Reviews

Sonic Mania Plus – The Retro Review

SEGA seems quite happy with the success of last year’s release of Sonic Mania. Sonic Team took a risk with passionate independent developers has paid off. After it became quite possibly the best commercial iteration of 2D Sonic, SEGA thought it would be best to entice players with not just added content but also a reason for players to put it on their shelf. SEGA is giving you several ways to experience Sonic Mania Plus, the expansion for the original Sonic Mania coming out for all digital releases of the game including Steam as well as disc and cart based versions for all consoles containing the full game and the Plus content. SEGA was kind enough to give us a Nintendo Switch copy for review a week before launch.

Much of what you come to expect from Mania echoes from Neo Hazard’s review when the game originally released. A lot of it’s key points remain the same here, such as sharing significant connections with the development team that could show bias in this review. If you want to know more about the main game, you can read about those thoughts in Neo’s original review. Surprisingly the development team also saw fit to make changes to the main game to tighten up the experience in some areas which does not need the Plus expansion. This includes revised boss patterns, updated level layouts to accommodate for the new characters and making certain challenges easier to handle. Whether you’re buying into Mania for the first time or looking to check out Encore Mode with Ray and Mighty, this review will cover what’s changed and what’s new. The Plus in Sonic Mania refers to the fact that it really is just more of Sonic Mania. While there is one new level the Plus content is more of a remix of what all is available. This is ideal for those who have mastered Sonic Mania along with more features that are enticing to newcomers and the small price is like leaving a generous tip at your favorite walk-in restaurant.

Possibly the most significant new thing to gratify collectors and opponents of digital distribution alike is the fact that Sonic Mania can now rest on your shelf for the platform of your choice on a disc or cartridge. The box itself has the game, a reversible cover with a Mega Drive or Genesis box art depending on your region as well as a 32-page art book covering more concept art and sketch hog drawings over the introduction manual that was given out at conventions. The art book covers more insight talking about the art direction and level design in the game, the animated video sequences as well as model sheets from the online Sonic Mania Adventures video series. Sadly the physical box  for my review copy came in a little beat up during shipping. Perhaps this is because of my choice of the Nintendo Switch version encased in a traditional smaller retail box for Switch games held in place by a smaller piece of cardboard to space between the game box and the art book right behind that isn’t even able to fit inside a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One game case. One benefit to owning the game if you’ve already played through Mania your save data will carry over from the digital version, but to play the Plus content you’ll need to buy it for your digital copy or just play the game with your physical copy in your system.

Encore Mode provides a greater challenge over the original Mania Mode.

Starting the game up from your retail copy or after updating your digital copy, you’ll not only notice the title screen change but you’ll also get to experience the slightly overhauled main menu making way for the new features. This may set off red flags for obsessive compulsive types wanting to see the old material, but the new layouts and animations fit in quite well. You’ll get the same game modes from the main game with Encore Mode which features it’s own save slots due to it’s own alterations to gameplay. The overall engine has remained the same. Players frustrated with some of the games quirks and weirdness such as being pinched between objects and scenery will find those elements have remained the same. Instead the developers took to ease some of the more prominent issues with the level design bringing better balance to gameplay flow. The need to explore can become a bit of pain especially when looking for the Chaos Emeralds or learning the layouts. One of the big changes includes the ability to toggle the 10 minute time limit. A very simple change that doesn’t do much to the levels themselves but for those wishing to conserve extra lives this is a blessing. Levels can get inconsistently long and while this wont ultimately resolve length, it makes the need to explore far easier to manage to collect emeralds and look for passageways. Certain bosses have also seen changes making some of the easier ones harder to deal with such as forcing you to wait for the boss in Press Garden 1 to avoid having the player get stuck among the boxes. Aside from funneling players towards material they may have otherwise missed out on, other changes cut some of the complications of certain fights with one boss seeing a significant overhaul. The Metal Sonic fight in particular received some significant changes making certain parts less frustrating, snappier and even offer a very cool surprise. Some zones feature new stage transitions between levels filling in gaps and probably to make sure other zones don’t feel bad for not getting them in the first place.

Time Attack received new features for Plus owners that allows you to race against ghost data as well as allowing you to watch replays of successful playthroughs. The game does not allow for downloading replays or trading, but it does allow you to race against yourself to help pinpoint mistakes during a run. Because of the changes to the levels the update has wiped previous leaderboard entries which will be a bummer for those who strived to make the shortest times. Plus owners will get to play Encore versions of each level (Save for Angel Island) in Time Attack mode as well.

Grab three of your friends, some cardboard and mirrors for each friend for intense multiplayer matches!

Competition mode also saw some minor changes, such as the ability to choose normal screen orientation for two player matches allowing to see the game at the correct aspect ratio without having to adjust the picture from your TV. You won’t be able to play any mirror matches in splitscreen as the game mode encourages greater emphasis on utilizing character abilities. The Plus content adds in four player multiplayer matches letting players take advantage of the five playable characters. The quad split works well, but the immense amount of detail in each level can make reading the screen rather difficult. Two and three player matches have limited screen size options but are welcome additions, especially for two player matches to opt out of stretching the screen. When adding more than two players however, playing on the largest display is definitely recommended, especially for levels with tiny enemies and obstacles. Those unfamiliar with the level layouts may wind up struggling to get a victory as time out penalties disqualify you from winning a race. Multiple pathways make sure each player an opportunity in winning. But once one player finishes a level that sets off the one minute timer. Certain levels can last a very long time and trying to cover a huge length of an act that a death that sends you back to the beginning due to a missed a checkpoint will make it impossible to win. While competition mode could have received more customization options for the rules, your best bet is to play with friends who are playing Mania alongside you to make sure a fair chance of winning. Remember that the game unlocks levels as they are first discovered, but unlike Time Attack none of the Encore Mode levels are available in multiplayer. There is still no network multiplayer or any wireless multiplayer options for Nintendo Switch owners which is unfortunate.

The two new characters will please both new and old players alike. While Plus’ new features may help players who experienced Sonic Mania before or 2D Sonic in general, the two new characters gives options that satisfy both camps. Ray is able to cover ground very quickly with his glide maneuver letting him build speed and height. So long as you avoid colliding with terrain or enemies, this ability makes him great to use in some of the more open levels, ideally to earn faster times in Time Attack. Meanwhile Mighty works well in close quarters using his shell to avoid damage from spikes and certain enemies as well as open up new paths by breaking apart terrain under his feet. His stomp also works well in shaking down items hidden away as well as for fighting enemies that have an extra layer of protection making it easier to tackle some of the trickier badniks. If you fall prey to small obstacles or want an extra chance of protecting your ring count, Mighty gives enough of a leg up that makes him very friendly to newcomers. Ray and Mighty’s abilities work well complimenting the ease of use Tails and Knuckles already offer to 2D Sonic gameplay. However, neither character receives any significant branch in Mania Mode but they still provide enough interesting changes that call for a second playthrough, but to really take advantage of their abilities, you’ll want to check out the game mode exclusive to Plus owners…

This leaves us with the Encore Mode. Those left wanting more after Mania or for those looking for an even bigger challenge will be in for higher stakes compared to the main game. Starting off with Sonic, returning after the events of the end of “Mania Mode,” Sonic runs across Mighty and Ray trapped in a capsule waiting for a rescue. Meeting up with one of the two characters introduces the character swap mode that lets you switch between characters to make use of their abilities. This immediately posed a problem for me and my roommate’s kid as we both grabbed a controller; this mode is one player only. Given the strictness of Encore mode this omission makes sense but for those looking for a cooperative experience will have to stick to Mania Mode playing with Sonic and Tails together. All of the stages seen in the main game return with a slightly different color scheme and a meaner attitude. Throughout the levels you can add to your Sonic buddy roster for a total of five characters — five lives. Switching between characters can have a light detriment to navigating levels if you haven’t mastered a particular character but will still allow you to complete a level without any major obstacles or inconveniences. Unlike Knuckles’ Chaotix, the game Encore Mode shares a similarity to, levels still have a sense of progression to them that isn’t just a sea of endless loops and half pipes. Switching, changing and even losing characters is quick, keeping you in the action without having to reload the level. Almost as if the game is trying to work with its conventions while modernizing mechanics with forgiveness to the player. Continues have a greater importance if you need a safety net of chances to retry levels. Levels will take you through paths you may have missed the first time playing Mania with some alterations to general paths as well as rearranged items and gimmicks to make certain sections harder than usual. An invulnerability item box will instead sport speed shoes. A hole made for Mighty to pound through alternate pathways leading to greater rewards. A switch is now placed perilously over lava you didn’t have to cover before. These kind of difficulty tweaks are present while some elements such as boss fights largely stay the same, to the point that they act exactly as they do in Mania Mode post patch. There’s a handful of brand new level layouts and alterations that you’ll be comfortable knowing that you won’t miss much in terms of cutscenes or story. There’s a greater benefit to keeping characters around with the ability to fly, glide or climb their way around but being stuck with Sonic without a shield may leave you unable to reach areas with necessary power ups or Special Stage entries. This point hammers in harder the further you go in as you can get into situations where all you’re left are three rings and one character to brave some of the trickier sections. Falling in the few bottomless pits, being crushed or overlooking a dart without rings will net you a Game Over if you aren’t careful. Thankfully you won’t have to deal with the 10 minute time limit, encouraging players to collect all 7 Chaos Emeralds through the revised Special Stage layouts. However the remixed levels hide away fewer giant rings and completing Special Stage challenges are even trickier than before. UFOs start off further ahead forcing players to cut corners and hop over pathways (and hoping you don’t run into flat walls) to earn emeralds. The Bonus Stages exclusive to Encore mode will allow you to restock on shields and characters by passing through checkpoints with 50+ rings. You’re given a 3D table with four stock sections making them far more integral to the main game than the Blue Sphere stages in Mania Mode. The pinball physics work decently, working with the two flippers without a tilt function, but advancing to higher up the pinball table is easier due to flippers becoming functional to the player after advancing past their height. The simple, stylistic 3D artistic direction evokes a strong push for a game that could have been lost during the SEGA Saturn era. Encore Mode really is there for those left wanting a greater challenge than what the base game offers while showing you things you may have missed before. Being familiar with the level layouts will become beneficial, especially those who take advantage of the character abilities to find secrets.

The small price tag for Plus makes the new content feel worthwhile without being too expensive. The changes to the levels pose an issue of preservation. You have no real way of being able to turn off the new boss patterns or level layouts and are released in an update that doesn’t quite give enough of a warning. Sonic Mania’s original release provided a great game with some notable flaws. If the developers were given the time I’m sure a lot of the changes made along with Plus packaged as a whole. That said, the changes make for a better experience to players overall, especially going after some of the weaker points in the game. Those playing Mania for the first time will be in for an amazing experience if they have waited up to this point to play Sonic Mania. The Plus upgrades on offer are at a low enough price point and is great for those looking to get just a little more out of Mania. If you’re still on the fence about a 2D Sonic game, this update may not change your mind, but for those already jonesing to experience more Mania or wanting to find an excuse to play the game more, Plus satisfies that exact need. Put simply, it’s more good.

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