One aspect of the Sonic franchise I always found interesting was its various subdivisions, each focused on a specific incarnation of the character. There’s a following for the Sonic from the original Genesis games, his Freedom Fighter version from the ABC cartoon, and fan bases for his Archie and Fleetway comics. Not to mention the “modern” Sonic that debuted in the Dreamcast games, the droll version from the Sonic Boom show, and the Looney Tunes influenced Sonic from the syndicated 90’s Sonic show. So “Classic Sonic” is essentially its own self-contained world, and Sonic Mania is a love letter to that particular era- with a variety of new twists.
Mania started out as a prototype from lead developer Christian Whitehead, titled Sonic Discovery before series producer Takashi Iizuka (not to be confused with the wrestler of the same name) suggested a different title.
Whitehead previously worked on ports of other Sonic games, and the experience of his team is evident in the gameplay style. The movement of the characters through the zones always feels tight and incredibly clean, which makes for a fun, throwback platforming experience.
In many respects, Sonic Mania understands the value of showing over telling, and its story is a reflection of that. Eggman wants to use the Chaos Emeralds to power up a new weapon, and Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles (looking much slimmer here than he does in Boom) try to foil his scheme before the mad doctor sends them back in time to previous zones. All of the expositions are dialogue free, but Sonic always sounds like Jaleel White in my head anyway.
Out of the thirteen zones that your cute animal heroes zoom through, five are original and the remaining eight are basically remixes of previous zones from the series’s history. The remastered levels are given fresh, unique features and puzzles that will call on the player to use a degree of patience.
Sure, it’s fun to just blast through areas at top speed using hidden springs, but half of the fun is exploring the different environments and figuring out how their various features work. Luckily, Sonic’s flame, bubble, and electric shield power-ups also return, proving to be a huge help.
Graphically, 2D Sonic has never looked as good. Each zone has an eye popping amount of detail and unique color palettes, and the sprites of the characters are as expressive as they’ve ever been. Sonic and company have all new animations and a few new skills, notably Sonic gaining a “drop dash”, that play into the various traps they run into through the game.
Not to mention the soundtrack from composer Tee Lopes is a great compliment for everything and sounds very reminiscent of older games from the Sega CD and Saturn periods. “Blossom Haze” from Press Garden Zone’s second act is particularly catchy.
Then there are the bosses, easily one of my favorite aspects about Mania. Each of them has clearly had a ton of care put into their designs and mechanics, and for the most part, they feel like fun, fair challenges. The giant robot Eggman from Sonic 2 is back, and it’s brought along a massive helicopter that fires missiles at your heroes at the end of Studiopolis, Mecha-Sonic from Sonic CD, and a massive mechanical sandworm trying to eat your plane in the Mirage Saloon zone. The Chemical Plant zone even has a tribute to “Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine” for its climax.
If you were into Sonic 3 growing up, you’re in luck as the “Get Blue Spheres!” globe minigame is back, along with a new Special Stage where your character chases down a UFO carrying a Chaos Emerald. Nabbing both gold rings and blue orbs are key to completing the levels and the steering can be a bit tricky to get the hang of initially, but it’s not too steep of a learning curve.
So does Sonic Mania really deserve the title of “Best Sonic Game Ever”, as some critics have claimed? As much as I love this game, I think it depends on what you’re looking for. It’s certainly addictive and hard to put down once you’re locked in. I’d say it’s my biggest favorite since Generations, and if you’re looking for an even more retro Sonic-inspired game experience, this will easily quench that particular thirst. Either way, I’ll easily recommend it- the Fastest Thing Alive hasn’t run this smoothly in years.