Sonic and Knuckles was released in 1994, and Sega has tried everything to recapture that magic in the years since then. They've given Sonic scarves and a magic sword. He's had several 3D makeovers and clashed with cataclysmic foes. He's met countless new friends and flirted with a human girlfriend. He's shared the spotlight with gun wielding anti-heroes and a giant blue cat. He's howled at the moon, teamed up with himself, and even competed at the Olympics. The only real option left was to let someone else have a shot, so Sega brought in a core team of fan game developers and let them go nuts. The resulting game, Sonic Mania, avoids every pitfall that has befallen this franchise by ignoring 23 years of progress and crafting a love letter to the games that made people care in the first place. Sonic Mania is a glorious franchise rebirth that captures exactly what everyone has really wanted from Sonic all this time.
After the events of the Genesis quartet, Dr. Ivo "Eggman" Robotnik has sent in a special team of Eggrobos to retrieve a powerful emerald. Sonic arrives a moment too late, and the excavation causes a time warp that flings everyone back to Green Hill Zone and instills the Badniks with powers beyond other minions. This sets up a race through enhanced versions of prior levels and new zones as Sonic takes on Robotnik and the newly christened Hard-Boiled Heavies. The game keeps up a great pace throughout by having each zone consist of only two acts and changing mechanics up significantly after each boss fight. Just as you get used to a level's tricks, something new is thrown your way. Combine that with the simple bits of storytelling and small nods to Sonic's long history throughout the game and you have a 2D platformer that you just don't want to stop playing.
Thankfully, the game gives you little reason to put down the controller. One of the main issues with Sega's own attempts to create a 2D throwback was the physics. There is a very specific feeling to the Genesis originals, and deviations from that formula can ruin the entire experience. Thankfully, the team behind Sonic Mania are dedicated to replicating past successes, and gameplay here feels exactly as you remember. With just a single added move (a jump dash that helps keep your momentum going when playing as Sonic), this feels like the type of iterative step forward that would occur between one of the older titles rather than a huge leap filled with experimentation. Variety is kept up by mixing and matching mechanics from different zones as well as letting you toy with Sonic 3's set of elemental shields in zones from Sonic 1 and 2. If you've run through the older games over and over, you'll have plenty of great moments of discovery as disparate pieces fall into place. At the same time, those who started with Adventure will be able to jump in without missing a beat and experience the best possible version of the classic style.
Even though Sonic Mania is a huge appeal to nostalgia mechanically, I can't help but be disappointed by just how many of the stages are callbacks rather than original material. The stages that are new are right up there with the originals, so I am eager to see more of them. Sure, variety in the old stages is kept by tweaking the soundtracks and adding new mechanics and power-ups, but nothing beats a wholly original experience filled with new enemies and weird ideas. Needless to say, I have full confidence in this team to create an entirely new game in the classic vein based on what is here.
Just like the classics, exploring the entire game will require more than just speeding through loops and defeating bosses. The Blue Sphere bonus stages from Sonic 3 return here, and mastering them can unlock all manner of secrets and extra modes that greatly enhance Sonic Mania's replayability. The high-speed 90-degree angle turning required to beat these stages still feels as sharp as ever, so you'll either be thrilled to jump in or annoyed every time you find one. Thankfully, the special stages are a bit more unique, taking elements from Sonic CD's UFO chases and adding a bit of a Sega Saturn graphical flair. These are required to get to the true boss of the game per usual and provide a great challenge that truly makes you earn your true ending.
While the core gameplay of each zone is pretty much what you remember from past games, the boss fights have been greatly improved. Whether you're fighting Robotnik in a new contraption or one of the Hard-Boiled Heavies, each battle brings unique ideas to the table. Some will have you chasing your foes across vast fields at top speed, while others will close you in and force you to think on your feet. They're also peppered with the most fun references of the entire game and truly feel like a reward for mastering each act. Of course, one of my biggest issues with Sonic Mania crops up specifically because each boss is so unique. Due to the game sticking with a traditional lives system, you'll need to complete each zone and the two boss fights within without dying too many times. Games Overs boot you back to the start of a zone, and I found myself having to replay 15-20 minutes of content over and over late in my playthrough just to reach a few specific Act 2 bosses and master their tells. Some may say that this adds to the nostalgia, but this system based on arcade ideas serves just to waste your time in 2017.
The one thing even the less polished Sonic games usually have going for them is their stellar presentation, and Sonic Mania is no different. The soundtrack hits all the jazzy synth notes that you'd expect. Old themes are remixed during Act 2 of a classic zone, and every bit of new sound feels authentically retro and fits like a glove. The graphics have been improved, but in the same subtle way that all the best remakes do it. This is Sonic like you remember him and not how he actually was, and all the added frames of animation really bring the game to life in ways that just weren't possible before. On a technical level, widening the play area and keeping a stable 60 FPS throughout has greatly improved playability, although I did run into some brief hitching on both Xbox One and Switch when console level actions (like unlocking achievements) were occurring.
I can't say I'm coming to Sonic Mania without bias, although I wasn't aware of just how nostalgic I was for the games of old until I shed a tear while watching the reveal trailer for the first time. Coming from the perspective of a fan of the original games, Sonic Mania is basically everything you could have hoped for in a new game. The new stages and gimmicks that are brought to the table enhance what makes Sonic great rather than overtaking that core gameplay and storytelling is minimalistic and fun rather than overwrought and unbearable. Sonic was never really about the 'tude or furry friends, but it was about precision arcade platforming and an immense style all its own. The Taxman and his friends understand this more than Sega has in a long time and brought us the best Sonic game of all time because of it. I can only hope that this game is the first in a long line of grand new adventures for the Sonic we all love.
Our Sonic Mania review was conducted on Nintendo Switch with a copy provided by the publisher and on Xbox One with a copy purchased by our reviewer. The game is also available on PlayStation 4 and is coming soon to PC via Steam.
Sonic Mania is one of those games that many thought would never happen. A true sequel to Sonic and Knuckles that takes the series to new heights, this is the 2D arcade platformer that everyone who owned a Genesis has been waiting for.(Review Policy)
- Pixel Perfect Gameplay
- Incredible Soundtrack
- Plenty of Hidden Secrets
- Gorgeous 2D Spritework
- Brief Hitches on Console
- Too Few New Zones
- Archaic Lives System