Growing up within the forth generation of gaming (16 bit era), I was always the Sega kid. Sure I owned an NES and absolutely adored it, but for some reason I gravitated towards the Genesis afterwards. While other kids were playing the likes of Super Mario World and Final Fight, I was playing Sonic the Hedgehog and Streets of Rage. Being a Sonic fan in the 90’s was easy due to the quality associated with the series. Unfortunately, Sonic fizzled out in the fifth generation of gaming with the Sega Saturn and continued to go down hill during the sixth. Fast forward to 2017 where gamers are well into the eighth generation of gaming and Sonic the Hedgehog has shifted from a once beloved, quality platforming franchise to memes about furry sex and corny attitudes.
I personally haven’t played a Sonic title that has made me excited since Sonic Adventure released on the Dreamcast in 1999. Even then, it was that point in time when Sega fans felt Sonic officially began to decline (even though I enjoyed that game myself). At this point forward, my Sonic fandom ended and only my nostalgia for the Genesis classics remained. After many spin-offs and attempts to bring Sonic out of obscurity, nothing could seem to re-kindle the love I once had for the franchise.
In comes our white knight, Christian Whitehead, to quench thirsty Sonic fans of their strong desire to once again play a quality title in the franchise. Starting his career as a designer of Sonic fan titles, Whitehead (known as Taxman) gained the attention of Sega and began working with the company on the Sonic franchise. Sega finally unshackled the Sonic series from the clueless grip of Sonic Team and allowed Whitehead to work on a Sonic game that would appease fans of both classic Sonic games and platformers alike. Sonic Mania is that game and MAN is it exactly what we, the Sonic fans trapped in 1994, have been begging for.
Right from the start, Sonic Mania kicks into a strong nostalgia trip. The game sports the same 16 bit style found in the Genesis titles but with some extra visual bells and whistles found in the Sega CD’s Sonic CD title. Mania begins by thrusting gamers back into Green Hill Zone, complete with remixed music and a very familiar level design. After the first level is completed, things take a turn for the better and we’re introduced to a new and improved Green Hill zone with brand new level design, platforming elements like zip-lining, and fresh boss encounters.
The theme of blending the old with the new continues throughout the entirety of Sonic Mania. Whitehead and his team brought back eight classic zones from various 16 bit Sonic titles while also introducing five entirely new ones. All classic zones that make a return to Mania have the same set up mentioned above. The first act (two for each zone) hits you with the nostalgia while the second delivers a brand experience. At first I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about this. I wanted nothing but brand new levels myself. However, after sitting down with Sonic Mania, I was shocked how the game appealed to both my desire to replay classic Sonic games I know and love with the desire to play a fresh new game as well. It all just works.
All of the new stages crafted just for Sonic Mania feel right at home. All of the newly introduced mechanics feel like they would have fit perfectly in a classic 90’s Sonic title. The themes can feel somewhat similar to zones we know from the past, like Studiopolis Zone’s resemblance to Casino Nights Zone from Sonic 2. Thankfully, I never felt like that was a problem and it just aided in the feeling at these new stages just fit within this world. Press Garden Zone feels totally unique for a Sonic title, being visually one of the coolest new zones found in the game. Running through a snowy Japanese environment complete with cherry blossom trees and lanterns was simply pleasant on the eyes.
Sonic Mania’s gameplay is pretty much what you’d expect. The game retains the same speedy gameplay that challenges players to progress how they deem fit. Players can treat the game as a speed run by trying to blast through the stage as quickly as possible. Also, the game’s complex level designs reward players for slowing down and exploring by introducing new routes, hidden goodies and warps to bonus stages. The jumping physics and controls are on-point, which is something 2010’s Sonic the Hedgehog 4 failed to accomplish.
Sonic’s classic power-ups all make a return here with the addition of one newbie, a fire shield, that allows Sonic and his crew to dash in the air and destroy blocks. All of the brand new bosses in Sonic Mania are surprisingly challenging and complex compared to the typically easy bosses found in previous games. A few in particular actually had me stuck for awhile before I finally bested them.
Once players begin a new game, three playable characters are available from the start. You can play through the entire game as either Sonic, Tails or Knuckles; each with their own unique abilities. Sonic can spin dash by holding down on the d-pad along with the jump button. Knuckles can attach himself to walls and climb them. Tails can avoid tricky jumps by flying and hovering in the air. The two player mode introduced in Sonic 2 makes a return that allows a second player to control Tails while aiding Sonic. Split-screen Competitive mode also makes a return that allows two players to speed through the game trying to race the one another.
Special stages make a comeback too. Sonic Mania includes a brand new bonus stage that can be accessed by finding a giant gold ring hidden within a zone. These stages resemble a Mode-7 type 16-bit racing game that tasks Sonic in chasing and destroying a UFO holding a chaos emerald. Players can also trigger Sonic 3’s 3D blue ball collecting mini-game by holding at least 25 rings when hitting a checkpoint marker. Successfully completing these stages will net the player special unlocks in the Extras menu in the game. Both bonus stage types are fun, but definitely tricky to succeed at.
The element that gained the most respect from me in Sonic Mania is the soundtrack. Created by composer Tiago “Tee” Lopes, best known for many video game music remixes on YouTube, absolutely NAILED the music in this game. Every remixed track from a classic Sonic game sounds great without altering too much that would turn off fans of the original tunes. The newly crafted tracks created solely for Sonic Mania are even better by retaining that catchy 90’s pop synth vibe but with a modern twist. I could sit and listen to this soundtrack all day long. I simply adore it.
As expertly designed as Sonic Mania is, the game does come with a few negatives. First off, some of the new levels are very large and complex in design. I found several of them starting to wear out their welcome. For example: Flying Battery Zone’s fresh second act was really long and tricky to navigate while also throwing a pretty challenging boss at the player afterwards. Combined with a save system that ONLY saves at the beginning of each zone, I found it frustrating to loose all of my lives during a boss battle, only to revert back to act 1 and having to run through those long areas over again. The save system is much more generous than any other 16 bit Sonic title, but it did force me to take a break after I received a Game Over out of frustration.
I love how Sonic Mania mixes the old with the new. That’s not to say that I’m not disappointed with the large amount of returning zones. Even though these zones offer new experiences, I still felt the game had too much familiarity and not enough contemporary. I would have been much happier if we had a quarter of the game contain classic zones instead of over half. Still, players are getting enough “new” here that it isn’t too much of a problem.
It is worth noting that the Playstation 4 version of the game actually supports enhanced functionality through the Playstation 4 Pro console. The entire game runs at a native 4K resolution if you happen to own a 4K TV set. Playing Sonic Mania in 4K is fantastic since the game displays pixel perfect and extremely sharp. I personally would rather have this functionality over the portability of the Nintendo Switch, but that’s going to be subjective.
Sonic Mania is exactly what classic Sonic fans have spent over two decades yearning for. Christian Whitehead and his team have crafted a Sonic title that feels like it crawled right out of the 90’s. This should have been the Sonic title that debuted on the Sega Saturn. The game successfully marries the old with the new by appeasing both fans who want nostalgia and new experiences. For an asking price of $20, players get 12 zones with a combined 24 stages and a 13th hidden stage unlocked by collecting all of the chaos emeralds hidden in the game’s bonus stages. While I would have liked a more lenient save system and some shorter acts, I can’t help but be thrilled that this game turned out as great as it did.
Sonic fans of old and new owe it to themselves to play this game. Now excuse me while I go back and jam out to the soundtrack.
Sonic Mania was reviewed on a Playstation 4 Pro with a copy purchased by The Gaming Outsider themselves.