With Sonic Mania just a day away at the time of publication, the lid is being lifted on review embargoes. Our chums at Push Square have published a review, but there's one simple reason we're posting this feature instead - we've been playing it on PS4. SEGA America offered us PS4 / Xbox One codes initially and told us that Switch equivalents would arrive later, so we figured we'd take the opportunity on the proviso that we'll still produce a full review based on the Switch version as soon as possible. In the meantime I'm going to give some personal thoughts and opinions on the game based upon my time with the PS4 version.
First of all, it felt weird playing it on PS4 at first, as it's a game that I think fits the modus operandi of the Switch - it's retro in style with modern twists, and I found myself wishing I could play it when away from the house, dashing through a level in five minutes while having a quiet moment. I'm actually in the middle of moving house, and so I would have loved to sit down for a 10 minute session in my new digs in-between unboxing exciting things like a toaster or a vacuum cleaner.
That said, my buzz was very high because this is the Sonic game I've wanted for a long time, and I don't think I'm alone in that. Though I think there have been some good and very good Sonic games in the past decade and more (along with the occasional disaster), the high-points of the IP are still (in my opinion) in the 16-bit era with the original 'trilogy', Knuckles add-on and CD. I don't believe that's just nostalgia, either - when I play Sonic 2 or 3 nowadays I still think they're fantastic, top-tier games that hold up, showing a clarity of design and vision that the modern Sonic Team often struggles to find. I didn't actually have the Knuckles add-on or a SEGA CD to play Sonic CD back in the day, however, so part of my anticipation for Sonic Mania was to 'catch up' a little with those. My childhood was dominated by the first three games on Mega Drive - I was a Sonic and SEGA fanboy, so those feelings were coming back as I booted it up.
It sure plays up to that nostalgia, in the best possible way. As most know this project has been produced by a coalition of Indie devs with a background of passion for Sonic games, with SEGA dealing mainly with publishing duties. Visually the game is fantastic, taking the original graphics and giving them a delicious HD sheen so that they really pop. Of course, the hook here is that we have a blend of remixed classed stages and brand new content, so it's 16-bit only in terms of how our memory tricks us into thinking the games looked. In reality there's far greater detail added in, along with additional animations that are both necessary and in some cases simply there as a show of love for the character. On a technical level it's a triumph, and I expect it to breeze along on Switch too. On my PS4 it's the only game that doesn't prompt the fan to kick in for its 'jet taking off' level of noise, so it's not pushing the hardware particularly hard.
It's a game that exudes quality, and the first few zones were some of the most fun I've had in a game for a long time. It's not just the remixed classic stages that shine, but some of the new content in familiar locations is equally terrific. It feels like classic Sonic, looks like the 16-bit game of my dreams, and it does have key touches of modernisation. Buttery smooth performance is allied to interesting and clever boss encounters for example - with the best will in the world some of the boss battles in the old games were over-simplistic, but they are high points here. I won't spoil some of the surprises in this article - the internet's probably already done that for you - but a couple of moments made me actually exclaim delight out loud, and I'm normally one of those 'sit quiet and play' types of gamer.
To be honest, some of those positive early vibes were lost in the fourth stage, for me at least. It was a zone I didn't like in its original incarnation even when I was a kid, and it wasn't much better here - malicious death traps, over-fiddly platforming sections. In the new second Act I even got to a point where I got properly stuck because, whatever I did, Sonic lost momentum and fell. My few lives dribbled away and I went back to the auto-save, replaying from Act 1. I found an alternative route, but after three zones of giddy and beautifully designed challenge it felt a tad cheap. It was a late zone originally, yet oddly it's somewhere in the middle here, making it an unwelcome difficulty spike. Once past it I was happy once again and having a good time.
And to be clear, I'm content to be pushed and challenged, just in the right way. One thing that is nice about Sonic Mania is that it's tough in a good way very often, with auto-saves sparing me the pain of dying near the end of the campaign. Lives have to be scrapped for (game over puts you to the start of the stage with three lives via your save), and the bonus and special stages in particular make me feel old. In my Mega Drive-obsessed years I would 100% all the Sonic games I owned, and now the Sonic 3-style special stages trip me up; I feel like an ageing boxer willing his legs to move quicker to dodge a hook, but in this case my thumbs aren't up to the task any more. "I could do this, what's the matter with me?", I think, before looking in the mirror and seeing the grey flecks in my bedraggled beard.
Anyway, back on topic, the challenge is there. The Sonic 3 special stages are accessed through having 25+ rings at the many checkpoints and unlock medals, which I think give access to new modes and moves. At first all you have is the main game, but within an hour I'd unlocked the Challenge splitscreen mode and Time Trials, which I'll be sure to explore fully on Switch for review. There are also well-hidden giant rings in each stage to tackle Sega CD-style stages to 'catch the UFO', and it's here you collect Chaos Emeralds. These are pretty darn hard to find in some cases, and I can picture myself beating the game and then starting again to try and find all the emeralds.
The general feeling, occasional annoying stages aside, is of a project dripping with enthusiasm and constructed by very talented individuals. In all new stages there are absolutely gorgeous pixel-based visual effects, and intelligent concepts that wouldn't look out of place in the originals had the hardware been up to the task. It's the best kind of fan service in that it doesn't knowingly pander to nostalgia, but it embraces it and uses the springboard to take the game further. In many ways Sonic Mania feels like the real Sonic the Hedgehog 4.
That said, that talent and polish does fade slightly at times, making me wonder whether there were some late-development issues. I've come across a few sound bugs where audio tracks get confused, particularly around the invincibility power up - one time music stopped completely and the game carried on in silence, another time it forgot the invincibility track completely. There's also a boss encounter late on where the introductory 'scene' seems broken; the plot has a theme of distortion, but in this case it's a bug. At first it seemed like a stage-ending issue but I got out of it - nevertheless it was a shame to see it happen.
These are very occasional, minor hiccups, but it's worth knowing they can happen in a playthrough. I don't want mention of them to detract from the broader reality, though, in that this is a top-tier, grade A classic Sonic experience. From fantastic pixel visuals, to awesome music (including some funky new tracks), and clever design that makes me smile as I play, it's pure gaming pleasure.
It's not perfect, but it's exciting to have Sonic Mania. It's a reminder, frankly, of where Sonic Team sometimes goes wrong in its newer games, occasionally forgetting the essence and focus that drives quality Sonic gameplay. This old Sonic fan is thrilled it's here, in any case.