At the recent PC Gamer Weekender in London, Dann managed to get some hands-on time with Sega’s upcoming Sonic Mania, set to release in 2017.
Sonic the Hedgehog was, for many, their introduction into platforming titles on console; the character was synonymous with Sega’s Master System and Mega Drive (/Genesis) systems, replacing discarded mascots like Opa-Opa & Alex Kidd, as well as the potential mascot in Wonderboy. Most of us know the stories of the changes in standing that the blue hedgehog has gone through as he’s adapted to new technologies over the generations.
There have, of course, been some exceptions to the above. As updated versions of the older, 2D games have been released they’ve been well received, as was 2011’s Sonic Generations, and -let’s face it- many of us have fond memories of Sonic Adventure whether we want to admit it or not. Another way in which the games have remained popular is through its community – fan projects like Sonic Utopia, Green Hill Paradise Act 2, and what went on to be -the successful- Freedom Planet series have caught the eyes of many. It’s not just the fan projects, fan ports have also been well received, and that’s where we’ve come full-circle because the team behind Sonic Mania is comprised of two developers who became notorious for porting (and later Sega contracting) Christian ‘Taxman’ Whitehead & Simon ‘Stealth’ Thomley, as well as PagodaWest Games, a group of proven producers of pacey platforming titles.
Anyway – enough on the A-Team of players behind the game, and on with the game itself.
The demo that was on show was comprised of two levels, both well known to nigh-on-anyone who has been following the game since its announcement last year – a level from The Green Hill Zone, and a level from the new, cinema-themed, Studiopolis world. The build only included Sonic, so I didn’t get to see how Tails & Knuckles, who are also playable in the full version, handled.
I’ve fond memories of Sonic the Hedgehog games, specifically the Master System (/Genesis) games, with Sonic Chaos -which has a reputation for being quite easy (indeed, you could cheat most of the bosses as tails)- and Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (with its mine-carts and gliders) as my favourites. I’ve dabbled with the series occasionally since then, and have only played the Mega Drive Sonic games about a dozen times each, although still consider myself a platformer fan.
The Mega Drive version of Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is probably the best place to start, really. Sonic Mania’s Green Hill Zone feels so close to the title that I actually thought for a moment the level had been loaded in as a tribute and nod to the earlier outing. While I can prattle on about Sonic games nigh endlessly, the subject normally ends in me deciding that I don’t understand the speed of the game, although always celebrating that the earlier games, much like Mickey Mouse’s Castle of Illusion, seemed to use up every bit & byte of the cartridge, with things like idle animations and extra layers in the background showing an amazing care in the game’s creation. Sonic Mania nails both of those points.
Green Hill Zone felt like I’d never been away from the game, which, in a way, few of us can say we have been; the game having been ported and updated so many times that it is obviously, by-and-large, held up as the epitome of Sonic games. Regardless of that, it felt perfect; fast, detailed, and with a main path through the level that was obvious and easy to follow. I went back and played the zone for a second time, tweaking my path through the level a little more; making sure I missed the same jumps that had led to hidden bonuses, and trying to not scuff-up some of the connections I’d missed on my first run. It felt great, the music was great, the game looked great, and it felt great too – with Sonic still having the same slightly-unrealistic control of gravity as he bounded into the air throughout my run. Most importantly though, despite all my talk about how similar it was to that previous outing, it’s layouts were different and tweaked, with the lower run of the zone featuring some new backdrops, and even -in what I think is a first- features one of the series’ token loops.
Studiopolis, however, was different. The level was busier, prettier, and had a lot of exceptionally cool gimmicks; trucks that turned the player into radio waves and teleported them, a popcorn machine which sent you gliding up the screen, spring-mounted rockers which could be used to launch you higher. It had vastly more detailed backgrounds, with neon signs, electronic machines, and a hot-red sunset juxtaposing deep-blue nightfall. It had devious enemies, including a little bugger that launched film which shrapnel-ed right in your path, and a dangling pest-zapper which was would trigger after a few swings.
From my three playthroughs of Studiopolis I didn’t find it to have as many paths, with the main ‘led’ route featuring a lot of vertical twists-and-turns. It did however feel surprisingly forgiving for what was a more mechanical level. Where you would be led up ramps to double-back on yourself via platforms, you’d find (should you fall) that there was normally a smaller ramp which could be boost-dashed up in order to quickly get you up to speed, as opposed to forcing you through the exact last task again. This certainly felt deliberate, and I suspect that players who have started to learn the layout of the levels that comprise the zone could use these smaller ramps to easily half their first runs by cutting out many of the otherwise slowing, moving-platform sections of the level.
On my first playthrough I did find the Studiopolis level embarrassingly hard, especially based on how easily travelling the more familiar Green Hill Zone had been; I found the familiar springs, loops, swings and ramps vastly easier to navigate than the wobbly-bouncers, pinball bumpers, and thin platforms of the new zone. Ultimately, on that first playthrough, I ended up putting down the controller to watch the other member of the team who attended the event play it through; he passed through the bumper part -which had frustrated me- with ease, however was repeatedly pestered by the shrapnel-like broken film pieces of one of the new enemies. Later, however, while he was sampling the VR headsets, I snuck back and played the level through from start to finish a couple of times, and started to get to grips with the shortcuts which I mentioned, enjoying a few which had shaved out some of the trickier parts of the path.
If Studiopolis is an indicator of the details of the new zones, and Green Hill Zone is an indicator of the level of additions and refinements that will be added to the old, then I think that Sonic Mania will definitely be deserving of the hype it is receiving at the moment. That said, I am curious to see how Knuckles and Tails play out in these levels – both are better at traversing gaps than the titular hedgehog, and with that one of the main obstacles the levels presented to me are discarded. However, we don’t know how other levels will reward Sonic’s speed, or new ability to drop straight into a charged roll, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Note: All images are from Sega’s Sonic Mania press kit, as there was no opportunity to grab screenshots at the event.