SPOILERS AHEAD! I won't be revealing anything that wasn't discussed in early reviews of the game. However, if you want to keep a good amount of the game a surprise for yourself, I'd recommend coming back after playing the game.
These last two weeks have been exciting for me when it comes to retro gaming, and that excitement stems from something that isn't even a retro game (and not just because I snagged “Outrun 2006” on X-Box for a pittance right after reviewing Outrun 2...funny how that works).
"Sonic Mania" has arrived and has received plenty of rave reviews all around. Many have called it “a return to form” for Sonic (these words coming from sites that have had their writers claim there never was a “good Sonic game”...blasphemy!!!). And I felt it necessary to give my two cents on the game for this post today. It's my current game of choice (and I even started my very first playthrough of Undertale via its cross-platform PS4/Vita release, so...there's that). I grew up adoring Sonic the Hedgehog so much more than the Mario games until Super Mario 64 blew my adolescent mind, and from there, there was no going back, even in the light of Sonic's “good at the time” 3D games. I played the games time and time again, I watched as much of the cartoons as I could (except for Sonic Underground and onward...who could watch THAT trainwreck?!?), I even went several years proclaiming "Sonic 3 and Knuckles" was the bar none, full stop, greatest videogame of all time. So yeah, I likes me a good Sonic game.
Before I get into the game, I first wanna say that while I will be giving my impressions and coming to a final judgment on the game, I WILL NOT be giving this game any sort of rating or score. I simply believe, even though the staff adhered to a “technological cap” of not surpassing the power of the Sega Saturn, that holding retro game standards up to a game released in 2017, with the luxuries of online updates and functions as well as a more in-depth look at why the old games worked and tweaking those aspects, isn't much of a fair fight. I will give a good summary at the end, and hopefully that will help persuade you one way or the other into deciding if Sonic Mania is a game worth your time.
Even in widescreen and with more dynamic spritework, you'll still occasionally find your brain being fooled into thinking you're playing a more traditional Sonic game.
The first thing I believe is worth discussing is the control. I still recall me and my brother getting psyched as could be for the release of “Sonic the Hedgehog 4; Episode 1” and not being too impressed when the game felt so different. Now, don't get me wrong, different isn't terrible. But it didn't bring us back to our childhoods playing Sonic 2 and 3 in my room growing up, or trying to stamp our initials on the leaderboard in Sonic CD via the Sonic Gems Collection on Gamecube (until Ethan eventually just blacked out the leaderboards with “1. EJP – 2. EJP – 3. EJP”).
Sonic Mania pulls this off better than anything Sega themselves has attempted. Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and co. nailed the feel of Sonic 1 and 2, and the sense of speed in Sonic CD, with its camera trailing behind if you REALLY get going fast. If you're used to Sonic 3 & Knuckles, like my younger brother, it might feel a little less loose and more weighted. It took me only a couple zones to feel like I was getting the rust off, and by “Studiopolis” (one of the games all-new levels), I was as locked in as I once was...or as close to it as 29 year old me could be. Another thing I was impressed by is how the various elemental shields ripped from Sonic 3 work in a control style made to mimic Sonic 2. It feels natural to the point such a clash never dawns on you until you've put the game down.
The graphics are as on the spot as could be as well. Many classic levels echo their original games to the point that, sometimes, it seems to cross the uncanny valley. Within a few seconds of entering the “Chemical Plant” stage, it took feeling the PS4 controller in my hands to remember that I wasn't playing Sonic 2 again. There are some older stages where this doesn't quite click; “Stardust Speedway”'s first act feels nothing like it's Sega CD counterpart, and the flow of “Hydrocity” (no pun intended) feels nothing like the original stage aside from a few set pieces. However, this is something I can live with. It feels nice to see some “new” with the “old”.
Even newer stages contain plenty of throwbacks to older Sonic games, with some that end up being much more than just a subtle "wink".
In fact, I wish there was more of the “new” within this game. The new stages; including “Studiopolis”, “Press Garden”, and “Mirage Saloon”, are masterpieces all their own. Once the game ends, you'll be itching that they did more stages like this, and I hope when the inevitable Sonic Mania 2 arrives, they'll consider doing more of these original levels. I'd even be fine with the game being nothing but brand new levels. “Studiopolis” is the first stage that feels like the gloves are truly off and the game is ready to get wild. It plays like a loud, boisterous rendition of Sonic 1's “Star Light Zone” with high speed loops and settings interrupted by some slower (though not so slow that it ruins the pace) platforming segments. “Press Garden” is a stage that the team kept under wraps until the game launched, and also runs in this way, though with the much more fun use of conveyor belts in act 1 and ice blocks in act 2. It might be my favorite level in the entire game.
Sometimes playing as Knuckles provides an entirely re-arranged level, and even a completely unique level on one occasion. Other times, you'll play a nearly 1:1 rendition of Sonic/Tails' stage.
“Mirage Saloon” becomes somewhat of an anomaly, however. I dare not spoil how, but Act 1 will echo an old Sonic standby if you're playing as Sonic or Tails, but as Knuckles you're treated to an all-new level. Now would be as good a time as any to discuss the Knuckles playthrough. Just as Sonic 3 & Knuckles pulled off, playing as Knuckles will yield a different experience than using Sonic or Tails. Due to his climbing and gliding, as well as his lower jump height, you have to use him a little differently. Knuckles rendition of Green Hill Act 1, the game's opening level, is considerably different than what Sonic and Tails' versions are. Because of this, it leaves you with the impression that every Knuckles level is built with this uniqueness in mind. In fact, I even read reviews commending Sega for doing just that. However, this is not the case. Some levels are seemingly not transformed at all; I couldn't find one difference in either act between Knuckles' version of Stardust Speedway and Sonic/Tails' version. On the other hand, the aforementioned “Mirage Saloon Act 1” is a MUCH different beast when playing as Knuckles, becoming a stage tailored specifically to his climbing and gliding abilities. This is a level that, if using Sonic or Tails was even possible here, your chances of completing the stage are likely slim to none. This is the only level that builds the stage from the ground-up specifically for Knuckles, and I wish the game had more stages like this instead of just one act in one stage. There's also a unique boss battle for Knuckles later in the game, near the end, but it's still not different enough.
The classic stages are, for the most part, absolute gems. In most cases, the first act will be a revision of the level as you remember it, oftentimes combining parts of both acts from the original game. “Chemical Plant” has many infamous aspects of its stage within just the first act, instead of holding off on the water pieces or the trap floors until act 2. The second act will then add brand new elements, or even elements from other stages that aren't represented in Sonic Mania. This won't always be the case; Stardust Speedway Act 1 almost feels like more of a tribute to Sonic 3's Marble Garden than the Stardust Speedway stage from Sonic CD. However, act 2 will feel much more familiar.
The special stage is pretty damn fun, though sometimes unweildly to control.
The Special Stage in this game took some inspiration from Sonic CD while turning into a beast all its own. In Sonic CD you had to take out every enemy on a race-track like course, which led to many frustrating moments as a bot would shift direction just as you thought you'd hit it, making you think the game jipped you. All you have to do in Sonic Mania's special stage is to catch the UFO holding one of the series' prized 7 gems, the Chaos Emeralds. Your rings serve as a timer, counting down until you either collect the emerald or hit 0 rings. As well, there are blue spheres littered around the track, and collecting enough of those will speed you up, going from Mach 1 all the way to Mach 3. While in early bonus stages hitting Mach 2 and having a clean run will net you the emerald, eventually Mach 3 becomes a requirement, and steering a Mach 3 character feels like the Sonic series' equivalent of speeding down a snowy road in a compact car. You'll need to get used to this pretty quick, or else the failures will rack up quick around the 3rd Chaos Emerald or so. Obtaining all 7 emeralds will unlock “Super” versions of the three characters, enabling invincibility and incredible running speed and jumping height for as long as you can keep obtaining rings (once the ring count hits zero, you're returned to normal). The true final boss of the game is also hidden behind needing to unlock Super Sonic/Tails/Knuckles, so there's extra incentive.
The bonus stages also return in the form of the classic Blue Sphere minigame from Sonic 3. All you have to do is turn every blue sphere red to clear the challenge. However, in this game you're rewarded a medal instead of a Chaos Emerald. You'll be rewarded either a bronze or silver medal depending on if you simply came in contact with every blue sphere, or if you did that as well as collected every possible ring in the stage (fortunately, since continues are no longer a thing in this game, Sonic Mania now counts the rings down in this bonus game instead of upwards). Collecting enough of these medals will unlock extra secrets, such as a sound test, activating Sonic 3's insta-shield or Sonic CD's superdash, or an “& Knuckles” mode, which replaces Tails with Knuckles when playing as Sonic (or adding a second Knuckles to Knuckles' quest). However, this is where one of the major flaws of the game come in.
For one, you must start a new game outright if you want to use Sonic 3's insta-shield or Sonic CD's boost. Not only that, it must be a no-save playthrough. I would understand if this wasn't allowed until a save had the game cleared, but it takes a ton of the fun out if I have to play through Green Hill and Chemical Plant and so on to get to a level I think using those abilities would be fun in. On top of that, some of these bonuses require playing a TON of the Blue Sphere minigame. I've collected 4 bronze and 5 silver medals, and I'm already sick and tired of seeing these stages. Some of these Blue Sphere stages are ripped wholesale from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, while others are maddeningly difficult stages brand new to this game. If you love...and I mean L-O-V-E...the Blue Sphere minigame, you'll be fine with this. If you so much as “just like it”, I imagine you'll get tired soon. If you're totally indifferent to it, like me, you'll be sick of playing these bonus stages LONG before you unlock everything the medals offer. And yes, there is a level select present, but I still feel like the feature is just there to be able to actually use cheats/different boost types without starting from the beginning. Had they just allowed the use of cheats on completed files (which offer the ability to start on act 1 of any stage), it would've made a ton more sense.
Lastly, the music in the game is absolutely dynamite. There are no low points in this soundtrack, from even just the title screen and menu music to excellent remakes for classic stages (some levels being simple instrumental re-arrangements, while others are remixed tracks). And the new stages also have excellent tracks. Do what you gotta do to give these tracks a listen. Here's some samples of some excellent ones:
In the end, Sonic Mania is a no-brainer must-buy for Sonic fans new and old, casual and hardcore. At $20, there should be no hesitation to give this a chance. If you're new to Sonic, this game serves as a good intro, but it is possible to snag a classic Sonic game for much less on Steam or mobile, and it's hard for me to not recommend those to a newbie over dropping $20 on Mania (especially Christian Whitehead/Headcannon's prior widescreen upscales of Sonic 2 and Sonic CD). Hopefully when the bug fixes come out, this will fix a good handful of the glitches that are present, though none of those glitches will truly hamper the fun you'll have.
Sega AM2/Sumo Digital
Before I begin this review, I would like to give a HUGE thank you to RD Reynolds, owner and writer of Wrestlecrap.com (a website I have followed since my early teenage years), published writer, and huge OutRun fan (owner of arcade cabinets for both OutRun 1 and 2). It means a lot that a writer I've followed even before I found a love and talent for writing myself took time out to read this review and give it his blessing. That's totally awesome.
So, in last week's post listing off My Top 80s arcade games, the #2 entry was something particularly noteworthy. It was Sega and Yu Suzuki's arcade masterpiece, OutRun. In what Suzuki claimed was a “driving game” (making a point not to call it a “racing game”, though that's naturally the genre it is often placed into), Sega had a major arcade hit on their hands. Sure, Space Harrier was a decent hit and Suzuki's prior game “Hang-On” was warmly received, but this game was on a whole new level. Offering scrolling courses, multiple songs...not 60-90 second loops but 3-4 minute musical pieces...that the player could select at the start of each session, and controls that were slick as butter for the time while still requiring skill to navigate the courses (in fact, OutRun's default time limit was rather strict), OutRun was unlike anything being offered at the time and hit all its notes in a way many games couldn't touch for many years to come. Hell, I'd argue it took Sega themselves to truly step it up in the forms of Virtua Racing and Daytona USA well down the line.
There's no understating how influential OutRun was to both the arcade racing genre and Sega itself. And hey, it's available as a bonus unlockable in OutRun 2!!!
It would be over 17 years until Yu Suzuki provided a true sequel to OutRun. Sure, there were successors; Turbo OutRun was a technical step-up from the original that offered an opponent to race against, a turbo boost and an upgradeable vehicle, and OutRunners offered a multi-cab multiplayer feature as well as stepping up the graphics and sound tech yet again. But it seemed off that the game Suzuki was so adamant about being a “driving” game as opposed to a “racer” went off in that direction.
OutRun 2 arrived in arcades near the end of 2003. It seems almost ironic to me that the game came out at this time. OutRun 1 missed the window of what many consider the Golden Age of arcades in the early to mid 80s, and OutRun 2 was released in a time when many considered the arcade to be a dying commodity. I had rented the original's Genesis port a few times, knowing it was an oldie but thought for an original Genesis game it played alright. I also tended to get it mixed up with “Lotus Turbo Challenge”, a clone from EA that, back then, just didn't measure up in my opinion.
The biggest reason I missed the arcade release of this was a combination of both not having my driver's license yet and not having an arcade nearby. It took a trip to a local theme park, “Worlds of Fun” to finally try this out for myself. I had a decent amount of fun with it, but never thought it was anything special at the time. I just hit the gas and “went” without getting into the fundamentals of the game.
Fast-forward to my 21st birthday, and I took a trip to Las Vegas, specifically the GameWorks arcade on the Vegas Strip. To be perfectly honest, I found the arcade to be rather forgettable. In fact, I preferred the much-less hyped arcade within Circus Circus. "The Galloping Ghost Arcade" this was not. But the highlight of that stop was an OutRun 2 SP Super Deluxe cabinet that leaned into the turns (and even moreso into drifts) as you played. Finally being patient enough to learn the game myself, it was a total blast and one of the best arcade experiences I'd ever had. Trust me folks, if you see OutRun 2 SP (especially the SDX edition) in an arcade, drop what you're doing, give it a try, and then thank me via Twitter once you're done...and if it's somewhere in the KC area, tell me where it is!!!
Outrun 2 eventually arrived in homes as an X-Box exclusive in 2004. This was yet another reason why I never had a chance to play it as, until a couple of years ago, I'd never owned an X-Box. And by the time the second edition of the game, "OutRun 2006; Coast 2 Coast" dropped on PS2, I had already moved on to the PS3.
I believe it's worth starting off with the game's sound and music. Right from the first menu, you're hosted with beach ambience, a pretty relaxing way to set up the game in contrast to the action that will ensue once you're in, and a smart design decision. Suzuki wanted to create a “driving” game that emulated the fantasy of driving a European dream-car in amazing locales, and that noise puts you right into it. The music in the game consists of mostly modern remakes of OutRun 1's music, with a few added tracks to boot. One great thing about the soundtrack to both games is, despite full runs of this game being 4-5 minutes long, the music never seems too repetitive (at least in the arcade mode) and actually consists of full songs as opposed to a 1-2 minute loop, common in other arcade racers. You can eventually unlock jazzier "euro remixes" of particular songs (I'm listening to the song on the right, "Passing Breeze; Euro Remix" as I post this), the original OutRun 1 songs themselves, and other versions of the game's newer original songs (which aren't terrible, but don't hold up to the more traditional faire). But I personally like to stick to any rendition of Passing Breeze (all 3 versions in this game are fantastic), with the OutRun 1 rendition of Magical Sound Shower if I wanna change it up.
The cars in this game are all Ferrari models from different eras. The beginner level cars can enter/exit drifts with ease but have trouble keeping their speed up (remember this for later), intermediate cars (including OutRun 1's Testarossa Spider) have faster speeds but are a little tougher to control in a drift. You'll eventually unlock expert level cars such as the famous Enzo Ferrari that have incredible straight-line speed but drift around corners with reckless abandon. Drifting is essential to success in this game, right from the beginning; so if you don't have the drift mechanics of this game down pat, stay away from the Expert machines, even if you've done enough to unlock them. Regardless of if you pick a classic machine or a more modern Ferrari beast, the lineup of automobiles is slim yet fantastic, each one being a dream car that nobody reading this will likely have the experience of driving in their lifetime, and that's something I believe Suzuki knew when he created OutRun and something he kept with him into OutRun 2. It's about the fantasy of driving a supercar with a woman in the passenger seat around “nowhere else in the world” landmark after landmark.
The Testarossa Spider, OutRun 1's sole machine, is available from the start in OutRun 2 and is a solid all-around car.
Regardless of if you select one of the more tame Beginner cars or decide to strap in to a more difficult car, the control in OutRun 2 is absolutely fantastic. The sense of speed is pretty on-the-money, it feels like you're hitting 150+ MPH when you're zipping down the roads, unlike a racing sim like Gran Turismo's slower sense of speed or the Burnout series, where you feel like you've got a rocket strapped to you even at 100 MPH. And the drifting is smooth as can be. It becomes addicting to see how long you can hold a drift and/or hold a drift through multiple turns. It becomes so addicting, that I started to drift into turns that would have been better managed by not drifting at all. To this day, I've yet to play any...A-N-Y...racing game that makes sliding your car around a corner feel as amazing as OutRun 2 pulls it off. If Suzuki was out to make the driving in this game feel like a joy and put a smile on the gamer's face, mission accomplished and then some.
Even the Expert-level Enzo Ferrari and its whiplash drifts are a tremendous joy to control.
The OutRun Arcade mode is easily the best mode of this game and the easiest to describe; it's literally the arcade edition of OutRun 2 laid out before you. After you've selected your car and your song (no changing songs mid-game I'm afraid, though once you find the songs you like this isn't much of an issue), you begin in a beachside city. This course is pretty standard and gives you a few long turns, giving you time to ease yourself into how your car handles into these turns, ending with an S-turn near the end to give the course some challenge aside from the traffic. From here, you'll hit a fork in the road where you can select either the left or right turn. Going left will send you down an easier course, whereas going right sends you on a more challenging track. This is where much of the replay factor of the arcade mode comes in. Each track section splits, offering multiple ways to arrive at multiple destinations at the end (assuming you can keep up with the time limit). An extra “Heart Attack” mode rewards drifting and gives the player various challenges as the session goes on, giving you a letter grade on every challenge and section you drive through. This is also a pretty fun shake-up to the arcade mode, while keeping the main focus of the game intact.
Multiple routes ranging in difficulty give the OutRun Arcade mode a good amount of replay value.
The OutRun Challenge mode is where most of the game's extra content is hidden. In this mode, you are given a set objective that you must pass. Once you clear a set of challenges, you'll unlock a set of extra content; new vehicles, new courses for the free play mode (not nearly as fun as the arcade mode), new songs, etc. The game even contains the original arcade edition of the first OutRun game, which is definitely worth a playthrough or three if you haven't tried it (though the time limit is MUCH more strict). Some of these challenges even include races against other cars. While I did sortof dog on the quasi-sequels to OutRun for going in the direction of being a "racing" game, it's still pretty fun to race other CPU cars, even if their AI is pretty simple and doesn't vary from driver to driver. They serve as a simple time-trial obstacle, which is perfectly fine to be honest. It'd be jarring to have aggressive drivers in a game like this.
This Challenge mode, however, is where the game starts to show a few weaknesses. The biggest sin of this is some challenges demand certain cars to make them easier. One early challenge demands that you drift through turns maintaining your speed at a high enough level. On my playthrough, these speed restrictions were so demanding that, even with the faster medium difficulty cars, it was possible to wreck my run right from the start. And since the speed limits keep rising and demand that you maintain momentum, you will likely go through the next 3 or 4 turns not even being close to the speed you need to be hitting. The easy solution would seem to be selecting an expert level car that can scream out of corners much quicker, but these challenges will appear before you're ever able to unlock any expert level cars, leaving you to just retry and retry until you get a flawless run...and in a game where the pacing is SO important, challenges that demand perfection and therefore restart after restart are a pretty violent shift. This isn't to say some challenges aren't fun, but when some have very difficult demands even in early difficulties, as well as some goals only slightly changing (some will line up cones on drift lines that you'll need to knock over, while others will just ask you to build up hearts, of which drifting is by far the easiest way to collect them), you'll either be itching to go back to the OutRun Arcade mode (where you can't unlock any extra content) or just shut the game down. Whereas something like, say, the Crazy Taxi games had a wide variety of crazy challenges that tested you in different ways, OutRun 2's Challenge mode has a wide variety of crazy challenges that test you in the same ways.
While some trials such as "Math Mayhem" provide some fun, some of OutRun Challenge Mode's tests are pretty dry and can hurt the pace of the game.
The constant loading/reloading of the challenges forces the music to restart several times as well. THIS is when the music can become repetitive, as instead of letting the music play through on retries, it starts the track over, meaning (especially in the earlier short-burst challenges) you'll hear the same first minute of the same song unless you back out completely and swap songs. This isn't to say there's no fun to be had with this challenge mode; I found the math challenges (yes, math challenges) where you had to pay attention to a set of floating numbers and then pick the correct path at the end to be a lot of fun, and even the races (as much as I dog on when OutRun tries to become a “racing” game) can be a blast as well. But many of these challenges will have you itching to just play the arcade mode. It's a damn shame so many unlockables are hidden behind this, and aren't unlockable via OutRun Arcade. Thankfully, these is a cheat mode where you can enjoy the unlockables without playing through the challenge mode if you hit a brick wall, though this demands that you re-enter the code each time you turn the game on. I hate to be the kind of guy that encourages this, but I found myself mentally checked-out of OutRun Challenge long before I unlocked everything.
It's also worth mentioning right quick that the game did include X-Box Live multiplayer, but thanks to X-Box Live no longer being active on the console, there's no way for me to give that a spin.
When viewed in the vacuum of just its gameplay, OutRun 2belongs in the all-time best racing game discussion and is a game any arcade racing and Sega fan must have in their collection. Fortunately, OutRun 2 on the X-Box can be obtained for around $10-15 and is easily worth every penny and then some. One fact that's absolutely worth noting, the game was later re-released as “OutRun 2006; Coast 2 Coast” on PS2 and X-Box with a few tweaks (slipstream boosts, extended courses, extra songs, etc.). While the PS2 edition of this re-release can be snagged for $15-20, the X-Box version stands as one of the single rarest games on the console, often demanding over $100 for a copy. You can easily snag the PS2 console itself and its version of Outrun 2006 instead for a cheaper price (and if I come across it myself and decide it worth revisiting, you bet I'll be back to discuss it). And if you happen to own a PSP, OutRun 2006 is also available on that system for a pinch more money than the PS2 edition. Obviously there's some graphical liberties taken, but to have such an excellent game on the go with minimal reservations, I think it'd be difficult to not drop a few more bucks for a portable OutRun 2 experience.
OutRun 2 on the X-Box is an amazing driving game that plays like butter and is addictive as can be. The only thing holding it back from being the best arcade racer of its generation (I'll get to that one day) is how much re-inventing the wheel the game tries to do through the Challenge mode, and the fact that having the game's unlockables hidden behind it instead of OutRun Arcade means you'll just have to trudge your way through. Regardless, if you own an X-Box (or an X-Box 360, as the game is backwards compatible), have even an inkling of interest in arcade racing games, and don't have this game, do what you've gotta do to get this game in your collection.
RATING – 4.5 out of 5