Sonic Mania | Principal Platforms: PC (Version Tested), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch | Developer: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, PagodaWest Games | Publisher: Sega | Genre: Platformer | Year: 2017
If you’ve been playing video games for a long time, then like similar hobbies it’s reasonable to guess that there is a singular title, character, or even a whole franchise that feels extra special to you. As someone who has been playing video games for an unhealthy number of years now, this evolution of my own personal affections has often been strongest in those famous video games where I’ve felt part of their history since the beginning. Video games like Mortal Kombat, Soul Edge, Halo, and most notably, Sonic the Hedgehog, are all the sweeter to me now, having witnessed their legacies grow from first release until last.
Now this might seem like a pretty redundant preamble for the simple talking point of “I used to really like Sonic games”, but it’s important to understand that as a reviewer here, Sonic Mania is a video game made with exactly my kind of experience in mind.
By 1996 I had mastered every major Sonic the Hedgehog game, read every Sonic the Comic, and collected every piece of tacky merch that I could get my childish hands on. From there I lived through the emotional dead zone of the Sega Saturn, the resurgence brought about by Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, and the upheaval of Sega’s switch to being a third party publisher with Sonic Heroes. I’ve ridden the mild highs of Sonic Rush and Sonic Colours, the weird spin-offs like Sonic Riders and Sonic Chronicles, and suffered the prolific lows of Sonic Unleashed and Sonic The Hedgehog (2006). It’s a chequered past, but it’s one that has left me intimately aware of everything that Sonic is and has come to represent since.
When the consortium of developers behind this latest 2D release insert a sound effect from Sonic Spinball into level 3, it’s chumps like me that notice this fact, as our subconscious understanding of what is quintessentially “Sonic” knits together a picture of the sort of game we’re in for. I’ve said previously that Sonic Generations looked to be the last gasp for nostalgic retreads of this property, and yet I also conceded then, as I do now, that Sonic Mania occupies an interesting place in Sega’s library seeing as it’s realizing the community’s dream of the 32-bit Sonic game that never was.
This leads us to the only question which really matters: is Sonic Mania any good? Yes, Sonic Mania is a very good video game, often in ways I will struggle to be original about. Its stylish 2D graphics are very evocative of a bygone time and their colourful palette compliments the generous number of varied levels that Christian Whitehead and his team have so carefully created. Their design feels very close to the 2D originals not just in the levels and characters that directly return, but also in the number of interactive features including working levers, zip lines, spring cannons, and all sorts of loops and wacky platforming set pieces.
The levels are also good for highlighting the well balanced difficulty curve that despite being a tad easy at times, does not feel bogged down by the sort of intense frustration and pit-heavy design that characterized much of, say, Sonic Rush. Constantly falling off of things to your death is not what Sonic Mania is all about, and whilst a couple of tricky segments still appear, it represents a clear step towards the child-friendly structure that made these games so universally loved in the first place.
The biggest concern here isn’t really found in the gameplay and for the vast majority players it won’t be any sort of problem anyway, but for me Sonic Mania is slightly let down by how tightly it clings to content from previous games. What we have here is essentially a wholly 2D rendition of Sonic Generations featuring a similarly straightforward storyline where Sonic is transported through time on yet another quest to thwart Dr. Robotnik and his posse of robotic henchmen.
As was the case with Generations, this time travel narrative acts as an excuse for players to revisit many previously seen levels from earlier Sonic the Hedgehog games and out of the thirteen levels featured, eight of which are “remastered” with only five being all-new designs. Even the brand new stages feature enemies and assets that have been seen in older titles and I can’t help but wonder how much fresher Sonic Mania might have felt were the developers not shackled by Sega’s new-found obsession with nostalgic marketing.
Fortunately, this facet isn’t always as blunt as I make it sound. The way in which the Press Garden Zone opens up into a snowy paradise, for example, not only looks similar to the Ice Cap Zone from Sonic 3, but it also makes for a satisfying visual treat and is a nice departure from the more angular design of the previous act. There are plenty of other surprises too from subtle audio cues and background sight gags to full 3D bonus stages and one hilariously in-your-face Mean Bean Machine reference.
For better or worse, Sonic Mania is at least very comprehensive in its abuse of nostalgia. This isn’t like Sonic Generations paying homage to the reviled Crisis City stage from Sonic 06, we’re talking quality levels; Green Hill, Lava Reef, Hydrocity, and a heavily tweaked Stardust Speedway that is actually somewhat navigable! From a simple design perspective, each of these stages stays true to the sort of enhanced stage layouts seen in Sonic & Knuckles. There is a noticeable verticality to every stage with each one containing hidden pathways and secrets for those who don’t mind slowing Sonic down in order to explore the environment around him.
That goal likely won’t be on your mind during your first playthrough though because of how addictively fast and frantic everything is. Sonic’s new Drop Dash ability – that really should have been illustrated on the controller schematic – is a great addition for keeping up the pace between jumps and playing as Tails or Knuckles once again mixes things up thanks to their airborne abilities. Much like Sonic & Knuckles, choosing the Echidna over the Hedgehog proves especially interesting because of his tweaked level layouts that emphasize climbing and gliding, whilst being accompanied by the odd new area or boss battle that Sonic never sees.
The numerous bonus stages are still frustrating though. The ‘Blue Sphere’ variants found at checkpoints appear too often and risk spoiling your momentum, whilst the full 3D variants feature awkward controls that inadvertently present the hardest moments this game has to offer. Also disappointing are the boss battles which whilst occasionally inventive and quirky, rarely offer up a decent challenge.
It’s a relief then that these lesser points are still bolstered by such an excellent soundtrack. Tee Lopes’ catchy audio work is certainly reminiscent of the Hedgehog’s best with too many quality stage tunes to really do proper justice to. The all-new themes distance themselves by having dedicated song names, which is cool, but the style and substance to these new tunes is certainly on par with what fans demand and are very evocative of the series’ gold standard that is the Japanese soundtrack to Sonic CD.
Labelling any returning tune as a ‘remix’ is probably doing the composers a disservice too, as even though the Flying Battery Zone still sounds the same, for instance, the audio team hasn’t been afraid to fully rework and embellish those compositions to ensure the game’s palatability with the modern standards of HD gaming. The resulting enhanced themes breathe new life into classic Sonic tunes and they sound marvellous. In the case of Chemical Plant Zone – Act 2, in fact, sad people like myself may have to physically restrain their real life bodies from moving to the beat!
Whether it’s in the music, the visuals, or just the pleasant 32-bit aura that this game seems to exude, there’s no escaping the fact that Sonic Mania is an indulgent game and you’re in the wrong place if you’re not looking for something appallingly nostalgic and yet recognisably “Sonic” right down to its lovable core.
Is Sonic Mania the best Sonic game ever made? Yes, it pretty much is, but for me the lack of greater originality here holds the game back from the narrative highs of Sonic & Knuckles. If Sega can trust Whitehead & co. to unleash even more of their own creative freedom next time and not tie them down with the need to pander so much, then there’s no limit to how well the Hedgehog with attitude will be doing when he’s back in this sort of form.