The mid 90’s had a lot of great things going on. Weezer and The Smashing Pumpkins were burning up the charts, Jumanji was a hit in theaters and Sonic the Hedgehog was at on top of the gaming world having just released the critically acclaimed Sonic The Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. Though despite this success things were not going well behind the scenes at Sega. Infighting between the company’s Japanese and American branches led to a split between the two teams, who argued on how to move on beyond the popular Genesis console, this rift led to a series of decisions that ultimately led Sega to exit the hardware market completely in 2002.
This led to Sega’s flagship franchise being in a state of limbo for almost a decade and a half, as various developers tried to give Sonic a face-lift (both literally and figuratively) to help him find new audiences. While not all of these efforts were in vain, the general consensus was the series’ glory days were behind it. Enter Christian Whitehead, a video game developer from Australia who gained fame by porting some of Sonic’s better outings to devices like iPhones and Android devices and who, alongside with Headcannon and PagodaWest Games would be responsible for trying to breathe life into a franchise that had more of running joke instead of about running fast.
The result of their efforts is Sonic Mania, a game that takes its inspiration from the early Sonic the Hedgehog titles (1-2-3-CD-& Knuckles) and imagines what would happen if Sonic 4 (no not that Sonic 4) had released either on the Genesis’ 32-bit add-ons or on the Sega Saturn. And it’s this revisiting the past that surprisingly moves Sonic into the future more than any of the games that released between now and Sonic the Hedgehog 3 with maybe the exception of Sonic Generations. That being said, a lot of Sonic Mania feels stuck in the past and that’s the game’s biggest flaw, that it doesn’t do enough to stand out from the game’s it’s trying to emulate.
Sonic Mania‘s direct predecessor in terms of 2D Sonic games – Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was a fairly ok game overall but it got one thing critically wrong, Sonic didn’t control right. Physics are an extremely important part of making a Sonic game ‘feel’ right and thankfully Sonic Mania nails this element. All three playable characters (Sonic, Tails and Knuckles) control exactly how you think they should, so if you’re well versed on 2D Sonic games you’ll have no problem jumping into Sonic Mania. There are some new elements thrown into the mix, like a Drop-Dash ability for Sonic however I didn’t find myself using it all that much, mostly relying on traditional Sonic platforming skills which was perfectly fine to get to the end of the game.
Now I know Sonic Mania caters to fans of older Sonic games and aims to emulate those original Genesis titles as closely as possible, but I really do wish it would do more new things, especially when it comes to Sonic’s abilities or the basic level design. Everything just feels very safe in this regard and that’s the biggest (actually the only) flaw with Sonic Mania, in that if you’ve played Sonic CD or Sonic the Hedgehog 3 before you likely won’t find anything mind-blowingly new here, which feels like a missed opportunity to take the franchise forward a few steps rather than reliving its past yet again
Every zone is split onto two acts, just like the older games. What’s new this time around is that the first act typically serves as the ‘classic’ stage and the second act introducing new elements. This is very evident when playing through some of the zones making their return like Green Hill and Chemical Plant and the second zone changes things up dramatically. And that’s a very nice feature because playing through older stages with little changes got old pretty fast, especially since you have to beat the game several times if you’re going for a 100% completion run. That being said the level design is top-notch, probably the best since Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Genesis. Each level is jam-packed with secrets, treasures and areas to explore and that alone makes replaying the game, especially as all three characters such a blast.
And that’s one of the most impressive things about Sonic Mania, that the game is so packed with Sonic trivia, nostalgia, Easter Eggs and histories. Every single inch of the game has something for you to find including mini-games. Blue Sphere makes a return, and while its harder than I remember (or maybe I got worse at it) it’s still fun to play. There’s also a new UFO Chase mini-game (how you earn the Chaos Emeralds) which looks like something straight out of the cancelled Sonic X-Treme for the Sega Saturn. All of this together would make a pretty full featured Sonic game but the developers went a few steps further, including tons of unlockable abilities and cheat codes making each playthrough feel like a brand new treasure hunt.
After playing (a few times) through Sonic Mania, I’m still floored by the game’s superb presentation. It really feels like this was a game designed for a 32-bit platform like the Saturn or Sega CD. The visuals are sharp, the animations incredibly fluid (Sonic and friends are beyond adorable) and each stage comes to life with its own personality and flair. This is exactly what a Sonic CD 2 would have looked like and the developers should be proud that they executed it all so wonderfully. The soundtrack is also world-class, featuring either remade tunes from Sonic’s past or new compositions, either of which perfectly capture Sonic’s history and feel. I rarely give perfect scores when reviewing games, but Sonic Mania‘s presentation easily deserves the full 10 points.
For 1/3 of the price of a regular game you get access to one of the best Sonic games in over 20 years, and that’s simply a fantastic deal. And while not terribly long (a normal playthrough is only a few hours) the sheer amount of replaybility ensures that you’ll be going back to Sonic Mania over and over again. However you should know that once you’ve gotten everything, that’s it. There’s no post-game content, no secret worlds and no plans for DLC as Sega has recently revealed, so I suggest savoring your time with the game or else it might go by as fast as Sonic through a loop-de-loop.
Sonic Mania does what no Sonic game since 1995 has managed to do – make the series exciting again. For the first time in what seems like forever I can’t wait for what the Blue Blur will do next, whether it be a follow-up to Mania or something totally different. In this age of games with massive budgets, huge advertising campaigns and DLC support planned for years after release its refreshing to play something that is a pure-passion project. It’s clear the Christian Whithead and his team put a lot of love into crafting Sonic Mania and the result is not only one of the best modern 2D platformers but one of the best Sonic games ever made.