Sonic the Hedgehog may not have had the best track record with video games as of late, but the first three 2D platformers, released between 1991 and 1994, are undisputed classics, being some of the finest platformers in terms of not only gameplay, but visuals and sound design too. Sonic Mania aims to reproduce what made the first three games great, then, and we got our chance to try it out in London last week.
The first thing you notice when playing Sonic Mania is that you expect it to play the same, and it doesn't. What we mean by this is that when you pick up the controller in Green Hill Zone, you expect the jumps to behave a certain way and the movement to be the same as you remember on your Mega Drive, and it's not that Sega has changed anything about this in terms of jump height or anything like that, but being a modern game, it performs so much better and smoother, with increased frame-rate (compared to the old PAL ports) meaning it looks the same, and with a bit more shine on the visuals, but it takes a while for your brain to adapt to a modern reworking of the Sonic platformer, and it makes Sonic feel even faster.
Your brain gets even more confused when the levels don't behave the way you expect them to. The levels in Sonic Mania are inspired by those from previous games, but aren't copies of them, and so when you get into Green Hill Zone and start moving, you expect things to be in certain places, and Sega quickly throws that out the window, producing an almost entirely new level with the Green Hill Zone paint on.
Although we're saying this will be dramatically different from what Sonic fans are used to, this is by no means a bad thing whatsoever. This just means more of the same prime era Sonic, except now with added content and depth, especially considering the layers of the levels. Back in the original Green Hill Zone (the level we played in the Sonic Mania demo), for example, there was about three layers of height going on at any one time, whereas in Sonic Mania this has been dramatically extended, so there's way more to see or do if you'd rather take your time and collect everything.
So as you may have guessed, there's a mix of everything from the first three games in there, but there's also brand new content in there for fans to enjoy, including new levels and abilities too. It's clearly a love letter in this sense, meaning that there's beloved stuff in there mixed with stuff that, while different, is sure to make Sonic fans squirm with delight. It comes as no surprise then that it has been designed by lovers of the franchise Christian "Taxman" Whitehead and Simon "Stealth" Thomley, who have worked on Sonic in the past, and Sega told us they've very much left the team to do the job they trust they can do well, and they have even brought in members of the Sonic community to help.
What we were told multiple times is that Sonic Mania is not a remaster, but a new product. There may be inspirations in there, true, but this is entirely new, and will be a totally fresh experience from start to finish, so don't expect three different games all the same as they were before only with shiny new graphics.