PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds Review

*Review based on the Xbox One version of the game*

PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds is a rare kind of video game, the kind that – despite a heavy amount of drawbacks – nonetheless delivers the feelings it intends to elicit. When it was released in its early stages throughout 2017, PUBG’s popularity spread like wildfire, with even it’s open-beta becoming more widely played than titles such as Overwatch for a time. PUBG was only “properly” released at the tail-end of 2017. Though this finished product still feels largely unfinished, PUBG ultimately succeeds thanks to the intensity and atmosphere it provides.

The modder known as PlayerUnknown became somewhat infamous for his many mods to existing games, which modified them after the 2000 film Battle Royale, pitting players in an all-out fight to the death amongst each other. BattleGround serves as PlayerUnknown’s means of making his own game out of the concept.

The premise is simple: up to 100 players join a game, parachute onto an island, and scourge that island for weapons and armor in a fight to be the last person standing. Players only have one life, and the placements of weapons and items are randomized in every session, meaning you’re in a constant scramble to find the best gear before your opponents can do the same. Things get more complicated as time goes by, however, as the playable area of the island gradually decreases over time, and those caught outside of the safe zone will take damage and eventually die. Additionally, red zones show up from time to time, forcing any players within them to take shelter or risk being bombed. This means that the longer a game goes, the more the remaining players are forced into tighter scenarios to do battle, no longer relying on the safe hiding places the early game provides.

The ultimate goal is to be the last person standing, which is much easier said than done. However, because of the difficulty of that task, you are awarded points for your overall performance (how long you survive, how many players you kill, how many items you collect). If you can get well equipped and survive to the top 10, all while taking down a few opponents along the way, you’re guaranteed a pretty hefty score. On the downside of things, the points you get are only used to obtain customizable options for your character, which are of course obtained randomly, and more often than not, cost more points than they’re worth.

The core gameplay in mostly well done. Players can choose between first-person or third-person perspectives, each boasting their own advantages and disadvantages in combat. For the most part, the controls are your standard shooter affair. Nothing all that new, but certainly functional with its tried-and-true approach. What really makes PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround work, however, is the sheer intensity of the concept itself.

If you see another player’s parachute landing nearby when you make contact with the island, you know you’re probably going to have to fight them for gear early on. You’ll race to the safe zone once the warning of a decreasing playing field approaches, hoping you don’t run into a more prepared player along the way. You may take solace in finding some stronger weapons and equipment, and choose to hide away for awhile, staring at the entrance to your hiding spot and anxiously wait for a would-be killer to enter so you can (hopefully) get them first. You’ll jump for joy when you see an unmanned vehicle lying around, effectively ensuring you some protection in addition to fast travel; and you’ll quake in fear if you’re walking out in the open, but hear a running engine approaching.

It really is something else to experience. Though this all comes with the caveat of frequent long stretches between finding opponents – leaving some matches feeling uneventful and empty – it also helps build a good deal of tension. You’ll never not be on your toes in anticipation and dread. PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround is a fight for survival, and boy, does it feel like it.

Unfortunately, despite no longer being an open beta, PUBG still suffers from some appalling technical issues. You’ll notice many of the game’s textures will take a good while to load in a game’s early moments, your character’s movements may become jittery from time to time, and you may even find you’re not picking up items when you’re clearly highlighting them and pressing the proper button. At its worst, you may even get booted from a game at a most inopportune time (no small deal with how lengthy matches can get), and should you actually manage to rejoin the game you were kicked from, chances are another player will have killed you in the interim.

With a game this popular, it’s disheartening that so many technical issues persist. Hopefully as the game is updated and development continues, these rough edges can be smoothened out and the experience can become more fluid and polished. But as of now, PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround still feels like it never left the beta.

Still, unfinished though it may seem, PUBG still manages to produce a uniquely intense experience. It turns the multiplayer shooter into a survival-horror sandbox. By dropping players into a massive open-world, leaving them to fend for themselves and kill one another, PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround creates something that’s as engrossing as it is brutal and unforgiving.

 

6

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Portal Review

In 2007, Valve released The Orange Box, a unique compilation of five different games: re-releases of Half-Life 2 and the subsequent Half-Life 2: Episode 1, as well as the then-new Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. It was the fifth game included in the bundle that perhaps stole the show. This title was called Portal, which was one of the most brilliantly realized pieces of creativity gaming saw in both that decade and console generation. Combining an innovative take on the puzzle and first-person shooter genres, Portal remains a highlight of its era due to its innovation, humor and all-around fun factor.

The premise of Portal is simple; Players take control of silent protagonist Chell, who awakens in one of the many chambers of Aperture Science, and soon realizes she is a test subject being held against her will by the diabolical-yet-hilarious AI named GLaDOS, who promises Chell a delicious cake if she can overcome the test chambers.

Chell is to test out Aperture Science’s greatest innovation: the Portal Gun! As its name implies, the Portal Gun fires portals (initially only a blue portal, which connects to orange portals found in the various test chambers. But soon enough the Portal Gun is upgraded to shoot orange portals of its own). It’s up to players to solve every test chamber’s puzzles by means of navigating through portals. Fire two portals. Go in one portal, come out the other.

It all sounds simple enough, but Portal’s execution really is something to behold. The game is constantly finding new ways to add twists to the puzzles, such as energy projectiles that need to be guided to their stations via portals, or walls that will erase your portals when you walk through them. The game even uses its portal setup to tamper with physics in some incredible ways (fall into a portal fast enough and you can fly through another if you’ve placed them properly).

Portal is played through a first-person perspective, like any of the countless shooters that ran rampant at the time (and still do so today), but here you’re not out to kill hordes of enemies by riddling them with bullets (Your only foes are a few bumbling, robotic turrets and a quasi-final boss against GLaDOS herself). Your goal is simply to survive by means of being creative. It’s as fresh of a twist on genres (and indeed, the video game medium itself) today as it was in 2007.

“It’s a pleasure to meet me!”

Visually speaking, Portal has held up pretty well. Its graphics may not wow players today like they did a decade ago, but the sheer splendor of seeing your environment (and Chell herself) in different perspectives through the portals remains one of gaming’s greatest visual delights. The music, though minimal, is similarly off-beat and charming.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Portal comes in the form of its writing. Though Chell never speaks, GLaDOS is one of gaming’s great sources of comedy. GLaDOS reveals her more psychotic behavior as the game goes on, but she frequently tries to cover it up with some lightheartedness and the aforementioned promises of cake, making for some delightfully dark humor.

If there’s any caveat to be had with Portal, it’s that the entire experience is done within a few short hours. While the content that is here is almost flawlessly realized, it all ends all too soon. This has only been magnified since its sequel was released in 2011, and turned the concept into a much heftier experience, while also improving on basically everything the original started and introducing some great tricks of its own. While Portal remains a stellar game in its own right, compared to Portal 2, it now feels like a demo for what was to come.

A short run time and being overshadowed by an exceptional sequel are hardly unforgivable sins, however, especially when considering just how creative and fun Portal still is. It’s objectives may be a simple case of getting from point A to point B, but such a simple premise has seldom been so innovative as it was – and is – here in Portal.

 

9

A Hat in Time Review

In recent years, the 3D platformer has been seeing something of a resurgence. This was especially true throughout 2017, which not only saw the release of possibly Mario’s greatest outing in Super Mario Odyssey, but many smaller releases looked to once again legitimize the 3D platformer’s place in the modern gaming world. Yooka-Laylee – a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie – was released by many of Banjo’s creators after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015. Though Yooka-Laylee’s reception was mixed, another Kickstarter success was to be released in 2017, A Hat in Time. Like Yooka-Laylee, A Hat in Time sought to be a spiritual successor to early 3D platformers like Super Mario 64, Sunshine and the aforementioned Banjo-Kazooie. Unlike Yooka-Laylee, however, A Hat in Time doesn’t come from industry veterans, but newcomers Gears for Breakfast. A Hat in Time is full of charm and boasts some impressive creativity, though like Yooka-Laylee before it, some technical limitations prevent it from reaching its full potential.

In A Hat in Time, players take control of Hat Kid, a little girl who lives in a spaceship and keeps watch over Time Pieces; magic hourglasses that have the power to alter time. One day, while her ship travels over a somewhat Earth-like planet, a Mafia goon (who’s floating in space, mind you) demands that Hat Kid pay a toll for flying past their planet, and breaks part of the ship, thus 40 Time Pieces get sucked from the ship and fall down to the planet. Thus Hat Kid sets off on an adventure to recover the Time Pieces before anyone can misuse their power.

It’s a silly plot that, appropriately, harkens back to the genre’s heyday, and more or less serves as an excuse as to why a kid with a hat is scouring the world for hourglasses. But it’s a good excuse to provide what is ultimately a fun adventure.

A Hat in Time boasts four proper stages which, as is genre tradition, are progressively unlocked as you gain more Time Pieces. Where A Hat in Time provides something new to the genre is that all four of its stages change up the structure of how Hat Kid collects the Time Pieces.

The first stage, Mafia Town, is the most traditional stage. Playing like a direct homage to Super Mario Sunshine, Mafia Town throws Hat Kid into a seaside town that’s played in traditional 3D Mario-style missions, with each mission ending with the collection of a Time Piece. The second stage, Battle of the Birds, sees Hat Kid siding with one of two bird movie directors. As players choose the stage’s missions to aide one of the directors, they’ll win that director’s favor, thus determining the level’s finale and boss fight. The third stage, Subcon Forest, has players signing contracts with a spectral being called Snatcher to unlock its subsequent missions. Finally, Alpine Skyline works like a Banjo-Kazooie-style sandbox, where players can scour the level for its time pieces without the mission-based format.

The different level gimmicks certainly keep things fresh and interesting, even if some of them don’t quite hit the mark (Battle of the Birds, despite being the most unique stage, features some of the game’s less fleshed-out missions). But for the most part, the creativity at play is commendable. There are even Time Rifts that can be found within the stages and hub world, which place Hat Kid into platforming gauntlets akin to Sunshine’s bonus stages.

Two other fun twists to the genre come in the form of badges and hats. The badges can be purchased from a bizarre salesman by trading in Pons (green orbs that are essentially the equivalent of Mario’s coins). The badges then grant Hat Kid with newfound abilities (some give her new moves with the press of a button, others are passive). Meanwhile, Hat Kid can also find yarn hidden throughout the stages. Once enough yarn has been collected, Hat Kid can make new hats, with each hat having its own special ability (the witch-like Brewing Hat allows Hat Kid to throw an exploding potion, while the Ice Cap allows her to turn into an ice sculpture for a stomping attack which also strangely is used to fast-travel between certain platforms). Both the badges and the hats bring some extra depth to the gameplay and exploration, and bring a fun little Paper Mario element to the equation.

On the downside of things, there are some features in the game that could have used a little extra polish. Though Hat Kid controls well for the most part, a homing dive attack that can be performed in midair feels a bit awkward to pull off, which is especially noticeable when you need to use the attack for platforming segments. Additionally, I encountered more than a few technical issues throughout my playthrough, including Hat Kid getting stuck in some walls and some graphical flubs (like Hat Kid sitting down in midair next to the chair she was supposed to be sitting on). Not to mention that the camera controls can get a little awkward, much like those in the early 3D platformers that inspired A Hat in Time.

Still, when one considers A Hat in Time’s humble origins, such blemishes seem more par for the course, and though they hinder the experience somewhat, the game’s creativity and love for the genre should ultimately win players over. And with Wind Waker-esque visuals and a whimsical musical score, it can be all too easy to be sucked into A Hat in Time’s charms.

A Hat in Time, like Yooka-Laylee before it, is far from perfect. And like its predecessor, it may even feel like its limitations make its vision only partly realized (something that sequels for both games can hopefully fix, if their sales numbers allow it). But its heart is in the right place, and its charm can be infectious. It may be a distant second for the title of “Best Hat-Based 3D Platformer of 2017,” but A Hat in Time is anything but, well, old hat…

 

6

The End is Nigh Review

*This review originally appeared at Miketendo64.com*

The End is Nigh is the latest brainchild of Edmund McMillen, the creator of Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac, and serves as something of a spiritual successor to Meat Boy, using gameplay very reminiscent of its 2010 predecessor, albeit with some notable tweaks. Whereas Super Meat Boy’s primary hook was its titular slab of raw meat’s ability to slide and jump off walls, The End is Nigh stars a black, blob-like creature named Ash – one of the few survivors of an apocalyptic event – whose primary means of platforming is leaping from ledges.

That’s a simple enough gameplay setup, but one that works wonders with some creative level design. The stages of The End is Nigh are bite-sized, single-screen affairs. The game’s “chapters” are comprised of several of these single-screen stages, with a refreshing lack of loading screens between them. The chapters will usually introduce a twist or two to the ledge-leaping gameplay, with each of the chapters’ stages building on the gimmicks they introduce. Whether it’s swimming in chemicals that will kill poor Ash in seconds, or platforms that lower of raise when landed on, The End is Nigh does a decent job at keeping its simple premise fresh.

Like McMillen’s previous games, The End is Nigh has a notably steep difficulty curve. Thankfully, players have unlimited lives, and just like progressing to a new level, there’s no loading times in between death and respawning, so the frustration doesn’t get too out of hand. Still, you may get annoyed during certain stages that increase the challenge considerably from the other stages of their chapter. I don’t think The End is Nigh is as difficult as Super Meat Boy on the whole, but like its predecessor, there are some moments that arenotably more aggravating than the rest. When you reach such areas and begin redoing them over and over and over, you may wonder if it’s all worth it.

This is doubly true for the game’s bonus content. Hidden in every stage are “tumors” (yes, tumors), which can be traded to some NPCs in order to unlock additional levels, and each chapter hides a video game cartridge, which unlock different mini-games. Though the levels can be creative, their utter brevity makes the idea of going out of your way to find the collectibles just to play more of them feel like a lackluster payoff. The mini-games are a bit better of a reward, though again, I think only a very niche crowd would want to take the trouble to unlock them.

Aesthetically, The End is Nigh is pretty delightful. The visuals showcase a silhouette style, and although this isn’t the first indie title to utilize such a style, it’s one of the better looking ones. And the musical score is surprisingly lively and energetic.

The End is Nigh is another fine entry in McMillen and co.’s expanding resume of games. It may seem a bit like Super Meat Boy-Minus at times, but that’s not exactly a horrible complaint. Ash is fun to control, the level design is enjoyable, and the game is fun to look at and to listen to. The extra content may leave a lot to be desired, and you may wonder if seeing the game the whole way through is worth it. But The End is Nigh ultimately comes together nicely.

 

6

Strikey Sisters Review

Strikey Sisters is a modern day brick breaker by DYA Games. Though this genre has largely been left behind to gaming’s yesteryear, Strikey Sisters does a great job at reminding players why such a simple genre can be so appealing, not to mention addictive.

The goal of each stage in Strikey Sisters is to eliminate every block and enemy on a stage, with the blocks needing to be destroyed first, as their presence allows the enemies to respawn. Once the blocks are dealt with, knock out all the enemies and you’re ready to move on. It’s simple enough in concept, but Strikey Sisters throws enough curveballs to make for quite a challenging experience.

As is often the case with games like this, the players can only move left and right at the bottom of the screen, with one or two players being able to control either of the titular sisters. In order to break the blocks and defeat enemies, the sisters have to repeatedly strike magic balls, which then bounce around the stage dealing damage to enemies and chipping away at the blocks. Each sister has three hit points to start with, which are depleted if they are either hit by an enemy attack, or if they miss their ball and it falls off the stage. Things get all the more hectic with two players, because if both players strike the same ball (something that will be inevitable), then it belongs to both players, meaning if it goes off course, both characters lose a heart.

The pinball-meets-Kirby’s Block Ball set up is a lot of fun, especially with two players, and it’s made all the better by the inclusions of power-ups that mix up the gameplay. You can get bombs that target all on-screen foes, or lasers that will destroy any block or enemy in its path. You can even get an item that slows the balls down so they’re easier to hit and keep track of. The best such power-up, however, is the iron ball which – as its name implies – turns the magic balls into iron, allowing them to plow through enemies and blocks with a single hit for a limited time. Strikey Sisters also features some pretty tough boss battles, who bombard players with repeated attacks, making their stages all the more difficult to complete.

Should you get stuck on a particularly difficult stage, multiple levels usually unlock at once, so you can always move on to something else and come back to a tough stage later. Additional replay value is added to the stages by the inclusions of gems and character cards. A level isn’t fully complete until you grab a gem that will appear from one of the bricks, and manage to collect a card of every enemy type that appears on the stage. To collect a card, just grab the card power-up and throw it at an enemy. These are simple additions, but they do add that little something extra for completionists.

The game is also an aesthetic treat, with graphics that are reminiscent of Saturn Bomberman, music that sounds like a cross between Kirby and Nights Into Dreams, and sound effects that echo Mega Man Legends. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but the visuals and audio really make Strikey Sisters feel like a love letter to the Sega Saturn and PSOne.

Indeed, fans of 2D gaming’s final run in the early years of the 32-bit era (before they saw a resurgence this last decade) are probably who Strikey Sisters is geared most for. Though any fan of simple gameplay, steep challenge and replay value can have a good time, especially if they bring a friend along.

 

7

Cuphead Review

Cuphead certainly looks unlike any game that came before it, replicating the distinct look of a 1930s cartoon down pat, right down to the grainy picture quality and surrealistic character designs. The music and sounds also have that muffled, “in a tunnel” quality of the slapstick cartoons of the era. Cuphead is brought to life through completely hand-drawn visuals. From its shockingly fluid character sprites to its cel animated backgrounds, Cuphead is a wonder to see in action. It may not be the first game to use hand-drawn visuals, but no video game has earned the right to be called an interactive cartoon quite like Cuphead.

Simply put, Cuphead is on an aesthetic level that’s all its own, and it may be a good number of years before another game showcases a similar level of visual inventiveness.

Of course, all the aesthetic pleasures in the world wouldn’t mean much if the game they contained couldn’t stand on its own two feet. Thankfully, Cuphead is a more than capable gameplay experience, even if its action can’t quite capture the same magic as its eye-popping visuals.

Players take control of Cuphead, an old-timey cartoon figure who – as his name implies – has a cup for a head; while a second player can take control of his brother, Mugman. These two characters live on Inkwell Isle, under the watchful eye of Elder Kettle. One day, while Elder Kettle is asleep, the two mischievous brothers sneak into a casino. After at first securing a winning streak, the casino’s owner is revealed to be the Devil, who raises the stakes on Cuphead’s gambling. After Cuphead makes a bad roll, the Devil demands their souls as payment. The brothers plea for another way out of the mess, and the Devil promises he’ll let them go, if they can secure the souls of others who owe the Devil a debt. So Cuphead and Mugman set out to defeat the debtors, and find a way to get out of their contract with the Devil.

It’s a silly plot, but perfectly in tune with the 1930s cartoons that inspired it. People often seem to misremember old cartoons as being more innocent than they actually were. Many old cartoons, even those starring the “squeaky clean” Mickey Mouse, often saw their cute characters go through some extreme circumstances before they learned a lesson, and it’s great to see how Cuphead manages to capture the tone of its inspirations, and that the 1930s cartoon feel doesn’t stop at the visuals.

In regards to gameplay, Cuphead is a run and gun platformer, with a particular emphasis on its boss fights. Cuphead and Mugman can shoot magic from their fingers, and can perform a “parry” action by pressing the jump button against pink objects while in midair. The more damage the heroes do to enemies, the more a special meter builds up in the form of playing cards, with a successful parry automatically achieving a full card. Cuphead can use stronger attacks by using a single card, but if you wait until you have a full five cards, you can unleash a super attack.

Along the adventure, Cuphead can purchase new types of guns (or magic blasts, whatever you want to call them). You can equip two such guns at a time, and can swap between those equipped by the press of a button. Additionally, you can also buy items that provide other benefits, such as additional hitpoints (the standard is three, but you can up it to four or five), or the ability to hit an automatic parry during a jump. To prevent the heroes from becoming overpowered, however, you can only equip one such item at a time.

There are three types of levels in Cuphead: the standard run and gun platforming stages, boss stages, and bullet hell boss stages (differentiated by Cuphead and Mugman piloting an airplane in an autoscrolling level).

The boss fights are the meat of the game, with most stages being gauntlets of either multiple bosses, or individual boss enemies who go through multiple phases. Perhaps most notable is how creative many of these boss fights are. Despite Cuphead’s simplistic gameplay mechanics, the creativity on display with every boss fight makes them constantly surprising, and every last boss is distinct from the others.

On the downside of things, the platforming stages aren’t remotely as fun, and it seems that the developers were well aware of that, seeing as there are only six of them in the entire game. I wouldn’t say these stages are flat-out bad, but they fail to replicate the quality and creativity found in the boss battles, and feel really bland by comparison.

In terms of challenge, Cuphead is as deceptively sinister as the cartoons that inspired it. Its opening tutorial is perhaps the easiest I’ve ever played, but once you step into the actual game, it can get incredibly punishing. Cuphead’s steep difficulty curve means it certainly isn’t a game for everyone. You won’t find any checkpoints in the boss fights or the levels, so if you die, it’s back to the starting line. And some of the bosses are unrelenting in the amount of alternate forms they take and how many projectiles they throw at you at once. Thankfully, as challenging as it is, the difficulty is mostly fair (I only felt there were two boss fights where it seemed like there were a distracting amount of going-on on screen).

The bosses do include a “simple” option where you’ll only face off against their first few phases at the expense of not getting their soul contract and, subsequently, being unable to progress until you try the actual thing (making the simple mode more of a practice mode than anything).

With how painstakingly long it takes to create hand-drawn animation, Cuphead is an understandably short game, with only three “proper” worlds and a fourth world that consists of one particularly lengthy gauntlet and a battle with the Devil himself. But for the most part, Cuphead is a blast while it lasts. The standard stages may be a little bland, but the boss encounters are one delight after another. And in terms of style, Cuphead is second to none.

 

7

Sonic Mania Review

Sonic the Hedgehog is back!

It feels so good to be able to say that again, but it’s finally happened. Sonic the Hedgehog now has a new title to his name that lives up to the series’ most iconic entries on the Sega Genesis! In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Sonic Mania outdoes them.

Back in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog hit the gaming scene, and quickly became a video game icon. Sonic was to be Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario, and indeed, for a few years, Sonic was even more popular than Nintendo’s famous plumber.

But it was not to last. While Sonic’s first several outings on the Sega Genesis (and its add-ons) are still highly revered even today, what he’s done since then has been a little less consistent. Mario proved to be a jack of all trades, seamlessly making the jump to 3D with Super Mario 64, transitioning into other genres with the likes of Super Mario Kart and Super Mario RPG, and still producing some of the best titles in gaming decades later with the likes of Super Mario Galaxy. Sonic, on the other hand, felt lost in time.

Though Sonic initially looked poised to replicate Mario’s versatility, the series would soon lose its footing. There wasn’t a proper Sonic title to be had on the Sega Saturn (and that console’s would-be Mario Kart, Sonic R, was a bit of a disaster), and though the Sonic Adventure titles on the Dreamcast were praised in their day, time hasn’t been kind to them, exposing utterly chaotic camerawork and more than a few notable technical issues. After that, Sonic became a multiplatform series once Sega went the third-party route, and things didn’t ease up for the blue blur.

During these years, Sega would try all kinds of experiments with their mascot. Some of these experiments worked to a degree, while others were all-time lows for the series. In many cases, it seemed like the Sonic franchise just leached its way onto anything, and that the developers at Sega would rather be making something else entirely (quite literally in the case of the infamous “Sonic the Hedgehog ’06”).

Whatever Sonic games that did shine during this time were those that played closest to the Genesis playbook, with Sonic Colors and Generations becoming fan favorites. Though sometimes Sega could get carried away with the nostalgia card, with the two episodes of “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” feeling like watered down, clunky versions of the classic template.

But now, we have Sonic Mania, and it’s a thing of beauty.

“Sonic Mania even includes an anime-style opening a la Sonic CD.”

Released as part of an extended 25th anniversary celebration to the franchise, Sonic Mania is perhaps a better gift to the series and its fans than they could have even asked for. Sonic Mania is everything Sonic should be.

Though Sonic Mania is published by Sega, its development team consists of notable members of the Sonic fan-game community. The game was helmed by Christian Whitehead, who was famously recruited by Sega to port a number of the classic Sonic titles to mobile platforms, and teamed by PagodaWest and Headcanon, who have a few Sonic fan-games to their resume.

I’m not sure whether it’s poetic or ironic that it literally took the fans to create the best Sonic game in over two decades, but the end results prove that Sonic Mania truly is a labor of love by people who love the franchise, for people who love the franchise.

First there are the obvious connections to the Genesis classics; the 16-bit visuals and character sprites make the game feel like a proud follow-up to Sonic’s initial outings, albeit taking advantage of modern hardware to make for some dazzling effects that weren’t possible back in the day. Additionally, the majority of Sonic Mania’s “Zones” are new versions of those found in Sonics 1, 2 and 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and Sonic CD. Some such “remixed” Zones even use the templates of their original forms, but with some new additions and tweaks, so that even when Sonic Mania is at its most comfortably familiar, it’s still full of surprises.

“Here’s the final boss from Sonic 2 in the first level of Sonic 1.”

For example, the game begins in Sonic the Hedgehog’s Green Hill Zone. While that first-ever level of the franchise has been countlessly recreated in recent years, it’s never been done so poetically as it is here. The Green Hill Zone begins almost identically to how it did back in 1991, until suddenly you notice one of Sonic 3’s magnetic shields in place of Sonic 1’s standard force field, and the corkscrew loops from Sonic 2’s Emerald Hill Zone are at play. Alterations such as this are just the tip of the ice burg, as Sonic Mania is constantly finding ways to reinvent what we know about Sonic’s past.

That’s not to say Sonic Mania is simply falling back on nostalgia, however, as it also includes level design that is entirely its own. Along with a few brand new Zones unique to Mania, the second “act” within the returning zones are less remixed, and more built from the ground up. Sonic Mania really is the perfect marriage of the old and the new for the franchise.

The gameplay is, once again, Sonic at its purest (and best) form. Players can select Sonic, Tails or Knuckles, each with their own abilities (Sonic is fastest and now has a “Drop Dash” move to keep momentum after jumping, while Tails can temporarily fly and Knuckles being able to glide and climb up walls). You’ll run through stages collecting rings, which once again work as a kind of health system (get hit and you lose your rings, get hit without rings and you’re dead). You can collect the aforementioned force fields and shields from Sonic 3 (magnet shields pull in rings and grant a double jump, fire shields give a charging attack and can burn through certain obstacles, and bubble shields allow you to breath under water and jump higher). There’s also a new power-up in the form of blue rings, which are something like a ‘ring insurance.’ The blue rings will make sure that, the next time Sonic gets hit, he can still reclaim every last ring he held by clumping them together in a few giant rings. The blue ring may not sound like much, but in those times when you make a little mistake that would have otherwise cost you hundreds of rings, it becomes a godsend.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a 16-bit Sonic title without some 3D bonus stages. If you can reach a checkpoint with twenty-five rings secured, you can jump into a halo above said checkpoint and play a new version of Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s famous Blue Sphere mini-games (and yes, they’re as hard as ever). Should you complete a Blue Sphere mini-game, you are rewarded with bonuses such as new game modes and unlockable content.

“Sega Saturn FTW!”

But Sonic Mania once again goes beyond the call of duty by including a second such bonus stage, this one brand new (albeit inspired by Sonic CD). If you can find a giant ring hidden in a stage, you are transported to one of these new bonus stages, where Sonic (or Knuckles or Tails) have to catch up to a UFO to claim a Chaos Emerald. These bonus stages have you collecting blue spheres to pick up speed to reach the UFO, while also gathering rings to put more time on the clock, all while being presented in Sega Saturn-inspired visuals.

Another iconic attribute of the Sonic games were the soundtracks. And good heavens, does Sonic Mania deliver on that front. Once again the creation of a series fan (Tee Lopes, famous for covers of various Sonic tracks), the soundtrack to Sonic Mania includes stellar remixes from Sonic’s past (each returning zone gets a different remix for both of its acts), while the brand new tracks are more than worthy successors to the franchise’s legendary music. Though the soundtrack takes most of its cues from Sonic CD – which up to this point had the best soundtrack in the series, hands down – it also feels distinctly its own. It may even be my favorite gaming soundtrack of 2017 and, yes, it may even top Sonic CD for the title of “best Sonic music ever.”

If I had to nitpick anything about Sonic Mania (and you’d have to nitpick to have anything negative to say), it’s that some of the obstacles in the Flying Battery Zone feel a bit unruly and hard to predict, which lead to more than a few accidental fumbles; and the Hydrocity Zone can be a little on the confusing side. But again, any complaints to be had are minor.

“Old levels now feature new gimmicks, like these bouncing gels in the Chemical Plant Zone.”

Sonic Mania obviously plays the nostalgia card, it is so much more than simply a trip down Hedgehog memory lane. This is exactly the kind of sequel the franchise has been begging for for two decades, and the kind of Sonic experience Sega has tried to create themselves in the past, but couldn’t quite get right (Sonic Generations was probably their best attempt). This is the classic Sonic gameplay we all know and love, but it’s also smarter than the games that inspired it. The level designs – which contain so many alternate routes and introduce so many new gameplay gimmicks that they never lose a shred of their charm – are arguably the deepest in the series, and even have a Mario sense of exploration about them to track down their every last secret. And the boss fights are, bar none, the most consistently entertaining in the franchise. No matter how difficult (or easy) the boss fights got, they all provided something new and left their mark.

Sonic Mania is the game fans have waited ever so patiently for. It’s so lovingly crafted, and so well executed, that it may actually have you forgetting about Sonic’s missteps over the years and make you feel like the series never slowed down. From the obvious homages to the most esoteric of references, Sonic Mania oozes an unmistakeable love for all things Sonic (well, all the good things), and lives up to the very best games the blue hedgehog has ever starred in.

If Sonic Mania is anything to go by, then Sonic has finally returned, and in such fashion that it feels like he never left.

 

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