Sonic Mania is classic Sonic. It’s so faithfully recreated that it was hard not to be hit hard by nostalgia from the very first chiming of the word “Sega.” Developers Pagoda West Games and Headcannon really captured that blue-lightning in a bottle with Sonic Mania. But that’s no surprise, since director Christian “Taxman” Whitehead has been using the Retro Engine to bring classic Sonic games to modern devices now for nearing a decade. Sonic Mania was described by Sonic Team head and longtime series producer Takashi Iizuka as being a passion project for all of the fans of the early Sonic games, and a hopefully a reemergence in quality that the Sonic series sorely needs.
It is notorious how bad most recent Sonic games have been with few exceptions. It got so bad that even Sega admitted there was a problem. Some schools of thought even argue that the Sonic games were never good – we were just dumb kids who didn’t know any better. I’m not going to get too far into that discussion, but I will admit that I personally have a bias towards not liking Sonic. Sure, he’s quick, but he isn’t agile – Sonic starts off at a slow pace like he’s stuck in molasses, and his momentum makes him feel like he’s always on ice. Sonic has also been stuck right in the middle of the screen, so when he’s going fast you don’t have time to react properly to what’s in front of him. When he’s going really fast, your player agency is often taken away and you watch as Sonic zips through tubes and through hoops – it looks neat, but is it fun? Well, it can be, but it can also be frustrating in a way that doesn’t feel fair. Lose all of your rings to unseen hazards, or worse: get instantly killed by a platform floating from just off screen. These do lend to the replaying of levels, and finding the optimum routes through them – but I have so little fun on my first run through, I often don’t want to go back and explore. These gripes are faithfully recreated in Sonic Mania – but with some fast, surprisingly fun levels and some new twists, Sonic Mania was so masterfully created I can’t help but admire it, and despite frustrations, even enjoy it.
Sonic Mania has Sonic and company again facing off against Doctor Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik and his mechanized creations. Dr. Eggman has created an elite group of robots styled after himself called the Hard-Boiled Heavies, led by the Heavy King. Fans of classic Sonic know that the story is mostly on the side, but Sonic Mania provides great homage to Sonic CD, especially with its hand-drawn animated cutscenes. The soundtrack is its own 90’s nostalgia fueled awesome.
Taking place place after the events of 1994’s Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic Mania combines many elements from the Sonic series until that point. You can choose to play as Sonic the eponymous hedgehog, Tails the two-tailed fox, or Knuckles, the spike-fisted echidna. Each has their own unique abilities- Sonic can drop dash, Tails can fly for short bursts and Knuckles can climb walls and glide. You can also play as Sonic and Tails as a duo with the AI taking over for Tails when there isn’t a player 2 available. The game will save your progress between chapters unless you choose to play the classic “no save” route which allows only for limited continues and is dependent on extra lives accrued through gameplay.
With 12 zones, each divided into 2 acts a piece, Sonic Mania can be completed in a long-afternoon. The levels themselves are both a remix of old, popular levels and entirely new ones, some of which are based on prototype levels that were never finished. Developer Headcannon has managed to make some really great, fast Sonic stages that actually let the player maintain some control while still going fast. Still present are the instant kills, and the dreaded water levels with drowning music and all. Sometimes the boss encounters can be overly long and frustrating but there is a good variety of them with one boss encounter being a literal match of Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine.
Despite its short length, Sonic Mania has a lot of replayability. Each completed zone unlocks a time trial mode for that zone and players can race each other in the split-screen versus mode. The split-screen view flattens out both images a bit and makes some of the more busy stages look muddied, but it’s serviceable. Chaos Emeralds also make a return, and spoilers: if you find all of the secret stages and earn all of them you unlock a 13th zone and the true ending.
It’s good to see Sega taking the right steps with the Sonic franchise. Sonic Mania is a love-letter to the fans that has been so drenched in nostalgia that anyone who has even seen a Sega Genesis as a kid will be transported back to childhood once they get a whiff. It’s masterfully crafted with the feel of Sonic intact, for all of the good and the bad that brings. Sonic Mania is available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. It will be available for Windows on 8/29/2017.