He’s a maniac
As someone who was born in the twilight of Sonic’s golden age, I’ve forever heard that the blue blur’s best was behind him. While I enjoyed the Advance and Adventure series of the early 2000s, that history was always at the fringe of my consciousness. As the hedgehog struggled to find an identity on rapidly progressing hardware, I found my interest waning, and for good reason. Sonic games became a junkyard of failed gimmicks and awful characters. Press continuously asked if *insert Sonic game here* would break the cycle of mediocrity, but the answer was always no. This is what makes Sonic Mania such an achievement; it not only reminds us of how good Sonic can be, it captures the magic that made us fall in love with him in the first place.
Sonic’s “gotta go fast” ideology has defined his brand, but classic Sonic gameplay is equal parts speed and exploration. This is a balance Sonic Mania achieves flawlessly, allowing players to blaze through levels at breakneck speeds or meticulously dig for hidden secrets. The kinetic energy of classic Sonic is on full display, and it is exhilarating to reach full speed and blast through Sonic Mania’s sprawling levels. But even more satisfying is the pursuit of perfection, and the game rewards players for moving through its gauntlets unscathed. There is a euphoric sense of rhythm that accompanies moving through a level flawlessly, and the knowledge necessary for perfect runs invites players to engage with the levels again and again.
This addictive loop is made possible by Sonic’s responsive feel and control, which feels better here than it has in years. Recent franchise entries have put such an emphasis on speed that stopping feels like a punishment, but Sonic Mania’s tuning of Sonic’s acceleration allows players to get back up to speed quickly and fluidly. This is helped by Sonic’s new ability, the drop dash, which allows immediate acceleration upon hitting the ground after a jump. Combined with the classic spin dash, I never felt like speed was out of reach. This improved sense of momentum creates a more cohesive experience, and allows the gameplay to match the stellar level design.
Unlike Mario levels, which generally follow cliched themes, Sonic Mania’s 12 zones feature distinct, memorable personalities complete with unique mechanics and enemies. From the iconic Green Hill Zone to the brand-new Studiopolis, the game’s stages are beautifully designed and thrillingly creative. Speeding through the various puzzles left a massive smile on my face, and I was constantly surprised at the differences between not only the macro levels, but also the first and second stages in each zone. Zone 1 introduces players to the main obstacles and enemies of the stage, while Zone 2 cranks the insanity to 11. Players are immediately initiated on the most necessary mechanics of a level, so I never felt lost or confused. What’s more, every zone is capped off with a unique boss battle, with each encounter putting an exclamation point on the challenges overcome to reach them. These elements allowed me to appreciate the full personality of each zone in full force.
This personality is highlighted both through the superb visual aesthetic and the phenomenal soundtrack that pumps through each zone. Remastered zones feel right at home next to Sonic Mania’s original levels, with every level looking so good I couldn’t tell the difference between them. The gorgeous visuals find a perfect partner in the game’s fantastic score, which continues Sonic’s Genesis tradition of phenomenal music. Featuring catchy melodies and pulsing beat, the tunes match perfectly with Sonic Mania’s fast, rhythmic gameplay. Zone 1’s music is either straightforward remaster or original tune (depending on the stage), with Zone 2 remixing the song into something completely new. Everything combines to make Sonic Mania an audio-visual delight.
The stages make for excellent playgrounds for Sonic and friends, with Tails and Knuckles joining the hedgehog on his adventure. Each character plays differently enough to make the game feel fresh no matter who players choose, with each level perfectly accommodating the character’s various abilities. Knuckles’ gliding and climbing, Tails’ flying and Sonic’s trademark speed each add a unique feel to exploration. And players are rewarded in curiosity with fantastic bonus stages. Giant gold rings house 3D chases for Chaos Emeralds, with Sonic taking the appearance of his Saturn self in collecting blue orbs to hunt down the gem. Other bonus stages are housed in checkpoints, which see Sonic traversing a sphere to again collect blue orbs while avoiding red ones. Both stage types are fun to play, and are worthy rewards for mastering the various levels.
If you’re anything like me, you might be absolutely astounded a Sonic game turned out this good. This level of quality is a testament to Christian Whitehead, Headcannon and Pagoda West Games, the three developers/studios that collaborated to bring Sonic Mania to life. All three have deep ties to the Sonic fan-game community, cutting their teeth on recreations of Sonic’s classic adventures. Sonic Mania is a game only a fan could have made; so in tune with the character’s identity as to be able to seamlessly create something new that stands alongside the greatest hits of past titles. This is a game created by fans, for fans, and fully embraces the witty, meme-aware Sonic of this decade. From obscure easter eggs to faithful recreations, Sonic Mania is a proof-of-concept of fan games given true respect and capital. I can only hope other studios take notice.
If there is one downside to Sonic Mania, it is found in its creator’s rigorous adherence to Sonic’s gameplay quirks that should have been left in the past. It is still frustrating to be instantly killed when pinched between two objects that, with common logic, should only nudge players out of the way. Traps and enemies are still sometimes seemingly unavoidable due to the game’s pace and existing outside of player view. The checkpoint system is still somewhat unforgiving, sending players back to Zone 1 of a stage even if they died on a boss encounter. These are all elements that have forever plagued Sonic games, and it would have been nice if they would have been tweaked this time around. However, sporadic frustration rarely took away from the fun I was having, and hardcore players have come to expect and avoid these issues.
The Verdict: 9.0 out of 10
In its purest description, Sonic Mania is a love letter to the hedgehog’s Genesis adventures and the people who played them. But this doesn’t capture the full scope of the game’s success. Not content with simply repainting the franchise’s best levels, developer Christian Whitehead infuses magic into every pixel the way only the most hardcore fan could. The game looks, sounds and plays exactly as the most hardcore fans remember, and despite some recurring franchise flaws, is perfect for any player regardless of their history with the franchise. Sonic Mania does not content itself with bringing back 16-bit Sonic. In reinventing the franchise for a modern audience, the game extends beyond its goal to create not just a phenomenal platformer, but the best Sonic game ever.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch. For more information on the score, check out our official review scale.
Brett Williams is an Associate Editor for MONG who hates the Oil Ocean Zone 2 boss with a flaming passion. You can follow his nonexistent ramblings on twitter.