The History of Sonic is kind of like a failed marriage. It started off new and colorful, full of excitement and joy (and also blast processing). It was a refreshing change, which brought the SEGA brand into a fierce competition with Nintendo, taking major market share from the once dominant N. The edgy hedgehog was not only fresh and new, but he had attitude which Nintendo games lacked at the time. Most importantly though, he had heart. Even though they were an obvious opponent to Mario’s coin grabbing escapades, the design of classic Sonic the Hedgehog games were obvious in their passion to be something different. That’s my favorite thing about old SEGA. They weren’t afraid to take their own path and be different with their games. Stories that weren’t found elsewhere and art design that was brave and bold. That’s a story for another day.
Over time, with the success of the Genesis putting our blue friend at the height of his career, we eventually found that the only place to go from the top is straight down. As Sonic transitioned into the 3D era, he ran straight into the cog of corporate redundancy. The Dreamcast gave us Sonic Adventure, which sure, was pretty to look at — but it was also almost unplayably broken. I’m sure you have nostalgic love for those early 3D Sonic games, and to a degree I do as well. I will admit that they are a steamer as far as mechanics go. For anyone less than the most hardcore Sonic fan, it’s a depressing decline. As the demands of gamers and hardware increased, the Sonic brand fell victim to shallow, broken gameplay. It became clear that the Sonic franchise had slipped into a passionless cycle of rinse and repeat, pushing out drivel and disappointment to whatever platform would take it. And like that failed marriage, Sonic became something of a joke that you might celebrate to its face, but would ridicule when it turns away.
Throughout that frustrating plummet to non-relevance, a dedicated base of fan developers somehow kept Sonic alive for the community. One of those developers is Christian Whitehead, a developer of numerous indie Sonic Projects which fortunately impressed Sega, leading to his creation of a series of ports, and ultimately, assembling a team of likeminded fans of the series to create Sonic Mania.
If you take nothing else from this review, know that this game is solid proof that good games are made with love. This group of developers showed that you don’t need a AAA studio or the best graphics on the craziest hardware to stay relevant. If you have the passion to make what you love, chances are that others will take to it, too.
Sonic Mania is the type of game where I would normally say something like, “you’ve got to see it to believe it.” Though, if you’re an avid game player or human being over 25 (omg you’re a 90’s kid if), you’ve likely seen it before. It’s a celebration of what made Sonic wonderful. Mania tries its absolute best to celebrate what we all remember and love about the series, and does so with incredible success.
A Classic Spin
Sonic Mania is part remake, part reimagining. Inside is everything you love about the classic Sonic titles, all at the same time adding its own sense of flare. The 16-bit art style and soundtrack are like you remember, but the entire presentation has been beautifully updated for the modern day era. If I had to make a direct comparison, I would say it’s most like Sonic 3. It has menu and character selection, power up abilities, and bonus levels that parallel the game very closely. It sports a familiar 12 zone, 2 act map, each ending with some sort of Dr. Robotnik battle (and sorry new friends, it’s Robotnik, not Eggman). In classic Sonic fanfare, you’re able to choose between playing as Sonic or Tails individually, or together as a team. You can also play as Knuckles, but let’s be honest… just don’t be that guy.
Old look, New hotness
The stages in Mania are equal parts new and old, represented beautifully from the minds of the creators. They sport new mechanics and puzzles which breath some new life into the classic atmosphere. There are some fantastic new obstacle ideas and even a brand new Special Stage type where you chase after the ever desired Chaos emeralds. Also present are some fantastic reimaginings of areas you’ve visited in previous games. Chemical, Green Hill, and Hydrocity Zones are all here in HD contour. Unfortunatly, not everybody made the cut — it would have been nice to revisit Casino Nights’ burnt neon color scheme in 1080p, or hear my all-time favorite song from the series reimagined for a new generation — but what they did include does more than enough to get the job done. Even the bosses are given a fresh twist, sometimes venturing into the territory of other games from history of our favorite hedgehog. I won’t spoil anything, but one nostalgic boss level is an ode to a classic puzzle game that made me drop my jaw and grin with glee.
One thing that really stands out with all of these levels is the updated soundtrack. I’ve always been an ENORMOUS fan of the sound tech found inside the Sega Genesis, it’s one of the reasons I’m so attached to the clearly Sega inspired soundtrack to Spelunky. Sonic Mania ushers that sound into the HD era by making some incredible remixes of classic songs and even better originals for the new levels. Seriously, just take a minute and listen to this gorgeous reimagining of the Lava Reef Zone.
Old Sonic levels used a very straight forward formula, trying to get you from beginning to end while building momentum and giving an ever increasing sense of speed. That’s great, but like their biggest competitor of the day, Super Mario, they were easy to memorize and could grow dry. The great part about Sonic Mania’s levels are how they’ve expanded the design to make levels more vast. Even with the updated classic levels, there are a ton of ways to get through acts. Branching paths are everywhere, encouraging replayability. I’ve played through the campaign three full times now, and each experience was familiar, but also a fresh departure from the last.
Minor Speed Bumps
A few small annoyances did surface during my time with the game, such as a narrow field of view leading me straight into what felt like unfair impacts with enemies and losing my ring count. There are also some later levels that feel more like deliberate labyrinths to kill your momentum. In a game that’s about going fast, that seems like a poorly thrown together roadblock. Another hiccup I experienced, which is exclusive to the Switch version — were multiple instances where the game would not respond to pressing the home button. It doesn’t affect gameplay, but it is frustrating when you’re trying to take a break.
Sonic Mania surprised me in many ways. I was surprised that a Sonic game would capture my attention so fully in 2017. I was surprised that a game like this could be made with so much love and admiration. To be frank, I’m surprised this thing even exists. I’m incredibly happy it does though, and I hope the rest of the industry takes note of this games’ success, and try build on it in the future. I for one would love to see more re-emerging franchises from the classic era of gaming. There is clearly a huge opportunity and and audience who are thirsty for more. Humor me for a minute when I say Sega is currently doing what Nintendon’t — embracing their classic catalog. With another 3D Sonic game on the horizon to possibly sour our opinion of guy, it’s great that we have this new found classic to hold onto… just in case.
Regardless, I’ve enjoyed every minute of Sonic Mania, and if you have any appreciation for classic platforming or retro games in general, I think you will too.