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Sonic Mania Plus (PlayStation 4) artwork

Sonic Mania Plus (PlayStation 4) review


"Momentum"


It's an interesting idea: take select stages and concepts from certain oldschool titles in the franchise's catalog, and mesh them all together in one celebratory Sonic the Hedgehog product. Sounds like a potential good time... if several factors weren't already in play. Why not just have a marathon session with the original games, whether it be the cartridges, the countless compilation releases, or on various download services? Why not just replay Sonic Generations? Or, worst case scenario, revisit Sonic 4's questionable existence?

In Sonic Mania's defense, it didn't aim for a simple copy and paste structure. When you get dropped into Green Hill Zone, the starting area of the game, the first frame is all too familiar. There's palm trees, the lake and distant mountain backdrops, the abnormally fast-traveling clouds, checkered ground, and the first few seconds of the Zone's theme, all having been ingrained in video game history. But, just a few seconds later, there's already an obvious difference with the flow, as enemies, rings, and the general surroundings have smoother animations and slightly modified work done on sprites. Even the music's been touched, giving it some additional beats and a modern sound while trying not to stray far from its 16-bit origins.

Break away from the main path, either towards the hill tops or the surface below, and you'll notice an even bigger difference. New obstacle courses are waiting to be explored, with more tunnels and vertical loops to spin through, a gimmick of riding down hooked lines, not to mention the lower regions leading to an underground cave! There's even ginormous totem poles chilling in the background. Whether the devs intended this to be an actual thing, every subsequent remixed Zone has a subversion theme to it; Oil Ocean Zone has its slippery slides and green cannons, but then you're grasping for clean air and jumping into submarines; Flying Battery Zone leads you through tight corridors and magnetic hallways, until you're suddenly caught in a remodeled Wing Fortress Zone. Mania is far from an entirely new game, but it has fresh content.



That's not to imply there's only old zones used, as the game is also home to four new locations. Leading the pack is Studiopolis Zone, a stage where TVs, light fixtures, and flying enemies resembling cameras dominate a colorful, city-wide nightscape; glass panes shatter when you speed by, there are sections where only your silhouette can be seen, and it's just overall a very well-designed area that fits in with the others. Another new stage, Mirage Saloon Zone, has quite a unique history behind it. Situated in the desert, littered with giant hand-gun cannons and saloons aplenty, this stage almost appeared in the 2011 remake of Sonic CD, then-called Desert Dazzle, but ultimately scrapped. In turn, Desert Dazzle was inspired by Dust Hill Zone, a scrapped stage from Sonic 2. That's one helluva dedicated, obscure nod.

Also strewn across this twelve zone adventure are various references to Sonic titles of yesteryear. Such examples include redone blue sphere stages when jumping into a sign post, the bubble/fire/thunder shields being playable in Sonic 1 and 2 Zones with "interesting" results, and even cameo appearances by Sonic the Fighters... fighters. Special stages are done in the style of Sonic CD's "Mode 7" layouts, except with 3D model characters in use; the commonalities end there, because these are easily some of the hardest special stages you'll ever encounter in a Sonic title. They have strict time limits powered by rings, strict ring placements, a bevy of places to fall off the map, rotating spikes, and you must contend with all this while chasing a speeding contraption holding an emerald. They make you work for that victory!

Sonic Mania was clearly created with passion by people who enjoyed the oldschool releases, but it's far from an amazing experience. Unfortunately, there are numerous drawbacks that sound inconsequential on their own, but make for a very uneven, sometimes frustrating journey when combined.

A lot of the boss fights, for instance, are terribly-designed. I don't mean like they're boring or lazy, either; more times than not, they have bad hit detection or questionable physics. Flying Battery Zone's giant spider boss needs to be knocked into wall spikes, for example, and sometimes you can hit the machine immediately, yet other times you'll jump right through it... and into the spikes yourself. Studiopolis Zone, despite its good qualities, has an infuriating mid-boss encounter where you need to jump over missiles while the screen auto-scrolls. For some reason, the physics are really off in this segment, meaning you can barely leap over a missile when the surface is flat. Irritatingly, the ground constantly bends on a whim, so your jumps have to be perfectly timed to avoid injury or death. I dreaded encounters similar to these... which is usually the last emotion one should feel in a classic-style Sonic title.



The unbalanced vibe isn't exclusive to the boss fights, sadly. Little things done with ease in the originals are now somehow punishable in Mania. Attacking spider claw robots in Chemical Plant Zone while they're still on ceilings can possibly place you in a grabbed state. Rapidly grabbing onto hooks in Flying Battery Zone, one after another, now has the potential of not working, thus making you fall on a bed of spikes. Remember the giant, rotating wheels you can propel yourself off in Sonic 1 and 3? How momentum in the direction you're flung isn't lost? Well, now you have to purposely push the d-pad/analog stick in the direction you're flying towards to maintain momentum. How do you mess up the basics? This is the equivalent to messing up jump physics in a side-scrolling Mario game intended to be a salute to old Mario titles.

The whole concept of replaying old Zones that morph into new-ish stuff is refreshing and interesting at first, but that also wears out its welcome fast. You would think this would be enticing for long-time fans, but weirdly enough, being forced to rehash old material before experiencing the new content feels more like a strain than a sense of "nostalgia." I love Lava Reef Zone in Sonic & Knuckles. I never get tired of it. But, when I played the zone late in Mania, it felt like a chore, an obstacle that got in the way of the current batch. It's bizarrely ironic how Mania is meant as a tribute to classic Sonic and long time fans, yet it tends to work much better if you don't know any of the source material. Like, as of this writing, I've never played Sonic CD past the first stage, so the Sonic CD content felt invigorating compared to the other Zones.

This is where the subversion angle can backfire, as well. Once the new material pops in and if it doesn't play as good as the old bulk, whether it be questionable physics and hit boxes, new gimmicks that aren't fleshed out, or uninspiring level designs, you're left with a feeling of deflation. When I first saw the gondola in Hyrocity Zone, I got excited... but then they were just simple, quick rides with little to no enemy resistance. Double Dragon IV's raft says hi. When the first act of Mirage Saloon began and I realized it was a flying segment similar to Sky Chase Zone, I was hopeful... but, again, it was a basic retread with generic enemy placements; thankfully, it didn't last long.



I haven't taken the Plus content into account, either; having two extra playable characters, Ray and Mighty from the SegaSonic arcade game, is nice, but the extra mode, Encore, is just a repeat of the main mode, with some slight reshuffling of objects. I bought the physical version, so I get it all out the gate, but this offer sounds absurd for people who bought the digital base game a year prior. Instead of DLC with brand new stages... you're asking players to buy a mode that's essentially a slightly modified version of a game... that they already own? Which... in turn, is a game based on games people already own on-Are you insane?

Now, I appreciate Sonic Mania's existence and the commitment behind making it like the classics. I appreciate the emphasis on interesting platform design as much as there's an emphasis on speeding through areas. I appreciate the scope. I appreciate the creativity when I see it. But that's why it's disappointing how the entire product is such a flip-flopping mess. The game is just too unstable, has too many glaring issues to try seeing it in such a positive light. It really makes me wish the devs had gone ahead with their intention of making a Sonic game that wasn't a remake, before the series producer had a change of heart and decided it should also have old zones. For some reason. Of course, a Mania-style game with all new content still has the potential to suck, but at the very least, it wouldn't have been tied down to being a partial recap episode.

2.5/5

pickhut's avatar
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