- Platform: Nintendo Switch
- Also on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
- Developers: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, SEGA of America, PagodaWest Games, Tantalus Media (Switch Port)
- Number of Players: 1-2 local
Sonic has fallen on some hard times since the 90’s. While he’s starred in a number of games since his heyday, none of them have really captured the essence of what truly made him such a popular icon in the first place. His transition into 3-D was never as smooth as some other long-running franchises and it was never quite clear what direction to take the series. Sega tried numerous times to get it right, even going as far as releasing a weird episodic “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” that still didn’t quite feel right. Now let’s (much like the game’s fantastic animated Launch Trailer suggests) forget all of that and pretend that the last 20 years never happened – enter Sonic Mania.
Sonic Mania is a love letter to Sonic at its best. No long voice acted cutscenes. No new annoying friends you have to deal with. No fishing minigames. Just Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles blasting through courses at breakneck speeds. There is a story of sorts here, but it’s mainly told through little in game snippets with the sprites of the characters acting out the plot. It doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things, the key is to just keep running forward. The main progression of the game follows the same forward momentum as its progenitor games. As Sonic, Knuckles, or Tails (with Knuckles’ campaign being a slightly altered version of Sonic’s and each of them having their own abilities) you’ll speed your way through 10+ Zones (some old, some new). Each Zone consists of 2 ‘Acts’ and at the end of each Act, you’ll fight a boss. Along the way you’ll battle enemies and environmental hazards, as well as collect powerups that can help protect you, or give you some minor offensive powers.
Like most Sonic games, you don’t have hit points or health meters, but you rely on rings that you collect as you blaze through the stages. Every time you get hit, your rings spill out forcing you to try to grab as many as you can before they disappear. If you’re hit and you aren’t currently holding any rings – that’s one less life you have to try to clear the zone. Thankfully getting from beginning to end in each zone is as much fun as it always was. Each Act in each Zone is big enough to allow multiple playthroughs and branching paths that ensure you likely won’t take the same path twice.
Moving through the Acts at a blazingly fast speed and gathering your momentum as you skyrocket up ramps and through loop-de-loops feels fantastic and the sense of speed is extremely satisfying. The corkscrews, springs, bumpers, and slides are just as good here as they’ve ever been and the game does a great job of keeping up with your pace. If you’d rather slow it down and explore to try to find all the secret Giant Rings, the game has enough depth and nuance to the momentum and physics that it feels like you can control the rollercoaster, rather than just buckling up for the ride.
Things slow down a bit when it comes to boss battles, but that’s not a bad thing. The little cool down allows you to enjoy the variety and creativity the team poured into most of the boss encounters. A few fall a bit flat, a few seem a bit familiar, but for the most part they provide an exciting way to break up all the running you’ll be doing. In addition to boss battles, the Special Stages and Bonus Stages both provide you a breather from the action. The Bonus Stages borrow heavily from Sonic the Hedgehog 3/Knuckles while the Special Stages lean more into Sonic the Hedgehog CD and give you a shot a earning a Chaos Emerald. While neither are particularly mind blowing, (I much preferred the “Chase the UFO” concept from the Special Stages) I think they were going more for “throwback” than just straight fun. I won’t go too far into the extra modes as some are unlockable and secret, but I will say that on top of Time Trails and Vs., there is a good amount of content included to keep you running full steam ahead, even outside of the main Story mode.
Sonic and company control just as tightly as you’d expect and I had no problem handling the controls even at top speeds. I would recommending using the D-pad on whatever system you choose to play this on as it just feels right, although the option of analog stick is still available. The basic control mechanics are the same as they’ve always been. It’s extremely easy to quickly ‘spin-dash’ then roll into your ‘spin attack’ hit the spring, jump, ‘spin attack’ again and keep rolling downhill without ever losing a second of momentum. Playing as Tails and Knuckles feels just as good, if just a bit different with Knuckles moving a bit slower, complimented by his climbing and gliding and Tails being able to fly for a short amount of time. Overall the controls should come as no surprise to anyone who had the muscle movements ingrained into their hands as a kid on a Genesis and if not, you’ll pick it up extremely quickly.
To put it simply – this game is just beautiful. The sprites look just as good in 2017 as they did in the 90’s and it’s great to see Sonic and friends back in this style. The graphics and levels start out simple enough, but by the time you reach ‘Studiopolis Zone’ you’ll think you’ve hit the peak. Then when you make it to Act 2 of ‘Press Garden Zone’ the realization sinks in – the beauty of the sprite work just never quits. The super detailed backgrounds and wonderful little flourishes of detail are very impressive for a game a lot of people are going to speed through. There was a lot of love and affection that went into crafting this game and it shows. I won’t go too much more into detail as finding these cool little touches is part of the fun, however try sliding down an oil slide with a Fire Shield on and you’ll see what I mean.
Music/Sound: Sonic Mania’s music really nails the feel of a 90’s Sonic game in 2017. The fun and vibrant chiptunes do a great job of fitting the aesthetic of each of the Zones in the game. You’ll recognize several familiar songs, several remixed songs, and several all new songs and they all feel very at home and cohesive. The sound effects retain that nostalgic charm and everything here sounds great. From grabbing a ring, to hitting a spring, to that panic inducing drowning music that gave everyone nightmares when they were young, it still shines through brilliantly and is as classic as ever.
Sonic Mania is a true return to form for a series that desperately needed it. It’s unfortunate that Sonic Forces is breathing down its neck, ready to undo all the good favor Mania brought back to the franchise. Sonic Mania isn’t the perfect game. The sphere collecting Bonus Stages aren’t much fun, some of the returning Zones are pretty uninspired (seriously who wanted to run through Flying Battery Zone again?), and the game had some performance issues when trying to switch to sleep mode on my Switch. Regardless, this game should be known as the quintessential Sonic game moving forward. While it’s unlikely to convince anyone that has never liked any games in the series, it’s a huge step forward in the right direction and fans and newcomers alike can bask in the Mania.
Pros: Blisteringly fast and tight gameplay. Beautiful sprite work, level design, and very creative boss battles. Return to form for the series, feature packed, and filled with cool little unlockables and secrets.
Cons: Some of the returning levels aren’t the most fun. The Bonus Stages are a pain and take a long time to really master. The small performance issues don’t affect gameplay but are annoying nonetheless.