Ol’ Blue Skies is Back

If there’s a universal truth among video game players of a certain age, it’s that we all, from time to time, find some small comfort in wallowing in the nostalgic history of our pastime. We live in what could credibly be argued as the best era for access to new and diverse video games, and yet the list of re-visited and remade franchises grows longer by the year. Remasters sit happily alongside retro-styled pixel art indie games in the upper echelons of the charts, and historical collections such as Rare Replay manage to showcase both the genuine original articles alongside their jazzed-up and polished modern re-imaginings.

We are, of course, all just chasing that feeling of connection we once had as a child/teenager/20-something; yet the results can only be described as mixed. Some games hold up well (any NES or SNES-era Mario, Sensible World of Soccer, Doom, etc.), while others… are best consigned to the rose-coloured area of your brain for good (Speedball 2, Goldeneye, GTA 3, many, many more).

For my part, I came to the conclusion recently that original hardware is key to transporting myself back to my youth. Time after time I dabble with emulation systems such as Retropie or the umpteen different options for emulating classic consoles and arcade machines on PC, and though I still love that scene dearly for the history lesson it affords, the impact pales in comparison to sitting down with the original console, the original controller, and a crappy TV that lets you relive the dubious power of NICAM stereo afresh.

Modern retro-themed pixel art games that aim to directly ape their inspiration rarely give me the same buzz the original titles and hardware provide, but Sonic Mania, excitingly, is the exception that proves the rule.

If you grew up with a Mega Drive then Sonic and Sonic 2 undoubtedly form the bedrock of your expectations for nostalgia, and nothing has ever come close to capturing the spirit of those originals. Countless times Sega has squandered the chance to bring back their star franchise, with the abortive 3D iterations sitting amidst a pile of almost-but-not-quite 2D resurrections that managed to capture some of the feeling, but never quite nailed the experience as a whole.

All of that changes from the moment Sonic Mania’s brightly-coloured menu screen splashes into view. This is joyously Sega through-and-through, and it says a lot about the state of that company that it eventually took an outsider (Sonic Mania designer Christian Whitehead), to recapture what is unmistakably theirs. The bouncy music, the colour palette, it’s all here, and it’s all authentic and feel-good in a manner not really experienced since the demise of the Dreamcast.

The game that follows encapsulates Sega’s legendary “blue skies” design ethos to the max. Where other remakes or re-imaginings pull you out of the experience with gameplay tricks and additional systems that simply wouldn’t have been possible in the day, Sonic Mania sticks rigidly to the bedrock of the Mega Drive titles. You make your choice from either Sonic, Knuckles or Tails, then you’re challenged with thundering through platform-strewn levels at maximum velocity, pinballing your way from area to area, collecting rings and power-ups while reacting to hazards at breakneck pace. Each stage contains two levels, and when you lose your lives, you’re sent back to the start of that zone.

It plays almost exactly like the game no doubt have in your head. Movement and momentum is practically identical to the originals, and of the thirteen zones, eight of them borrow tilesets from prior games. Crucially, although the visuals of those levels are directly analogous to experiences you’ve likely had countless times before, Sonic Mania takes those familiar settings and twists them into something entirely different, adding mechanics and props that considerably change their flow. The new stages, meanwhile, prove some of the best material. One in particular, Studiopolis, made me want to replay it immediately on completion. Bouncing your way through a TV studio complete with working lottery machines and then beaming around on satellite dishes is just too much fun.

The level design in Mania really is marvellous to behold. Umpteen different routes through each space affords huge amounts of replayability, while Sonic’s traditional rollercoaster-speed sections are balanced with some deft platforming and novel environmental interaction. Taking a prompt from the Nintendo playbook, practically every single zone contains a unique mechanic that’s used only for that area, and almost all of them play with Sonic’s momentum in some fashion. Boss battles follow suit, with some traditional encounters mixed in with concepts that are genuinely fresh. Every single stage has a boss encounter, whether it’s something that can be beaten in a couple of jumps or something that may take several teeth-grinding attempts to figure out patterns and mechanics.

Crucially, although Sonic Mania performs visual tricks and layers on detail that could never have been achieved with the original hardware, it still manages to convince your brain that you’re sitting in front of a Mega Drive. Animation is expanded but seemingly built on the same colour restrictions and rough pixel ratio of the original games, while the audio is simply glorious; nothing sounds quite as authentically Mega Drive-era as this, right the way through to the crunchy, fuzzy sound effects.

Playing on the Nintendo Switch, the issue of physical control is the only thing that really holds the experience back. Nintendo’s compromise on the Joycon controllers means that no real d-pad exists, and analogue control for a game like this will never feel right to me. The Pro Controller does a good job of standing in for a traditional pad in this instance, but if you can get your hands on one, I’d highly recommend bluetoothing an N30 or F30 Pro by Hong Kong-based company 8BitDo. Although their analogue sticks leave something to be desired (do not try using these for Mario Kart 8), the N30 and F30’s d-pad and buttons feel incredibly era-authentic. Their diminutive size seals the deal.

So there it is. Even in this nostalgia-infused era of videogaming, I’d never have thought that Sega’s mascot was capable of such a comeback, but Sonic Mania moves the series forward in a manner that should have been done more than a decade ago. It feels fast, fresh and thoroughly 90s. This is the right type of retro.

9/10

Review by Emmanuel Brown (@Manuel_Garcia)

Professional enthusiast, videogame “journalist” and all-round spectacular sofa dweller.

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