Remember the glory days of coming home from school, grabbing a snack, and firing up the Sega Genesis to play some Sonic? In the dawn of the console wars (which are still ongoing today), the Genesis attempted to make its name with many a mascot. It wasn’t until a certain blue hedgehog blasted onto the scene that the console really began to show its chops. Sonic the Hedgehog was a unique platformer for its time, focusing on speeding through levels along multiple paths toward the end goal. The game was a critical success for Sega, spawning sequels that captured the hearts and minds of fans from all over the world.
…And then the transition of video games from 2D to 3D beat the ever-loving-snot out of our spiky, blue insectivore. Filled with glitches, slippery controls, bad cameras, and annoying voice-overs, the franchise began its downward spiral into obscurity. The world watched in confused disgust as Sega refused to learn from their mistakes, the company attempting everything from shooting mechanics to slow-paced 3D brawler-style combat. Fans remained adamant that all they really wanted was a return to the franchise’s roots— a new 2D platformer that was actually good. Although Sega attempted to appeal to those fans with Sonic 4, Sonic Colors, and Sonic Generations, they never quite managed to scratch that itch.
In the end, it wasn’t Sega’s Sonic Team that would deliver a product that the fans had been clamoring for, but a ragtag group of programmers and artists who were themselves a part of that very same fanbase. The development team was led by Chrisitan “Taxman” Whitehead, a programmer with a resume including fangames and ports of Sonic, Sonic 2, and Sonic CD. His own handmade game engine, Retro Engine, would be used for Sonic Mania. Although Christian Whitehead had gotten the “okay” from Sega to develop the game, it was with the added effort of companies Pagoda West Games and Headcannon that it came to fruition.
You have this guy to thank for Sonic’s return to 2D.
Pregame Pep Talk
With the history out of the way, let’s roll into the meat of this article and the reason you probably clicked on the link: “Is it any good?” Well, I’d like to preface everything by stating what should have been obvious by this point: as a 90s kid, I was a huge fan of Sonic. I owned the games, watched the shows, collected the comic books, and even had a pair of sweet Sonic & Knuckles tennis shoes. Having gone from that wide-eyed child to a man who avoids Sonic games like a plague, you can believe me when I say that the following review is one of passion.
If that doesn’t scare you away, well… awesome, let’s get to it then!
Since the entire premise of Sonic Mania is to deliver a heaping helping of 90s nostalgia, it should come as no surprise that it isn’t a story-heavy game. Taking a cue from the time period it’s emulating, Sonic Mania delivers what it DOES have through a combination of reading the game’s manual (a web manual since there’s no physical release) and unvoiced in-game scenes. This simple approach is a great way to make the game feel like it really belongs on the Genesis and is much appreciated.
The actual plot of the game is simple: Sonic and Tails (or Knuckles) happen to stumble on Eggman’s plan to steal a special new gemstone from Angel Island moments too late. The “Hard-Boiled Heavies”, special versions of the Eggrobo from Sonic & Knuckles, send our heroes away to an alternate dimension Emerald Hill Zone with a flash of light from the gem. Thus begins their journey to stop Eggman and the Heavies before they can use the gem to power another world-conquering contraption. That’s it. A simple framing device that gives us an excuse to revisit some classic levels with added twists. For a game like this, it works perfectly.
Some bad guys never learn…
Gameplay is what makes or breaks a game, especially when that game is part of the Sonic franchise. I’ll start by saying that for those longtime fans who always wished for more of the classic 2D Sonic gameplay, Mania delivers. Movement is as momentum-based as ever; standing still and holding forward will take the player character from a slow walk to a speedier run and speed will continue to increase as they gain momentum from loops, springs, and slopes just like the original.
Sonic loses his Insta-Shield ability from Sonic 3 & Knuckles but gains a new Drop Dash ability that allows him to instantly Spin Dash (that’s the down + jump button revving move introduced in Sonic 2) upon touching the ground. However, upon gaining an elemental shield, Sonic instead executes the special ability associated with that instead. Outside of some speed run tricks and a few boss fights the Drop Dash isn’t going to wow anyone but it can be a useful tool. I did find myself accidentally doing the Drop Dash out of habit at first, only because I always hit Insta-Shield as I jumped onto enemies as a child.
Tails retains his ability to fly and swim (albeit slowly) providing some nice level exploration, plus his rotating tails will actually damage any enemy that comes in contact with them. When playing as Sonic and Tails together, you can use a second controller to have a partner play as Tails to give you a lift and fight without worry of death—a nice feature carried over from the older games and great for couples. If you happen to be playing alone, you can press up + jump to have the A.I. Tails grab onto your hands and take you where you want to go, but it can be tricky to pull off.
Eveeryone’s favorite red echidna—that looks nothing like a real echidna—Knuckles, also returns with his signature abilities to run through otherwise impassable walls, glide, and climb. He is a bit slower paced and harder to use with his shorter jump height, but his style of gameplay, combined with secret paths, and a unique level make for fantastic compensation.
The levels themselves are split into 12 zones with 2 acts each, each one ending in a boss fight of some sort. Many zones, like Green Hill and Flying Battery, make a return but with a twist—the first act being much like the original version and the second becoming a remixed version with many new stage gimmicks and challenges to deal with. These can range from brand new gimmicks, like injecting syringes of fluid into the purple death liquid to make a new springy surface in Chemical Plant, to filling and draining the water in Hydrocity Zone so that you can float over obstacles inside of a bubble. It’s a creative take on some favorite levels of the past and it will have you guessing at what kind of changes are coming whenever you’ve made it to one of your favorites.
Springy green jelly is very satisfying.
Some of these level gimmicks in both the newer and remixed stages can get to be a hassle. For example, in the second part of Oil Ocean, you’ll be trying to get from lever to lever to clean the air before pollution covers the screen and starts eating away at your rings. Other times there can be trial-and-error situations that result in deaths because you had no idea what was going to happen.
When all is said and done, I feel like it is the boss fights that people will remember most from the game. There’s an epic Metal Sonic showdown, a boss that uses illusions of obscure characters like Knack the Weasel, a high speed chase involving missiles reminiscent of the old Doomsday Zone, and even a chance to use one of Eggman’s own machines against him. There’s only one major exception, anyone who has played the game will tell you that Oil Ocean’s second boss can be a huge pain. Not only can you be instantly killed by not jumping off of platforms at the right time, if the boss manages to hit you, you will almost always end up loosing all of your rings as they fall off the screen making the rest of the fight a one-hit kill if you mess up again. Lose all of your lives and it’s back to the start of the entire level.
Of course, what would a Sonic game be without Special Stage minigames and chaos emeralds?
Collect 25 rings and pass a checkpoint signpost to cause the classic ring of sparkles to spin above it. Jump inside and you’ll be whisked away to the Blue Spheres special stage from Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Completing these bonus minigames are optional but you will gain medals when you do. The more medals you gain, the more special features and modes will be unlocked. Want to play Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, Knuckles & Knuckles Mode, or play with Insta-Shield instead of Drop Dash? Gotta grab those medals! It won’t be easy though—these Blue Spheres stages are much harder than before.
Hidden extremely well throughout the game you will find giant golden rings. Touch one and you’ll be given a chance to play Mania’s take on the special stage. This time around, instead of the half-pipe, you’ll take control of your character as they race around on a track inspired by Sonic R with some SNES Mode 7 style ground texture. The goal is to catch up to a UFO carrying one of the chaos emeralds that is also moving around the track. To do this you must increase your speed by collecting blue spheres, dodging pitfalls and spike traps, and gathering rings to keep your time limit from reaching zero. Your speed gauge maxes out at Mach 3, and filling it past that rewards a score bonus. The special stages start somewhat difficult and become very much so. Add to that the fact that you only get one attempt per well-hidden golden ring, and it can be a few playthroughs before you’ll finally unlock Super Sonic. Once you do, you’ll be able to transform by pressing jump twice while holding 50 rings or more, but beware… as always, your rings will begin to tick down and, if they hit zero, you’re dead. Possessing all of the chaos emeralds before beating the final boss rewards the player with a true ending final boss fight.
The new Special Stages are fun but you’ll have to put in some work to find them.
The game’s difficulty can be a bit of a roadblock for some players, especially on the first playthrough. The infamous speed traps that many classic Sonic detractors cite as a reason for disliking the games are more prevalent than ever. Think you’ll make it to a hundred rings or keep your fire shield to use against the boss? You’ll need to either be extremely aware and responsive or memorize the layout before you can expect to avoid face-planting into an enemy placed in just such a way as to have you smack into him as you come in for a landing.
What I’m trying to say is, if you didn’t like the aspect of the speed traps before, you may lose your cool in this game. Personally, I always saw the speed traps as just another part of the gameplay… except for the ones that result in giving you an instant death by being squished between moving platforms. Those can be a real pain and, sadly, it seems like the game engine is designed for more squishes than ever before.
Old vs New
Upon starting up the game, I was instantly taken back to my childhood. From the title screen to the first moment of control, I found myself smiling from the nostalgia. Sonic Mania looks like a higher resolution 90s Sonic game should. The characters look great with crisp sprites and amazing new animations. Colors have been brightened up and the backgrounds have been given layers upon layers of depth. The game features options for different sharpness filters and even scan lines for that old-school CRT look. If you own a PS4 Pro and a 4k TV, you’ll get to experience pixel perfect 4k resolution while maintaining 60 frames per second.
The only minor gripe I have is that a few levels have somewhat jarring differences in color scheme and detail, acceptable given that the nature of the Sonic Mania is that there are many levels from different games, but at times these color schemes and details can cause you to lose your character in the background at high speeds if you aren’t used to them.
It should also be mentioned that waiting at the title screen long enough will reward you with an amazing opening animation by Tyson Hesse, who has done work for the now deceased Archie Comics, Sonic the Hedgehog comics and their spin-offs. If you are a fan of either Sonic or animation in general, you owe it to yourself to check it out; it captures the essence of 90s Sonic perfectly and has a beautiful art style.
Words fail to express how perfectly Tyson Hesse nailed it.
The Sonic series has always had a history of strange sound effects, like the “death fart” and the “bloop jump”, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that those classic sound effects make their return here. You’ll ping off of bumpers and bounce off plenty of springs, sounding the same as they ever did. Sure to appease anyone’s nostalgic side.
Sonic is known for its music, it’s a simple fact. Thankfully, PagodaWest Games’ composer, Tee Lopes, understood this and crafted a beautiful soundtrack of remixes and original songs that fit perfectly into the feel of not only classic Sonic but of 90s Sega in general. The soundtrack has an uplifting jazzy sound that meshes with the gameplay so well. None of It’s-So-Bad-It’s-Good lyrical rock music that modern Sonic is known for, and for me an answered prayer.
Split-screen? In 2017!? It’s a miracle!
That’s right! Not only can you and a partner play together as the classic Sonic & Tails duo, but there’s even a Competition Mode which pits player versus player in local split-screen! “Didn’t they have that in Sonic 2 and wasn’t it lame?” you may find yourself asking. Well, fear not, although similar in concept, this version of the mode has you racing to the end of the actual single-player levels in an effort to beat your opponent in multiple categories: Time, Rings, Items Collected, Enemies Defeated, and Score. It’s a fantastic time turning the tables when you find a power-up and your partner accidentally drowns because he was worried he’d lose if he went back for that last air bubble.
There are no bosses in this mode, but it makes good practice for Time Trial Mode, which pits your best clear times against an online leaderboard.
The Final Verdict:
If you were ever a fan of the blue hedgehog, you pretty much owe it to yourself to give Sonic Mania a play. It is easily the best game since Sonic 3 & Knuckles and, while it doesn’t quite beat it out, it comes incredibly close. With only a few minor issues stemming from a higher difficulty and minor aesthetic decisions, there’s really no comparison in quality or passion to be found in the recent Sonic offerings. Sonic Mania is such a blast to play, that you may just have difficulty processing just how something that has been at the butt-end of so many video game jokes could find a way to turn itself completely around.
Sonic Mania team, fantastic job! Can we get a sequel?
- Replicates the Look, Sound, and Feel of Classic Sonic
- Tons of Content
- Great New Zones and Remixed Favorites
- Fantastic Soundtrack
- Local Competitive Multiplayer
- Many Cheap Deaths on First Playthrough
- Can Be Brutally Difficult At Times
- Oil Ocean
- Some Level Gimmicks Are Unenjoyable