Flatiron Hot! Gamer: Sonic Mania Review
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (version played for this review), PC
By Max Shapiro
Watch a trailer for the game here.
Sonic is back—hopefully for good this time.
I’ll spare you the elaborate history lesson (that’s what my previous Sonic-centric article was for) and just say that for a little over the past decade and a half, the quality of the Sonic the Hedgehog series was been, to say the least, inconsistent: some games have been great, others have been “meh,” and a few have been just plain bad. So longtime fans of the Blue Blur likely breathed a sigh of relief when Sega announced Sonic Mania, a nostalgia-fueled throwback to Sonic’s early years sporting 32-bit graphics and a mix of brand new levels and remixed ones from previous titles. No guns, no swords, no Werehogs: just pure classic Sonic goodness.
Now Sonic Mania has its name and its tagline—“By the mania, for the mania”—for a reason. This game was developed by team of longtime Sonic fans known for their work in the fan game community who were recruited by Sega. At the helm of the project was Christian Whitehead, who was renowned for bringing very well-made ports of first 2 Sonic the Hedgehog games as well as Sonic CD to newer gaming devices. However, I am definitely what one would call a casual Sonic fan at most, with the five installments I’ve played (not including this one) being Sonic 1, 2, Colors, Generations, and Lost World. And with the exception of Sonic Lost World, which I only thought was okay, I greatly enjoyed all of these games. But as far as growing up with the series and having a deep nostalgia for the classic titles, I’m not in that camp at all.
But the thing is: that doesn’t matter at all, because nostalgia or no nostalgia, Sonic Mania is simply a blast to play. This was a game made by fans and boy does it show, because in terms of recreating what made the classic titles so great, Mania doesn’t miss a beat. The controls feel fluid and responsive, making it easy for longtime fans to fall right back into their old groove of running, jumping and Spin Dashing within seconds. You can play Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, who each have their own special abilities: just as before, Tails can fly and Knuckles can climb walls and glide through the air. However, Sonic has been given an brand new ability call the “Drop Dash,” which you can pull off by pressing and holding the jump button when in midair. It causes Sonic to blast forward upon hitting the ground after jumping. A lot of reviewers have been saying this move isn’t very useful, and I initially agreed with that—however, as I began using it more, I was surprised at how many times during my playthrough where the drop dash came in handy in keeping my momentum going.
But the levels are the real star of the show here. Sonic Mania has a total of 12 “zones,” each consisting of 2 levels (referred to as “acts”). 4 of them are new, and 8 return from Sonic 1, Sonic 2, Sonic CD, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles, which include Green Hill, Chemical Plant, Stardust Speedway, Flying Battery, and many others. The abundance of returning zones might sound of lame, but they’ve all been entirely remixed with new layouts and gimmicks not seen in their original versions, making them feel entirely fresh. However, the 4 new zones present in Mania are what allowed the developers to truly flex their creative muscles, making them the highlights of the experience. Whether it’s the bouncing, colorful Studiopolis or the gorgeous, ice-themed Press Garden, all four of these zones burst with charm and creativity, peppered with little details that truly bring them to life—as well as easter eggs that only the truest of Sonic fans will pick up on. Don’t get me wrong, the classic stages are still great, but the new ones are so damn good that I can’t help but wish there were more of them. If Sega greenlights a sequel to this game (which I sincerely hope they do), I really hope it’s comprised entirely of new zones.
But still haven’t gotten to the level design itself, which is nothing short of sublime. Every level in the game flows like an elaborate rollercoaster, striking an excellent balance between high-speed thrills and thoughtful platforming. 2D Sonic is all about momentum, something these developers clearly had in mind when crafting these levels. You build up speed by timing your movements just right, and being able to keep that speed going is the reward for playing well. And what really makes these stages shine is how replayable they are. Multiple different pathways are present in every level, and the game you rewards in spades for exploring every nook and cranny of the stage with hidden goodies which include rings, extra lives, power-ups such as the Fire, Bubble, and Lighting Shields, and portals to one of the seven Special Stages, which each grant you a Chaos Emerald upon beating them.
And speaking of those Special Stages–they’re surprisingly a lot of fun. Since the series began, Special Stages have been notorious for kind of sucking, but that’s not the case at all here. These stages have you running continuously in a three-dimensional space trying to catch a UFO holding a Chaos Emerald, with them ending when you either catch the UFO or run out of time. In order to catch it, you need to collect blue orbs to increase how fast you run as well as rings to expand the time limit. As fiendishly tricky as these Special Stages can be, they’re a blast to play through and well worth beating in order to get all seven Chaos Emeralds and unlock the true final boss. But they are actually a second type of Special Stages that can be accessed through any level’s Checkpoint Gates. These ones are based of the ones found in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and clearing them unlocks a handful of extra goodies such as alternate abilities for Sonic, a Debug Mode, and even a mode that acknowledges a long-running meme about Knuckles.
And it also doesn’t hurt that the game is visually specular. The vibrant 32-bit art style is jaw-droppingly beautiful, with every single level being lavished with detail and bursting with bright colors that pop right off the screen. As for the soundtrack, it’s pretty much perfection. All of the music in incredibly crisp and clean-sounding, with every track being a pitch-perfect blend of retro sounds and instrumentals.
However, in spite of all the things Mania does right, there is but one major gripe I have with the game: the save system. Your progress is only saved after beating the second act of each zone, meaning that a Game Over always boots you back to the beginning Act 1. Sonic Mania is a surprisingly tough game at points, and is also a little stingy when it comes to extra lives. I get that most video games in the 90’s didn’t have save systems at all, but that’s one thing that would’ve been better left in the past. Having to start all the way from the beginning of Act 1 after running out of lives in Act 2 isn’t challenging or intuitive, it’s just tedious.
But even though I would’ve preferred a few more original zones and the save system is too old-school for its own good, this is still of the best, if not the best installment in the series in over a decade. You really can see the sheer amount of love and passion put into every last pixel of Sonic Mania, and if Sega is smart they’ll put this talented team of developers to work on a sequel right away.