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Whatcha gonna do when Sonic Mania runs wild on YOU?!?

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    Sonic Mania

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    Whatcha gonna do when Sonic Mania runs wild on YOU?!?

    Discussions on franchises and how they have evolved over the years is always common amongst gaming fans, and Sonic the Hedgehog is often a popular topic fitting into this particular category. The series, much like its titular star, really hit the ground running, yet after the initial quartet of major games released on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive between 1991-1994, had numerous ups and downs. Reception for the 3D games has been mixed, such as the positively-regarded Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast and Sonic Colors for the DS and Wii, to some lesser-acclaimed games like Sonic and the Black Knight also on Wii, and the abysmal 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog game for PS3 and Xbox 360.

    The consensus among the majority of fans does seem to be that Sonic was at his best in the good old 16-bit era, with fast-paced, side-scrolling action that placed a huge emphasis on speed, quick thinking, varied stages with many different hazards, obstacles and badniks with colourful designs and unique layouts that would keep you glued to the action from the moment you got the blue blur’s feet moving until Dr. Robotnik’s latest would-be world-conquering contraption went up in smoke. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 saw the series go back to this kind of style to positive feedback, and touched-up ports of classic Mega Drive and Sega CD games released for iOS devices have likewise been received very well.

    It goes to show that the Sonic games of the past still hold up very well more than a quarter-century after the series’ debut, and the story of how the latest game came about that takes Sonic back to his roots is a very interesting one. With hundreds of homebrewed Sonic games developed and distributed online by indie developers, one of them being the same person responsible for the aforementioned iOS ports of the classic Sonic games, Christian Whitehead, the "Taxman" was named project leader of the game announced in to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Sonic series – Sonic Mania, eventually released for PCs and the major eighth-generation home consoles in August 2017 – this review focusing on the PlayStation 4 version.

    Available to download from the PlayStation Network, Sonic Mania is a love letter to fans of the classic Sonic games that incorporates many familiar features from the early 90s adventures and allows you to play your way through remixed versions of zones from the original games – there are new paths to explore and many interesting new features thrown in as well as plenty of splendid, all-new boss battles. The game does a tremendous job at reaching for the player’s sense of nostalgia, yet also stands out as its own original adventure with the expansive level layouts, features and effects that would not have been possible to achieve on the Mega Drive/Sega CD systems.

    The story of the game takes place shortly after the events of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles, when Sonic and his sidekicks, Miles "Tails" Prower and Knuckles the Echidna, return to the Floating Island to investigate a mysterious energy signal received by their Tornado biplane, caused by a powerful gemstone known as the Phantom Ruby. However, Dr. Robotnik, also alerted to the energy reading, gets there first and has the Ruby excavated by his robotic henchmen, the "Hard Boiled Heavies". Once the Ruby is in their control, Sonic, Tails and Knuckles are teleported to different dimensions and are now up to the task of traversing through many of the zones from past adventures (and a handful of new ones) and defeating the Heavies and Robotnik before he has the chance to harness the Ruby’s power and seize control of the planet Mobius – and ultimately, the universe.

    Sonic Mania comes with a handful of different modes to choose from; its main Mania Mode going with a gameplay style akin to that of Sonic 3 (& Knuckles); you can opt to choose one of eight available game save slots to which your progress is automatically saved as you progress through the game, and if at any time you leave the game, you can later resume playing from the beginning of the last zone you reached, with your Chaos Emeralds and Medals count intact.

    The game is broken up into a total of twelve individual zones, each of which are divided into two separate acts apiece. For the ‘Act 1′ stages of the returning zones, those of you who know your old-school Sonic games will find yourself heading along some familiar routes, and even finding secret areas that remain intact. Act 2 levels have a tendency to add a creative new ‘twist’ to these familiar levels and also go with expanded, more complex level layouts with lots more to explore and find. Besides the well-known beginning Green Hill Zone, your travels throughout the world of Sonic Mania will also see you once again dashing your way through other classic zones like Chemical Plant, Oil Ocean, Stardust Speedway, Metallic Madness, Hydrocity, Flying Battery and Lava Reef.

    Add in some interesting new stages like Press Garden, the glitzy Studiopolis and desert-based Mirage Saloon (the latter basing itself on a couple of previously-scrapped levels from earlier Sonic games), what you get right here is a mode that will give you a good hour-and-a-half to two hours of that classic Sonic platforming goodness.

    Every act of the game concludes with one of many fun and challenging boss battles; a minor boss to see off the first act of a zone, and a major boss at the end of the second. Rather than rehashing familiar boss battles from earlier games, most of these are all-new encounters – for example, Robotnik’s Death Egg mech from Sonic 2 makes an appearance early on with some new enhancements and attacks, and one minor boss battle even involves you competing against Robotnik in a game of Puyo-Puyo as a throwback to another Mega Drive game, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine! The many nostalgic throwbacks are done very well here, and with the powerful hardware of the PS4, there are many great-looking enhanced graphical effects to be seen in many of these zones that add something new and different to each zone.

    The game absolutely nails the standard 2D control scheme with your running, jumping, spin attack and spin dash moves pulled off with exact precision and response, as well as minimum effort. The game does not require you to learn and master any new moves or techniques you won’t have already seen from prior games, and seeing as it plays just like any other classic Sonic side-scroller, you only need to use the one action button to make your character do their jumping spin attack move. For those opting to play through as either Tails or Knuckles, they also have the ability to fly/swim or glide/climb vertical walls respectively by holding the jump button in mid-air and giving them access to certain areas that may otherwise could not be reached with Sonic, and the challenge and experience can differ enough between each set of characters to warrant a playthrough with each one. If you’ve already played an old-school Sonic platformer then you’ll feel right at home with the control in Sonic Mania; and if not, once you get the running, jumping and spinning mechanics down (which is done within a few minutes, if that), you’re good to go.

    That’s not to say it’s quite perfect in all areas, though; because besides the familiar 2D gameplay of the main zones, there are also bonus stages in which you can complete for Chaos Emeralds and Medals. If you’re lucky enough to find a giant ring (these are very well-concealed and hard to find) and jump into it, this takes you to a 3-dimensional stage in which you are required to catch a UFO holding one of the seven Chaos Emeralds. It plays in a very similar fashion to the special stages seen in Sonic CD, and the objective is to collect as many blue spheres seen placed around the course as you can to fill the ‘Mach’ meter and increase Sonic’s speed so that he can catch the UFO to win the Emerald.

    However, you’re also racing against a tight time limit, so you’ll also have to collect many rings scattered around to keep your time bumped up. I’ve noticed that the controls in this bonus stage feel rather slippery and the scaling is not a hundred percent; objects tend to slide sharply across the screen when you make slight turns, so I’ve found myself often missing objects that I’m trying to jump and reach. With practice you can get a feel for them, but they can be quite frustrating.

    The other form of bonus stage within Sonic Mania is accessed by reaching a blue checkpoint lamppost while in possession of a minimum of 25 rings, causing a star portal to appear above it. Jumping into the portal will warp you to a classic Blue Sphere stage, which was also used in Sonic 3 (& Knuckles). Here, each stage sees you try to touch all the blue spheres on the 3D-rotating grid while avoiding red spheres. Successfully clearing a grid awards you with a Medal, and there are a total of 32 in the game.

    As you collect more of them, you’ll unlock brand new gameplay features like Sonic’s Insta-Shield ability, a Debug Mode, and the classic Mean Bean mini-game. While not quite as fun as other bonus stages (how I’d have loved to have seen the classic chute-running game from Sonic 2), it’s another good wee feature to add some extra playing time and challenge if you’re looking to completely clear and unlock everything the game has to offer.

    The Mania Mode experience truly does succeed in delivering all the essentials that make a 2D Sonic game fun, and with all the high-speed dashes, badnik smashing, platforming and use of level props to work your way through each area, there’s never a dull moment or break in the action bar a few brief cut-scenes to advance the story between zones. If there’s anything one would have to complain about the levels in the game, I would say it’s that a few of them just feel rather…simple. There are a few areas just involving quick dashes over long stretches, and springboards conveniently placed will pretty much do all the work for you as your character is bumped around before reaching the next key area. In later stages, there is also the odd part where you could be caught out with a cheap death or two, and some boss battles might take a couple of attempts to work out. However, there was nothing I found that would make me want to give up, and the challenge in the game is both balanced and fair; perhaps the odd frustrating moment, but you’ll still want to come back and keep trying.

    Still, if a few dash-throughs of the Mania Mode isn’t enough, there are a number of other modes to heap some variety and a couple of extra hours of playing time; Time Attack allows for trying to clear any stage in as quick a time as possible (as well as compare your score against others from around the globe via a scoring leaderboard). The Competition mode, much like what you got in the secondary modes of Sonic 2 and Sonic 3, sees two characters square off in a split-screen race with a customisable number of rounds, items and stages, with your score determined not just by how quickly you cleared the round, but on a handful of other criteria such as how many item boxes or rings you collect. It’s a most welcome extra feature that allows for some extra fun with a second player besides going through the Mania Mode with Sonic and Tails together.

    Graphically, this won’t be anything to showcase the PS4’s best in terms of visual prowess given that the art style goes for the colourful and pixelated 16-bit visual style of the early games. Thankfully, there is no more of the old issue of slowdowns when a huge number of sprites appear on-screen (which was an issue known to plague the Mega Drive originals), and the animations are wonderfully smooth. There is also the option of changing the visual display style to that of a couple of classic CRT television filters via the Options menu, yet the standard HD graphics, I do believe are the best way of enjoying the visual experience.

    The different zones you journey through come with all kinds of backgrounds; Green Hill remains as recognisable as ever with the grassy, chequered plains awash with waterfalls and shimmering lakes in the background, and foreground props like palm trees, multi-coloured sunflowers and totem poles. Besides this, there’s the sun-baked refineries of the Oil Ocean Zone, interchanging indoor and outdoor areas in the Flying Battery Zone – the latter now including additional effects of wind, lightning and rain, and newer zones also showcasing plenty of colour and detail, and some very unique settings – one particular example being the Mirage Saloon stage that involves the classic sky-walking on the wings of the Tornado a la Sonic 2’s Sky Chase Zone, followed by advancing along the rooftops of carriages of a cargo locomotive being driven by Robotnik. My personal favourite, Studiopolis, goes with a TV studio setting filled with bumpers, lights and speakers. The detailing and effects of everything you see in this stage is just fantastic. Couple a game brimming with great-looking levels with a handful of nicely done animated sequences at the beginning and end, and what you get here is a job well done in terms of presentation.

    The soundtrack of the game also carries a classic Sonic beat to it, with all kinds of upbeat and funky themes to fit their respective levels very well, and the jazzed-up remixes of familiar level themes are also excellent. I’d definitely recommend having a listen to the remastered themes and original pieces, and would go as far to say the soundtrack of Sonic Mania is the best I’ve heard from any Sonic game to date. Classic effects like the rising sound made when a character jumps, the twinkling sound of collecting rings, and such others like bouncing from springs, smashing badniks and monitors and the crunching sounds of connecting hits with a boss are all nice, loud and clear, completing an excellent job in the audio department.

    In conclusion, for those of us who were craving more of what we got from the early 90s Sonic games, Sonic Mania well and truly delivers. As a game intended to celebrate a milestone anniversary in the franchise’s history, it delivers a wonderful nostalgic experience and breathes new life into so many of those classic zones we had such good times bashing our way through. The way they have been enhanced and the great, new challenging bosses to take on show how much passion and effort that was put into the game by the developers, all of whom are noted fans of the original games and did a splendid job of making a game that has earned its place in the official line of Sonic games.

    It’s not clear of a few minor issues, and being released in 2017 when gaming standards have changed quite drastically since the blue blur’s early glory days, I wouldn’t quite perhaps class this in the ‘all-time great’ games category and the experience is somewhat short-lived in an age when the top games are taking several days’ worth of playing to clear, start to finish. What I will say is that it is worth a download and play for gamers old and new – for anyone who enjoyed the Sonic 1-3, Knuckles and CD games it’s a no-brainer, and for those less familiar to the series it still showcases the classic Sonic platforming goodness with a perfect challenge level and many different things to do to give you a lengthy playing time and justify its price tag. For anyone who thought some of the more recent games strayed too far away from the formula and took the heart out of the Sonic series, Sonic Mania has well and truly put it back.

    Thanks, Sega!

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