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A true love letter.

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    Sonic Mania

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    A true love letter.

    Sonic Mania is a return to form for the series. A simpler time, when 2D platforming, innovative level designs, and great music were what made up the series. A time before having many characters, poor design choices, rushed development schedules, and other errors plagued what were otherwise potentially great titles, known only for their stellar soundtracks.

    (The next three paragraphs are an abridged version of the Sonic timeline. Skip past them to get to the review.)

    If you’re unfamiliar with the Sonic timeline, it goes a little like this. The Genesis trilogy were the best games in the series. The Adventure, Adventure 2, and Heroes titles were also popular, but also began adding gimmicks and camera issues. Shadow the Hedgehog was the first time the series truly began falling apart, with Sonic 06 becoming panned as the worst game in the series. After two Wii titles and Sonic Unleashed – also received to less-than-stellar reviews, Sonic Colors brought the series back. It was the first step in the right direction. This was succeeded by Sonic Generations, which many hailed as the best Sonic game in many years. Sonic: Lost World was left with relatively mixed impressions, while Sonic Boom did the unthinkable – making yet another "worst game ever" in this otherwise beloved series.

    Sega also attempted to "revive" the 2D Sonic titles on consoles some years back in the incarnation of "Sonic the Hedgehog 4." The two episodes were plagued with lackluster music and questionable physics choices, were incredibly short, and left players with unequivocally mediocre impressions.

    Sonic Mania brings us back to those simpler times. Christian Whitehead, the developer of the Sonic CD 2011 port, as well as the Sonic 1 iOS port (which included Tails) and Sonic 2 iOS port (which included Knuckles, as well as adding back the Hidden Palace Zone), is one of the lead programmers of this passion project. Joined by other members of the Sonic fangame community, they lead a project and collaborated with Sega to bring back the glory of the 2D games.

    Starring Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles on their quest to stop Dr. Eggman from taking over their world, the trio makes their way through stages with incredible speeds, the ability to fly, and glide and cling to walls. Beautifully animated sprites based on the 16-bit Genesis titles, Sonic Mania is filled with gorgeous aesthetics. Studiopolis feels like a swanky, casino-style stage with movie type designs, such as popcorn and clapperboards, used in the stage design.

    The levels themselves consist largely of remixes of past Sonic stages, from Sonic 1, 2, 3 & Knuckles, and CD, as well as a number of original stages, such as Mirage Saloon and Press Garden. These stages also feature throwbacks to other stages from the past, such as Ice Cap, Sandopolis, and others. The epic pacing of these stages keeps you glued to the screen, dodging threats and spinning through badniks. It’s classic 2D Sonic platforming at its finest, and refined through 20+ years of evolution.

    The music also consists largely of remixes of these stages, as well as some new ones. They’re all energetic beats, some of which are calmer than others. Press Garden is a bit more moderate, as the stage is focused a bit more on platforming, akin to stages like Marble Zone, Marble Garden, or even Chaos Angel from Sonic Advance 3, rather than simply buzzing through.

    I found the game to be quite challenging as well. While the levels and boss fights are standard 2D Sonic fanfare, you are greeted by three more things in the game. One, the Special Stages. These Mode 7-esque stages feature you running headlong to capture a UFO with a Chaos Emerald. You can grab orbs to increase your speed while dodging spikes to avoid losing rings. The gameplay is reminiscent of Sonic Heroes, while the turning of direction and character models are based largely on Sonic R. However, it comes with its own problems. Sometimes, the bumper textures are misleading, causing you to crash sooner than you intended. Also, the controls can be stiff and difficult to deal with, especially on a momentous tight turn. This can cause you fall quickly.

    The Blue Sphere stages from Sonic 3 & Knuckles are back. These are used to collect medals to unlock things. They’re quite difficult, as a single yellow, bouncy orb can launch you into a red. And finally, there’s a "Super Sonic" stage. For getting all 7 Chaos Emeralds, Super Sonic is again unlockable. You also enter a final battle against Eggman and his robot, the Egg Reverie. For anyone who has played a Genesis Sonic title (Doomsday Zone comes to mind), I can say this is perhaps the hardest final boss stage for any of the classic Sonic titles.

    Overall, it’s a medley of Sonic’s past. Not just the Genesis titles, but even throwbacks to Sonic Advance are found, such as in sound effects or stage design choices. Running at top speed generates an "after image" effect, which first appeared in Sonic Advance 2. Also, there are other little references to past titles as well. One of the boss fights against Eggman takes place using Puyo Puyo! For those not familiar, it’s a Japanese puzzle game akin to Tetris, which involves matching Puyo Puyos. In America, this game was localized as Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine. The boss fights are one of the stronger elements of this game, given the throwbacks as well as their challenge.

    It’s not perfect, though. The game could certainly be longer. It’s roughly as long as Sonic 2. The stages themselves are fairly long, but the number of stages in Sonic 3 & Knuckles is still top level for a game of its kind. There are also some bugs and glitches that could stand to be worked out, such as freezing in the special stages. The game is well-paced, and the throwbacks are great, but along with all the classic stages, I could also use more new stages as well. We’ve played through remixes of the classic stages, but more new stages would be a great direction to take should they make a sequel.

    Also, you can unlock several features. There is a Time Attack mode and a Competition mode as well!

    Overall, I’m pleased. This is a great game for any Sonic fan and newcomers alike. Great level design, soundtrack, animations, and multiple playable characters make this a solid Sonic game, and one we’ve needed for a very long time. 26 years of evolution and dedicated fans made this game with love. The future has suddenly become bright for the Sonic series once again!

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