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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.

 

9.5

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Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Review

Sonic the Hedgehog was once one of the most revered names in all of gaming, right alongside the likes of Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. Though his transition into 3D began a downward spiral for the blue blur, with only a small handful of decent titles amid armies of mediocre and flat-out bad games. But no matter what Sonic’s status may be now, his original 2D outings on the Sega Genesis remain immensely fun even today.

There is perhaps no more beloved Sonic game than Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which took its predecessor’s foundations, added a good deal of polish, innovations and new elements, and provided what may still be the definitive Sonic the Hedgehog experience.

Sonic 2 retains the same basic setup as the first game. It’s a 2D platformer that sees Sonic zip through stages and collecting rings (the equivalent of Mario’s coins, which also work as Sonic’s health), with each world (called “zones” here) ending with a fight against the evil Dr. Robotnik, who is capturing animals and turning them into robots. It sounds pretty straightforward, but Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is so well executed that it ranks as one of the most fun 2D platformers ever made.

New elements were introduced here, the most notable being Miles “Tails” Prower, Sonic’s two-tailed fox sidekick. Tails’ inclusion lead to the addition of multiplayer to the Sonic experience. A second player could aid Sonic in getting through the main game, or a split-screen competitive mode allowed for Sonic and Tails to race through select stages against one another.

Another big addition to the gameplay was Sonic’s spindash move, which allowed Sonic to curl into a ball and blast off at top speed without the lengthy build-up. It’s a simple enough move, but it ends up being an integral aspect of the gameplay, and the Sonic formula was all the better for its inclusion.

The power-ups are few, but useful, and are found within TV monitors. The speed shoes make Sonic go even faster than normal, the force field gives Sonic an additional hit (an invaluable asset when trying to stock up on rings), and invincibility is self-explanatory.

The levels themselves are where Sonic 2 shows its true brilliance. The level design builds on that found in the original, with stages featuring multiple paths, leaving players to find the quickest way to the finish line or taking their time to collect rings and best the bonus stages.

Most of the zones contain two acts (stages) each, as opposed to the first game’s three. But there are twice as many zones here, and the stages are bigger and more intricate in Sonic 2, so it’s a fair trade.

There’s a wide amount of variety to be found within the zones. The first zone, called the Emerald Hill Zone, is close in aesthetics to the iconic Green Hill Zone of the first game, which eases players in. But after that, you’re immediately thrown into the Chemical Plant Zone, where Sonic and Tails must avoid drowning in poisonous liquids. There’s also the Casino Night Zone, which sends Sonic bouncing all over the place like a pinball, along with several other creative game worlds.

As great as the level design is, there are a few annoying instances that seem to work against Sonic’s trademark speed. Namely, the Aquatic Ruins Zone includes a number of enemies that pop out of walls, or are obstructed by the foreground, which means if you aren’t taking note, you have a good chance of losing your hard-earned rings. Though this may not be as bad as it sounds, as it does mean there’s more to Sonic than simply running fast.

The graphics are nice and colorful, and are a notable improvement over the original game. But the best aesthetic highlight is its soundtrack, which easily ranks as one of the best of the 16-bit era. There’s not a bad track in the whole lot.

Sonic 2 also continued the series’ trend of including some pretty standout bonus stages. If Sonic manages to hold on to at least 50 rings when he reaches a checkpoint, a halo of stars will surround said checkpoint. If Sonic jumps into the stars, he is teleported to a bonus stage.

Though these bonus stages aren’t quite as trippy as those found in the original, they are more notable for their usage of 3D visuals, and are probably more fun than their predecessors. These stages see Sonic and Tails running through a halfpipe and collecting rings, all while avoiding bombs. If Sonic and Tails manage to snag the required number of rings, they are awarded with a Chaos Emerald. If you can collect all seven emeralds, you unlock the ability to transform into Super Sonic!

While these bonus stages are fun, the early 3D can be a little straining on the eyes, and it can be difficult to see when rings or bombs are approaching until they’re right on top of you. Perhaps a bigger drawback is that if you’re playing solo with both Sonic and Tails (the game’s default option), Tails follows right behind Sonic, but is delayed in following his movements. There is a small benefit to this, since Tails can collect some of the rings you may have missed, but it also proves detrimental, since you’re more likely to fail the bonus stages due to Tails running headfirst into a bomb and losing rings than you are from losing due to your own miscalculation. You do have the option of just playing as Sonic or Tails on the title screen, but if you play in the default setting, be prepared to start hating Tails.

Another downside to these bonus stages is that, whether win or lose, all of the rings you had before reaching the checkpoint are gone. Granted, the rings respawn on the stage, but considering you are awarded with an extra life for every one-hundred rings you manage to hold onto, you’re often left having to pick and choose between taking your chance with the bonus stage, or just waiting to get an extra life.

It’s not a huge complaint, but certainly a questionable design choice that adds a little annoyance to an otherwise stellar game. Still, I suppose it’s a small price to pay for such great level design, music and control (16-bit Sonic was arguably the best controlling non-Nintendo platforming star).

It may also be a little frustrating to know that there’s no save feature in the game. On the bright side, Sonic 2 isn’t incredibly long, so it isn’t exactly necessary. But it is pretty difficult later on, so you may lament that a save feature wasn’t included in the series until Sonic 3 (though this only applies to the original Genesis version. Sonic 2’s countless re-releases have fixed this issue).

In case Sonic the Hedgehog 2 wasn’t satisfying enough as it is, if you happen to own the later Sonic & Knuckles (whether it be a fellow Genesis cartridge, an additional downloaded copy, or a fellow inclusion in one of the many Sonic compilations), you can combine it with Sonic 2 to play through the entire game as Knuckles!

Playing “Knuckles the Echidna in Sonic the Hedgehog 2” works as a fun alternative to the normal game, and is basically the retro equivalent of Shovel Knight’s different character campaigns. Though the stages remain the same when playing as Knuckles, the red echidna’s gliding and wall-climbing abilities mean there are different ways to tackle the stages.

Perhaps better still, when playing the Knuckles campaign, the aforementioned issues with the bonus stages are rectified. For one thing, you don’t have Tails running into the bombs. More importantly, the checkpoints save the number of rings you had when you touched them, so when you finish (or lose) the bonus stage or die, you come back with all of your rings.

Sadly, these improvements come with one caveat: Knuckles doesn’t control as well as Sonic. That’s not to say Knuckles controls poorly by any means, but Sonic actually comes surprisingly close to capturing the fluidity of Mario’s movements. Knuckles doesn’t quite reach that same level, as his jumps aren’t as high and he’s slower to gain momentum. Not to mention you may often end up gliding when you’re trying to bounce off an enemy, which can be detrimental during some boss fights.

Still, any complaints to be had with Sonic 2 are ultimately minor. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 improved on its predecessor in virtually every way, and defined the Sonic formula to such a high degree that it’s still widely seen as the pinnacle of the series. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles may have been bigger, but only Sonic CD has equalled Sonic 2 in terms of creativity. But in regards to sheer “Sonic-ness,” Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is still the series’ finest moment.

 

9.0

Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Arcade Edition Review

M&SATR2K16OGAE

The Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games series has been around for a good while now, and its newest edition – which sees characters from the Mario and Sonic universes take part in the Rio Olympics from this past Summer – now brings the series to arcades. The Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games series isn’t exactly the biggest critical darling of either franchise (to put it lightly), so how well does it transition to arcades?

Mario and Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Arcade Edition follows the same basic formula of its predecessors: Players pick one of several Mario or Sonic characters, and partake in mini-games themed after Olympic sports. The difference here is that the arcade cabinets provide some unique control schemes.

Two large joysticks are placed in front of the player, while they simultaneously stand on a footpad similar to those found in Dance Dance Revolution games. So a 100m Dash will see players start the game holding the joysticks in a way that mimics the starting positions of Olympic racers, before running in place on the footpad to simulate the actual racing portion, to name one example.

Admittedly, most of the mini-games are kind of fun (my favorite being archery, which uses the left joystick to aim, and the right joystick to pull the bow and release the arrow), but there is one huge problem… they are all way too short.

Granted, the sports featured are mini-games, but even with that moniker, they end incredibly briefly. I’m not even exaggerating when I say that watching the tutorials for some of the games is actually longer than the games themselves (archery is an exception, which may explain why I enjoyed it more than the others). The worst part is every time you put credits into the arcade cabinet, all you get is one game. So you’re more or less putting tokens in the machine for lengthy tutorials and only a brief snippet of gameplay. At least in Mario Kart Arcade GP you get a full race every time you play.

What makes things all the worse is that the games are chosen at random. So not only are the games short, but you don’t even have control over which ones you play. If you’re going solo, it would be nice to just pick one of the games, and would it be too much to ask for both players to vote for a game and then have one of said games selected when playing multiplayer?

Really, there’s not much else to the game. The arcade setup and physicality that comes with make for a few minutes of fun. But the utter brevity of the games, combined with their random selections, don’t give the game a whole lot of value. Play a round or two with a friend, but don’t be surprised if your tokens quickly go elsewhere.

 

4.0

Sonic Rush Review

Sonic Rush

There has been no series in all of gaming that has fallen so far from grace than Sonic the Hedgehog. Once one of the most iconic video game characters who would often draw comparisons to Super Mario, Sonic has become little more than the butt of a joke. A lingering entity that – despite releasing a slew of games so bad that a single one of them would kill most franchises – survives solely due to his hopelessly loyal and increasingly bizarre fanbase.

With this said, Sonic has somehow, beyond all expectations, still provided a small handful of good games in between his many misses. Sonic Colors and Generations are often cited as the blue blur’s last quality titles, while the Sonic Advance games kept the spirit of the Genesis classics alive on the GameBoy Advance in a time when the hedgehog’s console outings were floundering. Somewhere in between Sonic Advance and Generations were the Sonic Rush titles on the Nintendo DS, which followed-up Advance’s take on making the old formula new again. Though the original Sonic Rush may show a bit of age, it’s still head and shoulders above what Sonic has been starring in lately.

Like the Sonics of old, Sonic Rush plays from a 2D perspective, though the characters are displayed with 3D models. Players can take control of either Sonic himself or Blaze the Cat, who was introduced here and comes from another dimension.

Players still run at super fast speeds through seven different zones, each consisting of two acts and a boss fight (which switch to 3D perspectives at times). While Blaze combats Sonic’s usual foe Dr. Eggman in order to obtain “Sol Emeralds” (her world’s equivalent of the Chaos Emeralds), Sonic faces off against Dr. Eggman Nega, who also hails from the parallel dimension.

Though both Sonic and Blaze tackle the same sets of levels, they go through them in a different order, and have slight differences in gameplay. Sonic is of course the faster of the two and has a homing attack, while Blaze can jump higher, can survive longer under water, and has a short glide. Both characters also play out different parts of the story, and completing both, as well as obtaining all the Chaos Emeralds, unlocks a final challenge.

The usual Sonic gameplay returns, with rings to collect, loops to run through, and various obstacles and enemies to overcome. The game makes great use of the DS’ two screens, with the levels being featured on both and the player crossing from the top screen to bottom and back again seamlessly.

The game retains some elements introduced in the Sonic Advance sequels, such as a grading system after a player finishes each act in a zone. Players are graded by how quickly they beat a level as well as their performance.

Another additional feature is the “Tension Gauge,” which players can fill up by defeating enemies and performing tricks in midair. Filling the gauge allows players to perform greater boosts of speed, which take out enemies with ease and allow you to finish the level faster, thus increasing your grade.

Sonic RushSonic gets an additional bonus with the Tension Gauge, however. When playing as Sonic, the player can grab onto various metal orbs found throughout the levels. If you have enough of the Tension Gauge filled up, Sonic can boost while holding these orbs to teleport to the special stages, where he can find the Chaos Emeralds.

The special stages work like those from Sonic the Hedgehog 2, with Sonic moving through a tubular track in a 3D perspective to collect rings and avoid traps. The special stages are played exclusively on the bottom screen and make good use of the touch controls. Using the stylus to control Sonic in the special stages may sound gimmicky, but it actually works, with Sonic moving alongside the stylus’ movement smoothly.

While the special stages can be fun (if difficult), it’s a shame that they’re exclusive to Sonic. Blaze just comes across the Sol Emeralds as part of her story, but the player actually has to work harder and delve deeper to find the Chaos Emeralds for Sonic. It makes Blaze’s introduction feel more superfluous than it would already be, considering she’s around the 300th unnecessary animal character added to the series. Why add the second character if they don’t have as much to do as the series regular?

Another problem arises in the levels themselves. Most of the stages are easy enough, but there are a number of areas where the stages actually work against the idea of going fast. Some people criticize the Sonic series for having moments that pretty much play themselves, but that wasn’t really true of the Genesis games, which had a good balance of fast-paced action and more strategic moments that let the player know when to slow down. That balance isn’t found here, and you’ll often find yourself simply zipping through a stage, collecting every ring and defeating every enemy with little to no effort, and suddenly falling into a bottomless pit. The level structure is certainly better than what Sonic is seeing today, but Sonic Rush has too many cheap moments that have the player moving fast, and then seemingly punishing them for doing so.

While the levels are mostly easy outside of those cheap moments, the game takes an unnecessary leap in difficulty with the boss fights. I’m not exaggerating when I say I got two game overs on the first boss alone. Despite most of the boss’ patterns being easy to predict, one of his moves sweeps Sonic off-stage if you fail to leap over it (sometimes repeatedly and at increased speed), effectively killing you in one hit. And that’s just the first boss! Granted, the easy level/difficult boss ratio isn’t as grossly imbalanced as it would be in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2, but the fact that it’s there at all is a pain.

The decade since Sonic Rush’s original release has exposed some great flaws and inconsistencies with the game. But at the very least, its heart was in the right place. While so many modern Sonic games feel like the last thing they want to be is a Sonic game, Sonic Rush recreates much of the charm the series was built on. Though it’s flawed, Sonic Rush may leave you wondering why Sega seems incapable of making more games like this. With some extra polish and dedication, Sega could take this formula and rightfully revive the Sonic franchise.

 

6.5

Top 10 Video Game Duos

Yooka-Laylee

Yooka-Laylee, the Kickstarter darling from Playtonic Games, has already gained an impressive following for its ambitions to revive the 3D platforming genre of the N64 days. It’s also aiming to resurrect the old video game tradition of having two heroes share the spotlight. This got me thinking of some of the other great video game duos over the years, so I decided to compile a list of the top 10 twosomes in gaming.

The only real qualification for this list was that the two characters have to share in their adventures together. They can be two equal heroes or a hero/sidekick combo, but they have to both brave their adventures on a somewhat even level. Solid Snake and Otacon won’t be here, for example, because while Otacon may help Snake in some valuable ways, it’s usually from the sidelines.

Also, as much as I already love them, Yooka and Laylee won’t be here for the obvious reason that their game isn’t anywhere near release. Only established games for now.

Let’s get to it then. Continue reading