It’s no secret that Sonic and Sega alike have fallen from grace over the years. For a short time they were the hottest property in gaming, and for good reasons. The original Sonic trilogy defined the 16-bit era, and include some of the biggest selling games on the Mega Drive.
Unfortunately improvements in technology haven’t been kind to Sonic and the transition into 3D gaming has been a painful one. There have been a small handful of gems such as ‘Sonic Generations’, unfortunately such games are overshadowed by years upon years worth of awful ones. Top this off with countless gigabytes of dreadful online fan art and the entire franchise became nothing but a joke.
While his old school rival Super Mario went on to dominate the gaming world, there was an outlet for long term fans to enjoy more great Sonic games, but these games were not coming from Sega. I’m referring to the vibrant Sonic hacking community. For years I have been enjoying incredible remixed and original Sonic games by talented programmers who share their work online for free. This is the true Sonic fan art with new stages, more music and interesting characters with incredible abilities. I’ve had many hours of fun ploughing through these fan games and always look forward to the annual Sonic Hacking Contest. If you are interested in looking into such games for yourself I’d like to recommend ‘Sonic Megamix’, ‘The S Factor’, ‘Sonic Boom’, ‘Metal Sonic Hyperdrive’ and ‘Sonic: The Next Level’.
It was through this community that Sega made one of their smartest decisions in the company’s history. Rather than slap cease and deist orders on all these community projects (I’m looking at you Nintendo), Sega allowed and encouraged this community to thrive, and in turn were able to head hunt some amazing talent. At first they hired Christian Whitehead, a skilled programmer who ported incredible new versions of Sonic 1 & 2 to mobile, and Sonic CD to modern consoles. They also went on to hire Simon Thomley to create the Nintendo DS port of the original Sonic The Hedgehog, after he demonstrated that he could port Sonic to the GBA far better than Sega could. These new faces proved that they were more than just fans, as they quickly became valuable assets to Sega. It was from this relationship that a crack team was assembled to create something beyond a port. It was time for a brand new Sonic game which included both the quality of the originals with all the charm and spirit of a rom hack.
‘Sonic Mania’ is an unusual game as it’s comprised of stages from the original Sonic trilogy, so at first glance it may look like some sort of remaster or remake. However, although this game borrows heavily it terms of assets, it also includes tons of new elements, set pieces and level design, essentially remixing the stages into something fresh and original. In fact, ‘Sonic Mania’ actually borrows many elements from stages that are not included in the roster and recycles them in brand new ways.
In terms of story, ‘Sonic Mania’ is set after the events of ‘Sonic 3’. Sonic returns to Angel Island to discover that a new army of bonics have recovered a time stone which warps Sonic and friends to stages from Sonic’s past (similar to the plot of Sonic Generations).
Not only are eight original Sonic stages remixed, revamped and remastered, but to top it off this package also includes four brand new stages. Apparently some of these new stages include previously unused assets such as ‘Mirage Saloon Zone’ taking graphics from Sonic 2’s unfinished ‘Dust Hill Zone’. As a fan, I’m really grateful for these new stages, because as much as I love the improved originals, the new ones add something entirely fresh to the experience.
Like ‘Sonic 3’, Sonic, Tails and Knuckles are all available as playable characters. Knuckles & Tails both include all their unique abilities from ‘Sonic 3’, unfortunately Sonic himself has seen a bit of a downgrade as his insta-shield has now been removed from the main game. It can still be used as an unlockable ability, however it can only be switched on with the save features disabled, so if you prefer using the insta-shield you’ll have to beat the game in one sitting.
Speaking of which, I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how long this game is. Given how we were shown very little in the build up to this release I was expecting a game of about 6 zones in length, however it turns out that Mania is almost as long as the complete version of ‘Sonic 3’. I expected to be able to beat this game in one sitting, but it actually took me two. Much like the originals, this isn’t a particularly difficult game. Some of the bosses may take a couple of attempts while you figure out their attack patterns and weaknesses, but average gamers should be able to reach the end with no bother. Getting the true ending will prove a bit more of a challenge so there is definite replay value.
In addition to all the characters, Mania includes all the power ups that can be found in previous games, including both standard and elemental shields. Brand new special stages are included which are similar to those featured in Sonic CD, only instead of sonic running around and open playing field hunting down satellites, he now simply chases a single satellite around a race track. These stages feel reminiscent of the original F Zero and are actually quite challenging.
Bonus stages have also seen something of an overhaul. Instead of mini games to earn you rings and power ups, Mania replaces bonus games with the Blue Sphere stages from ‘Sonic 3’. The 14 original layouts are all included as well as some brand new ones. Beating these will earn you medals that unlock new features, such as two player mode, time attack mode, bonus games and extra abilities.
Mania is displayed in the same style as the Mega Drive originals with similar colour pallets and sprite resolution, however it doesn’t stick within the limitations of the hardware. Instead, Mania is presented in a full 16:9 aspect ratio with more frames of animation which makes all the movement look incredibly smooth and the characters look far better than ever before. There are some lovely pieces of animation such as character expressions and the way in which they react to events. Robotic / Eggman is particularly good in this regard.
The music predominantly consists of remixed stage themes by the very talented ‘Tee Lopes’. The original melodies have been retained which makes ever piece recognisable, with new arrangements and flourishes which bring the soundtrack fully up to date. In addition to these remixed themes, there are also some lovely new pieces which feel right at home in the Sonic universe.
Whether you are a diehard Sonic fan or a gamer with no prior experience of the series, this game is a sensation. Sure, this title includes a ton of fan service with several nods and reverences to previous games, bosses, characters and gimmick. However, even if you’ve never played a Sonic game before you can still enjoy this solid, retro style title with plenty of high speed, adrenalin pumping, momentum based, platforming action.
Personally I was thrilled to see some of my favorite stages make a comeback such as the tranquil ‘Lava Reef Zone’ which really made me feel like I was returning to my gaming roots. I was also gob smacked by the improvements that were made to ‘Oil Ocean Zone’. Sure, I enjoyed this zone back in the day, but to be able to run through it with the fire shield and turn the stage into a smoldering inferno was sensational.
There were a few things missing that I would have loved to have seen as a fan. For example, many rom hacks have implemented Sonic’s homing dash ability from Sonic Adventure’s. This is a great way to quickly build momentum and results in some incredibly fast gameplay. This ability was unfortunately absent. It’s also a shame that another of my favorites zones ‘Ice Cap’ also didn’t make the final cut. I guess there is plenty of scope left for a ‘Sonic Mania 2’.
Since ‘Sonic Mania’ has been a huge wake up call to gamers who had forgotten how great Sonic was back in the day, hopefully Sega will keep this trend up and get more fan focused projects off the ground. I personally would love to see the all Christian Whitehead’s Sonic ports come to the latest consoles, an official complete edition of Sonic 3, and dare I bring up Streets of Rage? Also, given how good the new stages were in ‘Sonic Mania’, how about an entirely original 16-bit Sonic?
I just want to end this review by saying a huge ‘thank you’, not just to Sega, but to all the fans that have put in incredible amounts of hard work into hacked games over the years. Without your efforts it’s clear that this wonderful game would never have been possible. Congratulations to all involved.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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