Sonic Mania Hands-On Preview

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This is the Sonic game classic Sonic fans have dreamed of for at least a decade.

Well, probably. As with any game, there are a lot of boxes Sonic Mania needs to tick to ensure it lives up to its potential. What will the quality of the level design be? How much content will there be and how much will it cost? Are there any unknown game play elements that could mar the experience?

Normally, I save these sorts of cautionary warnings for the end of the preview, but I think it’s necessary to put them front and center because, at least on the surface, this has all the right elements to excite every old-school Sonic fan on the planet.

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First of all, the physics: one of the first things I did in this game was attempt the wall-stand that Sonic 4 became infamous for. I am happy to say that not only is gravity-defying traversal nearly impossible (by the standards of a classic Sonic game anyway) but many of the new areas in the demo require momentum to traverse. Without it, you aren’t going anywhere. There are no spring pads, few auto-running segments, and loads of opportunities to build momentum on hills and half-pipes to reach higher areas, or mess up and fall into lower sections. That said, the physics still aren’t quite what you may be used to from the classic Genesis titles. They feel like they fit somewhere between the Genesis titles and the slightly looser physics of Sonic CD. Of course, this shouldn’t be surprising: the stages take a lot of inspiration from Sonic CD.

The game had two levels on display: the remade Act 1 of Green Hill Zone and the all-new Studiopolis Zone.

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At first glance, Green Hill hasn’t changed much. If you just run through it as you normally do, chances are it may feel just like the original stage with some slight tweaks. But that’s because you didn’t look hard enough: when I played the level, I decided to explore, and I eventually made my way to a completely new area that runs directly over much of the level.

The design for these new areas feels reminiscent of Sonic CD stages, with loads of pipes, mobius strips, and areas that let you really move in a way old-school Green Hill never quite allowed. There are also hidden secrets, including a bubble shield and a fire shield. The level ended with a boss that was simultaneously reminiscent and new, putting a new spin on Eggman’s ball-swinging egg mobile from the original game. In this case, the two balls took turns swinging from one another, with one vulnerable to attack and the other dangerous to the touch. If this boss is any indication, we will probably see a return of the mid-level sub bosses from Sonic 3 & Knuckles in Sonic Mania.

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The Sonic CD inspirations are even more evident in the second level on display: Studiopolis. The stage is sprawling, loaded with different routes and secrets to find, as well as plenty of hills, ramps and other types of terrain that make use of the game’s physics. One key difference between this stage the levels in Sonic CD seems to be level cohesion: I’ve always felt most of the the level design in Sonic CD was a bit of a mess. Here, everything seems to be placed a little more intelligently, making the level itself a little easier to navigate and memorize. Of course, I’m sure Sonic CD fans will completely disagree with me on that point, but they should love this level nonetheless.

Both levels rewarded exploration in a way no other modern Sonic game does. Since I knew my time with the game would be limited, I decided to take my time and explore both stages, and there was a lot to see. Backtracking and trying to reach higher areas that I had missed on my initial pass was how I discovered that one entirely new portion of Green Hill. Backtracking in Studiopolis revealed a spring that sent me careening towards the right of the screen, and further exploration revealed an absolutely massive stage that I simply didn’t have time to fully explore during the demo. This is the sort of level design I’ve been wanting from my sidescrolling Sonic titles for awhile: large levels that reward people who do more than press right and take the easiest and most straightforward paths. Exploration not only revealed hidden paths, but also power ups (including the aforementioned shields) and the outlines of giant rings that weren’t accessible in the demo. While nothing about them has been confirmed, it seems pretty likely that they lead to Mania’s special stages.

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While there wasn’t much genuinely new game play mechanics to find in the game, there was one thing that could drastically change how people play the game: the drop dash. Anyone who’s seen the trailer should have an idea of what the drop dash is, but let me elaborate on it: you activate the drop dash by holding the jump button as Sonic jumps through the air. The higher up you are, the more you can charge the drop dash, and when you hit the ground you immediately spin dash in whatever direction your trying to go. It’s a fun move that looks like it should be useful for hardcore players, since it isn’t exactly the easiest move to use.

I tried using it as often as I could throughout one of my playthroughs, and discovered it was only really useful in areas when Sonic could both gain a lot of air, and had a place to spin dash through once he landed. This neat little move is a little more interesting than other attempts at giving 2D Sonic an extra move, such as the insta-shield and homing attack that have been utilized in previous titles. The move won’t always be available though: when Sonic has an elemental shield, it is replaced by that shield’s special move.

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Graphically, the game seems to answer the question, “what would a real Sonic game on the 32X have looked like?” Studiopolis is a gorgeous level, full of color and neat details, including a cute little 1930s inspired dancing Eggman animation. It’s loaded with different shades of blues and purples, with some oranges and yellows thrown in for good measure. It actually kind of reminds me of this old Sonic folder I had when I was a kid. Overall, the level just oozes with 90s nostalgia.

The sprite animations themselves have more inbetween frames then you’d normally see in a Genesis title. The sprites also sometimes have interesting little touches, like the orbinaut badnik becoming more desperate as you destroy the little orbiting balls that protect it from your attacks. Studiopolis updates the graphics just enough to make them look great by today’s standards, without completely losing that Genesis feel. They don’t completely make the jump to the more advanced 2D graphics you might find on systems like the Saturn, but the Genesis certainly wouldn’t have been able to handle them.

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The Studiopolis theme was also some really great stuff. It’s fusion of jazz and midi sounds like something ripped from the best of 90s SEGA soundtracks. It’s definitely got a Sonic Team flavoring to it, and would fit in fine with not just any Sonic game, but even NiGHTS into Dreams stuff. If the rest of this game’s soundtrack is as fine as this, it ought to find its way into any Sonic fan’s playlist.

This has the potential to be Sonic’s best game since the Genesis era. Better than already great stuff like Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations. Better than the Sonic Boom mediocrity we’ve gotten over the last few years. Better than SEGA’s 2D Sonic console game, Sonic 4. I just hope the rest of the game lives up to what I played at that party.

16 Comments

  1. Christian Whitehead being apart of this project gives me goosebumps. When I tell people about him and what he’s worked on, they say, “how can ios ports possibly be THAT good?”
    But I know he has the capability to make a great game here. And, based off of what I’m hearing, it’s looking like he’ll live up to it. Now I just need gameplay from Sonic 2017 and my hype meter will be set to maximum.

  2. 1) The move is called the Drop Dash, not the Down Dash.
    2) The badnik is called Orbinaut, not Orbot.

    It’s good to see that the demo is great, but I feel like there’s a barely-veiled streak of favoritism towards the Genesis games for this to be an objective review; as in your implication towards the end that any game since Sonic & Knuckles is worse than the Genesis games as a whole.

    1. July 28, 2016 at 4:41 pm Edit
      Haha, thanks, I will go correct it now. Funny thing is I was double checking other terms and names in here while I was writing this.

      Well, for one, there is no such thing as an “objective review”. Such a thing is a myth and exactly NOT what a review is supposed to be.

      If your concern is that I ONLY love the Genesis titles, I praised Generations and Colors in here for a reason. I love those titles and I believe I referred to them both as having the potential of being the “best Sonic titles since the days of the Genesis”. I think they both basically got there, but had minor poor design choices holding them back (the quality of Colors’ level design could be inconsistent, Generations had some technical issues and poor mission no). I love Somic in many different forms, and I would hardly characterize it as “Genesis favoritism”. I do, however, think that Sonic’s Genesis titles represent his highest quality and most consistent experiences, which is why I tend to use them as a gauge. I do not think they are alone amongst Sonic’s high quality titles, but I do think they are just a little bit better than his best modern stuff over the last 17 years.

      Honestly, Sonic Mania probably has the potential to OUTDO the Genesis titles, but I’m not willing to go that far based off of how little we’ve seen of it.

  3. I’m honestly surprised we haven’t been able to download the demo yet. It SEEMS ready, but I guess they just want to wait a while.

    One little detail I like is that Classic Sonic is a lighter shade of blue then in the original Genesis games. Like he was GOING to be in Sonic 1, but they darkened it when he clashed with the sea in Green Hill. Hence why Classic Sonic in Generations is that lighter shade; much like Perfect Chaos, the design in Generations is what he was supposed to look like if not for technical limitations. That’s all probably something most people know by now, but I think it’s still a neat touch.

    As for Mania itself…well, I’ve got high hopes, but a slight caveat. Whitehead is about as talented as it gets, and Headcannon’s most well known project is nothing short of impressive. BUT, and I’m gonna be honest here, the whole Classic Retro stuff is…starting to get a bit tired. It’s been a long five years since Generations, and things have changed. Thanks to Boom, quite a bit. So Mania will have to be the very best to undue the damage of Boom with its bandages and merchandise-shilling ways. Now I have faith in the people working on this (a lot less towards the people publishing it, of course), but I can’t shake the feeling that Mania was designed to pander above all else.

  4. Considering it’s Taxman who was behind a lot of this, I’m not too worried. The stuff I saw has pretty much already convinced me this is going to be great. I just wish I could get my hands on it though. <3

  5. I dunno why but the part about the boss and balls made me laugh.

    …Guess I’m too immature. lol

  6. I like Sonic CD, but yeah the level design was not really well thought out. It’s a good game for the context it was released in and for the things it tried to do, but it had major flaws. This looks like it’s going for the Sonic CD aesthetic while maintaining the level design of S3&K, which was some of the best in the series in my opinion.

  7. Sonic Manda has a best Green Hill Zone Act 1 level is better than Sonic Adventure 2 Green Hill Zone Act 1 bonus stage level is bad & worst level design ever, also it caught my eyes to see Green Hill Zone Act 1. This screenshots the cave right there in a back round kind of remind me a lot in Sonic Generations Green Hill Zone Act 1 with Modern Sonic only. To enter a cave by passing it though by a giant Chopper robot wants to eat you by getting away from him to boost a rail all the way the top in time I love the back round to Sonic Generations to Sonic Manda is a awesome reference of 2011 Sonic game plus is my favourite to!

  8. This review has furthered raised my hype meter! A lot of people are upset because they see Mania as just another attempt to pander to a by-gone generation but this is different. Even though SEGA has been feeding off our nostalgia in a lot of ways recently, this is the first true throwback to the Genesis games since their release. Classic fans have been without a proper, new 2D title for decades now; just because Lost World and Generations have references doesn’t count. Admittedly I’m biased since Sonic CD is my second favorite Sonic title but who cares, this review is like a dream come true! Some quick questions though:
    1. Does Sonic have the peel-out move from Sonic CD?
    2. Do you think/ hope Tails and Knuckles will be able to use elemental shield powers (I’m assuming they can’t use the drop dash based on your description)?

    1. They couldn’t use the shields in the originals. And, let’s be honest, they don’t need to.
      I’ll tell you what, though – if there’s a sequel (and there should be) they NEED to get Waterflame in on the project. He’s a freelance videogame music composer from Norway, he contributed some tracks for Geometry Dash, and… ah god, his music is SO GOOD.

  9. While I like the return of Green Hill, I would’ve liked if they had all new original zones instead of bringing some old ones back.

    1. I don’t think it’ll be too big a deal, as long as they do something new and creative with those levels (*ahem, Sonic 4*).

  10. What’s the betting that that bingo machine up top there is the Bonus Stage (like 3’s gumball machine)?

    Evidence: If it wasn’t, it would’ve shown during the Studiopolis Act 1 playthrough. Plus, the background is completely different.

    I’ll guess we’ll see how the bonuses work in due time. Looking great so far, though!

  11. Bright and colourful graphics, awesome music, elemental shields, barrier-breaking speeds … Sega had better show us more on Sonic Resistance (oh come on, the tagline is “Join The Resistance”) because I AM RUNNING OUT OF BOXES TO TICK!

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