Sega / Christian Whitehead
Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC (Switch version reviewed)
If all the zones in Sonic The Hedgehog 2 were like family members, the Chemical Plant Zone was my racist uncle: it was part of a larger group I loved, but any time I encountered it I had a lengthy, uncomfortable time interacting with it.
Even as a young 9-year-old sprog who was obsessed with Sonic and excitedly got his copy of the sequel on what was officially known as Sonic Twosday – Tuesday, 21 November 1992 – the Chemical Plant Zone rubbed me up the wrong way.
Yes, friends, I hated it. But the key word is ‘hated’, in the past tense. Amazingly, nearly 25 years later, I’ve come to peace with it: and it’s thanks to Sonic Mania.
This 2D Sonic reboot consists of 12 zones, many of which are revamped versions of those in the original Mega Drive (and Mega CD) Sonic games including, yes, that bastarding Chemical Plant.
What’s brilliant about it, though, is that these levels aren’t just ported over in a slapdash manner. They’ve been completely rebuilt – ‘remixed’ wouldn’t be doing it enough justice – perfectly balancing the line between remembrance and redress.
Take the Green Hill Zone, the game’s opening level (because of course it is). As the stage begins you’d be forgiven for thinking you were playing little more than an HD port of the original Sonic The Hedgehog. The layout looks exactly the same, the music’s a bit nicer, but that’s more or less it.
Then, as you continue through the level things start to change. Sections you used to know like the back of your hand start to look like… well, the back of someone else’s hand. Someone with really complex, well-designed hands.
By the time you reach Act 2 of Green Hill – only the game’s second level – it’s almost unrecognisable (as you can see in the video footage I captured below). The music’s now a full-blown modern rearrangement, there are rope slides in there, the power-ups from Sonic 3 have appeared and there’s now a pool of water in the middle of the stage, where a giant ring is waiting to take you to a new bonus stage you’ve never seen before.
Suddenly it’s clear that you’re no longer playing the umpteenth re-release of the original Sonic The Hedgehog that Sega’s been dining out on for decades. This is old, but it’s so gloriously fresh too.
This would all be pointless if the levels weren’t designed well. After all, one of the reasons people love the original Mega Drive Sonic games – it’s an argument that most people are sick of, frankly, because it’s said so often – is that they weren’t just about speed, they were about momentum.
The best 16-bit Sonic stages weren’t about going from 0-100 mph in two seconds and staying at that speed until you hit the goal, they were a delicate flow of highs and lows.
Sometimes you got to pick up speed and it felt great, but other times you had to slow down and regain your control for trickier parts, knowing that your eventual reward if you overcame them would be a chance to build up that pace again later and enjoy the (literal) rush.
That’s exactly the case with these newly designed sections. They may have been created in the mid 2010s, but they feel like we remember it feeling in the early 1990s.
Sample gameplay footage:
That’s the important thing: it’s like we remember it, not necessarily how it always was. The fact is, as fun as Sonic 1, 2, 3, CD and Knuckles still are to play these days, they weren’t perfect and over the years their imperfections have become more noticeable.
The Marble Zone in the first Sonic game is one hell of a slog when you play it today: pushing blocks into lava then slowly riding them is soul-destroyingly dull.
Remember the weird gumball machine mini-game in Sonic 3? What in the utter shit was that all about? Don’t get me started on the big mech boss at the end of Sonic 2, either.
And, of course, let’s not forget my aforementioned personal enemy, the Chemical Plant Zone, with its infuriating underwater moments, its lengthy spells in the purple liquid draining all the momentum out of the game.
In Sonic Mania, it feels more like it did back when the games first came out and those annoyances were less obvious. That’s because it may look and play just like the old games but the stages have been meticulously planned to make sure there are far fewer boring bits.
It isn’t all just retreads of popular old zones, mind you. There are some completely new ones in there too. In a way, these are even more of an impressive accomplishment because they had no 90s era base to start from, and were instead built entirely from scratch.
Despite this, if someone was to tell me they were actually lost 16-bit Sonic levels that had just been discovered I’d completely believe them.
They fit in absolutely seamlessly and it’s a credit to developer Christian Whitehead and the rest of the team working on the game that they’ve managed to nail that early Sonic Team character immaculately, something the real Sonic Team has been royally ballsing up ever since polygons made their arguably unwelcome appearance.
That’s a point, incidentally: there are some younger Sonic fans out there who aren’t necessarily fans of the 16-bit games. You know the type: they know all the lyrics to the Sonic Adventure 2 music and they know all the memes about Knuckles and how “unlike Sonic, [he] don’t chuckle”.
If you fall into this category and you never really saw the big deal with the Mega Drive Sonic games, then Sonic Mania might not actually be for you because it feels so much like them that it really requires a love for the source material.
The more you remember about not just 16-bit Sonic, but 16-bit Sega in general, the more you’ll get out of this game. With no prior knowledge it’s fantastic as it is, but there are so many references in there that die-hards may even get a bit teary-eyed as they play.
I’m not just talking the usual Sonic 1, 2 and 3 nods: those are a given. I’m talking sound effects and background signs that come from other well-known Sega games, characters and references to really obscure Sonic games, and one particular boss fight which comes completely out of the blue (pun always intended).
Speaking of the boss fights, there are bloody loads of them in here. Every single act has one – not just the last act in each zone – and the variety is incredible. Some are completely new, others pay tribute to classic boss fights, but even the latter always add a clever twist to proceedings so it never feels like a straight copy-and-paste job.
It almost never takes the easy way out by relying on cheap “remember this?” nostalgia alone. That’s the crucial thing about Sonic Mania. Instead, it’s almost always: “Remember this? Well, now I’m going to do this to it, let’s see how you like it now.”
I say ‘almost’ because there’s one element that’s made its way to Sonic Mania unaltered, and it’s the one solitary negative aspect of the game for me. That fucking mini-game from Sonic 3 where you have to run around the sphere and collect blue balls while avoiding the red ones is here, and you need to keep clearing it to unlock various extra features in the game.
Some people like that mini-game: I’ve always hated it, but there you go. That’s just me.
Sonic Mania, then, is very much a game for the long-time, long-suffering 16-bit Sonic fans who’ve had to endure all manner of disappointments over the years, including (but not limited to):
• Sonic becoming ‘streamlined’ and getting cringeworthy ‘cool dude’ voice acting
• having to raise daft wee creatures in a Tamagotchi metagame
• trying to catch fish with a giant purple cat
• turning into a werehog
• befriending a talking sword and travelling to medieval times
• shagging a human princess or something
• a Sonic 4 that came dangerously close to being great but went with polygons, added homing jumps and was split into two ‘episodes’ for greed’s sake
• whatever the fuck Sonic Boom on the Wii U was
If you’re sitting there, reading through this list and thinking “hang on, I liked all that, it was certainly better than those dusty old Mega Drive games” then Sonic Mania may not be for you. Stop reading this review, take your laptop or phone and horse it into the nearest fucking landfill.
For everyone else – those Brits who used to collect Sonic The Comic back in the day, those kids who thought plugging Sonic 2 into the Sonic & Knuckles cart and playing as Knuckles in it was the greatest thing ever, those who still insist on calling him Robotnik instead of Eggman because fuck anyone who says otherwise – this game is your decades-long dream made reality.
You and I, we’ve waited a long time for this moment. We’ve been built up and knocked down more times than a Jenga set owned by a demolition firm CEO. We’ve been told time and time again that “Sonic’s back”, that every game in the endless Sonic Team conveyor belt was going to “hark back to the days of the classic Sonic games”, that they were really listening this time.
And every single time we came away disappointed, having played another 5 or 6 (or, if were lucky, a 7.5 like Sonic Generations), when all we’ve wanted was to feel like we did when we first played those 9’s back when we were children.
Not this time.
That feeling you wanted is finally here. I felt it and I’m promising you, finally, with no hint of hyperbole or PR hype, that that you can feel it too.
You can have the same daft grin on your face that I did while playing Sonic Mania. You can be ten or eleven years old again, thumbing through your dogeared Sonic The Comic issues while gripping your Tails plushie tight.
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 21 November 1992, your wait is over. Your childhood awaits.
It’s a real pleasure to meet you again, Chemical Plant Zone. I really mean it this time. We’ve got years of catching up to do.
Sonic Mania is out tomorrow, priced £14.99-£15.99 / $17.99-$19.99 (depending on the system). You can also buy a limited collector’s edition with a Sonic statue from Amazon UK.
In order that I could write this review, I received a free copy of the game from a PR. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.
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