Did you miss last year's Sonic Mania? That's easy to fix. You can rush to any major online gaming platform (Steam, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch), spend $20, and have fun with the best Sonic the Hedgehog game in years. The game is still fun; the price is still right.
Sonic Mania Plus arrives next week with a slightly fuzzier sales proposition: pay $30 for a boxed copy, or $5 for add-on DLC, to "Plus" things up. Unfortunately, Sega has been unclear about exactly what the game's Plus-ification delivers, so I took the opportunity to dig into the retail version of SMP ahead of its July 17 launch and fill in the cracks of its vague box description.
In short: anybody who really likes Sonic Mania can expect a perfectly fine expansion pack's worth of updates, and its low update price makes its biggest foibles more forgivable.
New friends, (somewhat) new levels
The biggest addition is "Encore," a new single-player mode that asks players to swap between five characters on the fly while playing through remixed versions of the original game's levels. This mode starts off on an interesting foot, because it opens with a radically remixed version of Mania's Green Hill Zone (the sunny, checkerboard-ground world that has been in approximately 4,000 Sonic games). New enemies and transversal paths are immediately apparent in this level, and you'd be forgiven for thinking you're getting an entirely new Sonic game for a tiny upgrade price.
But Encore is funny about if, when, and how it doles out new terrain and content. Some levels have remarkably different paths, particularly the Mirage Saloon Zone, while a few include wholly new bosses. But many levels are only marginally remixed. The best you'll find in some cases is an occasion to take advantage of a particular character—Tails' free flight, Mighty's ground-pound—to pick out a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shortcut or power-up. This amount of new content is nothing to scoff at, but it lands somewhere in the space between "wholly new campaign" and "slightly tweaked stuff you already played."
More importantly, the remixed levels rarely feel better than the original campaign, with very little in the way of brand-new mechanics. So this content definitely doesn't qualify as a must-buy if you weren't entirely swayed by what Mania had to offer last year.
Two of the game's characters, Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel, have never been in a side-scrolling Sonic game before, and they can be used in both the Encore campaign and the standard one. Like Tails and Knuckles, they differ from Sonic by having a special move, which is triggered by tapping the jump button in mid-air. (Sonic's perk, compared to the other characters, is that he can trigger any shield's special moves.) Mighty's twist, as mentioned above, lets him slam directly down as both an attack and a high-speed maneuver (and break open destructible surfaces below). This replicates Sonic's water-shield ground-pound, only faster, so it's a familiar-and-fun option for damage and speed.
Ray, on the other hand, shamelessly lifts the cape power-up from Super Mario World. At any time, Ray players can start a float-and-dive flight pattern, which requires speed and momentum to remain airborne. Doing this correctly leads to a ton of speed and height, but there's a catch. Tightly wound, shortcut-filled Sonic levels aren't built the same as their counterparts from Super Mario World—meaning, you're always a few pixels away from a surface, a curve, or an enemy. Ray is clearly meant for expert players and speedrunners, and his inclusion honestly seems like it was made for the game-streaming world. His tricky, floaty movement is going to be a treat to watch pro players get a handle on.
Encore’s biggest hurdle
I should emphasize "pro players" because of a few frustrating peaks in the Encore mode. The worst is thanks to a new take on the genre convention of "lives."
Instead of letting players accumulate extra lives, Encore's players are limited to however many heroes are accumulated at a given time. You'll start the game with Sonic and one of the two new heroes, and you can tag the other hero in at any time when both characters are standing still and next to each other (think Donkey Kong Country). You can tuck the other hero characters into your back pocket by finding hidden boxes in levels (or playing a new pinball-themed challenge), and those extra allies remain inaccessible until you either find an arrow-swap box or die.
I'm writing this part of the review while taking a break from a ridiculous challenge spike, courtesy of a brand-new boss in the game's tribute to Sonic CD. One phase of this boss encounter combines a brief vulnerability window with constant movement and an insta-death pit beneath the boss' body. Like other Sonic boss fights, players have to jump at this boss' body when it's exposed, but failing to bounce off the body (which can happen thanks to its moving arm) will get characters stuck beneath him, where they'll consequently die almost immediately.
This boss is a nice update over the Mania version—an interesting spin on usual Sonic boss mechanics, honestly—but dying this way chews through all five Encore characters almost instantly. There's no easy die-and-restart to learn the boss' tricky pattern, and Encore mode isn't generous with "continue" tokens. I needed more than an hour of game-over-and-retry frustration just to get back to this boss with enough spare characters to learn what the heck to do and to stay alive long enough to win the fight.
Which is weird, because most of Encore includes smooth and breezy level design; just like in the original Mania, these levels can be as simple or as difficult as an exploratory player wants them to be. The campaign only has about three of these hair-yanking surges in difficulty, along with a new slew of 3D, grab-the-emerald bonus levels that are a zillion times harder than the same ones in Mania. As a result, I couldn't help but feel like I was playing a true 16-bit throwback—as in, games like The Lion King, which were notorious for inserting random challenge spikes just to thwart game renters.
Split-screen and a booklet
There's not much else to speak of for Plus content unless you're interested in four-player simultaneous racing through campaign levels, which this upgrade adds. The original game shipped with a two-player limit for this mode, and if you like the idea of filling your HDTV with four panels of Sonic racing, Plus delivers without any apparent slowdown or glitching.
Pay for the physical edition, meanwhile, and you'll get a 32-page, DVD-sized art book. Its design and emphasis on unique production artwork, as opposed to copy-and-pasted logos from the game's boxes, means you're getting a perfectly solid print companion, though I'd have loved a bigger-book option to get a better look at the intricate art contained within. (Inside is also a reversible cover that looks like a late-era Genesis game, which is convenient for the Switch version, since both the Genesis and Switch use the same red color for its boxes' spines.)
There's also the matter of a classic series like Sonic the Hedgehog feeling more complete with a cartridge or disc. No patches or online log-ins will ever be necessary to boot this physical copy on PS4, Xbox One, or Nintendo Switch, and you're not paying a particularly hefty tax over the $25 combined digital price for the whole package if you're buying in for the first time. (PC players, sadly, get no such option, while anyone who previously bought the digital version may feel underwhelmed by paying over $20 for what's essentially a tiny book.)
Ultimately, SMP feels more like a goodie bag for anybody who's worn out Sonic Mania than a red-carpet, welcome-wagon package for anybody new to the series' 2D revival. If you still haven't played the game, ask yourself whether a physical copy is worth a few more bucks to you. And if you've already spent $20 on this fantastic game and like the idea of it getting a "master quest," don't hesitate to throw $5 more on the pile.
- A generous mix of new, remixed, and barely altered content for only $5.
- Four-player split-screen races look great on an HDTV.
- Modest book in the boxed edition will please any series fan.
- The Encore campaign isn't as elegant as the original Mania, thanks to challenge spikes and a weird new "lives" system.
- No physical option for PC, which is still saddled with Denuvo DRM.
Verdict: The best Sonic game in years is even better, if only just. Buy.
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3 June 2018