Sonic the Hedgehog is back!
It feels so good to be able to say that again, but it’s finally happened. Sonic the Hedgehog now has a new title to his name that lives up to the series’ most iconic entries on the Sega Genesis! In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Sonic Mania outdoes them.
Back in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog hit the gaming scene, and quickly became a video game icon. Sonic was to be Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario, and indeed, for a few years, Sonic was even more popular than Nintendo’s famous plumber.
But it was not to last. While Sonic’s first several outings on the Sega Genesis (and its add-ons) are still highly revered even today, what he’s done since then has been a little less consistent. Mario proved to be a jack of all trades, seamlessly making the jump to 3D with Super Mario 64, transitioning into other genres with the likes of Super Mario Kart and Super Mario RPG, and still producing some of the best titles in gaming decades later with the likes of Super Mario Galaxy. Sonic, on the other hand, felt lost in time.
Though Sonic initially looked poised to replicate Mario’s versatility, the series would soon lose its footing. There wasn’t a proper Sonic title to be had on the Sega Saturn (and that console’s would-be Mario Kart, Sonic R, was a bit of a disaster), and though the Sonic Adventure titles on the Dreamcast were praised in their day, time hasn’t been kind to them, exposing utterly chaotic camerawork and more than a few notable technical issues. After that, Sonic became a multiplatform series once Sega went the third-party route, and things didn’t ease up for the blue blur.
During these years, Sega would try all kinds of experiments with their mascot. Some of these experiments worked to a degree, while others were all-time lows for the series. In many cases, it seemed like the Sonic franchise just leached its way onto anything, and that the developers at Sega would rather be making something else entirely (quite literally in the case of the infamous “Sonic the Hedgehog ’06”).
Whatever Sonic games that did shine during this time were those that played closest to the Genesis playbook, with Sonic Colors and Generations becoming fan favorites. Though sometimes Sega could get carried away with the nostalgia card, with the two episodes of “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” feeling like watered down, clunky versions of the classic template.
But now, we have Sonic Mania, and it’s a thing of beauty.
Released as part of an extended 25th anniversary celebration to the franchise, Sonic Mania is perhaps a better gift to the series and its fans than they could have even asked for. Sonic Mania is everything Sonic should be.
Though Sonic Mania is published by Sega, its development team consists of notable members of the Sonic fan-game community. The game was helmed by Christian Whitehead, who was famously recruited by Sega to port a number of the classic Sonic titles to mobile platforms, and teamed by PagodaWest and Headcanon, who have a few Sonic fan-games to their resume.
I’m not sure whether it’s poetic or ironic that it literally took the fans to create the best Sonic game in over two decades, but the end results prove that Sonic Mania truly is a labor of love by people who love the franchise, for people who love the franchise.
First there are the obvious connections to the Genesis classics; the 16-bit visuals and character sprites make the game feel like a proud follow-up to Sonic’s initial outings, albeit taking advantage of modern hardware to make for some dazzling effects that weren’t possible back in the day. Additionally, the majority of Sonic Mania’s “Zones” are new versions of those found in Sonics 1, 2 and 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and Sonic CD. Some such “remixed” Zones even use the templates of their original forms, but with some new additions and tweaks, so that even when Sonic Mania is at its most comfortably familiar, it’s still full of surprises.
For example, the game begins in Sonic the Hedgehog’s Green Hill Zone. While that first-ever level of the franchise has been countlessly recreated in recent years, it’s never been done so poetically as it is here. The Green Hill Zone begins almost identically to how it did back in 1991, until suddenly you notice one of Sonic 3’s magnetic shields in place of Sonic 1’s standard force field, and the corkscrew loops from Sonic 2’s Emerald Hill Zone are at play. Alterations such as this are just the tip of the ice burg, as Sonic Mania is constantly finding ways to reinvent what we know about Sonic’s past.
That’s not to say Sonic Mania is simply falling back on nostalgia, however, as it also includes level design that is entirely its own. Along with a few brand new Zones unique to Mania, the second “act” within the returning zones are less remixed, and more built from the ground up. Sonic Mania really is the perfect marriage of the old and the new for the franchise.
The gameplay is, once again, Sonic at its purest (and best) form. Players can select Sonic, Tails or Knuckles, each with their own abilities (Sonic is fastest and now has a “Drop Dash” move to keep momentum after jumping, while Tails can temporarily fly and Knuckles being able to glide and climb up walls). You’ll run through stages collecting rings, which once again work as a kind of health system (get hit and you lose your rings, get hit without rings and you’re dead). You can collect the aforementioned force fields and shields from Sonic 3 (magnet shields pull in rings and grant a double jump, fire shields give a charging attack and can burn through certain obstacles, and bubble shields allow you to breath under water and jump higher). There’s also a new power-up in the form of blue rings, which are something like a ‘ring insurance.’ The blue rings will make sure that, the next time Sonic gets hit, he can still reclaim every last ring he held by clumping them together in a few giant rings. The blue ring may not sound like much, but in those times when you make a little mistake that would have otherwise cost you hundreds of rings, it becomes a godsend.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a 16-bit Sonic title without some 3D bonus stages. If you can reach a checkpoint with twenty-five rings secured, you can jump into a halo above said checkpoint and play a new version of Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s famous Blue Sphere mini-games (and yes, they’re as hard as ever). Should you complete a Blue Sphere mini-game, you are rewarded with bonuses such as new game modes and unlockable content.
But Sonic Mania once again goes beyond the call of duty by including a second such bonus stage, this one brand new (albeit inspired by Sonic CD). If you can find a giant ring hidden in a stage, you are transported to one of these new bonus stages, where Sonic (or Knuckles or Tails) have to catch up to a UFO to claim a Chaos Emerald. These bonus stages have you collecting blue spheres to pick up speed to reach the UFO, while also gathering rings to put more time on the clock, all while being presented in Sega Saturn-inspired visuals.
Another iconic attribute of the Sonic games were the soundtracks. And good heavens, does Sonic Mania deliver on that front. Once again the creation of a series fan (Tee Lopes, famous for covers of various Sonic tracks), the soundtrack to Sonic Mania includes stellar remixes from Sonic’s past (each returning zone gets a different remix for both of its acts), while the brand new tracks are more than worthy successors to the franchise’s legendary music. Though the soundtrack takes most of its cues from Sonic CD – which up to this point had the best soundtrack in the series, hands down – it also feels distinctly its own. It may even be my favorite gaming soundtrack of 2017 and, yes, it may even top Sonic CD for the title of “best Sonic music ever.”
If I had to nitpick anything about Sonic Mania (and you’d have to nitpick to have anything negative to say), it’s that some of the obstacles in the Flying Battery Zone feel a bit unruly and hard to predict, which lead to more than a few accidental fumbles; and the Hydrocity Zone can be a little on the confusing side. But again, any complaints to be had are minor.
Sonic Mania obviously plays the nostalgia card, it is so much more than simply a trip down Hedgehog memory lane. This is exactly the kind of sequel the franchise has been begging for for two decades, and the kind of Sonic experience Sega has tried to create themselves in the past, but couldn’t quite get right (Sonic Generations was probably their best attempt). This is the classic Sonic gameplay we all know and love, but it’s also smarter than the games that inspired it. The level designs – which contain so many alternate routes and introduce so many new gameplay gimmicks that they never lose a shred of their charm – are arguably the deepest in the series, and even have a Mario sense of exploration about them to track down their every last secret. And the boss fights are, bar none, the most consistently entertaining in the franchise. No matter how difficult (or easy) the boss fights got, they all provided something new and left their mark.
Sonic Mania is the game fans have waited ever so patiently for. It’s so lovingly crafted, and so well executed, that it may actually have you forgetting about Sonic’s missteps over the years and make you feel like the series never slowed down. From the obvious homages to the most esoteric of references, Sonic Mania oozes an unmistakeable love for all things Sonic (well, all the good things), and lives up to the very best games the blue hedgehog has ever starred in.
If Sonic Mania is anything to go by, then Sonic has finally returned, and in such fashion that it feels like he never left.