Sonic has spent last 15 years or so as gaming’s most reliable punchline. Poorly received modern titles have been exemplified by laughable storytelling, ill-conceived gimmicks, and, often times, broken gameplay. This left old-school fans to ask the eternal question: Why can’t Sega just make the games like they did on Sega Genesis? For the hedgehog’s 25th anniversary, Sega assembled a dream team of talented indie developers, all of whom have worked on Sonic-related ports and passion projects, to do just that.
On its surface, Sonic Mania takes the series back to tried-and-true basics. That entails 16-bit graphics and sound, classic side-scrolling platforming, and three beloved characters as opposed to 37 inane critters. But Sonic Mania prevails as more than just a polished highlight reel of the Blue Blur’s best moments. A slew of creative, new ideas experiment and expand on Sonic’s classic design for wonderful results.
Sonic Mania’s formula feels like the team designed it using two steps: Give players what they remember and then spice it up with a new take. The first Acts of classic areas like Chemical Plant Zone and Hydrocity Zone play largely the same with new twists sprinkled about. Changes include adding enemies and other elements that didn’t appear originally. One of my favorite examples was using the flame shield from Sonic 3 to spark raging oil fires in Sonic 2’s Oil Ocean Zone. Act 1 allows fans to re-familiarize themselves with old favorites while making them feel new again. Meanwhile, newcomers get a general idea of what these stages were originally like and maybe see why people loved them in the first place.
On to the designers’ second step: Presenting the spicy new take. Upon reaching the second act, classic tunes take on a remixed form and everything gets flipped on its head. Chemical Plant Zone suddenly features giant syringes that inject goo into the chemical sea, turning it into a bouncy surface. Quicksand-like trash piles litter Sonic & Knuckles’ Flying Battery Zone. The designers did a masterful job of incorporating their own crazy ideas into the original templates. The new elements don’t feel out-of-place or negatively disrupt the zone’s original flow. Rather, they complement and, in some cases like Chemical Plant Zone, improve upon it. Unfortunately, the impact these changes have will be lost on players unfamiliar with the the old levels, though newbies should still find them enjoyable. But for seasoned players intimately familiar with the old games, Act 2 feels like an exciting and unpredictable treat.
A batch of imaginative new stages stand proudly beside the series’ best levels. I had a blast zapping through satellite dishes and playing powerball-style mini-games in the film-themed Studiopolis Zone. Mirage Saloon Zone has a cool blend of western aesthetics with magician elements. The new zones play wonderfully and sound just as good thanks to toe-tapping original scores composed by famed Sonic remixer, Tee Lopes. For Sonic diehards, the sprinkles of obscure nods to the series’ history offer even more sources of enjoyment and nostalgia.
Boss battles take place at the end of each Act instead of one per zone, meaning a lot of them. Thankfully, most feel inventive and offer good fun with only a couple of duds. They can also be as surprising as the stages themselves. One memorable bout pits a pint-sized Sonic against Eggman’s gashapon (a Japanese vending machine) style ship. Hitting a knob on the ship dispenses capsules containing mini versions of past Eggman contraptions, like the classic airship and drill car, that must be taken out first. A Puyo Puyo Tetris showdown ala Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine may be my favorite bout in terms of pure fan service.
Collecting chaos emeralds involves finding hidden ring portals leading to a UFO chase special zone inspired by those in Sonic CD. Fun and challenging, I especially like how the team intentionally rendered these stages in crappy polygonal graphics that harken back to the Sega Saturn era. I can’t express the same enjoyment for the return of Sonic 3/Knuckles’ “collect the blue orbs” bonus stages. Granted, I was never a fan of this mini-game even in its time, so take this as a very personal gripe. The rewards for beating these stages include new abilities, like Sonic CD’s Super Peel Out, AKA “the figure-eight run”. The high frequency of these bonus stages became irritating because of their low barrier for entry. About 25-30 rings opens them at each checkpoint, meaning you have to halt your adventure to visit them multiple times per stage. Those who enjoy these mini-games will probably be okay with this. I began ignoring them entirely towards the end in favor of continuing uninterrupted.
Outside of the main game, a time attack mode and the Sonic 2 versus competition mode, where two players race through maps, offer decent diversions. Chaos emerald collection stands as the main source of replayability, as does playing the entire game as Knuckles. You can also play the story co-op with a partner controlling everyone’s favorite two-tailed fox, Tails.
Somewhat surprisingly, Sonic Mania is a tough game. Some rust with playing classic Sonic may have been a personal factor, but completing stages often left me breathing a sigh of relief. At times, the game throws every obstacle it can muster to bring Sonic to his knees. Especially the latter stages, such as the Titanic Monarch Zone, a cool but barely comprehensible labyrinth of enemies and other forms of “ouch.” I saw the Game Over screen more often than I care to admit and never had more than 6 lives throughout the game.
On top of carrying over Sonic’s best qualities, Sonic Mania also inherits some of the series’ less savory traits. Forward momentum still takes an annoying time to get going when you’ve been stopped cold. You’ll hit hidden spring pads you’d never know to avoid until after Sonic’s been sent careening into a well-placed hazard. Underwater areas remain an anxiety-spiking series of traps seemingly designed to make you want to punch the screen. The end-level inverted animal pod once pushed me through the ground, killing me in a glitch befitting of the 90s. I found that my patience for this kind of stuff has waned since that decade. Be prepared to scream “Oh, come on now!” at periodic intervals.
Sonic Mania retains everything that made the Blue Blur a household name in the first place, for better or worse. Thankfully, the hedgehog’s positive aspects shine brighter. This lovely-crafted celebration of Sonic’s most beloved era stands as his best outing in many years. Newcomers and modern fans get to enjoy a well-made look at an icon’s past. Long-time enthusiasts can feel a bit of vindication now that their hero has one good game under his belt (in this decade). On a personal and cheesy note, Sonic Mania made me the happiest Sonic fan since I bragged about the games in grade school.
Sonic Mania was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and available now for Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. The PC version arrives August 29.