Sonic Mania: Hands-on with the new Chemical Plant Zone reveals the witty, creative (but authentic) reinvention you hoped for

“The 3D Sonic games are rubbish,” we once, understandably, cried. “We need a modern version of the 2D series”. But then we got modern 2D games, in the shape of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and one half of Sonic Generations, and while better, they didn’t feel quite right. Very much the product of a modern Sonic Team trying to reverse-engineer the past with today’s tools and thinking, they were a decent-enough emulation of ‘90s fun that slightly lacked the heart and charm of the source material. They were Jurassic World, basically. 

The series’ traditional studio has changed staff so many times, and run through so many attempts to reinvent the series with ever-changing contrivances over the years, that its perception of ‘good Sonic’ now appears to be the game design equivalent of a word that’s been repeated so many times it’s lost all meaning, and become merely a sound. All this I knew, in theory. What I didn’t know was how clear it would become once I played a Sonic game by someone else. A game that got it right.

Playing Sonic Mania for the first time is a lot like watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in that it becomes immediately obvious that what the series needed all along was the creative input of those who grew up on it. Not just anyone, mind. A great many fan wishlists for any property are self-indulgent and awful, and if you solicit the opinions of enough people, then you’re inevitably going to end up with a lead character who is a literal penis in running shoes. But a passionate fan with real insight into what made the original work well? But someone who isn’t nostalgically beholden to the past, dated flaws and all? Someone like Christian Whitehead, and the staff of Headcannon and PagodaWest? Yeah, that’ll do it.

There’s a reassuring rush of ‘rightness’ the second I press the jump button. Sonic’s movement is instant, responsive, crisp, and clean, and his all-important mid-air physics possess more than enough light malleability, alongside a satisfyingly precise and predictable heft. Clearly, Whitehead understands the fundamental feel of Sonic on an intimate level. Everything I want to do is within my immediate power, but crucially it’s all under my control as well. There’s none of the restrictive hand-holding, or any of the wayward physics quirks, that have alternately plagued the series over the years. Just the most convincing and solid version of Sonic I’ve played in a very long time.

Not that it would matter if the level design was made of the same kind of cheap shots and deliberate obtuseness that the Mega Drive / Genesis games often threw out. But based on my playthrough of the new Chemical Plant Zone, the new team really understands that too. It’s the pacing that does it. The standard Sonic dichotomy of fast, spectacular, high-speed, edge-of-control rollercoasters and slower, intricate, thoughtful platforming is present and correct, but it’s now tuned up and presented to a gratifying new standard.

There’s just a lovely cleanness and parsability to it all, both sides of the game consistently given time to breath and show off what they do best, while complimenting each other excellently. It feels very much like Mania’s developers have taken the original Sonic trilogy, squeezed it through a sieve, and collected all of the best bits in their most concentrated form, leaving the various crap and niggles behind.

But it’s not all about the old stuff. The new additions scattered liberally throughout Sonic Mania are marvellous, freshening up the gameplay with spark and zest, while feeling coherent enough to have been series mainstays since the early ‘90s. In the Chemical Plant Zone, it’s all about the goo. Lovely, globby, delicious, fruity-looking goo.

The sticky gobs that litter the levels, attached to moving structures, present marvellously tactile, on-the-fly fun, acting as overhead and vertical handholds and opening a nicely dynamic new dimension of wall-jumping traversal. But my favourite new element is the goo pools, which appear with increasing frequency in the Zone’s later stages. Initially toxic upon touch, these deep pits of death-slime can be modified by injecting additional goop into them by jumping on switches. An instant chemical reaction later, and the pool becomes not only safe, but solid, jellified, and delightfully springy. Suddenly that death-trap is a limited-time trampoline, a wide, chunky, momentum-preserving launch-pad for any big jump you wish to make.

And once introduced, Mania makes good, progressive use of the trick, steadily evolving it to integrate light sequence puzzling, as nimble activation and reactivation of the jelly is demanded in order to progress through tough platforming spots. It’s not exactly the elaborate, multi-stage puzzling of a Mario Ghost House, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a bright, breezy, pacy addition that sprinkles a dash of thought and clever additional risk management, without ever breaking the important flow of momentum or requiring any gimmicky new systems or power-ups. It’s cool and new, but it’s also neat, nippy, smart and fun. It’s exactly how Sonic should work, and as a distillation of the game as a whole, exactly how Sonic should have evolved the first time round.

Because that’s the thing, really. Sonic Mania feels every bit the product of refined focus and economy over radical reinvention and feature-creep. The opposite of the way things ultimately went wrong, basically. Even the new control addition for Sonic – the drop-dash, which allows him to speedball away the instant he lands, simply by holding the jump button while in the air – is as insightfully lean as can be. It rounds out the hedgehog’s move-set with a fresh, dynamic little usability option, allowing a neater transition between the slow-paced platforming game and the next big speed-burst. But not for a moment does it change the focus of proceedings, or reshape what makes Sonic good.

And so far, Sonic Mania really does feel like a game whose primary mission is to make Sonic good. Not to change it or reinvent it. Not to ‘make it exactly like the old days’. But simply to make it genuinely, really good, with precision, and craft, and a care for getting the sheer, joyful, musical flow the series built its name upon, tuned up for 2017. I know we’ve been through the loop of hope and disappointment more times that Sonic has run though actual loops of his own, but seriously, it might really, actually pay off this time. 

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.