So it’s no secret that a lot of Sonic games aren’t…the best. Sonic has had it rough for a very long time and has unfortunately garnered a bad reputation among gamers for repeated bad games. Even when SEGA manages to produce generally well received games like Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, they’re sadly followed up by games like Sonic Lost World and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric (reception for the former being mixed, while the latter of which easily made it’s way into many “worst games of all time” lists), which brought Sonic’s reputation right back down to the bottom. Yeah, the blue hedgehog has definitely had it rough.
For a while now, many Sonic fans have just been yearning for the good ol’ days of Sonic, back when he was shorter, a bit chubby, had black eyes, was 2D, controlled like a pinball, and was a cultural phenomenon. SEGA has tried replicating the classic style of Sonic before, but they couldn’t even get that quite right (looking at you, Sonic 4). So if SEGA and Sonic Team can’t do it, then how about Sonic fans themselves?
Yes, Sonic Mania is a collaborative effort between Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games working with SEGA and Sonic Team to create a true to form 2D Classic Sonic experience. The developers are hardcore Sonic fans who grew up with the blue hedgehog and were brought in to create the next official 2D Sonic. It’s a game made by fans for fans, and it sure shows.
You can feel the amount of passion that went into every inch of this game. From the awesome opening animation to the menus themselves, everything is designed with a pleasing and inviting aesthetic that gets you raring to go. The sprite work is excellently done, taking the old sprites and polishing them up with smoother animation and detail. Original sprites and backgrounds also look like they fit right into the Sonic universe. Levels are beautifully designed with many moving set pieces and roaming enemies that make each level feel alive. There are a variety of settings from lush green areas like Green Hill Zone, to lively city areas like the new Studiopolis Zone. The game’s visual design actually captures what a new 2D Sonic game would look like if it were made for the SEGA Saturn, that one era of SEGA’s legacy that Sonic missed out on when it came to a core platforming adventure.
That passion in the game’s visuals is also heard in its soundtrack. Oh my GOD, this soundtrack! Sonic games almost always have great music. Even the Sonic games that most consider awful at least have some sweet tunes. Sonic Mania is no exception as it features both wonderfully remade classics, and brand new tracks that have strong Sonic CD vibes to them. Tee Lopes is to thank for this amazing soundtrack who, like the developers, is a long time Sonic fan who used to make Sonic fan remixes on Youtube.
Gameplay and Content
The most crucial aspect of this game, and what SEGA and Sonic Team can’t seem to replicate themselves, is how Sonic feels. Well fear not, as Sonic Mania captures the feel of Classic Sonic perfectly. The physics and momentum based platforming is back in all its glory, so if you’ve played the classic 2D games, you’ll feel right at home.
In Mania Mode, which is basically the main adventure, you can play as Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, or Sonic and Tails together when selecting a file. Sonic now has a brand new ability called the Drop Dash. Pressing the jump button and holding it in mid-air will cause Sonic to do an instant mini-Spin Dash upon landing. It’s a handy new ability that keeps Sonic moving and will surely assist in speed runs. Tails and Knuckles control the same as they did in the classic games; Tails can fly vertically up while Knuckles can glide forward and climb walls.
With true to the original physics and control, this game’s other shining accomplishment are the levels themselves and their design. As great as the 2D classics were, they weren’t perfect and had their own issues, mainly being the way some levels were designed. Sometimes levels seemed to punish and discourage you from going fast. There’d be times when you’d be speeding, going through loops and having a good time, only to slam right into an enemy or spike trap that you couldn’t see coming and would have no way of reacting to. That along with some pretty cheap traps and oddly heavy platforming segments resulted in you going through levels slowly and carefully, which defeats the “gotta go fast” nature of Sonic.
Mania totally nails it with the level design. Each level has a great mixture of both speed and platforming that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Speeding through levels is fun and I rarely feel in danger of running into a trap because, for one, it’s in widescreen so I can easily see what’s ahead of me, and two, levels typically aren’t designed to mess you up. Anytime I got hit, crushed or fell into some spikes, 9 times out of 10, it was my own fault and not the game being cheap.
As for the levels themselves, they’re mostly returning levels from Sonic 1, Sonic 2, Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic CD. Having returning levels was one concern I and many had coming into the game, because we’ve all played these levels before and would probably like to have a brand new experience. Luckily though, what they’ve done with these levels eased those concerns. The designers have really updated these classic levels in new and creative ways, to the point where they sometimes feel like completely different levels. Typically, Act 1 of returning levels are more true to the original with a few tweaks and additions here and there, but Act 2 is when they get really creative with brand new design elements that breath new life into these old favorites. And the few original levels that the game does have are some of the most creative and brilliantly designed levels of any Sonic game, becoming instant top favorites for me across the series. The bosses are also some of the most fun and varied I’ve experienced in the classic series, with fights against the Hard Boiled Heavies and a certain other robot being among my personal favorites. I won’t spoil too much, just experience them for yourselves, they’re great!
Like with any Classic Sonic game, Sonic Mania also has special stages. Similarly to Sonic 3 & Knuckles, there are giant rings hidden in each level. Finding them will take you to a special stage that’s kind of a mixture of Sonic CD‘s special stages and Sonic R (in a good way, I promise). Your objective is to catch the UFO carrying the Chaos Emerald by collecting blue spheres to gain more speed and collecting rings to gain more time. And collecting all 7 Chaos Emeralds will, of course, unlock your Super form. That’s not all though as passing a checkpoint with 25 rings or more will grant you access to a bonus stage, which are the Blue Sphere stages from Sonic 3 & Knuckles with returning and new courses. Beating them will grant you a medallion each time that gradually unlock neat extras like playing through the game with Sonic’s older abilities and replacing Tails as your partner with Knuckles. This even works if you’re already playing as Knuckles, making “Knuckles the Echidna in Knuckles & Knuckles” a reality!
Aside from the main mode, you’ve also got Time Attack, which is exactly what you think it is. Challenge any level and try to complete it as fast as possible, and if you make any mistake, you can easily restart by holding the top button on your controller. There’s also Competition Mode which works similarly to how it was in Sonic 2. Two players choose a character and see who can get to the end of the level first while collecting rings and defeating enemies to add to their overall score. Unfortunately, there’s no online play though. It’s strictly couch multiplayer like the old days.
The Not So Perfect
Now I’ve mostly just been fanboying about this game so far, but like all things, it’s not perfect. There are a few things it could do better.
Probably the biggest bummer with this game is the fact that it’s mostly returning levels from past games. As mentioned earlier, how they’ve updated the levels in fun and creative ways does mostly make up for it, but still at the end of the day, you are playing through Green Hill Zone for like the 10th time. Considering how amazing the new and original levels are, it does end up feeling like missed potential and makes one wonder what a new 2D Classic Sonic game with all new levels would be like.
Another thing that kind of irked me was the story and how it was told. For the most part, the story is pretty simple. Sonic, Tails, and Eggman pick up a strange energy signal. They go to the source, but Eggman has gotten there first, where he extracts a mysterious power stone called the Phantom Ruby. With his new robots, the Hard Boiled Heavies, he plans on using the Phantom Ruby for his usual plans of world domination and Sonic and friends gotta stop him. The set up is perfectly fine, but as you go through the game, it starts getting confusing as to where Sonic is going, how he got their, and why. The problem all lies with how the level transitions are inconsistent. In the beginning, there were transitions between levels that explain how Sonic got to where he is, but as you get further, the game kind of just stops doing that. And if you’re a fan that knows where each returning level is located, sometimes it makes no sense how Sonic could get there to begin with. Like, how did Sonic go from an area on Little Planet, to an area on Angel Island, back to an area on Little Planet again? Also, while I won’t give away the ending, the confusion of where exactly Sonic is does play a role in it, which makes the ending a bit confusing as well. It kind of felt like there were supposed to be consistent transitions between levels, but somewhere in development, level orders got moved around and they couldn’t implement proper transitions in time for release. Of course, if a platformer’s simple story is inconsequential to you and you just want to speed through some fun levels, then this won’t matter.
There’s also the annoyance of turning Super when you’ve collected all 7 Chaos Emeralds. Just like in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, you transform by pressing jump while in mid-air when you have 50 rings. The problem is that if you just want to play through the levels normally, you won’t be able to perform your character’s mid-air move (like Drop Dash, flying, and gliding) without transforming first if you have 50 rings. So you may find yourself intentionally getting hurt to keep your ring total less than 50 rings if you don’t want to be Super. I know this game is trying to replicate the classics, but I think this is one thing that should probably change. Quite honestly, Sonic 4 actually handled this better by assigning the transformation to it’s own designated button, so you can freely decide when you want to transform.
Lastly, at the moment, this game isn’t exactly glitch free. For the most part, it plays very well, but you are likely to run into 1 or 2 minor glitches throughout your playthrough. I’ve personally encountered odd sound glitches that eventually went away as well as a glitch where I got stuck after beating a boss, forcing me to restart the boss again. From what I understand though, the team is already well aware of them and are working on a patch.
Sonic Mania is a phenomenal game. It may not do too much innovative or new, but sometimes a game doesn’t have to do that to be great. Sometimes a game can just perfect an already existing formula, which Mania absolutely does. With excellent level design, super creative new level elements, a perfectly replicated physics engine, and some astounding music to top it off, Sonic Mania is the best 2D Classic Sonic experience as well as the best Sonic game in YEARS. Sonic fans have proven they can do what even SEGA and Sonic Team struggle with (which really puts the pressure on Sonic Forces). If you’re a Sonic fan, definitely buy this game. If you’re a former fan who left because you were burned by Sonic too many times, buy this game. If you’re a hardcore Classic Sonic fan, well let’s be real, you’ve probably already completed the game with every character by now.
With excellent level design, super creative new level elements, a perfectly replicated physics engine, and some astounding music to top it off, Sonic Mania is the best 2D Classic Sonic experience as well as the best Sonic game in YEARS.