The Blue Blur returns for his best game in years.
Prior to the release of Sonic Mania, things were looking pretty rough for SEGA’s Blue Blur. That the best game of the modern era prior to this point was probably Sonic Generations was a scathing indictment of a franchise that once stood shoulder to shoulder with Mario. Generations wasn’t a bad game. In fact, it’s pretty good. But pretty good is a hard fall from the days of the Genesis and the fact that the game was followed by Sonic: Lost World, Sonic Forces, and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric didn’t give people much hope that SEGA had learned from what made Generations work. Then Sonic Mania happened.
I was lucky enough to review the original game when it released. Spoiler alert: it’s excellent and it deserves both the fan and critical acclaim that has been showered on it since launch. But Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games apparently aren’t satisfied with excellent. They wanted something more. If the original release of Sonic Mania was the version that played in theaters, Sonic Mania Plus is the director’s cut you get on home media. Plus adds two new characters, a new mode, and a number of other things to Mania’s already great core. The question is, can you tweak something that was already nearly perfect and make it better?
"Mighty’s ground smash allows you to discover hidden areas lurking beneath your feet, and adds new paths to the game’s already impressively varied levels."
If you haven’t played Sonic Mania, it’s a retro homage to the old Sonic games on the Genesis. But it isn’t just another retro game. Mania is the way you remember the Genesis titles, not the way they actually were. The graphics are better, the controls are tighter, and the music is on point. It feels like a sequel to Sonic and Knuckles that got shoved into a box and forgotten for two decades. There’s no annoying animal friends, no obnoxious story, and no pointless nonsense. This is Sonic at its most pure.
Most of the levels are remakes of classic areas like Green Hill Zone or Flying Battery Zone, and feature both new and familiar bosses to tackle. Most of Mania’s appeal comes from this reimagining of the past: only five of the thirteen original levels in Sonic Mania were new, but they’re just as lovingly crafted and fun to play as the remixed levels. In this regard, Sonic Mania Plus is very much like last year’s release because it’s built on the back of that game. But the devil is in the details. Sonic Mania Plus further remixes the levels from the original release. There’s always the worry, when messing with a good thing, that tweaking it will end up making it worse, but Whitehead and crew have done an admirable job here; the original Mania stages were already grand, but Plus’s levels add new verticality and replayability. The original didn’t lack either of those things, but it’s nice to see a set of passionate people who aren’t settling for good enough.
The two new characters – Mighty the armadillo and Ray the flying squirrel – add their own thing to the game as well. Ray’s ability to glide allows him to reach high places more easily than most of the other characters and will no doubt remind some of Tails’s floating technique, but Mighty is a new beast entirely. His ground smash allows you to discover hidden areas lurking beneath your feet and adds new paths to the game’s already impressively varied levels. He can also smash through enemies and takes an extra hit before he loses his rings, perfect for newer players or those of us who aren’t very good at Sonic games.
"The other big addition is Encore Mode. You’ll start playing as Sonic, but you can gather up all of the characters in the game as you progress through gorgeous, palette-swapped versions of the levels and pair said characters up to create custom combinations that aren’t available in other modes."
The other big addition is Encore Mode. You’ll start playing as Sonic, but you can gather up all of the characters in the game as you progress through gorgeous, palette-swapped versions of the levels and pair said characters up to create custom combinations that aren’t available in other modes. Certain power-ups scattered around the levels will allow you to switch characters, which keeps things interesting. If a character dies, they’ll be replaced by another from the reserve roster.
This continues until you run out of characters, at which point you’re returned to the start of the stage. It’s a great addition that simultaneously adds more variety to the levels and forces you to take advantage of what makes each character unique. You may end up with a pairing that’s not always ideal for what the game is asking you to do, but I never encountered an area where the character combination I had couldn’t do what I was being asked to. On the contrary, overcoming those moments is half the fun.
There’s a number of smaller changes, too. Competition mode now supports four players and there are a number of small changes to the overall levels and boss fights that make a huge difference. Angel Island from Sonic 3 makes an appearance, as does a new boss. Best of all, if you already own the original release, Plus will only cost you $5. For this much content, that’s not a bad deal.
"For all of its improvements, Plus still has flaws, many of which carry over from Sonic Mania. Competition Mode is still limited to local play."
For all of its improvements, Plus still has flaws, many of which carry over from Sonic Mania. Competition Mode is still limited to local play, and the pinball mini-game in Encore mode feels a bit clunkier than it should, especially since you’ll probably need to do it to get extra characters to complete the mode.
The other major issue is the difficulty. Sonic Mania is hard. Being hard comes with the territory: this is a game inspired by titles from the Genesis, and in case you’ve forgotten, Genesis games were very, very hard. That Sonic Mania attempted to work this difficulty into its design isn’t a surprise, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still frustrating. See, each zone is divided into two Acts. That in and of itself isn’t an issue. What is an issue, however, is that if you die in Act 2, the game sends you all the way back to Act 1. This can be exceptionally troubling when the only thing giving you an issue is Act 2’s boss. The game almost never feels unfair, and you’ll always know why you died. It can be frustrating, but look at it as an opportunity: failure is a possibility to pause, assess what went wrong, and try again.
Another frustrating design choice appears in Encore mode. Should you lose all your characters, you’re started back at the beginning of the Act with your final character. Just your final character. So not only do you have to overcome the level that’s been giving you a hard time, but you only have one character to do it. If you die or run out of time, it’s back to the start again.
"This was Sonic before it collapsed under the weight of cutscenes and voice acting and annoying sidekicks and the shift to 3D. It is speed incarnate, with levels designed to test you in every way they can."
All of these things can be incredibly frustrating, but they’re part and parcel of what makes Sonic Mania Plus great: the game is a literal return to form. This was Sonic before it collapsed under the weight of cutscenes and voice acting and annoying sidekicks and the shift to 3D. It is speed incarnate, with levels designed to test you in every way they can.
Some of the design decisions that go along with this back-to-basics approach can be frustrating. However, they are exceptionally minor complaints in what is a great update for an already excellent game. Sonic Mania already proved Sonic was back. Sonic Mania Plus shows that he’s never been faster. Spin on, you crazy hedgehog.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Two new characters to play. Encore mode is fantastic. The remixed levels are great. A new stage and a new boss fight. Competition Mode supports four players.
You still can't play online. The pinball mini-game feels a bit clunky.
Sonic Mania Plus is an excellent addition to an already fine game and easily the best Sonic game in years.