SEGA’s marquee franchise has had a rough time over the years finding it’s footing. They’ve hit some good titles like Sonic Generations and some misguided ones like the episodic Sonic the Hedgehog 4. Needless to say, Sonic’s had his share of highs and lows, but the hedgehog constantly proves to be one of gaming’s popular icons. Sonic Mania is a near perfect return to form for the blue blur, bringing back the 2D sidescrolling of yore and this time his 16-bit looks as well.
Sonic Mania has our spiky blue hero fight the evil of Dr. Eggman, Ivo Robotnik. Friends Tails and Knuckles are also along for the ride. Players will dash their way across 12 zones split into two acts each. The new stages are well created, the themes and designs are beautiful to look at and never feel too busy; they’re vibrant, colorful, and creative. There’s lots of nooks and crannies where you’ll find new and interesting things to discover, it may take a few playthroughs just to see everything a stage has to offer. All the branching paths and new obstacles make these new areas just as fun and challenging as classic Sonic stages. Which was a pleasant surprise to see classic stages like Green Hill Zone, and Chemical Plant Zone mixed in with Mania’s new stages.
There’s plenty of new things to find within the old zones too. The first act is very accurate to the original stages, music and all. But once you hit the second act, things get remixed. Stages are large, elaborate, and filled with new gimmicks. Take Chemical Plant Zone, you’re introduced to a new mechanic right away in the 2nd act that turns the blue liquid, found throughout the stage, into two different types of rubbery compounds sending you airborne. Jumping back to the music real fast, the soundtrack is amazing. The new tracks are quite good and would fit well back in Sonic’s 16-bit heyday, but it’s the classic tracks that really did it for me. Listening to Chemical Plant Zone faithfully recreated gave me goosebumps, then listening to the remixed version in act two got me all forms of excited. Big thumbs up to the sound team, they hit it out of the park!
SEGA attempted to capture the 2D magic before with Sonic 4, but the movement physics and controls just didn’t feel right. With Mania, they’ve nailed it. Everything feels just as it should, I felt like I was hoping right into Sonic 3 or CD. Controls were tight, very responsive, and there was no frustration except from my own mistakes. You start out with the basics like the spin dash and using Tails to hover, but there are also unlockables. I was able to get a dash created for Sonic CD to add into my arsenal through completion of bonus stages.
The Bonus Stages come straight from Sonic 3 and to access them you just need to have something like 25 rings as you pass a checkpoint balloon. These stages won’t unlock chaos emeralds though. You’ll collect a coin at the completion of the bonus stage depending on how much you cleared. If you’re not familiar with the Sonic 3 bonus stage, you’re following Sonic from a third person perspective as he’s running along a 3D sphere. The object is to collect all the blue orbs and not touch any red ones. Collecting all the blue orbs nets you a silver coin and collecting all the orbs and rings in a stage gets you a gold. Other than the bonus Sonic CD move I unlocked, you’ll be able to find features like the sound test and debug mode as unlockables.
It’s here where I feel Mania is the weakest. With such a low bar of entry into the bonus stage, the 25 rings, you’ll come across the option to enter them a lot. I wished they would have peppered in some recreations of the Sonic 1 maze bonus stages and Sonic 2’s half-pipe stages. They would have given the game that much more variety and tickle our nostalgia just a teeny tiny bit more. Plus it wouldn’t feel increasingly repetitive as the game went on.
You may be wondering if there even is any Chaos Emeralds, but what kind of Sonic game would it be without collecting them? To get the true ending to the game, you’ll need to collect them all anyway. Hop into any of the giant hidden rings in each zone and off you go. These secret stages are new and unique, they have a Sonic R feel to them. You control Sonic from the 3rd person perspective on what feels like if the Genesis could do the SNES Mode 7. Flat ground with some polygonal objects. To get the emerald you have to chase a fast flying UFO. It’s a fun concept that is unfortunately locked behind these secret rings.
Most of the game’s boss fights are generally cool and unique, you’re in for a surprise in Chemical Plant Zone. Unfortunately there are some that fall flat and are just irritating. There’s one battle with Metal Sonic that really grinded my playthrough to a halt where you have to bounce a “weapon” into Metal Sonic. You’ll understand if you play that zone or watch a let’s play, but I ended up hitting game over a few times and having to start the stage over. Which by the way, is also something that forced me to stop playing and take a break. The game seems pretty generous with checkpointing, but when you hit game over you have to start from Act One of your last zone. If you’re trying to grind out strategies for a boss fight, this can become utterly frustrating.
Even with the small issues, Sonic Mania is a love letter to Sonic fans. As it should be though, it was designed by fans for the fans. Sonic Mania is right up there with the best Sonic titles and an excellent throwback that longtime fans have been hoping and waiting for – myself included.
A pre-release PlayStation 4 code was provided by the publisher for review purposes