The second Christian Whitehead, better known as Taxman, posted his YouTube video presenting his Sonic CD remake for iOS, he became a household name. Folks had known him before, but for the first time, a fan’s efforts had caught SEGA’s attention and sure enough, we got the Sonic CD remake, then the original Sonic 1 and Sonic 2.
Fast forward to 2016, and Taxman, along with Headcannon and PadogaWest Games are bringing us a brand new experience feature select levels from Sonic’s past, as well as brand new levels for fans to explore and enjoy. Sonic Mania is the game fans never thought they’d see again, but at the 25th Anniversary Party, we didn’t just get a trailer: we got to play it.
Hit the jump for thoughts from Sonic Retro’s own Bartman3010 and myself.
I know that people are excited for Sonic Mania. I witnessed the large crowd in shock and awe as they couldn’t believe their eyes that they were seeing big, colorful pixels and smooth animation as Sonic emerged and twirled around the emblem from the title screen indicating a game that was left behind in the 32-bit era and not the simple plastic “Donkey Kong Country” pre-renders that plagued Sonic the Hedgehog 4. Those plastic jungles have a place in my heart, but they did not match the level of detail Mania provides with it’s charm, the smooth animation, clever use of parallax scrolling and a pumping soundtrack to keep you upbeat as you race past the myriad of Sonic and SEGA references for any diehard fan would love to witness themselves.
The level that got me excited the most for the game was Studiopolis, but I will give credit to Green Hill to be more than just a retread of the level everyone has become familiar with for the past 25 years. You won’t notice anything different if you stay on the critical path, but looking for secrets was not only able to showcase some of the additional features the game has to offer, some paths allow access to the Special Stage. Special Stages were not available in the demo, but the entrances to these levels did feature a 3D polygonal ring. I can appreciate the detail of taking elements from the Genesis/Mega Drive titles and merging them together to unify the games together. You’ll see corkscrews from Emerald Hill and hidden passageways from Sonic 3 and other subtle references.
Studiopolis takes advantage of the larger color palette and provides a better showcase of the fluid animation. It fits right in as a “classic” level as if it were running on more powerful 2D hardware such as the 32X or the SEGA Saturn. You’ll see more level animation and colorful window reflections with the scenery not becoming too busy. The level encourages going higher and doing more than just “holding right” as you’ll need to scale moving platforms and purposely cause some platforms to crumble from your feet to move on to the next area. The level was more of a demonstration of the spectacle but still encouraged exploration and alternate paths to take while giving a good challenge. One thing that did sour my taste on the level was a snail enemy that fires off cards that disappear when they fall to the bottom of the level. This can get annoying since these projectiles would start adding up and making it harder to avoid them.
Did you forget about the trailer’s mention of the “All-new” drop dash move? You can think of it as a way to incorporate the “Boost” mechanic you’ve seen in modern Sonic titles without being incorporated into the gameplay from the 3D titles for the sake of familiarity with the brand without seeing the benefits from the 3D space. By holding the jump button in the air you will initiate a spin and immediately spin dash forward when you land on the ground. Think of it as letting go of the spindash by using one charge. This sets Sonic into a spin and after running down a few slopes can immediately get you into the speed you are looking for without having to slow down. It doesn’t outright replace the spindash as you can still rev up the speedy mascot and leap from slopes to great heights, which is encouraged by the level design that may indicate some interesting secrets to discover. But there is one thing that I feel might confuse players with the new move and that is you can only perform the drop dash after jumping. If you roll off of a hill or up a half pipe while in the air, the drop dash will not trigger. I feel that this can break up the flow a little bit, but is otherwise a fine addition to the game.
I’m definitely excited to play the game, after years of Sonic titles that diluted the experience with unnecessary complications. Nothing so far has been the the equivalent of the wisps from Generations, the werehog segments of Unleashed or Amy turning invisible like in Sonic 06. Everything here seems like it was designed to work together that matches the presentation style. I’m curious how far they will go to merge gimmicks from other levels and what levels will be represented in the game and what playing as Tails or Knuckles would be like. I couldn’t find any areas that the other characters would be able to climb into that Sonic can’t, but I’m not expecting any major path changes on the same line as Sonic 3 where Knuckles gets his own areas.
Sonic Mania brings us a brand new experience that features select levels from Sonic’s past along with brand new zones created by the Mania team. The two featured at the party were Green Hill Zone, the one everybody knows and loves, and Studiopolis Zone, which is one of the new zones altogether. Green Hill Zone’s layout is sort of a combination of both first acts from the original game, with new layouts comprising the last third or so of the level. Players then fight a mini-boss that’s fairly similar to Robotnik’s first encounter in Sonic 1, two giant spike balls and that swing around the stage.
Meanwhile, Studiopolis has Sonic running through a studio lot, running through popcorn machines and getting broadcast across the stage. Both stages feature very clever designs and gimmicks, while showcasing beautiful sprite work that looks like it belongs on your SEGA Saturn. Sonic has never looked this good as a 2D sprite before, with every running, jump, and spinning animation looking as smooth as butter. Sonic himself is also expressive, beaming with personality in everything he does.
Physics-wise, the game is 1-to-1 with the Genesis classics. No longer is the jumping wonky like in Sonic 4, instead Sonic has weight and momentum in every step and jump that players make. The head of Mania, Christian Whitehead, also known as Taxman, is responsible for the Sonic 1, 2, and CD ports we got on mobile devices in the last 5 years, so you know you’re in good hands.
Sonic Mania also features a new mechanic: the drop dash. Drop dash works by pressing the jump button twice and holding it the second time. As soon as Sonic lands, he’s in a spin dash giving him an immediate burst of speed with no need to build up to max speed. This mechanic will be excellent for speedruns and time trials and I can guarantee we will see it Summer Games Done Quick.
The one thing to note about the drop dash is it is cancelled out whenever Sonic picks up one of the elemental shields, a return from Sonic 3 and Knuckles. Although this is a bummer, since the mechanic could possibly be mapped to holding down in the air or something similar, elemental shields returning is welcome, as they were a huge highlight from 3 and Knuckles.
The two zones on offer for the Mania demo were simply amazing. Sonic himself is perfect across the board and I cannot wait to play as both Tails and Knuckles. Sonic Mania is a rare opportunity where we get a love letter to the series by the fans, for the fans.