It’s been a long while since Sonic the Hedgehog received manic praise. The once-equal rival of Nintendo’s iconic red plumber has been an empty husk arguably since Sonic Adventure 2 in 2001. Almost every classic and modern Sonic game since has been mediocre at best, with Sonic Generations providing the only glimmer of hope for the desperate franchise.
Enter Sonic Mania, the brainchild of indie developers experienced in making Sonic fan games. Sega reached out to developer Christian Whitehead and studios Headcannon and PagodaWest Games, asking them to develop an official Sonic game inspired by the Genesis era. Spoiler alert: It was one of the best franchise decisions Sega has made in years.
Sonic Mania remains faithful to the feeling of Genesis-era Sonic games while making it feel fresh and new. A lot of ideas and designs are taken from the ‘90s games, but they’re bolstered by small additions that change the way you traverse each level. The 12 zones are a mix of reimagined old zones (like Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone) and brand new ones. Each zone is split into two acts, each act ending in a boss battle. In the story mode, Mania Mode, you may play as Sonic, Tails, Sonic and Tails together, or Knuckles.
Each zone, even the new ones, feel like they would fit in a Genesis Sonic game, and the attention to detail in how the animations work is impressive, especially in the newer mechanics. For example, in the Chemical Plant Zone sticky platforms slide along the walls and ceilings for Sonic to cling to and ride on. The animations surrounding his attachment to the platform and the dismount all feel novel while fitting into the retro 16-bit style of the game, and the same goes for the other two characters. The new levels, such as Studiopolis Zone, are incredible to look at, and they made me feel something I haven’t felt in years: joy while exploring a never-before-seen stage in a Sonic game.
And these stages are far larger than their Genesis counterparts. They remind me a bit of GalaxyTrail’s 2014 release Freedom Planet in terms of how much you can explore the levels. There are many paths to the goal, and each character has access to different parts of the stage based on their traversal abilities. Tails can fly around, while Knuckles can glide and climb walls. It pays to explore each level to figure out the optimal path to the goal for both the Time Attack and Competition modes, where the fastest players can benefit.
Sonic games have always had that fundamental idea at their core: move as fast as possible. The way Sonic moves has always made it satisfying to roll around at the speed of sound, and the lyrics of previous soundtracks hammer the idea home. However, this core idea always ran into roadblocks in level designs that require slow, precise platforming. Sonic Mania at times alleviates the problem, with most zones having sections that allow Sonic to move incredibly fast while still making the player feel like every input matters. But in an attempt to remain faithful — almost too faithful — Sonic Mania still has many points where the action has to suddenly stop so the player can maneuver around tricky obstacles. These slow points don’t make up the majority of each level, and it usually isn’t too long until you’re back in the action.
Where the game really shines, however, is in the boss battles. Each fight requires a completely different approach, and like the stages, there’s a good mix of old and new to the enemies. Some bosses are fought in typical arenas whereas other bosses are fought while running at high speeds. Almost all of the boss battles are fun and inventive, although a handful of them do feel a bit unfair at times. The old-school continue system can feel a bit archaic as well; if you run out of lives, you have to start at the beginning of Act 1 of the zone. If you spend your time getting to the boss of Act 2 but end up dying a lot, it can be a chore to start again from the beginning of the zone.
As mentioned previously, there are other modes to play the game in. Mania Mode is the standard way to play the game, where you choose your character and play through each zone in order. Time Attack is, as expected, where you can play any act and try to complete it as fast as possible. Your fastest time is recorded on an online leaderboard. It’s a good way to practice each act to get an advantage in the third mode, Competition, which allows you and a friend to choose your own character and race to the end of an act.
Those two other game modes offer a lot after your first romp through the story mode, and you can always go through Mania Mode again with a different character. Additionally, the game follows the footsteps of its predecessors with the addition of two kinds of special stages. Both types aren’t that exciting, though. The first one is similar to the special stages in Sonic CD, and the goal is to catch a UFO carrying a chaos emerald. The second kind of special stages are essentially the blue orb special stages from Sonic the Hedgehog 3. When you complete these stages, you earn medals that are used to unlock secrets in the Extra menu.
The soundtrack is phenomenal, which is expected considering composer Masato Nakamura’s stellar music in the Genesis era. The soundtrack of Sonic Mania, composed by Tee Lopes, features remixes of iconic tracks as well as new music, and every act has its own unique background music. Lopes masterfully crafted a soundtrack that not only pays homage to Nakamura’s original work on the games from the ‘90s but goes beyond to make something truly exceptional. Additionally, EDM band Hyper Potions contributed the song Friends to the animated intro that makes the ‘90s-style animation all the more compelling.
The game was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch, and the performance was strong. While undocked, the game runs at 720p with a smooth 60 frames per second, and when docked, the game retains the 60 frames while upscaling to 1080p. Two-player competition mode is a snap to play because of the Switch’s two Joy-Cons. The menus even have touch-screen functionality, a small detail that I find impressive nonetheless. However, while the game is running, there is a significant delay when trying to bring up the Switch’s Home Screen and when trying to put the console to sleep, which can be irritating at times.
At the end of the day, Sonic Mania goes beyond what anyone might expect from a Sonic game. Sonic Mania isn’t just “good for a Sonic game.” It’s actually a good game. Although some may argue that the presentation relies too much on nostalgia, it’s hard to deny how irresistibly charming the aesthetic and feel of the game is. Sonic Mania features some of the best level designs ever seen in a Sonic game, and the boss battles are even better. If what you want is more classic, fast-paced action with the blue hedgehog from the ‘90s, Sonic Mania should more than satisfy that craving.
Sonic Mania is out for the Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. It’s set to arrive on PC on August 29 after a last-minute delay.