Alright, let’s get it out of the way up front and address the elephant in the room: Sonic hasn’t been good for a while. In fact, Generations aside, I’d argue that Sonic has been bad since he left the Mega Drive. Don’t tell me that the Sonic Adventure games were good, either. They were garbage. Seriously, go back and play them now, they’re atrociously designed and they simply do not capture the essence of Sonic in any way.
Luckily, there exists a few folk within Sega who believe that Sonic the Hedgehog can be great again (not in the same way that orange idiot thinks he can make America great again) by remixing the Mega Drive games, to create something that is both familiar and new.
From the pixel art to the incredibly 90s opening movie that recalls the old Sonic cartoon, the charm is instantly there in Sonic Mania. Sonic appears in his signature pose on the title screen, wagging his finger at you as if the last twenty years had never happened and this was simply the sequel to Sonic & Knuckles.
It’s those early games that are so important to Mania’s plot, such as it is. Much like that original quadrilogy, there’s a bit of a silent movie vibe to the storytelling as events unfold without dialogue, instead using simple in-game scenes. The beginning is almost identical to Sonic 3, except Sonic doesn’t run into Knuckles this time, instead he runs into the Hard-Boiled Heavies – Dr Eggman’s machines that have gone a little rogue. The game doesn’t tell you any of this though, hence the silent movie thing I mentioned earlier, but you get the general idea as you play. These new machines have discovered a new power that seemingly messes with time and space, leaving Sonic, Tails and Knuckles no option but to chase down Eggman and his robotic goons.
As a bit of a fan of the old Sonic games (Sonic 3 specifically) I couldn’t help but admire the beautiful visual design as the game opened. Sure, I’d seen trailers and screenshots, but seeing the game in motion immediately took me back to my childhood. As Sonic Mania takes place after Sonic & Knuckles, it’s certainly fitting that it looks just like it, albeit at a higher resolution to take advantage of today’s HD displays. You can play it with scanlines if you want to go into full nostalgia mode, however.
The game plays exactly how I remember those classic Mega Drive games too, as Sonic runs, jumps and spins his way through an impressively varied array of stages. The level design sees you having to navigate some pretty complex levels, with one or two requiring some extra thought as it turns you around. Each level throws a few bonus stage opportunities your way as well, as you’re tasked with collecting blue balls and rings on a spherical level, while avoiding the red balls. These can net you medals that are used to unlock extras later on. Then there are the new bonus stages, using a Super Mario Kart-style 3D effect as you chase down a UFO that’s carrying a Chaos Emerald. These levels are fun and frantic as you collect rings and blue balls to increase your speed, making it easier to catch the UFO but more difficult to control Sonic as he drifts around the tight, twisting circuits.
After speeding around each of Sonic Mania’s levels, the blue hedgehog usually ends up running into a boss of some kind. These range from the simplistic “jump on its head” encounter seen in every platformer, to more outlandish chases and even puzzle-like battles. It’s an impressive feat that not one boss battle feels by-the-numbers. Indeed, given the number of bosses in the game it’s remarkable how different they all feel.
That’s not to say they’re all great encounters, however, as one or two see the difficulty ramped up a bit too sharply. Some are so unpredictable during the first attempt that you can find yourself losing a life by virtue of simply not having had time to learn the boss’ pattern. One even ends after a set distance but without knowing that, it feels a bit harsh when you’re killed without warning, almost like the game expects you to use up a life in order to learn the fight’s limits. Checkpoints aren’t always directly before the boss either, or you’re forced to watch the entrance scene every single time and that grows very tiresome when fighting a troublesome foe.
In a game as good as Sonic Mania, the difficulty spikes are mostly a minor issue. They’re fairly rare in the grand scheme of things and a game over only sends you back to the beginning of the current stage’s first act with three lives, so losing progress, while obviously a bit annoying, isn’t really the worst problem in the world.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Sonic game without having a soundtrack filled with energetic and catchy music, and Sonic Mania has that in spades. It brings back familiar tunes from classic games and introduces new pieces that really help to keep the action going and the smiles coming. I often find myself humming my favourite tunes hours after leaving the game, just fuelling my desire to go back and play more.
If you aren’t a fan of Sonic, this game may not appeal to you and that is fair enough, but in going back to its roots, Sonic Mania welcomes new players with open arms. It offers the same, simple gameplay that made those early games so popular – while also keeping fans happy – without resorting to lazily rehashing Sonic 2 or 3, or releasing another classics collection or something. This is a new game that respects the past, embraces it, and tweaks it enough to make a brand new game that anyone can enjoy.
Captures the feel of Mega Drive Sonic games
Fantastic boss fights
A few harsh difficulty spikes