SONIC MANIA was one of the biggest ploys on nostalgia in recent years. Mixing the Blue Blur’s greatest hits with some new levels and putting it into one cohesive package adequately satiated the hedgehog’s starved fanbase. SONIC MANIA PLUS, as its name implies, is the updated version of that Genesis era love letter complete with two deep cut characters among other visual tweaks and new modes. Plus packs only a couple solid additions but still remains beholden to 90s core design that birthed it, for better or worse.
Sonic Mania Plus Review: Mighty Number Five
Plus’ biggest contribution is the two additional playable characters: Mighty, the tough armadillo, and Ray, the adorable flying squirrel. Mighty’s hardened shell allows him to execute a ground pound attack and bounce off spikes unscathed if he jumps onto them (as opposed to falling on them). Ray isn’t as resilient but is more mobile since he can use his momentum to glide around à la Mario with his Cape Feather ability or like Batman in the Arkham games.
Both anthropomorphized mammals change how the game moves while maintaining the momentum-based foundation inherent to the game. Mighty’s ground pound gives him a more direct attack that can also be used on slopes to quickly gain speed. A traditional offensive move and the ability to shrug off most spike pits make him a good pick for newcomers. Ray is more difficult to play as, since maintaining altitude requires slick timing, but he can easily get you across parts of the level more quickly once you acclimate. They both fill different holes in the game’s roster and help bring some more replayability to the campaign.
The entire roster plays a big role in Encore Mode, Plus’ other tentpole feature that twists the regular Mania Mode. Encore flips the color palette and has a few new enemies and paths, which seem built with Mighty’s and Ray’s moveset in mind. The visual reskins are still incredibly gorgeous but remarkably similar to the vanilla version. New pathways are a more substantial change but the levels are already so expansive that a few new routes will only stick out to those who have memorized the layout.
Sonic Mania Plus Review: Only 90s Kids Will Remember Punishing Design
Encore Mode is also set up differently. Instead of stocking up on lives, you stock up on characters located in special crates and some bonus levels. When you die, another one of the five playable characters swaps right in without pause. If your whole squad croaks, you get sent back to the beginning of the zone with your lone, final character. This new approach is even more frustrating than the archaic traditional lives system found in Mania Mode but both continually throw up roadblocks. It’s tragically ironic, given that Sonic is a series all about moving forward.
Resetting with only one “life” after a game over is incredibly punishing since the game is tasking you to overcome the very part you lost your whole crew at while starting all the way at the beginning of the act with no immediate backup. This system makes it all too easy to get stuck for long periods of time as you try to beat an entire level while scouring for rare extra character crates and trying not to die or run out of time in the process.
Like Sonic itself, this mode is incredibly momentum based to a fault: move quickly from level to level with a big crew or tread cautiously and die continuously in your search for special crates. I spent hours trying to beat the first three levels until I stumbled across a bonus pinball level and stocked up on enough lives to carry me to the end of the game.
Encore Mode’s punishing design isn’t endemic to that mode; its dated bedrock permeates throughout the entire game. Sonic is a platformer predicated on moving quickly and seldomly jumping. While that may have differentiated him from the mustachioed plumber 27 years ago, it has not aged well as a core system and Sonic Mania Plus makes that clear.
“Goin’ fast” can be exhilarating as you sprint and bounce all over giant structures and slender, curving speedways. It can truly be a rush, especially in the earlier worlds. But levels usually run into one of two issues: you just hold down right (and sometimes left) on the d-pad for the most part, which isn’t too engaging, or you’re forced to do some platforming that the floaty, frustrating jump isn’t quite built for.
The worst comes when levels try to mix the two and push you to run quickly only to litter the path with hazards that impede your progress and send your ring collection flying. Whether it’s unexpectedly crushing you in one hit or placing threats in unfair spots, stages and enemies can be straight up assholes in multiple ways that would make even the most devious game designers from the old generations grin with pride. Like the lives systems in Mania and Encore Mode, it’s yet another way a game all about forward momentum continually tries to sabotage your forward momentum.
Sonic Mania Plus Review: On the Plus Side
But some parts of Sonic Mania Plus have aged wonderfully, mainly the visuals, soundtrack, and boss fights. While the aforementioned Encore levels are mostly palette swaps, they still retain the beautiful crispness of the prettiest high definition 16-bit art. The new tracks also similarly recapture the same catchy, upbeat tunes of yesteryear, but with some added flair from the modern age that make for some of the best contemporary retro video game music. Boss fights are usually the highlights of each level, as they wonderfully ride the line between challenging and inventive. However, most of them remain unchanged in Encore Mode.
Sonic Mania Plus is probably what fans of Sonic Mania want, which was probably also what fans of old Sonic games wanted. And that nostalgic force is hard to argue against. For only a $5 upgrade fee, they get all of those warm fuzzy feelings but with two great new characters and a small handful of remixed content that doesn’t quite break the bank nor provide a ton of value. However, the early 1990s infrastructure that the game prides itself on hasn’t aged quite as gracefully and, while it still has plenty of charm, it doesn’t fit in as elegantly with the current 2018 era that it’s being released in.
Reviewed on PS4. Copy provided by publisher.