Poor old Sonic: according to received wisdom, the much-loved blue hedgehog was doomed to remain forever stuck in the 1990s, like an insect in amber. When 3D platform games usurped their two-dimensional side-scrolling forebears in the late 1990s, Sega’s attempts to bring Sonic up to scratch with modern technology failed to achieve any sort of credibility, and it appeared that one of the games world’s great icons had been consigned to history.
But last year saw the arrival of Sonic Mania, essentially a new chapter (taking place after Sonic 3 and Knuckles) in the pantheon of original-style, side-scrolling 2D Sonic games. It was actually developed by an amalgamation of Sonic superfans and modders, with Sega’s blessing, and marked the 25th anniversary of the first Sonic the Hedgehog game.
Sonic Mania Plus is an expanded version of Sonic Mania, with extra characters and a whole new gameplay mode. It’s commendably cheap at roughly £25 so, given that many people hailed Sonic Mania as the best ‘proper’ Sonic game ever, does it bring even more to the party?
Only Sonic completists will buy it if they already own Sonic Mania – the downloadable content which turns that game into Sonic Mania Plus can be purchased for less than a fiver. Although, unlike Sonic Mania, a physical version of Sonic Mania Plus (with a snazzy art-book) is available. But for those who lost touch with Sonic years ago, it’s a riotous nostalgia trip that will beguile those who are too young to have witnessed Sonic in his prime.
The most impressive aspect of the game is its level design.
The main new addition is Encore Mode, remixing the main game’s 12-zone Mania mode and tweaking the rules slightly. Mania mode takes a conventional approach for a Sonic games, since you’re allocated a set number of lives. But as you progress through Encore mode, smashing up TVs to get bonus rings and power-ups, you also accumulate extra playable characters, which you can swap between. When your last character dies, it’s Game Over – and you’re returned to the start of whichever level you had reached.
Two of those characters that you acquire in Encore mode (and can play as elsewhere in the game, along with stalwarts Knuckles and Tails) are new: Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Squirrel. Both will be familiar only to the most committed of Sonic-geeks: they only previously appeared in the 1993 arcade game SegaSonic the Hedgehog, rarely spotted beyond Japan. These two obscure characters do at least mix up the gameplay with their unique abilities: Mighty has a great ground-pound and is immune to spikes, while Ray has a glide move which takes a while to master but can open up previously inaccessible areas.
Sonic Mania Plus has plenty of those: the most impressive aspect of the game is its level design. While there are plenty of the sequences which will be forever associated with Sonic – fast, long downhill stretches punctuated by loop-the-loops, springs that launch you miles into the air, countless pinball references and so on – there are many others which display much more ingenuity and variety. Plus there are several paths through each level, bringing loads of replay-value (as does the Time Attack mode). The general inventiveness of the level-design breeds much more gameplay variety than classic Sonic games – jumping onto giant syringes in the industrial zone transforms vats of liquid into bouncy rubbery gel, while climbing into TV broadcast vans beams you up to a different part of a level in the airwaves. Each level also has two 3D bonus stages, and every area includes a boss to battle – and while at first they’re pretty easy, as the game progresses they become more varied and inventive.
If you’re a Sonic fan, Sonic Mania Plus is a must-buy: it’s great value, and more importantly shows what could have been achieved had Sega ignored the vagaries of fashion and stuck with the franchise’s original format. Every second that you spend playing Sonic Mania Plus reinforces the sense that it’s a labour of love, made for exactly the right reasons (the superb, utterly 1990s-sounding music and bold colour palettes and graphics drive that point further home). If you’ve never encountered the joys of Sonic before, it offers the ideal entry point to the legendary blue hedgehog’s exploits.