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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.