Hey, I reviewed Sonic Mania Plus recently! Some people seemed to take issue with the fact that I said the new content was a bit of a letdown — which I think more people might be inclined to agree with now that the game’s out. I mean, the team had the opportunity to put the Love Tester back into Studiopolis and they didn’t. I had to dock a point immediately right there. (It’s a joke, people.)
But some folks seemed unusually incensed that I said the special stages were bad. I don’t know why this point in particular seemed to get folks all in a huff, because… well, yeah, Sonic Mania special stages are pretty miserable. They’re absolutely the weak link in an otherwise spectacular game, and having to play more of them was not a fun prospect, made worse by the fact that the special stage rings are still a royal pain in the ass to find (and farm in postgame).
Here’s the thing, though. I’ve played a lot of classic Sonic. I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time in these games’ special stages. I think I have a pretty damn good idea of what makes for a fun Sonic special stage. And, my friends, Sonic Mania’s special stages are absolutely not fun, especially in comparison to some of the other great special stages Sonic has offered us.
So, readers, I would like to once again present you with a painstakingly compiled list of mini-reviews. This time, we’re not reviewing games, but games within games. We’re going to be looking at all of the classic Sonic series special stages1 and evaluating each type… and maybe tell a fun story or two of youthful obsession.
Sonic the Hedgehog
I don’t think anyone’s going to argue with me when I say “Sonic 1 special stages aren’t very good and feel like an extended programming demo.” A lot of Sonic 1 feels rough and experimental, and these stages definitely fit that description. Particularly the “rough” part. Sure, the rotation aspect is novel, and the background is wonderfully trippy, but these stages just aren’t very fun.
The big problem with these stages is that, even when you know the layout, you will often find yourself careening into places you don’t want to be. Everyone who has played Sonic knows the feeling of carefully making their way through narrow pathways, barely holding onto things with the fleeting “grip” you have on the rotating walls, only to spill into a wide-open area and immediately plummet onto exit panels (which, in a tremendous dick move, are labelled “Goal.”) Yeah, it kinda sucks.
However, this is an ideal place to tell you all a story about what a ginormous nerd I’ve always been.
As I’ve written about elsewhere, I really liked Sonic games, and when I had nothing better to do, I’d go back and replay them obsessively. Debug mode being included in every Sonic game made this especially fulfilling, since it allowed me to mess around with placing objects and putting Sonic in weird locations… like outside the boundaries of the special stages.
Know what’s outside the boundaries of Sonic 1 special stages? A whole mess of weird garbage, including a bunch of strangely labelled panels that saw absolutely no use in the final game. I think it’s kind of like those garbage Metroid levels you get when you go out of bounds — it’s apparently just reading random data for graphics, because nothing here has collision.
When I first saw this, I lost my shit. I took Polaroids and mailed them off to every magazine I could, convinced I was the first person on earth to find this stuff and that I’d uncovered amazing hidden secrets. Of course, this was 1993, nobody cared to talk about Sonic 1 anymore, and even if they did I’m sure I wasn’t the first with the incredible idea to put Sonic outside of the special stage and see what happened.
Still, I really have to wonder how different these levels were in planning versus what we actually got. Would they have been better if all these weird-ass panels had been implemented? Hard to say, but I kinda doubt it.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
The Sonic 2 special stages are iconic — they were featured prominently in ads for the game and are something of a technical marvel given the limitations of the Genesis. They’re also… not great. Is saying that some sort of Sonic sacrilege? I’m not sure.
See, over time, I’ve come to really dislike the Sonic 2 special stages. They’re not intolerably awful — they’re definitely more thought-out than the stuff in the first game — but they’re long, potentially very punishing if you make a mistake (or if Tails is, well, Tails), and they had a terrible lasting influence on games to come.
More than almost any special stage type (other than the ones in Sonic Mania), the halfpipe stages are extremely memorization-heavy. There’s very little you can do if you don’t already know what’s coming. Yes, you can react to some stuff, but later stages will sometimes throw really jerkish little tricks at you like a ring of bombs after a curve/hill/drop that you’ll barely be able to see before they smack you. And if you fail any part, you have to start over from the beginning next time. At least you have multiple chances to enter the stages in each level, but starting over each time is a real drag.
I think what really soured me on these stages, however, is that this concept got absolutely beaten to death across the whole series. Can’t think of a new special stage design? Screw it, let’s get the halfpipe in there again and call it a day! So we’ve got it in Sonic 3D Blast (Genesis and Saturn), Sonic Rush, Sonic Pocket Adventure, Sonic 4 Episode 2… please, please just stop. It’s time to retire the halfpipe for good.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3
I FRIGGIN LOVE BLUE SPHERES
Okay. You know that Blue Spheres game you got when locking on Sonic 1 to Sonic and Knuckles? Well, I played the everloving shit out of it. Like, probably hundreds of hours of Getting Blue Spheres. It’s not like I had extremely limited game choices or anything, I just really really liked the Blue Spheres. And there were so many stages! I wanted to find out just how many there were and see the end. (Little did I know there were literal millions and no real ending to speak of.)
So why do I dig these stages so much? I like the emphasis on figuring out how to collect the spheres and rings over just grabbing everything good that flies in your face. If you just go in and just try to collect all the spheres, rather than running around shapes to collect everything inside them and spawn rings, you’re not going to get much of anywhere. Quickly planning when and how to get the spheres, along with navigating the perilous stage layouts, is a lot of fun.
Weirdly, even though I’m not a huge fan of Sonic special stages that punish you too harshly for mistakes — and Blue Spheres is perhaps the harshest of all, as one red sphere touch ends the whole stage — I don’t really mind it here. The stages are short enough that a loss isn’t as demoralizing as it could be, and as you play, you discover fun tricks that help manage the challenge: music cues for gradual speed-ups, pause buffering, and jumping to wedge yourself between rows of bumpers and work your way to areas that might otherwise be tough to reach. You could feasibly manage to clear a Blue Spheres stage on the first try sight unseen if you were skilled enough, and I have many times. That’s pretty rad!
So yes, Blue Spheres is the best. This is fact.
Sonic CD’s special stages seems especially divisive. They’re definitely odd in that they involve destruction rather than collection — you run through a flat, rotating stage and attempt to hit UFOs within a time limit while avoiding hazards and time-draining water. Smashing all the UFOs gives you a Time Stone.
Personally? I like them a lot. Not quite as much as Blue Spheres, but these can be seriously fun once you get the hang of them. The big issue I hear is that these levels are choppy as hell in the Sega CD original, but the spruced-up Retro Engine re-release of the game fixes the rotation so that everything moves buttery-smooth. Another very valid complaint that applies to all versions is that it can often be really hard to tell where a UFO is in relative position to you. Oftentimes, you’ll look like you’re about to hit something, only to have it merrily float away because you actually misjudged its distance. This is pretty frustrating, especially in the later stages when the UFOs move extremely fast.
However, there is one thing that I really, really like about these levels that sets them apart from all of the other Classic Sonic special stages: you can actually recover if you mess up.
See, every time the timer hits 20 seconds, a stationary UFO appears in the center of the level that extends your time. These spawn infinitely, so if you can just double back to hit it each time you dip below 20, you can stay in the stage forever. That means you’re not immediately screwed if you hit the time-draining water, even if you splash into it multiple times: in fact, depending one their flight pattern, it’s actually easier to run into the water to hit certain UFOs and then just go for extra time to replenish what you lost. Once you master the art of time replenishment, these stages get a lot more enjoyable… though still pretty challenging.
There’s also the hidden bonus Special Stage, which I have beaten only a handful of times. It’s pretty tough!
By the by, I’m gonna court extra controversy here (since writing anything critical and Sonic-related is an invite to angry fans up in your menchies) and say that the US special stage music is definitively better. I usually prefer the Japanese Sonic CD music, but… not for this one. Good work, Spencer.
Chaotix is… well, a pretty fundamentally flawed game. It’s weird: the game is polished, yet it feels unfinished in terms of mechanics and stage design, a collection of interesting-on-paper ideas that seem to lead nowhere.
But while the platforming levels are a big ol’ mess, the Special Stages are surprisingly good! Yes, they’re very much “hey look everyone, the 32X can push polygons!“, but they’re also a lot of fun to play through. Basically: take the halfpipe, turn it into a full tube, and run around dodging hazards while collecting enough blue spheres to advance further. Pretty simple, but in typical Sonic special stage fashion, the stage designs wind up getting pretty complex towards the end.
These stages work for several reasons: they don’t go too fast and allow you ample time to see what’s coming, they provide you with bumpers and other danger protections, and you aren’t automatically failed if you don’t hit a checkpoint with enough blue spheres — the stage simply loops. There are some pretty big threats — falling out will end the stage immediately — but I never feel like anything in these levels is frustrating or unfair
I also really like that your performance in the level itself has a direct impact on the special stage: the amount of rings you have at stage end is what you have to work with for your initial timer. It’s a strong incentive to play well and hold onto your rings in the levels. It also means you can go into the later, mine-laden stages with a healthy ring stock to help negate some of the damage they can do.
But maybe I just like these stages because they have really swell music. That always helps improve my opinion.
I guess now is the time to explain why I hate these so much, huh?
I bought Sonic Mania three times over because I loved the game and wanted it on several different platforms. Every time I went to replay it, I felt a creeping sense of utter dread knowing I’d have to re-do the special stages yet again, particularly the utterly miserable ones toward the end. When I got in Sonic Mania Plus for review and discovered that these new stages were even more bullshit than the hardest ones in the original Mania.
So what makes these bastard children of Sonic CD, Chaotix, and Sonic Heroes so completely detestable?
For starters, the whole structure feels kind of flawed. It’s basically a two-part thing: you loop through a course to get enough spheres to increase your speed to catch a fleeing UFO. You want to get up to mach 3, the highest speed possible. Once you do that, all of your effort goes into gradually trying to catch up to a UFO that is very, very slightly slower than you are at max speed… except the UFO doesn’t have to worry about stage hazards, slowing terrain, and instant-stage-ending pits, making for a really tedious gradual chase where even a minor mistake is a tremendous setback. (It also knows the exact best route to take through the stage, which you won’t know until you’ve been forced to memorize it through several failed playthroughs.)
Much like Chaotix, you have a time limit determined by rings… except that you can’t bring any extra rings into the level, so you have to make do only with what’s in the stage itself. This means you are sometimes forced to make snap decisions on whether you want to go for spheres or rings towards the beginning of the stage (you don’t start out with a lot of time!), and by the time you reach mach 3 and really begin the laborious process of trying to chase the UFO down you’re already starting to run a bit thin on resources. Any mine hit/ring loss is a setback that can end the run.
And did I mention that the control is slippery as balls, especially at mach 3? Well, the control is slippery as balls. Especially at mach 3. You are going to careen off the course into a pit and lose a good run so, so many times.
What makes it frustrating is that these levels could be made a lot more enjoyable through one simple change: make the rings replenish after a set time. The threat of falling off the course at high speed is already a more than sufficient danger to the player, so a stingy time limit only makes things more aggravating and pressures them to take risks they shouldn’t.
So, yes, I will argue that these are absolutely the worst special stages in Classic Sonic. Sure, the halfpipe is run into the ground and the Sonic 1 rotating stages are weird and wonky, but I’d still much rather play either of those than this frustrating mess. And spare me the “You don’t like them because you suck at them!” nonsense. You can criticize what you love, and Sonic Mania’s special stages are the worst part of a great game.
But hey, it’s still a notch below Sonic Advance 2’s misery level, at least. Screw that game.
- Except the SMS/Game Gear stuff. Those games aren’t very good, I didn’t own a Game Gear/SMS, and I don’t care. ↩