Growing up, I was the weird kid on the block that didn’t have a Super Nintendo. Instead, I had a Sega Genesis, and one of my earliest gaming memories is with Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Even now, 25 years after its release, it is one of the best Sonic titles released. With that in mind, it seems Sega’s new title, Sonic Mania, is aiming squarely at my nostalgia for the 16-bit variety of games. What’s remarkable about Sonic Mania isn’t just that it is a love letter to those older titles, but that it manages to plant itself in that upper echelon of Sonic with ease.
Sonic Mania: PS4, Xbox One [Reviewed], Nintendo Switch, PC
Developer: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, PagodaWest Games
Release Date: 15 August 2017
Price: £15.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
The story and gameplay mirror some of the oldest titles in the Sonic series. Following the events of Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic and Tails head to Angel Island chasing a powerful energy source only to find Dr. Eggman’s robot henchmen already extracting the source. It is a barebones story, but it also matches the bare-bones storytelling that Genesis-era Sonic titles had. The gameplay itself sees the character you select (either Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles) running through different zones broken into two acts collecting rings, powerups, Emeralds, and busting up bosses as quickly as possible. That there are minimal changes made to the core gameplay speaks to how well polished the controls were even in the early ‘90s. That reverence for the original titles permeates Sonic Mania in every facet.
One of the greatest ways that reverence appears is in the music of Sonic Mania. In the older levels, tunes are very familiar but are slightly reworked to sound fuller on modern sound systems. Even the newer levels have solid tunes, though are overshadowed by some of the most memorable songs like those that play in Flying Battery or Chemical Plant. The sound effects of Sonic Mania are nothing new, and perhaps that is for the best. Anything too apparent might take you out of this 16-bit dream.
From the moment the game boots up, you have a feeling of what Mania is aiming for. The classic Sega chorus greets players alongside a large pixelated version of the publisher’s logo that greeted players during the Genesis era. If that doesn’t get the nostalgia flowing, in the options menu there is an option to add a filter which will make your glorious setup have a CRT-like effect. Presentation like this is present everywhere before the game even begins. When the game begins though, you’ll take a trip back in time to 1989.
Sonic Mania begins, like most 2D Sonic titles do, at the Green Hill Zone. Most of the level and others like it from previous games are very familiar, but routes have changed and levels are generally bigger. It is still possible to get through them in record time, but there is more to explore than ever before. Best of all, until you happen upon something you don’t remember, it feels fluid and natural. Eight levels from Sonic 1, 2, 3, and Sonic & Knuckles are present. Alongside these are 4 new levels, some of which were designed from unused concepts or prototypes from earlier games, and feels right at home alongside the other included levels.
Like previous games, there are also two varieties of bonus stages. One is an old favorite dating back to Sonic the Hedgehog 3, “Blue Spheres”. Here, players collect blue spheres and rings all while avoiding red spheres which will force the player out of the level. Like previous games, these vary wildly in difficulty and are an enjoyable way to break up the gameplay. Unlike previous titles, Chaos Emeralds are not earned here. Instead, medals are earned upon completion. You will earn gold if you clear the level with all of the rings, silver if you only remove the blue spheres. These medals unlock hidden extras and modes including a debug mode.
The mystical Chaos Emeralds also return in Sonic Mania, but to find them you must find giant rings hidden throughout levels. These take you to bonus levels more inspired by Sonic CD. Here, players collect small blue spheres to increase their speed. Your time here is limited by the number of rings on your character, but you can get more in the bonus level. Compared to some of the older ways to get emeralds, I found these to be the easiest yet. Part of that comes from some horrid hit detection. There are pillars and trees in the environments, but characters will run right through them. Even so, these too are great ways to break up the gameplay and invite the player to seek them out in the levels by taking different routes.
Extra modes are also available including a Time Attack mode that challenges players to finish an act as quickly as possible in order to climb leaderboards. This mode is better than it ever has been due to one simple inclusion: one-button resets. Did you miss the jump you wanted to make? Hold down a single button for two seconds, and the game sends you back to the start of the level. No menus are required in order to do so and it makes a perfect testing ground for those wanting to shave seconds off their best times.
Also available as an extra mode, there is a two-player competitive mode that will be immediately familiar to those who played Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Two players race in the same zone and act to see who can reach the finish first. Along with that, players can compete to collect the most rings, earn the highest score, and collect the most items. Different from the original Sonic 2 version of competitive is the added ability to alter how many rounds you’ll need to complete before a winner is crowned and to alter the kinds of item boxes you will uncover.
With the levels being larger, three playable characters, and multiple modes of play there are all kinds of reasons to dive into Sonic Mania and to dip continuously back. The fan service and references to previous titles are all over the place and serves to make Sonic Mania feel like a true celebration of Sonic and his games. If there is a problem with the title, it’s that it relies heavily on the past and doesn’t do much to drive the franchise forward.
Sonic Mania is a fantastic title and a masterclass in how to create a new title and still celebrate the past. That this was created by multiple developers that started out by creating fan-projects about Sonic is no coincidence. The reverence for Sonic games has given way to the best 2D Sonic since Sonic & Knuckles released in 1994. Sonic fans and general platforming game fans have a lot to love about Sonic Mania.