If there’s a game that I certainly wasn’t expecting to gush over this year, it’s Sonic Mania. Sure, the original 2D Sonic the Hedgehog games are awesome, but it’s not like Sega hasn’t tried to capitalize on fan nostalgia for these classic games before. Sonic the Hedgehog 4, which came out in two parts in 2010 and 2012, was fun, but it lacked the soul and creativity of the original games. That game was the New Super Mario Bros. of the Sonic series, simply providing retro style stages without thinking out of the box.
Sonic Mania, however, is different. This game feels like a celebration, treating the history of Sonic with a care and reverence that previous games have missed. Mania has it all: obscure references to older games, beautiful sprite artwork, creative set pieces, great music, perfect platforming physics, but most of all, fantastic level design. Mania successfully takes the baton from the Genesis titles, and ends up evolving into what could very well be the best Sonic game ever produced, period.
Sonic Mania was imagined as a follow-up to Sonic 3, with technical limitations that are somewhere between the Sega Genesis and the Sega Saturn. Half of Mania feels like a remix, featuring returning stages from the original trilogy and Sonic CD, and the other half feels like a brand new game in the Sonic canon, bringing some of the greatest levels we’ve ever seen in this series.
At its core, Sonic is a simple side scrolling platformer. Your goal is to reach the end of the 24 levels in the game, and defeat the boss that awaits. What makes Sonic, or at least the good Sonic games, unique, is the expansive level design that encourages multiple playthroughs. Where Mario levels feel like a playground, your typical level in Sonic Mania feels like a sprawling theme park.
What helps this replayability is the three main characters and their varied play styles. There’s Sonic, who has the most basic moveset, but he can run the fastest and has the most fluid movement. Tails is a bit slower than Sonic, but he can fly for a short period of time, allowing him to easily reach high places. Then there’s Knuckles, who’s the slowest, but has the ability to glide and climb walls. Depending on which character you play as, you will be seeing totally different parts of a single level.
Sonic controls very closely to how he did in Sonic 3, but has the addition of a new move: the Drop Dash. This move allows Sonic to perform a dash when he lands a jump. Honestly though, I went through the game without really using this move, and didn’t find it to really be needed throughout the game. Instead, it seems to serve as a tool that players can mess around with to help them get higher scores, particularly in the Time Trial mode.
Of the 12 zones in the game, 8 of them are returning from previous games, while 4 are brand new. Sonic fans will notice the return of recognizable levels, such as Green Hill zone from Sonic 1, Stardust Speedway from Sonic CD and Lava Reef from Sonic & Knuckles. This is the way that it plays out: Act 1 of each zone typically resembles how the level was in the original game, but remixing the layout. Then, Act 2 throws everything on its head, inserting creative new mechanics and themes into these classic levels. For example, Hydrocity Zone from Sonic 3 starts familiar enough, but later on adds this cool mechanic where you change the water levels and ride a boat in certain parts of the level.
Another thing that makes these levels special is the perfect balance between platforming segments and using your abilities to go insanely fast. Like in the early games, though, reaching high speeds feels like a reward for your exploration. You have to find places where you can build momentum and gain speed, and the payoffs are these dazzling moments of absolute chaos on the screen, as you hurl full-speed towards the goal.
Like in previous games, there are special stages here that help break up the gameplay and mix things up. These stages are more fun in Mania than they ever were in the original games. There are two main types: Special Stages and Bonus Stages. Special Stages place you in a fully 3D race track, where you have to catch up to an UFO that’s holding a Chaos Emerald. You gain speed by collecting blue orbs on the race track, and collecting rings extends your timer. These stages are a blast, and I looked forward to finding the secret giant rings in each stage just so I could take a crack at these. The gameplay kind of resembles Sonic R, and the lo-fi 3D graphics are fantastic, replicating the early 3D effects of the mid-90s down to the crappy draw distance and wonky collision detection, while never feeling frustrating.
Bonus Stages resemble the Special Stages of Sonic 3. You run in a pseudo-3D environment, and your goal is simply to touch all the blue orbs in the stage. Touch a red orb, and you lose automatically. The catch is, every blue orb you touch turns into a red orb. These stages are more reliant on memorization, but have less bearing on the game itself. Basically, you can choose to go into these stages at certain checkpoints, but it is totally optional. Beating enough Bonus Stages unlocks special features, such as the “& Knuckles” mode.
The Speed of Sound
The visuals of Mania are spectacular, with beautifully animated 2D sprites and backgrounds, but has the flourish of lo-fi 3D effects. This is wonderful, and it’s the kind of thing developers were doing back then, when 3D was still in its infancy in the console world. I really wish more developers would use this aesthetic, because it looks awesome. Even better than the visuals, though, is the music. One of the strongest aspects of Sonic, even in the not-so-good games, is the music. Mania does justice to the classic themes it brings back, while introducing some terrific remixes and original tracks.
Aside from the main mode, there is the obligatory Time Trial mode, as well as a multiplayer mode. A run through the main campaign will only take you a couple of hours, but I got stuck a couple of times–this game isn’t a walk in the park, and Sonic veterans will find a challenge in the later stages. However, this isn’t a game you’re going to play through once and then put it down. There is enough incentive in the different characters, different paths, and the true ending you get for collecting all of the Chaos Emeralds. For the $20 asking price, you’re getting a ton of content to keep you busy for a while.
Music to My Ears
In a franchise that has been through the ups and downs that Sonic has had, a game like Sonic Mania is a breath of fresh air. Who would have thought that turning fans into developers would be such a good strategy? Other companies should take note of Mania‘s development, because it resulted in one of the best games of this year.
Mania isn’t perfect, which is why I’m not giving this a 10. It relies a little too heavily on the classic stages, although this isn’t really a problem if you’re a newcomer. Even as someone who’s played the classic games, it wasn’t really a problem since I haven’t played them in so long. I found one or two of the boss fights to be a little annoying, although the vast majority are among the best bosses in the entire series.
If you’re on the fence though, this game is a must-buy. Mania perfects the 2D Sonic formula, giving us the best combination of mechanics, levels and presentation that there’s ever been in this series.
- The visuals are spectacular, combining gorgeous sprite work with the occasional lo-fi 3D flourish. It really resembles a game out of the 90s.
- The music is fantastic, featuring both remixes from the classic games and new tracks.
- The classic levels are both familiar and different, introducing new mechanics and themes to these levels.
- The new levels are easily the best here, and kind of leave you wishing there were more.
- The bosses are crazy, referencing Sonic‘s past while still being insanely fun.
- The physics and flow of the gameplay are better than they have ever been in any Sonic game.
- The Special Stages and Bonus Stages are fun, and provide a nice diversion to break up the gameplay and improve the pace.
- While the classic stages are nice and all, I wish there were more new stages.
- One or two of the bosses were kind of annoying. The ones that come to mind are the bosses of Oil Ocean Act 2 and Hydrozone Act 2.