I’m a gamer that grew up with the Sega Genesis, or if you don’t live in North America, it was also known as the Sega Mega Drive. It was my first console that I owned myself and the game that was packaged in the box at the time was the original Sonic the Hedgehog, the game that started it all. I played through it multiple times and it was a favorite of mine for years after. I remember the excitement that came with its sequel, Sonic 2, having a split-screen mode that my sister and I used to play it for hours on end.
Sonic has had a mixed history with the quality of his games, ranging from memorable hits like Sonic 2, Sonic Adventure, and Sonic Spinball, to poorly received titles like Sonic Free Riders, Sonic Shuffle, and especially 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog, which was just plain awful.
Despite the barrage of poorly made games, Sonic has still endured and Sonic Mania is proof enough that Sega still knows how to make a good Sonic game, it just had to go back to its roots to do so.
Sonic Mania started out in 2016 as Sonic Discovery, a passion project that was put together by developers that had been working on various Sonic titles like the mobile ports of Sonic 2, Sonic CD, and various fan games and ROM hacks. When the title was first brought to series Producer, Takashi Iizuka, he renamed the project ‘Sonic Mania’, stating that the project was “by the mania, for the mania”.
This adventure takes place following the events of Sonic 3, making it almost an alternative take on Sonic 4 or something closer to being 3.5. Robotnik, or Eggman, as he is called in some parts of the world, has discovered Chaos Emeralds and plans on using them for his own personal agenda. While there isn’t any dialogue or story-centric scenes to convey what is actually going on, ala the more recent Sonic Boom series, the more classic Sonic games originally told their narrative through short encounters between Sonic, his friends, and Robotnik, and Sonic Mania brings back that very style of storytelling. Should you let the menu play for a while, you’ll be treated to a pretty awesome animated intro and there’s also one at the end that is shorter, but still pretty great to watch.
Sonic will Spin-dash and chase Robotnik through 12 zones; 4 original and 8 remixed zones from Genesis-era Sonic games. Each zone is comprised of two acts that will see you flying on the wings of a plane, gasping for air in the water-filled Hydrocity, and taking in the gorgeous and colorful visuals of Studiopolis. While the game can at times be gorgeous, I found Lava Reef to not nearly be as visually impressive as the rest of the game. The final zone, Titanic Monarch has some rather poor mechanics that just were not that fun and had me time-out several times just attempting to complete a single section of the level. While there are several mechanics in the game like spikes, specific enemy placement, or other threats that look to cut into your Ring based health, the final stage takes those mechanics just a bit too far and becomes almost too challenging, at least when compared to the other 11 zones featured.
Most locations in the game are massive with multiple paths and various ways to go about completing each level and frankly, it can take multiple playthroughs to see each and every section of every zone. There are various secret paths that will lead you to giant golden Rings that will transport you to a bonus stage where you’ll chase down a Chaos Emerald and should you collect them all? Well, let’s just say the results are rather “super”.
As you hit the checkpoints around the level with at least 25 Rings, you’ll enter in another bonus level, one where you will collect blue orbs and Rings in an effort to earn a medal. Earn enough of these and you can unlock some very cool content.
As has been the case with nearly every Sonic game thus far, Rings are your currency of health and Sonic Mania is no different. Taking damage will result in an explosion of Rings bouncing around that will have you scrambling to collect back as many as you can. You can assist in keeping those Rings intact with various shield power-ups or invincibility items that will keep Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, free from harm.
Playing Sonic Mania with a friend comes at you in two ways, single screen co-op and competitive split-screen multiplayer. The latter is similar to what Sonic 2 brought with it back in the day and while it is a blast to play, the split-screen mode is rather stretched and really could have been adjusted to just look better. The single screen co-op is still rather fun and in the case of having Sonic and Tails on the same screen, you can use Tails to fly Sonic around sections of the level. You can also just have Tails follow you in single player as well, should you just want the company.
Basic movement and combat for each of the characters is mostly limited to the ball-like form each character takes when jumping or spinning and this can damage most enemies that lack some form of defenses as a few do have protection from taking your typical type of attack. Sonic can Spin Jump, Spin Attack, and Spin Dash and Sonic Mania introduces the Drop Dash, a move I didn’t even know I had until the last few zones. This move allows Sonic to get a burst of speed instantly from jumping, even if it isn’t as powerful as his normal Spin Dash. Tails can fly and swim, and Knuckles has the ability to climb as well as glide long distances. These abilities do also adjust the difficulty as well with several pros and cons to the use of each character.
Sonic Mania features some very cool unlockables, modes, and various filters that mimic the look of playing on old CRT tv’s and it can really fuel the nostalgia even further when switched on. Many of the special moves that can be unlocked are only accessible when playing without the ability to save, which is rather bizarre. You can also press Y+B (on the Switch) at the main screen to unlock level select as well, should you be eager to retry a few stages.
With Sonic Mania revisiting not just the visual style of the classic and beloved Sonic games, its audio needed to balance that nostalgia and it does so with superb results. The fast-paced chiptune beats are the result of a love for the original Sonic music by Portuguese composer Tiago “Tee” Lopes, who has been posting Sonic remixes on his own Youtube channel for nearly a decade. The music feels authentic to what Sonic Mania is trying to do visually and even the original music for the new stages works well alongside remixes of the classic theme’s we’ve enjoyed for decades.
My experience with Sonic Mania hasn’t been 100% fantastic, but damn close. I’ve read reports of massive delays for taking screenshots with both the share button, power button and menu button taking upwards to 4 seconds to respond, and this is something that the developer is looking into. While my power button has a 1-2 second delay, the other buttons so far appear to be functioning as intended.
I have very few issues with the game that mostly revolve around how Sonic can die and it can lead to minor frustration when it happens. Everything from a time-gate to levels that can end your fun when you least expect it, to getting squished by platforms when they are barely even touching you, or the animations when falling or jumping that can leave you open to an attack. I’ve also mentioned my distaste of the death mechanics in the final zone that just feels far too cheap to really be anything well designed like most other locations in the game. I’m also not a huge fan of boss encounters not offering up at least a few Rings should you run out of them, but that one is just me being a bit picky, really.
I will say that I had my choice of which console to purchase Sonic Mania on and frankly, the Switch was the no-brainer choice for me. Playing it on the go, at work, and at home gave off feelings of not just playing a new Sonic game in HD, but that of playing Sonic games back in the day on the Game Gear, another Sega platform that had some fantastic Sonic games, which is I why I really prefer playing Sonic Mania in my hands on the Switch.
Sonic Mania is as love-letter to a classic game as you can get. When a small team is given the ability to rely solely on their passion to make a solid product without the game feeling rushed or packed with industry-wide greedy business practices, you can get a wonderfully crafted experience like this. If you have ever enjoyed any of the classic Sonic games or platformers in general, then you owe it to yourself to buy this game right now, it’s nearly pixel perfect and quite frankly, the best Sonic game ever made.
Sonic Mania was played and reviewed on a digital copy purchased by the reviewer.
All screenshots were taken on the Nintendo Switch.