Ever since Sonic Mania was first announced at the franchise’s 25th Anniversary Party, fans have been going on an emotional rollercoaster ride not unlike that of watching the 2011 Muppets movie. While Sonic doesn’t have as horrendous of a track record as every single “professional” journalist claims, things surely weren’t the same after SEGA abandoned the home console market. Sonic just wasn’t a driving force to sell consoles a la Mario anymore. Yet, Sonic has a passionate fanbase that really wants it to succeed as powerfully as it once had all those years ago. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 seemed like that’s when SEGA would take note, but it ended up being more like another title that they released for the sake of putting out a game people will probably enjoy and nothing more.
It’s not to say the games were bad. Sonic had stellar titles during the seventh generation of consoles, and handheld entries always stayed true to what the Blue Blur was all about. With Sonic Mania in the equation, however, everyone finally had a game in the series that they were ravenously hyped for! A brand-new SEGA Genesis-style Sonic game with the folks behind the amazing smartphone remakes of those games? Sign us all up! Our little hedgehog is in the spotlight again as a behemoth at long last. As for the release, not only did it manage to live up to expectations but it actually went as far as to surpass them; an extreme rarity in the series that hasn’t been seen since the very entries Sonic Mania pays homage to.
The plot sees Sonic and Tails fly back to Angel Island via the plane from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Instead of seeing Knuckles like we did in Sonic 3 however, the place is overrun with Dr. Eggman’s robots. They dig up a crystal object known as the Phantom Ruby, and they use it to fling Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles back through time. As the character of your choice, you must go after that thing and defeat Dr. Eggman and his bots as you would in any other Sonic game.
The plot is a simple one, but it’s arguably how Sonic works at its best. The story is told not through voice acting or elaborate automated action sequences, but instead through brief sequences that transition to gameplay shortly thereafter. It’s snappy, to the point, and tells everything one would need to know about the objective at hand.
As soon as the title screen shows up, players will be in awe by the extremely fluid pixel animation conveyed by the super-large Sonic sprite waggling his finger like the good old days. This kind of love and dedication is spread throughout the entire game. Every single level, every single character, and every single action is beautifully articulated at sixty frames per second. It’s simply amazing how much work went into these extremely colorful landscapes and backgrounds. These levels are huge, too. There are so many multiple paths and aesthetic highlights that I feel positively stimulated just thinking about them. There are also loads (and I mean LOADS) of little details and references to Sonic‘s history to the point where I am constantly trying hard to prevent myself from spoiling any surprises.
Sonic Mania even imitates the psuedo 3D aspects of 16-Bit hardware, which is lovingly presented in areas like the Special Stages. The use of character models is a touch that I can’t help but smile to as well. Series newcomers won’t be able to catch all of the nods the game has to offer, but that’s nothing a bit of playtime can’t fix. After all, they will just get to appreciate even more as they replay Sonic Mania. Even if people don’t have much knowledge of the earlier games though, the incredible spritework and general sense of scale are more than enough to please the eye.
Probably the only aspect that could have been improved in this regard are the ending animations. Without giving away any spoilers, I feel like there could have been more going on. That is especially considering Sonic CD has a much longer animated ending sequence. Fortunately, the opening animation has its checklist filled to a tee………Lopes.
When you manage to secure fans of a game’s soundtracks several months before the game even comes out, you have a God-like composer at your disposal. Tee Lopes is that composer, and I subscribed to his YouTube channel as soon as I heard the theme for the in-game Studiopolis Zone. To say this guy knows what he’s doing is an understatement; Sonic Mania‘s soundtrack is a delicious mix of tasteful remixes to superb new melodies. There are so many times where I would listen to tracks from the game’s OST during bike rides, game development, and even writing articles for this very site. I can’t get enough of this game’s music, and I bet you won’t either when you take a listen for yourself.
Sound effects are also as engaging as they ever were in the olden days. Not only are the classic sounds present and accounted for, but there is a slew of new sounds for the various things that go on during the quest. Sonic Mania uses its sound mixing pretty cleverly; new sounds wouldn’t be out of place from the iconic titles, and there are even old sounds that are re-purposed for new things entirely.
Built from the same engine used to create the awesome remakes of Sonic‘s glory days, Sonic Mania plays like a dream. The playable characters feel exactly as they had back then, and the signature momentum-based platforming gameplay has aged unbelievably well. There are plenty of things to spin Sonic and co. around like a pinball on steroids, but unlike even some of the better Sonic games in recent years, hopping from one platform to another and figuring out how to navigate through the level are the highlights that are focused on first and foremost.
It’s amazing just how fine-tuned the level design is. It’s a known fact the developers are huge fans of the franchise, and it shows. It’s clear they carefully studied the balance between Sonic‘s sense of speed and platforming because Sonic Mania perfectly weaves the two elements together in a satisfying blend. There are some borrowed bits of the Genesis games’ levels, but they are over quicker than you may think. The newly crafted level portions seamlessly fit right into it all, and they occupy perhaps over 90% of the entire game. This is without considering the brand new Special Stages and the thirty-two Bonus Stages, but I’ll get to those in a bit. For now, I’d like to note that since there are so many paths one can take in a level, there’s no need to worry about retreading old ground since there’s always a fresher route you can traverse across.
Not to mention, the general degree of challenge is surprisingly precise for a Sonic title. There is an actually evident sense of progression regarding the difficulty, and the developers made sure it’s not at all unfair. While it’s not completely devoid of instances where players get hit by enemies they run straight into, it has definitely been neutered in comparison to older games. Even then, those instances can easily be avoided should the player access the situation in those couple of split seconds they are able to hop over or run past the baddie.
Speaking of baddies, the bosses are easily the best I’ve seen in a Sonic game. Usually, I don’t take into account boss battles in the series because they often feel like they’re in the game just to be in the way and for players to kill. But Sonic Mania even makes this part of the game something to appreciate. There are bosses where you can’t just whale on them as long as you have that one ring to hold onto. You’d have to take into consideration what they’re about to do and how you should proceed about it.
This can also apply to the Special and Bonus Stages. The Bonus Stages are just like those of , only except there’s thirty-two of them. You run around to collect blue spheres while avoiding the red ones and each stage speeds up the longer you’re in there. It’s a simple, yet challenging formula but it’s never made to be unpredictable (aside from visiting a couple of them for the first time). There is always a set, compact design to each stage and you can always enter one by going through a starry ring above a checkpoint should you have over 25 rings. Special Stages are harder to enter since you’d have to find a giant ring in a level to go into one. They are all pretty well hidden but there are only seven Special Stages; since there are twelve Zones with two levels in each in the entire game, there’s a lot of opportunities to search for them.
Special Stages play similarly to Sonic CD‘s, but with elements of Sonic 3 & Knuckles‘s in the mix. You collect blue spheres to increase your speed, and there are rings along the track that help increase the time limit. Your job is to catch up to the UFO holding the Chaos Emerald, and you can loop around the stage as many times as the time limit can allow. The smart thing about these stages is that there is a learning curve to it, and there is room for you to screw up a bit without completely overthrowing the round – a far cry from Sonic 2‘s ultimately punishing difficulty spikes in its Special Stages.
I could go on and on and on about this game, but that’s only because Sonic Mania is just that fantastic. There are even unlockables you can obtain by playing through those Special/Bonus Stages, from the massively invincible Super Sonic to the extras that are sure to please and add to the overall package. There’s also a Time Attack mode for the competitive speedrunners out there (complete with online leaderboards). Not into online leaderboards? Well, there’s a local multiplayer V.S. mode where you can race a friend head-on. Admittedly, I did wish this also had an online mode considering the same people made the Sonic 2 remake – which had online play in that regard – but there’s so much else to enjoy from Sonic Mania that it just didn’t bother me in the long run.
Overall, Sonic Mania is my new favorite Sonic game. I bought this title with my own money, and it deserves every penny it gets. For twenty dollars, Sonic Mania is an absolute steal for the quality it offers. If anything, it makes me worry a bit about Sonic Forces. No, I’m not assuming Sonic Forces will be terrible. I just think it would be in an awkward position. It will inevitably be compared to Sonic Mania. If a $60 retail title by Sonic‘s usual dev team appears to be inferior to a $20 eShop title, who’s to say SEGA would continue to invest in the costlier retail entries?
Then again, we may never know. If Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice exists, that may not necessarily be the case. All I can say is: Buy Sonic Mania, play it, and adore it.
Christian Whitehead, Simon Thomley, and everyone else responsible for Sonic Mania should be proud of what they’ve accomplished. Many years ago, these guys merely made fangames – free downloadable titles from the Internet that were made solely with their leisure. Now look at them. They’re standing side by side with the very hedgehog they idolized decades prior. Lots of people could only ever dream to have such positions in life. Yet, it just goes to show just how much of a long way passion and dedication can go.