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Number 4: Sonic Mania

Sonic_Mania_(artwork)

Copyright Sega

2017 was a year of redemption and a year of best evers, but there was nothing that came out this year quite like Sonic Mania.  Despite what people say, there have been good Sonic games since Sonic 3 and Knuckles.  Sonic Adventure didn’t age well, but it was miles ahead of any non-Mario 3D platformer, and the Sonic stages are still pretty fun to play.  Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations are actually a lot of fun and decent games.  What is true, though, is that none of them lived up to the original four, 2D games.  Sonic Mania not only manages to bring the series back to its most glorious days, it’s also the best game in the series ever made.

Look, there is one major flaw in this game, that most of the games levels are remixes or remakes of levels from previous games.  However, that doesn’t really distract much from the greatness.  Each zone does something different, and plays to the strengths of a Sonic game.  It’s fast, but it knows when to slow down and let the speed build up.  It has some of the most inventive bosses in the series and some really complex and interesting levels.  Even the “remade” levels feel much more complex and interesting than their original counterparts, even when they steal sections from the original level wholesale.  Out of all 12 zones, only Chemical Plant Act 1 even feels like a retread in any sense of the word.  All of the others almost feel like completely new levels with old backgrounds stapled to them.

The game manages to make levels that I really didn’t like in their original games (Oil Ocean, Metallic Madness) work out really well.  I never thought, when I play the game, that I’d be really excited when I heard the old Oil Ocean music.  It gets even better with the second zone.  That’s impressive, because when I play Sonic 2, I tend to turn it off around then.

Gameplay wise, it’s the tightest the series has ever been.  Sonic and his friends move just as they did in the Genesis/Mega Drive era, with a few little extras.  Sonic has his new drop dash, probably the best ability he’s ever had, and that includes the insta-shield and homing attack, Tails can fly longer and faster and Knuckles finally has a decent climbing speed that isn’t too slow, but also manages to incorporate a sense of weight.  Plus, the level design works in a way to fix one of the biggest issues with the series, as it no longer punishes the player with spikes or death traps just for going fast and not having memorized the level.  Instead, the levels are set up in a way to make sure the players don’t careen into pits.  Even when there are traps, the level uses things like floors that collapse or enemies that show up with a delay, giving even unskilled or new players time to react instead of just hurling them into a pit.

Also, of course, the soundtrack is amazing, easily the best of the year.  I know, that’s unfair, since this is a Sonic game, and Tee Lopes is just fucking amazing, but this is also a year where we got a Persona game, a Zelda game, a Mario game, a Final Fantasy game (even if it is an expansion) and a hell of a lot of great games with crazy awesome music.  Even then, Sonic still kicks ass, and as good as the game is, the soundtrack, like any Sonic game, is the best in the series.

I can only hope that Sega allows Christian Whitehead and Simon Thomley continue to work on this series, because it’s the only way to revive Sonic.  Especially after how fucking awful Sonic Forces was.  3D Sonic can work, but until Sonic Team can pull its head out of its ass and actually make a decent game that works, we need games like this to make the series keep working.

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Sonic Mania Review: Redemption

Sonic_Mania_(artwork)

Copyright SEGA

There shouldn’t have been any reason to worry.  Sonic Mania was being headed by the guys who did the great Sonic CD, Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 ports over the past six years, which were easily the best Sonic games coming out, but I was still worried.  I like a lot of Sonic games, but let’s be honest, there hasn’t been anything like Sonic Mania for decades.  Whether this is the best Sonic game ever made might take a few years to decide, but this is definitely the best one since Sonic 3 and Knuckles, and I’m a guy who says Sonic Adventure was the right direction for the series, and could work if SEGA gave the game to people who know what they’re doing.  There is nothing like Sonic Mania, but I hope to be proven false and that this is the herald of a new renaissance for the franchise, because if any series needed redemption, it’s this one.

Sonic Mania happens sometime after Sonic 3, with Sonic and Tails picking up weird energy readings coming from Angel Island.  The duo head over to the island to find Dr. Robotnik excavating a powerful gem, called the Phantom Ruby, and they, as well as a nearby just chilling Knuckles, wind up getting transported through time and space and have to stop Robotnik and his new group of Egg Robos, the Hardboiled Heavies.  Sonic and his friends jump through a bunch of old and new zones to stop Eggman from taking over the world.

The first thing about Sonic Mania is that it looks great.  It has some of the best sprite work I’ve ever seen, with everything running at a crisp and fluid 60 frames per second.  No Sonic game, ever, has looked this good, thanks to the best art direction the series has ever seen.  Some of the last couple of mainline Sonic games (not Sonic Boom) have had some great graphics, they have nothing on how good these levels look.  Inspirations from Sonic CD, Sonic Triple Trouble, Sonic 3 and a bunch of top tier ROM hacks from around the Sonic fan community created some gorgeous levels, all highlighted with a bright, color palette, giving a wide variety to each level.  This is a game that looks like it pushes my PS4 to the limit because of how well it pops on a 4k TV.  Sonic and crew each have a bunch of brand new animations, as well as more added to their existing ones, to make their movements look more real and natural.  It’s not quite up to the level of playing that opening from Sonic CD, but it’s the closest we have ever gotten.

Thankfully, too, the game plays like a dream.  It’s the best handling Sonic game, ever.  No slowdown, no frame dips, each character moving with no delay acting right as they should.  The Genesis/Mega Drive games had great controls, using momentum physics to propel Sonic through the roller coaster levels, and they felt great, but Sonic Mania feels even better.  Sonic reacts faster, moves faster and has some new moves to gain speed and momentum like never before, as do Tails and Knuckles.  The game basically has the same controls as the old Genesis/Mega Drive games, but does them even better, not just because of the smooth frame rate, but because the controls have been tightened and given much better tuning than it’s ever had.  The developers took 23 years of complaints about the minor control issues with Sonic games and took all of that time to playtest them so the game feel was almost pitch perfect.  There are still some issues with edges, and Sonic still has a bit of an issue turning around, but those are minor.

Of course, Sonic games live and die on how well mapped out the levels are, and that is a place where Sonic Mania shines.  It doesn’t have the best levels ever, or at least the best collection of levels, but the game makes do with what it has.  There are 12 zones, two acts each, with 4 of them being completely new and the rest being remixed versions of games from the first four Sonic games.  For the most part, the full speed slope followed by a bed of spikes unless the player already knows to jump kind of death trap that plagues the early Sonic games has been excised.  There are a few instances of cheap shots, but most of those are in the more exploratory platform sections, and less when Sonic and co. are busting out at full speed.  Those full speed into harm traps exist, sure, and are more common later in the game, but for the most part, the player can breathe a sigh of relief when they hit a high speed section.

Each zone feels new, even the 8 old ones.  It’s a little disheartening to know that most of the game is a remix of the old games, but each zone is changed and altered so much, it feels less like a mix tape or greatest hits collection, and almost feels like a new level.  Maps are different, enemies are new or placed in new locations and gimmicks are either altered, stolen from other zones/games or even created whole cloth.  Most of the time, this works quite well, such as mixing in elements from every “first Sonic level” into Green Hill Zone, or adding the darkness making the level more dangerous element from Sandopolis into Oil Ocean.  Sometimes, though, it gets in the way, such as the Marble Garden stuff added to Stardust Speedway Act 1, which slows down the gameflow more often than it should.  The new levels are all a lot of fun, adding in completely new elements the series has never seen before, or building on top of old ones.  Studiopolis might be the weakest in actual design, borrowing more of the negative elements from the casino levels than is good, but, conceptually, it’s such a new idea.  Plus, it added one of my favorite bosses in the game, so credit where credit is due.

Special stages return, which is probably the most controversial element of the game.  They’re hidden around zones like in Sonic 3 and Knuckles, generally behind breakable walls or secret doors, in giant gold rings.  They play as a sort of combination of Sonic CD’s, Sonic Heroes’s and Knuckles’ Chaotix’s special stages, and beating all of them unlocks Super Sonic (or Tails or Knuckles) and a final zone to give a bit of closure to the story.  Personally, I found them to be a lot of fun, but they’re also challenging in that same way special stages always are, and getting the last few emeralds after beating the game to unlock that final ending can feel like grinding, and no one wants to grind in a Sonic game.  Except on rails.

Super Sonic/Tails/Knuckles is a great reward, but it also unlocks a final level, called the Egg Reverie Zone, which is basically the same Super Sonic fights the final boss stage we’ve seen in every Sonic game since the Doomsday Zone.  Much like all of the others, it’s not nearly as cool as the Doomsday Zone, and is actually sort of difficult, and there’s an unskippable cutscene that plays every time Sonic dies.  I wasn’t a fan.

Ultimately, it’s a great Sonic game.  In addition to being a lot of fun, and just generally being the best Sonic game maybe to ever come out, and proof that Takhshi Iizuka should never be allowed to make a Sonic game, it’s also got a bunch of cool unlockables, like Puyo Puyo that players can play with local multiplayer, a sound test for the so awesome music (which is amazing, like, crazy good.  Sonic CD JP soundtrack good) and the ability to have Knuckles follow the player around like Tails does, no matter who the playable character is, even Knuckles.  Yes, this game allows for Knuckles and Knuckles.  That’s worth the money right there.  Seriously, it even has its own joke ending for beating it.