There’s pretty much always a fair amount of apprehension, laced with a sliver of hope, for the announcement of any new Sonic game. The Blue Blur’s post-90s career has been at best, occasionally decent (Sonic Generations), often messy (Sonic Unleashed), and at worst, it has been Sonic Boom or Sonic ‘06. The solution has long seemed to be a return to Sonic’s roots, yet Sega shied away from doing exactly that, despite the praise levelled at Sonic Generations’ visit to retro town. It took new developers in the end, to break the cycle of disappointment, and Sonic Mania is the game that does it.
Sonic Mania takes Sonic back to the days of his prime, before he discovered the third dimension. This is pure 16-bit, 2D side-scrolling Sonic, wearing the 90s like a button on its brightly-coloured lapel. You get Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles to play with, the user interface of Sonic 3, the funky sounds and level design of Sonic CD, the speed of Sonic 2, and a touch of the purity that made the original Sonic the Hedgehog famous. It’s got everything that a long-term Sonic fan could have wished for from a true return to the origin of Sonic, while tweaked to feel a little more relevant today.
The story (yeah, there’s a rudimentary story) sees Sonic and Tails in the opening from Sonic 3, arriving at Knuckle’s island to find Robotonik/Eggman stealing the Chaos Emeralds. But the script gets flipped, thanks to some mysterious robots, and Sonic is transported to an alternative version of Green Hill Zone. This is Green Hill, but not as you know it. All established knowledge of what to expect goes out the window as Sonic Mania plays Dr. Frankenstein with nostalgia.
There’s brand new stages designed to sit alongside those of classic Sonic, with the same variations of robotic enemies, goofily themed level design, and loop-de-loops aplenty. That’s not all though, because Sonic Mania throws in some iconic stages and remixes them in a sumptuous concoction of nostalgia and modernisation.
The game begins in the very first stage of Sonic’s long, torturous history. Green Hill Zone Act 1 for me, represents the moment I went from merely playing games to actually becoming invested in them, loving them even. Seeing that opening section, recreated and refreshed like this, as the music that’s been swirling round my head for a quarter of a century plus kicks in, it’s not hard to greet it with a warm smile. The mashup of a classic Sonic the Hedgehog stage with upgraded visuals, extra animations and mechanics, as well as a remastered soundtrack, is an instant snapshot of how much love for Sonic there is in this game.
Every old stage is expanded and reworked to inject new life into them, but each of them keeps key components and sections from the original versions. From the level design to the boss fights to the soundtrack, Sonic Mania maintains the classic Sonic feel while offering variety in the execution. The boss fights are plentiful, with one for each act of any stage. They start in a fairly routine manner, aping the original Sonic’s mantra of dodge, duck, and spin attack a few times, but later evolve into multi-part epics with chase sequences and feature some wonderful homages and nods to Sonic’s history, even the more obscure corners (the second Chemical Plant Zone boss is inspired) get a cameo. I’ll say this, it’s much better to go in dark as you can if you’re a Sonic fan as the pleasant throwback surprises Sonic Mania throws at you are worth discovering as you play.
The new stages fit in well, with a nice balance between them and the fan-pleasing remixed stages. There’s a feeling with some that they’re thematically too similar to certain existing stages, yet that’s partially because they maintain the feel of the original work to an impressive degree. There’s that same lustrous flair of Sonic CD in terms of how striking and busy the art design is in these stages. Even as Sonic dashes through them at breakneck pace, it’s remarkable how eye-catching the view can be. The verticality of the stages also means they are chock full of alternative routes to explore. Secret bonus stages (denoted by huge wireframe rings), extra lives, shields and shortcuts aplenty can be unearthed whether the stage is brand new or merely remixed. There’s little in the way of stage brevity that defined the original as a result, but there’s still always an optimum route through any of them that fully incorporates the sense of pulsating speed the series is/was synonymous with. Of course, that does come with a few familiar issues.
Sonic and pals handle much like they did back in the day, mostly adhering to the template Sonic 3 & Knuckles set. For the most part that’s a good thing, with mastery of level layouts, it becomes almost effortless to fling a character around at top speed, barely stopping for more than half a second before traversing the next obstacle, but while things are relatively new, the age old issue of Sonic’s movement at lower speeds still plays out like a new driver coming off a motorway and getting disorientated by the change in speed. Sonic can feel sluggish any time he has to come to a full stop, struggling to go uphill at a pace designed for some alternative universe version of the game where Sonic is a sloth rather than a hedgehog. It isn’t awful by any means, as slowing down helps you survey the lay of the land, and see what hidden goodies you might otherwise miss, but whenever it’s unintentional, that’s where it falters.
Luckily, this Sonic is the full fat version of 2D Sonic, with all the moves and powers he’s accumulated through his big 2D adventures. Smartly, levels adjust for Knuckles, making use of his climbing and gliding abilities. Knuckles is the character that suffers the most from this as a result. His moveset doesn’t allow for much grace or fluidity, and the cheapest deaths came from using him, result of his clunky movement. Knuckles’ offers the most alternative playthrough of the three, but he feels like an uncomfortable fit at times.
Lastly, Tails’ flying ability is fairly tempered by the design of the stages to prevent you from just flying from A to B. Sonic also gains a drop dash move, which allows him to go from a jump into a diving roll across the floor, a particularly useful tool for Time Attack mode.
Ahh, Time Attack. For all the bells, whistles, and merciful lack of Chilli Dogs, the Time Attack mode is perhaps the best way of showcasing how well put together each stage actually is. The compulsion to shave just a second off your best time can lead to a determined obsessive loop. I’m not much for time trials and racing in videogames, but there’s just something about the way to master the optimum route on a Sonic stage that transcends that indifference. Sonic Mania also brings back Sonic 2’s split-screen multiplayer battle, which is a nice touch if you fancy your competitive edge in a more localised fashion. It certainly remains a good time.
I suppose you might have to worry about the dire situation the Sonic brand got itself into to the point that a return to the early 90’s style of visuals, sound, and gameplay is seen as a return to form, but we’ve had nearly two decades of 3D Sonic games and none have touched the stylish charms of the blue blur’s opening 2D salvos. Also Sonic Mana gives the series exactly what it has needed for so many years, consistency. By diving back into what worked and elaborating on it, we find a Sonic game assured of its own quality, not trying to shoehorn in the latest daft idea for the sake of one game before moving on again and repeating the cycle of confusion and inconsistency. Hopefully this extravagant soft reboot of Sonic can set the stall out for the future, because a comfortable, confident, and consistent Sonic is an enjoyable one.