Editor's note: This review is based on our original Sonic Mania review, as penned by our erstwhile editor Tom "Please no, not another terrible 3D Sonic game" Whitehead. It has been adapted and added to by Damien "Sonic 2 was the clearly the best" McFerran.
In certain circles of chatty online gamers, Sonic the Hedgehog is often a hot topic. SEGA and Sonic Team has taken its mascot on some wild rides over the past 20+ years, stepping into 3D 'modern' Sonic, attempting a return to 2D with Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and dividing opinion, and blurring the lines (with some success) in Sonic Generations. Nintendo gamers - home console version of Generations aside - have been able to play most of the Blue Blur's adventures, with a handful of exclusives to boot. They've ranged from very good to downright bad, but some fans have consistently argued that Sonic was at his best on the Mega Drive / Genesis and SEGA CD, through the 'classic' games that made his name.
Those games stand up today and have occasionally served as a reminder of the glory SEGA could once achieve with the series. It's somewhat ironic, then, that it wasn't SEGA or Sonic Team that rediscovered what makes a truly great game in the franchise, but devoted super-fans that also happen to be very talented developers. SEGA, to its immense credit, saw the best of fan projects online - with Christian Whitehead front and centre - and realised there was a gift to accept. Bring a group of Indie studios together, give them resources, handle the PR and bask in the goodwill. The result was 2017's superb Sonic Mania, which ended up being the best game to use the IP for a long time. It was the Sonic outing SEGA fans had been dreaming of for over 20 years, and has sold over a million copies to date across all formats; not bad for a title which was intended to be a side-order to the main course of Sonic Forces.
Fast forward to the present, and SEGA has wisely listened to calls for a physical version of the game. Rather than simply dump the original onto a game card and be done with it, the publisher has instead taken this opportunity to augment the experience with fresh content. The result is Sonic Mania Plus, a title which takes all of the amazing stuff seen in last year's game and throws in some welcome additions which will please fans and newcomers alike. Before we get onto that though, how about a little recap on what makes Sonic Mania so downright brilliant?
At its core Sonic Mania is partly a love-letter to the 'original' games, a remix but also a new experience. For a decent chunk of the game (particularly 'Act 1' in familiar zones) you're playing levels from the originals that have nevertheless been revamped with additional routes and fun new bosses and twists. These go right for the player's sense of nostalgia, but due to the excellence of the source material also serve as delicious 16-bit platforming to those that haven't played the originals. Mania isn't simply a greatest hits collection, nor should its appeal be limited to 30-something gamers that lack the speedy reflexes of the past.
The second Acts of each stage are buzzing with creativity, with the developers having fun spinning off and riffing upon the environments in smart ways. Over the dozen stages some are also entirely new, and even those that didn't get to play all the originals back in the day - this scribe never had Sonic CD, for example - will likely be able to tell which areas are brand new. Though remixed levels have a major visual enhancement over the source material, for example, all-new stages go further and truly utilise the wonders of modern hardware when applied to pixel art. Some levels do fantastic things with shadows, exploding glass and clever background effects.
All of that only matters because of one key area that this game absolutely nails down - gameplay. Since those 16-bit days SEGA has had mixed fortunes when it comes to how Sonic games feel and play, and Mania is a reminder of the blissful simplicity and polish that made those originals true toe-to-toe competitors with Super Mario. Controls are tight and responsive, the weighting of jumps and tempo is on the money, and it's immediately satisfying to play. A humorous 'Controls' section also pokes fun a little - you just run and jump, is the message - but worth note is that pressing X when in 'Options' brings up an easy-to-use and informative web-based manual, and the subtle complexities of the original Sonic formula come through.
You can spin dash immediately from a jump, or when you play with Sonic and Tails you can have your cute little fox buddy pick you up for a bit of flying help. When starting a save (there are 8 slots per profile) you can have the duo (with you controlling Sonic), or choose to have Sonic, Tails or Knuckles on their own. Tails can fly and swim at will but gets tired, while Knuckles has a neat glide and can climb walls. It's a pleasure tackling the campaign with each and utilising their strengths, but a feature we didn't even clock initially is that this game has the co-op we saw in the past. Take a Joy-Con each and one player can control Sonic and the other Tails, a great way to share the experience.
However you play, there's a treat in store. Clever stages, lovely visuals and tight controls combine for one of the most pleasurable gaming experiences of recent times, a reminder of why Sonic once battled for the ultimate supremacy among gaming mascots and how he made SEGA's name in the mainstream market. It's pure pixelated joy - speed and occasional chaos makes way for more delicate platforming and special stages, before swerving back to high speed hijinks.
Checkpoint special stages (you need 25 rings to activate them) come from Sonic 3, but there are lots of them as the end rewards are medals; these medals unlock goodies, but the stages to get them become particularly fiendish as you progress. Each run also has the more important challenge of collecting seven Chaos Emeralds - you can find a giant ring in each stage and play a special stage inspired by Sonic CD in which you 'chase' a UFO on a 3D track. These are tricky to find, and will have many going back for additional playthroughs.
Over the relatively lengthy campaign (for an old-school Sonic game) it all flows together into a rush of extravagant dashes, clever diversions - stages have plenty of alternate routes to find - and tricky areas. Like the great Sonic games on which it's based, Mania is about 80% fantastic, 15% very good and 5% angry "screw you Sonic" moments, at least for this reviewer. Such is the devotion of the developers to the classic Sonic formula that it keeps elements that were actually slightly annoying the first time around. A couple of stages fall off the 'challenging' category to 'a bit cheap', and we weren't particularly big fans of two auto-scrolling encounters that feel slightly messy to play. Even the worst parts are still rather good, but these brief segments feel like bad habits returned, briefly interrupting the blissful dash through the adventure.
In terms of looks and performance on Nintendo Switch, the porting work of Tantalus - previous credits include The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD on Wii U - is on point. It looks great and runs at a solid 60fps in 1080p on TV or 720p on the portable, with the only exception in terms of a solid framerate being the first 3D Special Stage, oddly. You can also add a couple of CRT-style screen filters, too, which are nice to have. It's excellent however you play, though the portability of the Switch is definitely a strength, with the visuals being right at home on the console's screen. The nature of Sonic means that it doesn't even matter that the left Joy-Con has no real D-Pad, though we did also like using the Pro Controller for docked play.
A special nod must also go to the soundtrack, which is top-notch work by Tee Lopes. Some of the new tracks and remixes are downright funky, and play an important role in elevating the stylish and extravagant stages as you run and spin jump through them. It's one of the best soundtracks of recent times.
Now, onto the 'Plus' section of this review. Perhaps the biggest addition is the introduction of not one but two new playable characters: Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel. As you might expect, both have their own unique talents which make them play slightly differently from the rest of the cast. Mighty can execute a ground-pound (press jump when you're in mid-air) that is capable of shattering barriers, while his tough shell means he doesn't have to worry about spikes when attacking. As you can imagine, this makes certain levels a lot easier to navigate. Ray, on the other hand, can glide in mid-air, which comes in very handy when you want to make your way through a stage as quickly and effortlessly as possible. Naturally, this skill is somewhat less useful when tackling levels with tight corridors.
Outside of these new characters, Encore mode is perhaps the next big draw; described by SEGA as a 'remix' of sorts, the idea here is to add characters to your roster as play, and you can swap between your two active characters with the X button, as well as changing your pair by hitting special monitors dotted around the landscape. Encore mode also features a new bonus stage which plays like a cross between pinball (or should that be Sonic Spinball?) and one of those frustratingly unfair crane grabber machines you also see in amusement arcades these days.
The only real complaint is that the character-swapping mechanic feels awkward, as you're only able to have two characters active at any one time. This presents issues when you face an alternate route through the level but can't access it because you don't have the character required. All in all, it's a really nice addition to the core Sonic Mania game, and if you've already played the main campaign to destruction, this is different enough to encourage you to dip in once more. Elsewhere, the insanely fun Competition mode has been improved with support for up to four players - ideal for the Switch, then - and a few tweaks and tucks here and there relating to boss encounters.
Sonic Mania was a true return to form for the mascot, in his 2D 'Classic' guise at least, and celebrated the glory days of the original games while also enhancing their qualities and taking on new ideas. From new areas, imaginative second acts and some delightful boss encounters, the development team poured a lot of passion and talent into the project. Sonic Mania Plus takes that solid foundation and - in all honestly - doesn't do a great deal to mess with it. The new characters and modes are welcome, and there are some neat tweaks which iron out some of the kinks present in the original release, but on the whole this is an enhanced edition of the game rather than a feature-rich update. If you've still not sampled the delights of Sonic Mania then this is clearly the version to get, but if you're an existing owner then the low asking price of the DLC update make this well worth a look; we'll take any excuse to dive back into one of the best 2D platformers of recent memory.
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