Sonic is full of brilliant nods and winks, but more importantly, is full of the high speed, high octane gameplay that we have always associated with the very best Sonic the Hedgehog video games.
From a visual perspective, the genius of Sonic Mania is that it looks just how you remember Sonic games looking rather than how they actually did at the time. Kind of like those new throwback toy ranges (Thundercats and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles etc), this Sonic game is unmistakably a 16-bit throwback, but running at 60 fps and home to a number of subtle additional effects that would have never been possible on the original Mega Drive, this spruced-up collection proves the perfect retro throwback by delivering all the nostalgia with just a subtle hint of modern day concession.
3 parts remaster to 1 part all new experience, just about everything in this game has been created with the kind of love, care and attention that has so often been missing from modern Sonic releases. The remastered stages, while capturing the essence of their inspirations, are almost universally superior to the originals without losing the fundamental design of what made them so enjoyable first time around. Whether it be the Green Hill Zone or the Casino Night Zone, each and every stage is immediately familiar but also subtly new. It’s a fine balancing act, but one that has been pulled off with aplomb here.
The new stages are fewer in number but make no less of an impact. With new enemies and new stage themes, these additional levels provide a brilliant new twist on the classic Sonic structure by delivering an impressive collection of visually impressive and carefully crafted stages. They might not have the same sense of nostalgia attached to them, but in terms of level design, they are as good as anything from the 16 bit era.
With fantastic boss battles, an addictive time attack mode, some surprisingly brilliant multiplayer options, a very enjoyable selection of both new and old bonus stages and the ability to play as any of the core cast (Sonic, Tails and Knuckles), Sonic Mania, beyond its underlying quality and fantastic retro charm, proves a feature-filled experience that wouldn’t have looked out of place as a full retail release. As it stands, this download only title delivers a mountain of top quality content at a very reasonable asking price.
Whether or not the success of Sonic Mania will prove a turning point for the series remains to be seen, but this fan made classic proves a blisteringly fast and much overdue return to form for Sonic the Hedgehog, and a much needed dose of traditional SEGA blue sky magic for the industry.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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