Sonic Mania! This is what Sonic fans have been building up to for so DAMN long now. I’m not one for slagging off the Modern Sonic era, because for the most part it has been actually quite good, but it was never really made for me in mind. I’m a Classic Sonic fan. Namely because I grew up with that era, and missed the first couple of years of Modern Sonic’s tenure, i.e. the Adventure games (because I never owned the relevant consoles to play them).
Sure, there have been a few bad games but Sonic has still maintained some aspects of his Classic self, but I guess fundamentally a lot of the problems came with SEGA executives messing around with Sonic Team, and Sonic Team (in themselves) failing to remember why Sonic was such a beloved gaming icon. One bad decision led to another, and a lot of inconsistencies took place, leaving Sonic and his franchise on shaky grounds, to the point where his very fandom were ready to throw in the towel and leave the Blue Hedgehog behind.
I guess it’s kind of ironic that it took the fans themselves to produce a genuine sequel to Sonic & Knuckles. Now, I’ve never played the episodic series Sonic the Hedgehog 4, so I can’t really judge it’s quality and authenticity as to whether it’s a successful (or better still, faithful) continuation of the Classic 2D era. But I do know for a FACT that Sonic Mania is definitely that secret love child. I guess from the very first trailer I was hooked on the idea of returning to the original formula, but this was mostly down to biased opinions (because, like I said, the 2D era was my thing growing up).
The 3D era just never fully sold Sonic to me because it wasn’t how I remembered Sonic, plus the games never fully felt polished, or fully understood what they wanted to do with Sonic in the modern era (and that even goes for the more successful games like Sonic Adventure 1&2, Sonic Colors, and Sonic Generations).
So naturally when TWO new Sonic games were announced to celebrate his (late) 25th Anniversary I was more inclined to throw myself towards Sonic Mania for obvious reasoning, especially since those reasons meant I felt safe with the games direction (although I have been steadily warming up to Sonic Forces [which generally looks pretty damn good – so fingers crossed]). And now having played it I can safely say that my anticipation didn’t late me down (for the most part anyway).
I think my only major gripe at the game is the fact that there wasn’t enough NEW levels, but if I’m frankly honest, this gripe quickly turns into a tiny nit-pick because I just really enjoy what they’ve done with the re-mastered levels from the original series. The only reason the tiny nit-pick remains, however, is because two of the level chosen were REALLY fucking bad in my opinion. I find “Oil Ocean Zone” a depressing level to play through, and “Hydrocity Zone” is just plain boring. Why they thought it was a good idea to place these two horrendous levels within this SOLID game is beyond me.
You have the return of “Green Hill Zone”, “Chemical Plant Zone”, “Flying Battery Zone”, “Stardust Speedway Zone”, “Lava Reef Zone”, and “Metallic Madness Zone”. That’s ONE zone from Sonic the Hedgehog, TWO zones from Sonic the Hedgehog 2, THREE zones from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles, and the surprising TWO zones from the SEGA CD spin-off, Sonic CD.
It’s almost like Sonic Mania is a fully packaged call-back to the Classic era as you go through a highlighted tour of the 2D era, from start to finish (if a little questionable at times). Sure, Sonic Generations already did this approach but I find Sonic Mania does it better because the narrative is given more depth and meaning, instead of the bland approach of having Sonic go through a warp-room set-up to access the levels, and having a narrative that barely holds itself together.
Sonic and Miles “Tails” Prower return to Angel Island after detecting a dimensional breach only to uncover Dr. Ivo Robotnik up to no good again, this time uncovering the mystical “Phantom Ruby”. Upon Dr. Robotnik’s new minions, The Hardboiled Heavies, releasing the “Phantom Ruby” from the ground it causes a special disturbance that sends Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles the Echidna (who is dragged into the adventure due to inconveniently being caught inside the energy field) back in time.
This begins a journey through time and space as Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles travel both through familiar territories and brand-new areas in order to stop Dr. Robotnik and the newly upgraded Hardboiled Heavies. And it doesn’t disappoint! It becomes a heavy nostalgia trip for a long-term fan (such as myself) as the development team revels in exploring new ways to make these iconic levels, and the iconic 2D structure, work even better within the modern age. Sonic Mania quickly becomes the perfect anniversary experience as it not only celebrates the original series, but also expands upon it.
As I was whizzing through “Green Hill Zone” enjoying the beautifully re-mastered formula (through the incorporation of keeping to the original design, whilst blasting in a more vivid colour scheme, more detailed textures, and an eye-catching background that’s filled with life) I started to notice the level was different. And this absolutely wowed me. I was speechless at how impressed and in love with the team I was because they had done such a magnificent job at capturing the spirit of 2D Sonic whilst adding in new additions to make it that bit better, almost making these re-mastered levels the definitive versions (and I never thought that was possible).
It was really cool how Act 1 and Act 2 started to blend together and become one MASSIVE experience. Not to mention it felt like Sonic Mania was a MASSIVE blend of ALL THE CLASSIC GAMES in one neatly packaged bundle. We had the return of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles’ Shield system, which ended-up adding even more excitement by what the different elements did to the surroundings, particularly with the Flame Shield as it could burn bridges in “Green Hill Zone” and set fire to the oil within “Oil Ocean Zone” (which actually made the latter level a more entertaining experience despite it’s depressing nature within the original).
And then the game decided to throw a curve-ball into the mix by having The Death Egg Robot drop in as “Green Hill Zones” first Dr. Robotnik encounter. It added in so much excitement, and energy, to the game that it just made me even more excited to see what the game would throw at me next.
And just as I thought “Chemical Plant Zone” played the same Act 2 threw in the cool feature of creating new chemical mixtures to produce new means of getting around the level, allowing you to bounce around like a pinball (which was SO much fun), combining elements from Sonic CD‘s “Wacky Workbench Zone”, which is something Sonic Mania revels at, neatly combining elements from different Classic levels to create an explosive hybrid level for this awesome celebration.
Sonic Mania then throws another surprise my way with a Dr. Robotnik boss based around Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine. At that moment I had run out of ways to have a nerd-gasm. I was simply lost in the moment of pure nostalgia, which I think is Sonic Mania‘s key to being a GREAT game because it does well at showcasing WHY Sonic was loved by the fans, and by incorporating in all these key-elements (including tons of nods to the past, particularly through SURPRISE character cameos), and mixing them up to make them even better, makes for one HELL of a experience (something Sonic Team clearly forgot how to produce).
The game really shines though when the development team got a chance to develop their own unique levels, something I have to commend SEGA for as not many Game Developers out there would happily hand the reigns of their franchises over to the fans (particular SEGA’s rival Nintendo [who are particularly uneasy with sharing their products with their very fandom – and yet their happy to have them spurge out their money to buy them]).
Sometimes it’s hard to admit when you need help and quite frankly SEGA have needed to admit this for a long, long time now, but I guess the wait has paid-off and even they can feel reassured that this specially crafted investment will bring them a better relationship with their fans through allowing them to produce a game they themselves are happy with.
The first new level is “Studiopolis Zone”, a level creatively designed after The Movies, incorporating elements such as cameras, props, clappers, and popcorn machines that you can use to raise to new areas. It looks kind of like “Casino Night Zone” and “Carnival Night Zone” made love and had a child. I love how fast-paced this level is, how you can jump into Media Vans to teleport across the zone, and even find bingo machines to run around in to gain extra points, and the colour-scheme looks fantastic. Honestly, this first level demonstrates perfectly what this new development team can produce, and it only gets better from here.
Then we move onto “Press Garden Zone” which at first didn’t impress me all that much, but entering Act 2 I was blown away by both the visuals and the soundtrack. It feels incredibly gentle with its flowery-look and the charming melody (serving as one of (if not) the BEST track on Sonic Mania. Also, I really like the ice physics. You can get struck by ice sprays throughout the level (rendering you powerless inside a block of ice until either yourself, or the environment, causes it to crack open) to which you can actually use to break through a wall in order to access the next area. Plus, Sonic’s look whilst frozen is just incredible.
And the boss battle within this zone simply demonstrates the development teams key desire to make Sonic Mania feel both nostalgic and fresh. You battle one of The Hardboiled Heavies [referred to as Heavy Shinobi] which attacks back with a sword (which momentarily freezes you upon impact) and you must find the right moment between its fast-paced ninja attacks in order to hit it, thus making the boss feel more interactive and thought-out compared to the usual set-up of waiting for the obvious opening.
Many of the bosses in Sonic Mania share this cool aspect in which you have to time your attacks carefully through the carefully structured openings that appear throughout the encounters. This honestly makes the bosses feel more diverse and original, allowing Sonic Mania to find new grounds in order to explore new ways to challenge Sonic fans, and thus pushing the Blue Hedgehog forward within the modern era without comprising his core aspects.
I really do enjoy the development teams’ third entry, “Mirage Saloon Zone”, which captures the vibe of an American Western adventure perfectly. The environment is a vibrant desert setting filled with all the clichéd elements, but it’s done in a way that feels slightly fresh (particularly within a Sonic game) and just feels really fun to play through. Not to mention Act 1 feels like a successor to “Sky Chase Zone” as you fly through the air aboard the Tornado, battling through familiar enemies, before eventually coming across an incredibly happy Dr. Robotnik as he toots the horn of his very own steam-operated vehicle.
And finally we have the final level, “Titanic Monarch”, which honestly threw me when I first played it due to (what I felt to be) really gimmicky additions that made playing through the level incredibly tedious, slowing you down within what felt like a never ending display similar to the annoying-as-fuck “Metropolis Zone”. But, after I calmed myself down, sat back, and actually concentrated, I found that “Titanic Monarch” was a pleasant experience, one that made the final zone feel like the PERFECT conclusion to a Sonic game.
It was fast-paced, filled with challenging platforming, a maze-like structure, plenty of elements that both kept you on your toes and made you think carefully how to advance, as well as incorporating a neat nod to the narrative’s time-travelling elements by having you jump through portals within Act 2 in order to access different sections of Dr. Robotnik’s base, thus eventually granting you access to a tear within the fabric of space that to led you to your arch-nemesis for your final encounter.
And this was another aspect that didn’t disappoint. It was a really great final boss, to which felt different to past final bosses. Dr. Robotnik wasn’t in a giant mech-suit but rather faced you more head on, using mechanical arms to try and attack you with, but most interestingly was his usage of the “Phantom Ruby” in which he would create giant phantom hands to ensnare you with, thus sending you to different places in time and space to re-fight The Hardboiled Heavies.
Though this final encounter isn’t particularly difficult, it still has enough challenge to keep you on your toes, and with an abundance of rings scattered throughout the battle it makes it all the more fair.
Sonic Mania (if you haven’t already gathered) is a fantastic experience for any Sonic fan and should be revelled in it’s accomplishments. Well done to Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games for developing this extraordinary instalment within the Sonic franchise, which is clearly a game made by the fans for the fans. It plays incredibly well, feeling like a polished re-master of the original series, whilst exploring new ways to make Classic Sonic feel relevant within the modern era.
And how can I forget about the amazing composing by Tee Lopes, another person who helped to make Sonic Mania such a special experience. Whether it be a brand-new track for us to stick our teeth into, or a faithful re-mix of the original Sonic soundtrack, it was always a delight to listen and added to me wanting to come back for more and more!
Say, my only true gripe is that there wasn’t more NEW levels because the four new stages created by the development team clearly shine-out as the games finest aspect. Also, I personally don’t enjoy “The Special Stages” as they feel kind of fiddly in the way you have to keep collecting rings to maintain your time, whilst also collecting the blue spheres in order to increase your speed in order to destroy the UFOs. And as much as I appreciate the return of the “The Special Stages” from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles I can’t say the increased difficulty and speed makes them feel particularly fun.
But apart from my minor nit-picks (and my shit gaming abilities, which left me with more Game Over screens than I care to remember) I recommend Sonic Mania with the highest recommendation. It’s really fun to play. That’s the best way to describe it. Fun, filled with nostalgia, and lots of respect towards both the franchise an us (the fandom. The development team truly deliver the perfect rendition of the character, and a thrilling adventure to go with him.
And if you’ve NEVER played a Sonic game before, this is definitely your best jumping-on point as it perfectly demonstrates what Sonic is all about, and it’s also a DAMN-GOOD game!