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Sonic Mania Brings Back the Best Sonic Level Ever

Even Sonic Team lead Takashi Iizuka agrees.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

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.

"Blue streak... Speeds by!"

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."

Sonic Mania Hands-On Impressions: Blue Streak Speeds By

This Sonic game is engineered to remind you of Sonic's best years, and it sure does bring back memories.

The second part of Chemical Plant Zone has some rather interesting twists.

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.

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Comments 17

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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #1 cldmstrsn A year ago
    So excited for this game. Really wish there was going to be a physical but i'll still take it!
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  • Avatar for anusface #2 anusface A year ago
    I hate to go all Billy Madison on you, but while it is very good, Hydrocity Zone is actually the best Sonic level
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  • Avatar for Mixingmetaphorsoup #3 Mixingmetaphorsoup A year ago
    Chemical Plant Zone was good, but the second half of Act 2 was always very frustrating for me.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #4 VotesForCows A year ago
    @Mixingmetaphorsoup Likewise. My overriding memory of the zone is of frustration!
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #5 Vonlenska A year ago
    @Mixingmetaphorsoup

    Ditto. The music and aesthetics are outstanding, but precision platforming just isn't Sonic's jam, so sections requiring it tend to get frustrating.

    I'd really love it if this game relied more on its original content than nostalgia, but it's already a must for me, anyway, so whatevs.
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #6 odaiba-memorial A year ago
    @Mixingmetaphorsoup There's actually a well-hidden shortcut halfway through Act 2 that leads you straight to the boss -- no platforming, no enemies, not even any obstacles! Just a straight shot to the boss! Blew my mind when I learned about it, and I still use it to this day.
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #7 odaiba-memorial A year ago
    I love Chemical Plant Zone as much as the next guy, and the new take on it does keep it feeling fresh, but... two of the returning levels we've seen in Sonic Mania were already featured in Sonic Generations. What's next, Sky Sanctuary and Mushroom Hill?

    I feel like, in this case, this level features so many new gimmicks and features that they could have easily just made it into a new level entirely. Is the pandering nostalgia really necessary here? You don't see them trying to sell Studiopolis as being Casino Night Zone, despite the obvious parallels.Edited June 2017 by odaiba-memorial
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  • Avatar for anusface #8 anusface A year ago
    @odaiba-memorial I'm curious about who made the call on that. I think it might've been Sega itself and not the actual fans developing the game. Sonic Generations & 4 really strip mine the shit out of Sonic nostalgia and I feel like they have it in their heads that a game needs those exact references & callbacks for fans to like it.
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  • Avatar for anusface #9 anusface A year ago
    @odaiba-memorial I'm curious about who made the call on that. I think it might've been Sega itself and not the actual fans developing the game. Sonic Generations & 4 really strip mine the shit out of Sonic nostalgia and I feel like they have it in their heads that a game needs those exact references & callbacks for fans to like it.
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  • Avatar for anusface #10 anusface A year ago
    @odaiba-memorial I'm curious about who made the call on that. I think it might've been Sega itself and not the actual fans developing the game. Sonic Generations & 4 really strip mine the shit out of Sonic nostalgia and I feel like they have it in their heads that a game needs those exact references & callbacks for fans to like it.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for anusface #11 anusface A year ago
    @odaiba-memorial I'm curious about who made the call on that. I think it might've been Sega itself and not the actual fans developing the game. Sonic Generations & 4 really strip mine the shit out of Sonic nostalgia and I feel like they have it in their heads that a game needs those exact references & callbacks for fans to like it.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for anusface #12 anusface A year ago
    @odaiba-memorial I'm curious about who made the call on that. I think it might've been Sega itself and not the actual fans developing the game. Sonic Generations & 4 really strip mine the shit out of Sonic nostalgia and I feel like they have it in their heads that a game needs those exact references & callbacks for fans to like it.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for anusface #13 anusface A year ago
    @odaiba-memorial I'm curious about who made the call on that. I think it might've been Sega itself and not the actual fans developing the game. Sonic Generations & 4 really strip mine the shit out of Sonic nostalgia and I feel like they have it in their heads that a game needs those exact references & callbacks for fans to like it.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #14 odaiba-memorial A year ago
    @anusface I wouldn't be surprised if Sonic Team persuaded them to include more classic levels, especially considering Sonic Team's own 2017 Sonic game will ALSO feature a version of Green Hill Zone nobody asked for. I understand that nostalgia makes for prime marketing these days (especially so for something like Sonic), but all this fixation on "reliving the classics" -- which Sega and Sonic Team have been churning out since 2010's Sonic 4 -- is starting to overstay its welcome. The secret to Sonic's success is not intrinsically locked inside Green Hill Zone, and when something is revisited often enough to now be the norm, can it really still be considered "nostalgia"?Edited June 2017 by odaiba-memorial
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #15 odaiba-memorial A year ago
    Deleted June 2017 by odaiba-memorial
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  • Avatar for detten17 #16 detten17 A year ago
    I would argue that Mystic Cave Zone or Metropolis Zone have a better soundtrack, Mystic Cave Zone having the better platforming and exploring of the two. Chemical Plant Zone's exploring was neat but the music really wasn't my favorite. I tended to explore the Casino Zone and Mystic Cave Zone when I was a kid.
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  • Avatar for Galgomite #17 Galgomite A year ago
    Gotta disagree. Ok, I guess it's quintessentially Sonic, but Chemical Plant Zone contains most every flaw that prevents the series from being good in the here and now, including gameplay that's practically a quicktime event (floating through pipes!), speed that disorients (also while floating through pipes!) and at least one extremely cheap death (running out of road without warning!). Personally, I'm convinced that the success and fond memories of Sonic stem from the games' quick and easy Level 1s. As soon as you progress, and challenge is introduced, the game breaks. I don't think anyone can solve that problem.
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #18 odaiba-memorial A year ago
    @Galgomite I'll admit that classic Sonic games do have a few inherent design problems, but I don't think they're the reasons you stated. The disorienting speed is not the problem in and of itself; rather, it's that the camera is far too zoomed in to actually see obstacles coming in time to safely react to them, which is what creates the cheap deaths you mentioned. The 2D sections of Sonic Colors and Generations are much more forgiving because Sonic himself takes up much less of the screen's real estate (although Colors perhaps zoomed out a bit *too* much at times).

    Part of me is kind of disappointed that Sonic Mania, despite all the extra space provided by the advent of HD screens, has barely even *tried* to zoom the camera out. Did Sega learn nothing from the cramped, claustrophobic Sonic 4?
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