Sometimes you've got to feel sorry for Sonic Team, the erstwhile Sonic developers. No matter what they do, it seems they can't please everyone at once. While they've been responsible for some of the best Sonic games in recent years, from 3D Wii sensation Sonic Colours, to classic 2D platformers like Sonic Rush on the DS, with every new gimmick they've introduced, the vocal Sonic fans got louder. "Just give us a basic Sonic game", they cried, "With none of this were-hedgehog malarky, or a story of Sonic and his human bridge - just give us a good, old fashioned platform game that lives up to the Sonic name". And in an unusual move for the games industry in general, SEGA listened.
Sonic Mania, then, is a rather unusual experiment. While the guys and girls at Sonic Team beaver away at the upcoming 3D platformer Sonic Forces (the next "main" Sonic title), Sonic Mania is a love letter to the franchise, created by what's essentially a group of its most hardcore fans, who just happen to be programmers, artists, and musicians. Played in traditional 2D style, and with visuals that seat it somewhere between the Mega Drive and SEGA Saturn, Sonic Mania is a real blast from Sonic's past - literally.
Rather than a collection of all new levels, Sonic Mania instead bundles four all new "zones" (or worlds), each consisting of two levels, and eight "remastered" zones from earlier Sonic games. And while the word "remaster" currently seems to just mean giving a game a slight increase in resolution, in Sonic Mania it means something very different, with levels given an entirely new lease of life. While each of the remastered stages may start out similar to the originals, by the end they've each turned into something that feels entirely fresh, with secret areas to discover, new powers and many a new feature mid-level to play around with - like the slime tanks on the Chemical Plant zone. Essentially giant springy bounce pads, you can pour different colours of slime into these tanks to change their colour, with different colour slime letting you bounce higher, and reach new areas. It's also completely packed full of nods to Sonic's past, with even Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine making an appearance.
As in the earlier Sonic games, Sonic Mania offers you a choice of characters to play as, letting you control either Sonic and Tails together, Sonic or Tails on their own, or Knuckles the Echidna. While playing as Sonic and Tails is the best pick for beginners, as it gives you an extra (computer controlled) body for attacking enemies, or collecting the all important rings, Knuckles is one of the more unusual ones, as his style of play is so very different. While Sonic and Tails blast through levels at top speed, Knuckles can scale vertical walls, letting him take a totally different route through the game's many twisting stages.
And it's the levels that are one of the best parts of Sonic Mania. Huge, expansive, and with so many different ways of getting from A to B, "gotta go fast" may be the motto, but you can play through these levels two or three times in a row, and end up seeing completely different parts of the level. Even without counting hidden routes and areas, each level often has at least three loosely defined paths you can take to get from the start to finish, with loops, jumps, springs, collapsing floors, and switches letting you move between them. It's not uncommon to find yourself spotting something that looks like it might lead you to a secret part of the level, only to spend the next few minutes trying to figure out how to get there.
And for the most part, the all-new stages are every bit as good as the originals. While "big name" recognisable stages like Green Hill, the Chemical Plant Zone and everyone's least favourite underwater stage, Hydrocity Zone, are all present and correct, it's often hard to tell what's a new stage and what's an old one, because the originals fit in so well. One of the stand out new stages is the Press Garden Zone, particularly Stage 2, which introduces random jets of freezing gas that'll freeze Sonic into a giant ice cube. What's best is that this isn't so much a punishment, so much as something you actually have to do - get encased in an ice cube at the top of a slope, and you'll pick up so much speed going down it, you'll clear jumps, smash through anything that gets in your way, and eventually break straight through a wall to open up a path to a new area.
The trusty bonus stages make their return, too, with the blue ball collecting mini-game from Sonic 3 raising its head if you pass a checkpoint with more than 25 coins, while finding the giant gold ring hidden in certain levels will take you to a pseudo-3D stage in the vein of Sonic CD, chasing a UFO around a course to get your hand on a Chaos Emerald - although you'll need to collect them all to unlock the game's true ending.
If anything though, Sonic Mania perhaps relies a little bit too much on its fan service. While those who've played the 'hogs earlier games will regularly break into smiles at the many nods that have been crammed into the levels, it's hard to see new players enjoying it quite as much. And while we appreciate the game might be trying to stick true to the original, old school feel of Sonic, it would be nice to have at least a few modern features to play with - like the ability to save anywhere. While the game will save the zone you got to, it won't save what stage of the zone you're on - so if you get right to the final boss fight in the second stage of the zone, and then run out of lives, you'll be restarting from the first stage of that zone when you go to load your save. Sadly, the same is true if you choose to quit manually, with the game only remembering what zone you're on, rather than how far you'd got through it.
It's also a bit of a disappointment that there's not more support for two player co-op. While you can take on a friend in a split-screen race, any multiplayer in the main game itself is of the "shared screen" variety, being handled in the same disappointing way as the earlier Sonic games. While a second player can take control of Tails, there's no way to keep him on the same screen as Sonic - if you jump onto a spring, or hit a boost pad, you'll simply leave Tails behind, and have to wait for him to time out and die before he eventually respawns next to you. It's sad, because it could have been a lot of fun playing through this with a second friend, yet the co-op that's been included is frustrating enough that no-one's really going to bother even trying.
Despite being authentic to the original Sonic feel, some of the levels do have a few bugs, glitches and irritations, too. One of the new levels - the first stage of the Mirage Saloon Zone - doesn't actually have any checkpoints in it. While the level itself is great - you start out aboard Tails' plane, before attacking an Egg Train on foot - the lack of any checkpoints can be really frustrating, as it means losing to the boss puts you right back to the start of the level. Similarly, the underwater levels are every bit as awkward as ever. As neither Tails nor Sonic can breathe underwater, you'll need to rely on the random bubble points, which spit out large bubbles of oxygen, in order to breathe. However, sometimes even doing the right thing isn't enough - we stood next to one such point for the entire duration of the "you'm about to drown" countdown, and we didn't get a single bubble out of it. Losing a life even though you've got yourself to the nearest source of bubbles, and stood there waiting, getting more and more nervous as the timer ticks down just doesn't seem fair.
Still, there's a lot of fun to be had in Sonic Mania. If you're a long time Sonic fan, Mania strikes the almost perfect mix between nostalgia and novelty, with new stages that compliment the originals fantastically. If you're coming to Sonic afresh, though, it's hard to see this having quite the same appeal. Still, with 24 levels of quality platforming on offer (dodgy save system notwithstanding), while it may be a bit on the pricey side now, this will be well worth a look when it starts to come down.