Sonic games tend to come in two flavors: classic chubby Sonic and modern tall/slim Sonic. Modern Sonic will get his chance to shine later this year in Sonic Forces. Fans and modders took it upon themselves to give Genesis-era Sonic his due with Sonic Mania and they hit the mark. It brings classic Sonic gameplay into 2017 with style.
- TL;DR: Classic Sonic gameplay that will put a smile on your face
- Platforms: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
- Developers: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, PagodaWest Games
- Time Played: 5:30
- What I Played: Completed the game as Sonic & Tails, started files with Tails and Knuckles
Sonic Mania is a side-scrolling platformer that looks like it was made 20 years ago. There’s no 3D, no free camera, no world to explore, and no huge cast of supporting characters. Dr. Robotnik and his Hard Boiled Heavies are after the seven Chaos Emeralds while Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles try to stop him.
The game takes place across 12 levels, four original and eight remixed classics, each split into two distinct acts. Two classics, Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone, set the stage for all of the old-school platforming to come. Press Garden Zone is a strikingly pretty zone with flowers in act one replaced by ice and snow in act two. Hydrocity Zone is, as you’d expect from the name, a dreaded water level complete with water slides, air bubbles, and speeding across the surface. The second to last level, Metallic Madness Zone, is my pick for best level. Half of it takes place in the background with weighted launchers sending you between the two planes. Add in the sections of Sonic being miniaturized and you’ve got one great level.
Each act has a boss battle with the same goal: jump into the boss enough times while surviving its attacks. The bosses are designed much better than that simple premise would make you think, though. The ending of Stardust Speedway Zone pits you against Metal Sonic in a race/escape sequence followed by a duel. One boss is a straight up game of Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine against the man himself. Even without 360° arenas and special powers, boss battles in Sonic Mania are refreshing and interesting.
The passion of Christian Whitehead and company shows in the design of each level. Each one is a twisting knot that builds on itself with intertwining tracks and loops that reach multiple screens worth of distance both up and down. Pipes, bouncers, and spikes are strategically placed to both keep up your speed and keep you on your toes. Levels may be 2D but they are far from flat as you run behind, in front of, and between pieces of the environment. The sound design is also top notch with excellent per-level tracks, my favorite being Press Garden Act Two, and the instantly recognizable effects for spinning, jumping, bouncing, and collecting rings. It’s clear that the developers wanted to make Sonic Mania feel like a proper classic Sonic game and they succeeded.
Levels are not only well designed but full of secrets to find. Giant rings hidden away in seemingly unreachable places transport you to special autorunning stages like in Sonic CD. Collecting all seven chaos emeralds in these stages unlocks the true ending of the game. There are also hidden stages similar to those in Sonic 3 that place you on a grid and task you with turning blue orbs into red ones. Finally, there’s even a secret “& Knuckles” mode that doesn’t require a special cartridge.
Sonic Mania retains the difficulty of the classic games it draws inspiration from. Checkpoint gates and a proper lives system require you to be careful while running near the speed of light. Most of the game is challenging in a good way but there are a few sections that where trial and error is the only real way like the Hydrocity Zone Act One escape sequence. Having only a few extra lives in a section like that can mean restarting the level from scratch. Thankfully, levels are so well made that it isn’t much of a negative.
The replay value of Sonic Mania comes in a few forms. You can play the game one of four ways: as Sonic & Tails (default), as Sonic, as Tails, or as Knuckles. Tails and Knuckles bring their own unique spins to the game with Tails being able to fly straight up and Knuckles’s abilities of gliding and wall climbing. Playing as either Tails or Knuckles after clearing the game with Sonic lets you see different parts of the same levels and forces you to approach obstacles differently. Time attack mode lets you put your best run per act up against others and a split screen mode allows two players to race each other.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog and the first of his two games in 2017 is a fun one. Zooming through a dozen wonderfully made levels as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles with excellent sprite design and music is a blast. The opening audio clip of the word Sega instantly transports you back to the days of sitting cross legged on the floor. For maximum nostalgia, you can enable the CRT filter in the options menu. If Sonic Mania is the kind of game we can get when fans are given the reins, maybe more publishers should entertain the thought.