Sonic Mania Plus REVIEW: By Fans, For Fans
It’s hard to believe that there are gamers in this generation that know games developer SEGA, but aren’t familiar with their home console market, and their enormous contribution to the industry. A long time, in a galaxy far, far away, SEGA and NINTENDO were the only two “true” competitors in the home console market that was revitalized thanks to the popularity of NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM and its trademark-icon plumber siblings, Mario and Luigi. The only mascot that stood toe-to-toe with the brothers was a teenage, lightning-fast, blue hedgehog with a heart of gold and an attitude of an extreme sports enthusiast. His name? Sonic.
Although he has appeared in more than 70 titles, Sonic’s latest outing, Sonic Mania Plus, celebrates in wholesome affect the 25th anniversary of the other Blue Bomber (Lord, forgive me), a cornerstone in 2D side-scrolling platform video games of the 90’s. It furiously and unapologetically awakens the dormant 90’s wild child in each of us by embodying to a tee the aesthetic, user interface, soundtrack, and gameplay for five of the most classic and highly-regarded 2D titles: Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic 2, Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic 3, and the now-legendary Sonic CD.
Mania succeeds where the treasures of its heart are clearly stored--with the fans. A leader of the Sonic fandom and indie games community, Christian Whitehead, acts as lead developer for Mania, in collaboration with indie devs Headcannon and PagodaWest Games. Thus, graphically, Mania feels like a direct Saturn-era sequel to 1993’s Sonic CD, but pays a deeper homage to the original 2D trilogy of games (and Sonic & Knuckles) that bore the Genesis-era cross. To the degree that SEGA opted to contract out of its usual in-house development team (“Sonic Team”) for Mania is likely to the degree to which they released their own constant attempts to reboot Sonic (2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog), “go back to the roots” of Sonic (2010’s Sonic the Hedgehog 4, split into two “episodes”) or reinvent Sonic (2014’s Sonic Boom) were all met with polarizing reviews at best. Mania saved the day in 2017; the Plus update gives fans even more bang for their buck.
Ever like the classic Sonic last year’s Mania marvelously mimics, 2018's Mania Plus directs our attention to twelve detailed and explosively colorful levels titled Zones in which our heroes Sonic and Tails the two-tailed fox embark through. The objective is simple: start from the beginning of each Zone’s two acts linearly. But classic Sonic games always mixed their level designs between Super Mario-style linear-simplicity and Metroidvania-style chaotic insanity, there are a ton of secrets, alternative routes, and a decent amount of wiggle room to go “backwards”. Eight of these Zones are actually remixed versioned of Zones in previous games; four Zones are inspired, but otherwise utterly brand-new. Each of them is a completely different wild ride, and finding the secret rings to access bonus levels is so satisfying that even stumbling upon them on accident will have you cheering yourself on, and breathes new life into the more difficult stages where you may find yourself dying often.
Mania Plus gives the player access to two Sonic heroes who originally debuted in 1993’s isometric platform arcade game, SegaSonic the Hedgehog, and haven’t been seen since then: Mighty the Armadillo, and Ray the Flying Squirrel. They are two of the oldest Sonic characters in the lore, even outdating Knuckles the Enchinda. These two add a new dimension of gameplay for Mania Plus and helps boost the replay value of the upgrade. Switch fans will be especially pleased to try all of what Mania Plus has so offer on the go, creating an experience that mimics the 90’s SEGA handhelds Game Gear and Nomad--or for the hardcore fan, the Neo Geo Pocket Color, where Sonic Pocket Adventure became one of short-lived handheld’s better titles (I personally have very fond memories of dying repeatedly throughout the game; who knew we would ever see Sonic on a non-SEGA console back then, least of all, a Neo Geo?!)
Utilizing Ray and Mighty, Mania Plus’ Encore Mode presents a fantastic two-player dynamic and a bit of new story where the player as Sonic has to rescue Ray or Mighty, who becomes a close companion throughout the rest of the mode just like Miles “Tails” Prowler was in the second and third primary installments of the series. With their own unique abilities, each of the stages is never the same to go through a second or third time with Ray or Mighty. In addition to Mania’s bonuses stages and special stages straight out of Sonic 3, homages to both Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and Sonic Spinball are ever present and most certainly welcome. Whitehead didn’t just want to create Sonic CD Part 2 HD; he wanted to celebrate the legacy of Sonic by gunning straight for its history. Competition Mode antes up multiplayer modes for Sonic by giving the mode four-player competition. Remember the days before Destiny where you actually played video games with friends in the same house?
Like their former rival Nintendo, SEGA is no stranger to innovation. They’re basically responsible for online gaming as we know it today thanks to 1991’s Sonic Eraser being released exclusively through Meganet, a modem add-on for the Sega Genesis, and with the strong online capabilities of the Sega Dreamcast before it became a standard (and nowadays, almost necessary) feature for the current home console generation. But in order to sustain their future for Sonic, SEGA definitely needed to outsource some help by looking into their past, and instead of reaching out to the next innovative step for their blue mascot (where 1998’s fully 3D Sonic Adventure and its 2000 sequel succeeded), go back to what gave the franchise life in the first place. It’s about time SEGA realized that being stuck in their 3D glory days, despite the credit they deserve, isn’t always the way to progress onward. And by not scrounging together yet another collection of old school Sonic titles, but instead inventing a new “old school” Sonic title, perhaps they’ve finally cracked the Sonic code for fans today.
And that, my friend, is the beauty of Sonic Mania Plus.