As a resolute SEGA-Boy, Sonic the Hedgehog was a defining character in my teenage years because of his insane speed, cocky attitude and unending desire to ruin the plans of a fat, moustachioed, evil genius.
Along with his friends and foes-turned-friends, Sonic’s adventures (and various misadeventures) have always delivered simple-yet-rewarding gameplay that has earned him almost as many fans as it has haters. In my opinion, nostalgia for older games is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in so much as we older gamers tend to remember games with fond memories and wizened smiles, but a curse because our weathered and tired mid-life brains tend to remember games in what I can only really describe as the equivalent of a photographic filter on one of many modern apps: the games rarely look as good as we thought they did (and often they don’t play as well as we remember because our hand-eye coordination has been sullied with dual analogue control). It seems that the gaming industry’s ‘go to’ response to this issue is to release re-hashed games with an added layer of shine and little else, so it was refreshingly surprising to hear that Sonic Mania’s intentions were to take things one step further.
When you first boot up this title and hear the iconic ‘SE-GA’ ring out with the blue logo it takes you straight back to the first game. Few gaming sounds have the same impact as it does, and it sets the scene for what is to come. Once you have chosen your protagonist(s) from Sonic, Tails and Knuckles (or the classic pairing of Sonic and Tails, naturally), a short introduction finishes with you standing in the familiar surroundings of the Green Hill Zone (at which point you can’t help but smile). Setting off through the rolling hills it all feels right and you could be forgiven for expecting this to be a direct port of the old classic, but be assured that this is actually a fantastic re-imagining of the levels you probably loved best. The first time I sped through the level I was acting on long-forgotten muscle memory and when I suddenly found myself in an unfamiliar section I genuinely stopped in my tracks. I backtracked a little and found that there was more to explore than I had noticed when blurring through at ridiculous speed. I’m not going to bore you with excessive details here, but each level is a dedicated blend of classic maps and fresh aspects which have been put together by people who clearly admire and respect all the best parts of Sonic’s games. The brains behind the game are no strangers to redeveloping classics. Amongst the many names involved in its making are a few which might ring familiar (pun intended) due to their involvement in previous fan-favourite Sonic games including Christian Whitehead and Simon Thomley. This is not some cheap rip-off focussed solely on squeezing some easy money out of our spiky friend: this is a labour of love.
As you work your way through the game, you could be forgiven for thinking that everything is taken from other games and stuck together in some sort of vague mishmash. There have been so many games since the first one hit the Megadrive that it is almost impossible to keep track of every zone and enemy type. By the third zone I felt like I was a little bit lost and tried to place my location. It felt like I had seen it before but it didn’t seem to match up with any of my playing experiences. It turns out that it’s actually a totally new level, but it was built so well that it could easily have come straight from the nineties. This is just one of the things that works so well in this game.
All the key aspects are present and correct: rings, loops, robotic opponents, collapsing walkways, hidden routes, springs and bumpers, flickys etc. etc., yet it feels like there is a greater sense of exploration to the levels than ever before. Each character has their own range of abilities and this means that access to certain areas in each level seems impossible with the wrong character. It’s also difficult to say definitively if each of the characters plays through exactly the same level because of their individual styles and approach to situations – not that it really matters. Collecting 100 rings earns you a bonus life and this is an essential part of progressing through the game in full because it’s easy to forget how punishing simple platform games can be. Passing through gates allows you to earn checkpoints, but they also still maintain the old ‘star gate’ approach if you have enough rings in your possession when you reach each one. Jumping into the collection of spinning stars (or giant hidden rings, if you can find them) transports you into one of several classic bonus rounds in the hope of earning bonuses, extra lives and/or the elusive Chaos Emeralds. I loved finding myself running around endless spheres, attempting to avoid the red dots without leading myself down a dead end or running over them in the wrong sequence and nearly smashing my pad in frustration…it takes me back to my more angst-ridden teenage years. There are some absolute gems to find hidden away if you can just ease off the accelerator for a few minutes of your time and explore beyond what flashes before your eyes.
Graphically, this is pure retro goodness built for modern machines. The frame rate is smooth and stable, meaning that the 16-bit style looks better than ever, and the protagonists have been animated with a greater range of mannerisms than ever before to give them a better sense of personality. Neat little touches litter each of the levels, although it is worth noting that the most visually impressive levels tend to be those which are brand new creations made solely for this title. Despite the fact that sometimes Sonic games can feel a little ‘on rails’, you can’t help but get drawn in by the fast-moving visuals and excellent soundtrack. Some of the boss battles are incredibly easy to complete, while others might cause you to lose a few lives while you figure out their attack pattern or pick up on how to cause damage to them (I’m looking at you, yes you, with the missiles and the flying contraption), but everything about the game just feels right.
I’ve had more fun than my five-year-old with this game, mainly because he can’t accept defeat as well as I can, but he is as excited to see a blur of blue sprinting across the screen as I was back in the day. In all fairness, this is one of those games that will fill hearts with nostalgic joy for new and old gamers alike (or should that be young and old?). Simple, addictive, challenging, fun and punishing in equal measure, Sonic Mania proves that you can teach an old hog new tricks.