As early as the start screen, Sonic Mania reflects developers Christian Whitehead of Pagoda West Games and Headcannon’s goal to return to Sonic’s roots and cover new ground while doing so. I immediately recognize the signature winged emblem, but just when the nostalgia sets in, Sonic hops up in a completely new and dynamic animation. Touches such as this one bring together the excitement of nostalgia and the thrill of potential innovation in Sonic’s upcoming 2D title.
In our previous coverage, we noted the return of many features from 2D Sonic games in Mania: Green Hill Zone, old school boss fights, and most importantly, that classic momentum feel. This time, a familiar face joins the Blue Blur as we make our way through Green Hill Zone’s Act 1. Miles “Tails” Prower returns as a co-op character in Sonic Mania’s 1.5-player mode, allowing two people to play the game together.
Co-op with Tails plays much the same as it did in previous 2D Sonic titles. Since the camera follows player one, anyone playing Sonic’s two-tailed sidekick may have some trouble keeping up, but rest assured that Tails has his own important part to play. Using Tails’ flight abilities, player two can carry Sonic across obstacles and up to new paths hidden throughout the level. Tails can also swim and attack enemies with his propeller-like tail spin while flying, which proves useful against airborne and wall-climbing foes. Due to his invincibility and ability to float back on-screen if left too far behind, Tails is a great choice for someone who’s unfamiliar with gaming but wants to give couch co-op a try.
After defeating Act 1’s mini-boss and bouncing the goal gate for additional points à la Sonic 3, we transitioned seamlessly into Green Hill Zone Act 2. Shown in the video above, waterfalls and leafy ferns abound in this tropical new stage, which houses one of my favorite moments of my playtime. Log bridges and elemental shields both make a reappearance in Sonic Mania, and with them comes an exciting new mechanic. If players try to cross a log bridge while equipped with the fire shield, it will burn the bridge away, revealing a secret area underneath. This adds a whole new dimension to levels that encourages exploration and experimentation. Who knows what fun secrets might be linked to the water or lightning shields?
The last level we were able to play was Studiopolis Act 1. This stage isn’t new by itself, but a surprise waited for us at the end. In earlier previews, this level ended with the goal gate and a conspicuously absent mini-boss battle, leading fans to speculate whether the boss was being hidden. It turns out this was the case and we meet the first of the enemies known as the Hard Boiled Heavies. These new foes are customized versions of the notorious Eggrobos from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, and they serve as the bosses for each act.
Studiopolis’ first act boss is Heavy Gunner. Equipped with a rocket launcher, he chases Sonic and Tails down a curving highway while flying in his helicopter. Throughout the fight, Heavy Gunner fires rockets that the duo must deflect back at him to make him lose control of his vehicle and crash. Seeing new twists on the classic enemy and boss fight formula ensures players can’t rely on the same old strategies to take these baddies down.
There are other great features that make Sonic Mania familiar yet fresh. Sonic’s new Drop Dash makes building momentum and changing direction quickly easier than ever, but exposes him to dangers such as spikes if used carelessly. Mania’s new stages also fit right in with the classic levels through references to Sonic’s past.
The most intriguing feature during our exploration of Green Hill Zone Act 1 was a large floating ring hidden in a secret cave. Though we couldn’t activate it, the ring is reminiscent of those found in Sonic 3, leaving its use shrouded in mystery. Seeing a classic come back to life is always exciting, but what Sonic Mania’s team is doing is even better: bringing new elements to old-school Sonic as though he never stumbled for years around the world of 3D. My time with the game left me revved up and ready to go, and you can bet I’ll be running to pick up a copy when Mania launches this spring.