Release Date: July 17, 2018Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, Switch, PCDeveloper: PagodaWest Games & HeadcannonPublisher: SegaGenre: Platformer
Unnecessary, egregious re-releases have become commonplace in today’s gaming industry, so much so that Bethesda felt compelled to poke fun at themselves during their annual E3 presentation for the almost comical number of Skyrim iterations they’ve released since the game launched. But Sonic Mania Plus, a refined, expanded version of last year’s digital-only release, is a welcome repackaging of what was already the definitive Sonic the Hedgehog experience, adding new wrinkles to gameplay, a handful of extra features, and retro-inspired packaging including an art book and a sleeve modeled after original Genesis box art.
The coolest and most unique thing about the original release is that it was developed in a joint effort between Sega and select fan-hackers, whose involvement gives the game a passion-project vibe. This is as heartfelt an homage to the Sonic franchise as you could imagine, a direct continuation of the original, 2D line of games that made the character a pop-culture mainstay in the ‘90s and the only character who could rival Mario at the time. Those were Sonic’s glory days, and while the series has had a rocky go of it over the past fifteen years, to say the least, it’s safe to say that with Sonic Mania Plus, the future of Sonic is looking brighter than ever.
New to this version of the game are two characters, Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Squirrel, each of whom introduces variations to gameplay that, while not groundbreaking or transformative, are fun and do slightly enrich the game without negatively affecting the purity of the Sonic Mania experience. Mighty has a pound attack that’s useful for transferring your forward momentum into downward momentum, which allows you to take a more calculated speed-based approach to gameplay (he also isn’t damaged by spikes upon first contact, though you will lose rings on second impact). Ray can glide, which controls almost exactly like the cape power-up from Super Mario World. Both characters control just as smoothly as the mainline protags, their character models fit perfectly into the game’s aesthetic, and new remixed levels from the original game feature paths that cater to their unique capabilities.
These remixed stages come in the form of the Encore Mode, a new campaign that also introduces a new way to play in which, instead of lives, you gradually assemble your cast of characters via item boxes and special tasks peppered throughout the levels. You have two characters deployed at a time and can switch between them with a simple button press, and when one dies, they’re replaced by the heroes you have left on reserve. This change-up alters the rhythm of gameplay in an interesting way, as it forces you to think carefully about which character is most effective for any given situation or obstacle. Sonic games are blistering and intense as is, but this added swap feature makes playthroughs even more hectic. A two- to four-player competition mode is also included, in which you can challenge friends to furious couch co-op races, and some boss battles have been updated to be less frustrating this time around, with visual cues added to more clearly delineate the path to victory.
There are definitely enough changes here to warrant repeat run-throughs for those who have already mastered the original game, but don’t expect a wealth of new content — Plus is essentially a modest DLC add-on. Thankfully, if you already own the original game, adding the new content will run you only $5, and if this is your introduction to the game, the $30 price point for the retail version is well worth every penny (plus, you get the bitchin’ packaging). The core game is an unfettered delight (particularly for fans of the original line of 16-bit and 32-bit games), retaining the series’ classic visual and gameplay style while incorporating new details that make the experience more palatable for modern audiences.
A lot has been said about the reemergence of 16-bit, retro graphics, with most attributing the appeal to nostalgia. But perhaps more than any game this year, Sonic Mania Plus asserts that there is a certain electricity to the pixel-art style that conveys a crackling energy that you just can’t find in most modern, high fidelity games. Without an ounce of irony, I can say that this game is more visually arresting, dazzling, and inspired than any Sonic game ever made, including the 3D ones. From the color palette to the character animation to the adorable little spin Sonic does when the title screen launches, everything in this game drips with life and attitude.
There’s a bit of warm recognition longtime fans can glean from the fact that the best-received Sonic game in over a decade is a loving homage to the original titles. 3D entries in the franchise have always struggled to capture the frantic fun that defined the series in the beginning, but Sonic Mania Plus takes the perfect approach, largely sticking to the original recipe while adding enough new ingredients to propel Sonic into the future. Finally, the Blue Blur seems to feel comfortable in his own skin again.
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