Sonic Mania is nothing short of a triumphant return to the spectacular roots of the Sonic franchise. By combining the best parts of every 2D Sonic title with a hefty twist of original content, Sonic Mania proves that the series still has a great deal of mileage.
Developer: Headcannon, PagodaWest Games, Sega
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
MonsterVine was provided with a PS4 code for review.
As part of the dying breed known as “Sega Kids”, Sonic played a large part in my beginnings as a gamer. The Genesis and Dreamcast were the consoles I called home, and Sonic 1-3 and Adventure were my favorite games. It’s no secret that the blue Hedgehog suffered quite a fall as the years went on, with titles like Sonic ‘06 and Sonic Unleashed tarnishing the fastest thing alive’s reputation. Skepticism towards the series was understandable, if not expected, as only a couple titles, namely Colors and Generations, were able to break this curse, and they were followed up by titles ranging from alright, like Lost World, to abysmal, like Sonic Boom. With such an inconsistent track record, could Sonic Mania possibly restore faith to the disillusioned fans who have stuck with Sega for so long?
The answer is yes. Sonic Mania takes the best parts of the series and remixes them in a way that is exciting, challenging, and at times, nothing short of breath-taking. Classic levels are redone in new and refreshing ways, while the new and original levels interpret and amplify the features that made not only Sonic, but Sega as a company, great to begin with.
The story of Sonic Mania is the standard fare for retro platformers. Eggman and his robots are after Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles, they have some means of time travel, and that’s really all there is to it. It’s as minimalist as one would hope for, meaning Mania never gets stuck trying to tell a story when it could be focusing on gameplay, an issue that many past Sonic titles faced. No, Sonic Mania instead opts to hone in on what made Sonic great, to grand results.
Both the classic and newly-made levels pulsate with originality, both in terms of visuals and gameplay mechanics. It quickly becomes apparent that Sega had a lot of talented developers, both in-house and from the rom-hacking community, as the sheer amount of style and substance that Sonic Mania emits is exceptional. Levels are long, but designed so well that any of the three playable characters, Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, will be able to go through the levels in their own unique ways. Knuckles can climb up or glide through certain areas, while Tails can fly over certain gaps. None of these features feel forced, as the levels are designed with these unique mechanics in mind. Taking a page from the still-amazing Sonic CD, Mania’s stages are large and multi-faceted, meaning players can either blaze through at top speeds in Time Attack mode, or take their time to see all that each level has to offer in the central Mania mode.
And each level has plenty to offer, thematically and in terms of gameplay. The Mirage Saloon Zone, for example, has you bouncing off piano keys and spinning on bar stools. At the same time, you’ve got to pick your trajectory carefully when being shot out of a revolver straight out of the old west. The integration of each level’s theme with its unique gameplay mechanics adds a sense of cohesion to each level that wasn’t entirely present in classic Sonic titles, making each new Zone a joy to explore.
The new boss fights could very well be the highlight of the game, as they best embody the originality I’ve so frequently mentioned. Whether you’re fighting a robot spider by using the game’s physics to bump it into nearby spikes, or manning one of Eggman’s own machines to take him down in a fun role-reversal. These new takes on classic Sonic bosses keep you guessing throughout the entire game, which is a feeling that few modern games have been able to emulate. Even the slightly-modified Special Stages bring a simplistic charm to the main game, despite focusing on basic tasks like collecting orbs or running towards a UFO. There were quite a few moments where I was genuinely excited to the point of embarrassingly smiling or laughing while playing the game, which hasn’t happened in quite some time.
In one stage, you even take Eggman on in a straight-up match of the classic Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine. This is one of the many ways that Mania lovingly embraces the colorful past that the Sonic series has. Another standout moment is when one boss transforms into Bean the Dynamite, Bark the Polar Bear, and Fang the Sniper, characters from often forgotten titles like Sonic the Fighters and Sonic the Hedgehog Triple Trouble. These minor references make Sonic Mania feel like a true celebration of the blue blur’s legacy, in a way that only Sonic Generations could compete with. The only minor complaint I have is that Oil Ocean Zone isn’t an overly memorable level to bring back, and while its improvements certainly help make it stand out more, I feel as though there are plenty of classic stages that deserved the spot a bit more.
Sonic Mania’s visuals carefully but expertly manage to walk the line between retro and gorgeously updated. There are plenty of recognizable sprites and animations from the classic Sonic titles, but many have been touched up in minor but charming ways. The stages are full of color and explosive design choices that give each Zone more life than the last. Whether it’s a plethora of gleaming neon lights, a growing double-helix made up of small orbs, or a blazing inferno that rapidly fills your screen with smoke, every stage is full of their own original effects and designs that make the entire game a visual treat.
The sound of Sonic Mania somehow manages to measure up to the visuals in every regard. Classic stages begin with subtle remixes to their original tracks that become more and more complex with each act, while new stages have music that fits right into the enormous pantheon of remarkable Sonic tunes. Even the Special Stages have their own songs that feel as though they’ve always belonged in Sonic’s library. The sound effects especially harken back to the Genesis/Sega CD age in a way that even the least-nostalgic players will notice.
The Final Word
Sonic Mania has simply blown me away. Full of love, charm, and stellar gameplay, Sonic Mania will remind the game industry why it loved Sonic in the first place, while providing a ton of fantastic and original platforming goodness to please even the most jaded gamers. Sonic Mania is simply an amalgamation of everything that makes Sonic great, and one that will hopefully serve as a new jumping-off point for the series going forward.
– MonsterVine Rating: 5 out of 5 – Excellent