After so many misfires, fan-project-turned-official-game Sonic Mania looks to revive the blue hedgehog’s reputation in the eyes of fans and newcomers alike by taking the series back to its 2D sidescrolling roots.
IMPORTANT: This article is based on the Switch release of the game.
Even as someone who has only really enjoyed the sidescrolling 2D Sonic games, it hasn’t been difficult to see the slow descend into disrepair that the series had fallen into over the years. Title after title of seemingly sub-par 3D ‘trying to be original Sonic but not really’ games has resulted in the series becoming somewhat of a joke in the gaming world, a far cry from the beloved titles that graced the Sega Megadrive in the 1990’s and legitimately threatened Nintendo’s monopoly over the console market.
Originally a fan game, Sonic Mania quickly managed to capture the hearts and attention of many when Sega approved the game and brought the team on board for an official release. Many were hopefully for a return to what made them loved Sonic in the first place: going really fast through really colourful and unique-looking levels.
Sonic Mania finally brings a welcome return to the high-octane, fast-paced attitude of the Megadrive originals. The old blends with the new in a mixture of eight remixed levels from older games (ranging from levels from Sonic The Hedgehog to Sonic CD) as well as five brand-new levels. Sonic series producer Takashi Iizuka described it as a “passion product” born out of the fans’ love for the early Sonic games.
If you’re worried about the aesthetic and feeling of the game being dated: don’t be. The graphical work is lovely, with beautifully bright sprites and detailed levels that are absolutely bursting with colour. All the music, including the familiar tunes from the old games, have been remixed and updated to suit the higher graphical fidelity. Never has a vibrato’d square synth wave sounded so fresh. I’ve been playing the Switch version of the game and it looks great, feels great and sounds great.
The game allows you to choose between three playable characters when you start your save; Sonic, Tails and Knuckles. Anyone who has played the originals will most likely be familiar with their differences, but Sonic can perform a ‘drop dash’ which allows him to charge up a roll into a faster ball, Tails has the ability to fly and swim, and Knuckles can glide and climb up walls. Much like Sonic 2, there is also a 2-player mode which has one person play as Sonic and the other Tails.
I must say, having the option to use either an analogue stick or the d-pad buttons is a nice benefit of playing a 2D Sonic game on a more modern gamepad.
Of course, arguably the most important thing about a 2D Sonic game is the level design.
Each level is comprised of two ‘acts’, each with their own boss encounter at the end. The remixed versions of old levels have also been granted fresh boss battles. One of the best things about Sonic Mania is how varied and unique these encounters are. Having a boss at the end of each act, rather than at the end of each levels means that its very important for these bosses to be varied, lest they become stale and bothersome.
The boss of the first act of Studiopolis for example, one of the new levels in the game, is brilliant. For the first time I wasn’t fighting a Sonic boss in a slow and measured way, I was sprinting down the street in a high-speed chase with an attack helicopter (I understand that this was done before with Metal Sonic, but it was my first experience). Other encounters are completely unexpected, yet a greatly appreciated change of pace. Some are easier than others and some are more difficult and provide a perfect balance for the shorter acts in the game.
One of Sonic Mania’s greatest achievements is that it makes the old feel new with its level design. Most players will be familiar with Green Hill Zone, the Chemical Zone etc. but Sonic Mania reworks these levels massively whilst retaining their familiarity. All levels now have these huge branching paths, you’ll find yourself barely having time to pick at direction at the many intersections throughout a level. Starting Green Hill Zone at the beginning of the game you might think, ‘yep, I’ve played through this zone hundreds of times, I know how this goes’. I wouldn’t be so sure.
With these classic levels, Sonic Mania quickly pulls the carpet from beneath your feat and replaces it with a plusher, snazzier one. New travel mechanics, such as riding up a DNA strand in the Chemical Zone or being beamed up between satellite dishes in Studiopolois, means that each level has it’s own unique flavour of allowing you to navigate the many branching paths of every level. It’s absolutely brilliant seeing the levels open up like this and it really enhances the replay value of every level.
Aside from the main game mode which has you complete each level in chronological order, there is also a Time Trial mode which allows you to select and race through any act to achieve your fastest time. Being able to quickly reset and restart the level at any time is a nice option and will definitely be appreciated by those looking to shave seconds off their fastest times.
When it comes down to it, Sonic Mania is just fun. So much fun. Even when you Game Over and have to start the level again, the levels are so vast and varied that it’s still fun.
I’m not sure what else I can say about Sonic Mania to sing its praises. It’s an old-school Sonic game through and through, brought up to speed (haha) in the modern age. I think it’s pretty good.