You can feel the love. From the moment you see Sonic wagging his finger on that familiar title screen all the way until you activate Super Sonic six hours later, you’ll be in no doubt that Sonic Mania was made by people who love the original 16-bit Sonic games. Fortunately, Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games don’t just love the old Sonic games, they understand what made them great.
Sonic Mania is an excellent game that just so happens to be a throwback to the best Sonic had to offer in the nineties. Perhaps even better. It’s not just excellent “for a Sonic game.” Neither is it fair to describe Mania as a “return to form.” It’s an excellent game. Period.
Like many gamers on the wrong side of thirty, I consider myself a lapsed Sonic fan. Unlike many of those gamers, my disinterest threatened to extend to the classics I remember so fondly. I’ve been doubting those memories a lot lately. Was 16-bit Sonic really that good? Early levels like Green Hill Zone had you running at breakneck pace to the end and rewarded repeated playthroughs with varying routes through the level. However, later levels had a bad habit of resorting to light puzzle platforming with blocks to push and ledges to carefully jump on, seemingly forgetting that Sonic is about speed.
In Sonic Mania, nearly every one of the twelve zones has that Green Hill Zone feeling, as you speed through from beginning to end while never feeling like Sonic is on autopilot. As in the Mega Drive classics, enemies pop up to break Sonic’s momentum, however the move to widescreen gives you enough time to react and avoid losing those hard earned rings. As such, it’s much easier to get into a rhythm and flow through each level so long as you don’t care about collecting special coins and emeralds.
Sonic Mania might as well be Sonic 4 for the Sega Saturn (despite what you might have heard, there isn’t an actual Sonic 4. It’s all a myth). After failing for years to take Sonic into the third dimension–and even making a mess of returning to 2D–Team Sonic brought on board Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games to take what they learned porting old Sonic games to mobile and working on Sonic fan projects to produce something for existing and new fans alike. I don’t know what the “Sonic Feel”™ is, but I know it when I play it and Sonic Mania has it in abundance.
Sonic Mania looks exactly like how you remember the original Sonic games looking, and much better than they actually looked. Sonic Mania could never have existed on the 16-bit hardware. Animations are more expressive, background layers have more detail and more moving layers, the levels are longer, and there are boss battles at the end of every act. And that’s to say nothing of the increased color palette. If all this increased graphical fidelity is a bit much–and you don’t like your eyes–you can add scan lines to make it look more like the originals.
Eight of the twelve zones are remixed versions of classic levels. Typically, the first act of these classic levels is almost identical to the original with the second act being a heavily remixed version. The changes are often subtle, from slightly different music, to fire shields appearing in levels from Sonic 1 and Sonic 2. Sonic can now perform a drop dash by letting go of the jump button, pressing it again in mid-air and holding it until you land. I don’t usually bother describing specific moves in such detail in a review, but the game doesn’t bother to explain it anywhere so I might as well do it here. The drop dash is a great way to get speed quickly, however it only worked for me about 50% of the time. Presumably, my timing was a bit off. Assigning the drop dash to a different button would have been helpful, especially since most of them go unused.
As is common with remasters and reboots, the new game brings along many of the originals’ flaws for good measure. The overall level quality is far more consistent in Mania than in any other Sonic game I’ve played however the last level is a drag. It’s far too slow and makes the ten-minute time limit appear stingy.
Every single act ends with a boss fight however the quality is all over the place. A few are genius but you can nearly always cheese your way through by going in for easy hits and then picking up your rings after you inevitably take damage. This isn’t a new problem for Sonic games but the problem is more noticeable given the increased boss count. A couple of bosses, such as Spider Robotnik and Metal Sonic, require a bit of thought to defeat, but the ring system is usually an easy crutch to fall back on.
And of course, Sonic Mania still has the lives system. If you get a game over, you’re forced to restart the level from the beginning of act one of the zone you were playing. That’s an improvement on the first Sonic that required you to restart the entire game, however it’s still a pain if you’re stuck on a boss at the end of act two (Oil Ocean Zone, I’m looking at you). Even though I don’t like the lives system, I’m conflicted about what to do with it. Collecting 100 rings to get an extra life is one of the core parts of a Sonic game; if you don’t get an extra life you need to get something to make that cool little noise appear. Sonic wouldn’t be complete without it.
One option would be to require 100 rings to enter a special stage. In Sonic Mania you only need 25 rings, which means nearly every checkpoint gives you the option to play the blue sphere stages from Sonic 3. These special stages get tiresome after a while so making them harder to activate might have been a good cool. Alternatively, they could have thrown in a few special stages from Sonic 1 and 2 for a bit of extra variety.
The special stages don’t grant chaos emeralds on completion this time around. Instead, you can win either a silver coin–for getting all the blue spheres–or a gold coin–for getting all of the blue spheres and all the rings. These coins unlock additional features such as debug mode, “& Knuckles” where you can have Knuckles as the support character instead of Tails, and even different jump modes. In an annoying–and somewhat pointless–restriction, you can only use these cool cheats in a “no save” mode. The cheats make it far too easy to activate Super Sonic, however by the time you’ve unlocked debug mode you’ve already played most of the game anyway. Perhaps it’s related to trophies/achievements, but it’s annoying nonetheless.
If you want to collect the chaos emeralds and become Super Sonic–and who doesn’t–you’ll need to find the large special rings and win a race against a UFO in stages similar to those in Sonic CD. The controls are a little awkward, with Sonic drifting around corners and a depth of field that makes it hard to determine the right time to jump over obstacles, however of all the special stages from classic Sonic, these are the best. There are plenty of special rings dotted around the levels so you won’t struggle to get all seven if you slow down once in awhile to look for hidden areas.
An initial playthrough will probably take around four to five hours, however collecting all the emeralds and coins will add another three at least. You can do three distinctly different playthroughs by playing as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, however the levels only feel properly balanced for Sonic. Flying through levels as Tails or floating through them as Knuckles feels like cheating and isn’t particularly fun once the novelty wears off.
Great Sonic games are a novelty these days. Fortunately, the novelty doesn’t wear off in a hurry. Sonic Mania is fast, fun, and full of surprises, from the first level until the last.