I never played Sonic growing up. My only exposure to the zippy blue guy was the brief Saturn or Mega Drive session at a friend’s place. I grew up playing Mario and Donkey Kong Country which, I’ve come to realise, utilise an entirely different skill set to classic Sonic. So even though I consider myself fairly accomplished with modern-retro 2D platformers like Celeste and Hollow Knight, jumping into Sonic Mania Plus was a shock to the system. After playing for several hours I began to accept that I was not just unfamiliar with Sonic, I’m straight-up bad at it.
Reviewing a game from this position is tricky, and it’s the first time I’ve tried to critique a game I’m so hopeless at. How much value can my score and review have if I’m not really ‘getting’ what makes Sonic Mania such a great throwback in the first place? To that end, I’m not going to give Sonic Mania Plus a score in this review, instead what follows is what I liked about the game, a rundown of the new elements added in this definitive version, followed by my thoughts on classic Sonic as a total newcomer.
Aesthetically, Sonic Mania is a delight. The art, animation, sound effects, and music are like they plucked Sonic Team at their peak and just said “keep doing what you’re doing”. It’s astounding how perfect everything looks, sounds and feels. From the iconic “Saaay-Gaaah” logo screen to the sound of collecting (and losing) rings, to classic themes like Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant: it’s all perfectly on-brand. Not since Shovel Knight has there been a soundtrack that sticks so true to its roots while also feeling totally fresh and inventive.
Sonic Mania’s level design is overflowing with insanely creative brand new ideas, as well as fun spins on old favourites. For the returning classic stages Act 1 feels familiar, while Act 2 is where things get a little experimental. The second act of Chemical Plant features special goo that’s extremely bouncy and pulsating double helixes that transport Sonic vertically. Sonic will transmit himself through electrical wires, pilot canoes through flooded ruins, hop on a train speeding through the desert, and even blast from a printing house into a serene, snowy garden.
Added in Sonic Mania Plus are two new characters, Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel, Encore Mode, which is the same levels from the base game but with reworked colour palettes and altered obstacle and enemy placement, and finally the expansion of Competition Mode from two to four players. Mighty has a move that lets him slam directly downwards after jumping, destroying most enemies in his way, and Ray can fly. That’s about it for new additions, nothing too substantial, but enough to warrant a check-in from those who haven’t played in a while.
When this game is fun, it’s a lot of fun, and even with my lack of any long-term connection to the Sonic franchise I can see the unique appeal of going super fast through intricately entwined 2D rollercoasters, but I was also greatly frustrated at times, and not always in a way that felt like my fault. Losing a life in one hit when being crushed between a wall and a moving platform, despite having rings, getting hit by something that I couldn’t even see properly, or just running headfirst into something I had no way of knowing was going to be there all often felt unfair, rather than challenging.
And now for a real hot take: losing every single ring from one hit is too punishing. There, I said it. I concede this is a tricky criticism because that’s how classic Sonic has always been, but playing this in 2018, trying to learn the ropes and losing all my rings because I landed slightly awkwardly on an enemy is just irritating. Being instantly killed and losing a life because I fell into a bottomless pit, or because I got crushed by a moving platform, is similarly aggravating. This is made worse when it happens due to how visually busy the screen can be at times, more than once I fell to my death just because I couldn’t even see where Sonic was.
On the other hand, I totally understand why losing every single ring is part of this game, as well as part of what makes Sonic Sonic. Classic Sonic caters to those skilled players who want to master every inch of every level, running them again and again until they know every twist and turn, every enemy placement, and every boss fight like the back of their hand. Maintaining their ring count without getting hit even once is the equivalent of an S rank in Devil May Cry or a flawless run in Guitar Hero. It’s a measure of performance and progress, not just an alternative take on a health meter.
For a player like me, however, who is just there to sight-see and enjoy the aforementioned mind-bending roller coasters, jazzy tunes, and nostalgic sound effects, stressing about losing my rings and not having enough lives is a barrier to my greater enjoyment of the game. This would all be a lot easier to swallow if getting a game over on the boss of Act 2 didn’t mean starting all the way back at the beginning of Act 1. Going back to the start of Act 2 would still be a punishment, but not one so severe that it discourages newcomers from persevering.
Sonic Mania Plus is undoubtedly the definitive version of the game, simply adding more content to an already high-quality package. If for whatever reason you were holding off from buying it, now is the time. That said if you missed the boat last year because, like me, you were never that into Sonic in the first place then nothing about Sonic Mania Plus is likely to change that. A lot of retro 2D platformers require the player to get good or go home, but I’m of the (admittedly controversial) opinion that only Sonic seems intent on repulsing new players. I laughed along with everyone else at Funky Kong mode for the Switch version of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, but a new character for Sonic Mania, one that only requires 50 rings to get an extra life and starts at the beginning of Act 2 if you get a game over on the second boss would be ideal. At the end of the day, I just wanna go fast.
Sonic Mania Plus was reviewed on PS4 using a code provided by Five Star Games.