Chemical Plant Zone is the best Sonic level ever. No stage better captures the controlled mania that is Sonic's platforming. No stage has better music.
When it debuted in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Chemical Plant Zone was cool in a way that Mario simply wasn't. The industrial setting, the thumping soundtrack—it felt like it was right at the bleeding edge of the 16-bit generation.
So it's no surprise that it should appear in Sonic Mania, a love letter devoted to the very best the series has to offer. At least at first it's pretty much just as you remember it, with all the same maze of tubes, springboards, and chemical vats. Functionally, it's practically identical.
And just as it was back in 1992, it's exhilarating. Few Sonic zones really nail that combination of speed and precision, but Chemical Plant Zone does it. One minute you'll be running at mach speed down a steep incline as pipes whip by, the next you'll be carefully negotiating flipping tiles as you try to avoid crashing into a chemical vat. No level feels as quintessentially Sonic
Its credentials are boosted by Takashi Iizuka, the current head of Sonic Team who got his start working on Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Iizuka calls it his favorite level in the series. "I wasn't working on Sonic games back then, but as a Sega employee I was playing it. Having that 45 degree angle where you're just running down and going faster and faster and faster just gave me goosebumps. So Chemical Plant Zone is one of those great speed zones."
Like the rest of Sonic Mania, Chemical Plant Zone is a great nostalgia trip—a reminder of what made Sonic so popular in the first place. But Sonic Mania isn't quite content to just rehash old content. It's got a couple interesting tricks up its sleeve.
Things begin to change once you reach the second part of Chemical Plant Zone. The most immediate difference is how the vats change: jump on a syringe and they go from watery and purple to rubbery and green. The green chemicals, which kind of resemble Jello, can then be bounced off to reach new areas.
It's a clever twist on an old concept, and it helps to alleviate a little of the frustration from the original level, which could become acute if you wound up crushing into the chemicals too many times. It's what you like to see in a tribute like this: new ideas applied to classic concepts.
The level winds up flying by, at which you point you find the best surprise of all. But alas, I can't tell you what it is. You'll have to see for yourself when Sonic Mania is out in August.
Obviously this is not the first time that Sega has tipped its cap to old-school fans. Sonic 4, an aborted episode sequel in the style of 16-bit games, was one such attempt. Sonic Generations was another. Sega's has met with mixed success with these efforts, which you could say is due to how hard it is to properly capture the feel of a good Sonic game. The level design in particular is the hardest to get right, as it must offer enough freedom for Sonic to hit mach speed, but enough nuance that it's actually memorable. Sonic 2 was effortless in that regard. Subsequent games were... less so.
Sonic Mania has the chance to be the best of these tributes, even if it feels a bit cheap for it to be cribbing directly from Sonic's back catalog. It winds up highlighting the strange dichotomy of the series, which has seen it split between old-school fans and young children just discovering the blue hedgehog for the first time. It's not as effortless in that regard as Mario, but the series has managed to remain relevant in its own way.
Chemical Plant Zone is one of those levels that has proven timeless, lodging itself in the collective memory and resurfacing again and again in Sonic's other works. Like the series itself, it manages to capture lightning in the bottle. If Sonic Mania is able to continually generate highlights like these, it will be a real treat for fans of all ages.
I can't wait to play the rest.