Last year, 90’s icon Sonic the Hedgehog celebrated his 25th Anniversary with a one-two punch of games. There was the official entry to the Sonic series the “big budget” Sonic Team produced: 3D epic Sonic Forces. The other was a Christian Whitehead produced (with Sonic Team support) fully 2D entry designed as a celebration of Sonic The Hedgehog’s 16 bit heritage named Sonic Mania. Released only as digital download, the idea I suppose was to have Sonic Mania release first as an appetiser to trigger memories before delivering the main dish. Things didn’t quite turn out that way however. Sonic Mania received stellar reviews, ended up on many top ten lists of 2017 and quickly surpassed a million copies sold. As for how Sonic Forces turned out, well you can read our review here.
Enter Sonic Mania Plus. As a result of fan demand for a physical release, the original game has been updated with a couple of new characters, an enhanced competition mode and a new version of Mania called Encore Mode. Although owners of the original game can download the additional content as DLC, the physical release is a treat. You get a holographic slipcase, Mega Drive reversible cover (complete with tongue in cheek reference to blast processing) and an art book as standard. The liner notes are written by Aaron Webber (Sonic social media manager) and contain concept art, character biographies and more. The physical edition is definitely the total package, but is it worth it for additional characters and a remix?
Sonic Mania is heavily influenced by the core early titles of the series. The main game is all classic 2D sprite based graphics. It features 12 core zones plus a special zone if you managed to collect all 7 chaos emeralds. There is a selection of remastered levels from the original titles plus four brand new zones. The remastered levels are extremely well designed generally featuring familiar elements but expanded with new areas to search. The soundtrack has been re recorded and sounds incredible, staying close to the original themes whilst also enhancing the feel of the game.
The new zones are for the most part excellent, which is no small feat considering the heritage they are up against. Mirage Saloon in particular is a favourite of mine, starting off as an auto scroll level in Tails’ Plane, you land on a moving train and make your way to front before being picked up again for the boss fight. A plane crash later and it turns out its just the intro as you explore the wild west themed level, posters of long forgotten Sonic The Fighters Characters on the wall. It is a level that can be played quickly or you can take your time exploring, ending with another great boss fight themed like a sideshow.
There are two types of special stage in Sonic Mania. Primarily, locating secret rings in the zones will transport you to UFO catching game influenced by Sonic CD and featuring quad polygon style graphics and the reward being a Chaos Emerald! Get the blue spheres to increase speed, the rings to increase time remaining and avoid bombs and spikes etc.
The visual style of these is pretty cool and they also have a friendly learning curve so newer players will be able to get the hang of the game and a few emeralds before starting to struggle
The secondary special stage is directly from Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles, complete with remixed soundtrack. From a 3rd person viewpoint your character runs around a rotating sphere the aim being to collect blue spheres and avoid red ones, as time elapses the game speeds up.
I personally always enjoyed these, although the rotating nature of the game can be uncomfortable for some especially at high speeds. The reward for success is a medal that will unlock special moves for Sonic and menu options.
The original game featured the core characters of Sonic, Tails and Knuckles with their own abilities. Tails can both fly for a short time or swim allowing him to reach areas that ground based Sonic cannot. Knuckles can glide to the ground and he can also climb walls. The different playing styles of each character really allows for a different experience depending on your choice.
Sonic Mania Plus includes two new characters; Ray the Flying Squirrel who has the ability to glide in the air which (with a bit of practice) is really handy (and fun!). Then there’s Mighty The Armadillo who has a ground pound move but more practically can reflect projectiles with his shell. Both of these characters in fact originally appeared in the Segasonic arcade game in the early 90’s, but given it was Japan only they may as well be brand new.
Aside from the additional characters, the key addition in Sonic Mania Plus is “Encore mode” and it’s a game changer. More than just a remix this is really more like an alternative version of the game as some of the changes and additions are substantial. Visually, the levels are palette swapped and re coloured so for example Green Hill Zone is now played at sunset. Some locations are re arranged although with most you would need them side too side to notice (except one that is completely different) and some of the bosses have been tweaked.
The real key difference though is a character swap feature, allowing you to change between characters at will. Two characters are onscreen and the other three on the sidelines, press a button to swap between the two in the game and the others come into play instantly when you lose a life or find a power up that will swap your characters out. Although it means no matter what you do you have essentially five lives, it saves from going back to checkpoints and if you lose a member it’s relatively easy to pick them up again via a pinball mini-game that replaces blue spheres.
The ability to choose a character depending on the stage or boss fight is really fun as well as trying levels with different combinations. In fact, this feature is so good I can’t believe nobody thought of it before and it almost makes Encore mode feel like a completely different game.
The only real downside of Encore mode is the UFO chasing special stages have had the difficulty ramped up to 11 they really are brutally difficult to the point I wonder if it was necessary and finding those 7 emeralds is incredibly difficult indeed.
So there you have it. Sonic Mania was already an excellent game it captured the gameplay and feel of the classic Sonic games pretty much perfectly. It would have been easy and to be honest I expected the new characters to be standard DLC fare thrown in for good measure but Mighty and Ray genuinely add to the gameplay and they fit as if they could have been part of the game from the start; as if they belong.
The same goes for Encore mode. What I expected would be a mere remix, the addition of character swapping really changes the gameplay to the point that I cant decide which version of Mania I like better. Overall, Sonic Mania Plus is the definitive Sonic the Hedgehog experience. It is without a doubt the best Sonic game in an extremely long time. To be honest it might be the best Sonic game ever made.
The Bottom Line
Unless you were there, it is difficult to truly explain just how much of an impact Sonic the Hedgehog had upon his debut, or how immensely popular he became in such a short span of time. Despite essentially two decades of often very average games (more than enough to kill off most franchises) he is still one of the most recognisable video game characters in the world.
Sonic Mania started off as a fan project essentially playing opening act to the official Sonic team production that was Sonic Forces. Now, Sonic Mania Plus is the total package and a gift to the fans that stuck by Sonic for all this time. It is also a new beginning and a chance for today’s gamers to play Sonic at his very, very best.