Given the number of failed attempts and bizarre turns that Sega has taken in an attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was the original chain of Sonic The Hedgehog titles, fans of those early games have all but given up ever getting it right. 2010’s Sonic The Hedgehog 4 was the closest they had come, but as the over-nostalgic praise rained down from the media, anybody who had played the original games felt disappointed from the get-go at the shoddy physics and a momentum system that was a million miles away from feeling right.
Fast forward to 2017, and I’m happy to say that with Sonic Mania – thank heavens – Sega has finally done what everybody wanted them to do, by making a Sonic game that feels like it was made in the early 90s. The game looks like it used to, the controls feel like they used to, Sonic moves like he used to, the soundtrack is just as kick-ass as it always was, and the physics and momentum work exactly as you remember. It even kicks off with a slightly remixed jaunt through the classic Green Hill Zone – complete with that iconic music – which opened the original game and introduced everyone to the spiny blue speedster. For players of a certain age, everything is right with the world that first time you fire up Sonic Mania, but the franchise’s spotty post-Genesis history doesn’t ever allow you to truly relax, as you wait for the hammer to fall and for Sega to have insisted on including something that ruins it all.
Fortunately, that blow is never struck. Sega seems to have – by and large – left Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games to their own devices here. That’s a blessing, given the clear love that the developers have for the original titles in the franchise. It’s a love that bleeds through in every pixel, every new enemy design, every new stage, and every crazy new method of transportation. Nothing seems out of place. Twelve zones are on offer, providing two acts apiece, and can be played by either Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, or Sonic and Tails together. Old favorites such as Chemical Plant and Stardust Speedway appear alongside brand new creations such as Mirage Saloon and the fantastic Studiopolis. Bafflingly, the outstanding Casino Night Zone has been left out, but the generally frustrating and disappointing Oil Ocean Zone has been included. Not every decision is a winner, I guess, though the disappointment of not being able to use Sonic as payment to play a slot machine to win rings (or spike balls, as was more often the case) is mitigated somewhat by the inclusion of a lottery machine though, so don’t worry.
The new zones are generally a great success and blend beautifully into the mix, to the point that your brain tricks you to try to remember which of the old games they came from. Some nice touches – having to play on the background plane for sections of the Metallic Madness Zone for example – are surprisingly well done.
Alongside the standard side-scrolling stages, Bonus and Special Stages take notes from earlier games. The “Blue Sphere” stages – complete with their checkerboard world – make a return from Sonic the Hedgehog 3, though the timing of making the turns is tricky, thanks to a slight bit of controller delay. It isn’t enough to make them unplayable, but there are times when you’ll feel unfairly punished in a minigame that was already incredibly tough to beat. On the other hand, Special Stages are much more successfully implemented. Like the ones found in Sonic CD, you’re tasked with racing around a 3D track. The difference here though is that you’re attempting to catch up to a speeding UFO. Collecting blue spheres increases your speed, while picking up rings increases your available time. Of course, things become more difficult as your velocity increases, though the Chaos Emerald you get for completing the frantic dash is well worth the effort.
Indeed – and I can’t restate this enough – this is the Sonic game that people have been wishing and hoping for in terms of gameplay. Sonic Mania offers up a campaign mode, time attacks with online leaderboards for each of its 24 acts, and a relatively bare-bones, split-screen competitive mode akin to the one first found in Sonic 2. Some might claim that in modern-day terms, this is a somewhat slim package. That would be a harsh judgment, bearing in mind that it plays so well that repeated runs are just as enjoyable as your first jaunt through the game. Plus, those looking to grab all the Chaos Emeralds, or who wish to beat the game without saving turned off (which is an option) will undoubtedly take more than a couple attempts at it. That time attack mode can be addictive enough in itself to add extra playing time for the asking price, too. There aren’t many folks out there who didn’t try and fail to log a sub-30 second time in Green Hill Zone Act 1 back in the day, after all.
My main criticism would be levelled at the overall challenge that the basic campaign provides. As is always the case, it’ll be perfectly pitched for some players, but veterans may find that they walk through stage after stage without having to do much in the way of thinking until they get to the final couple of zones. As was always the way, Sonic Mania ironically punishes you for rushing. As long as you’re clear on the timing of each obstacle and wait for your spot, there’s not really anything that will trip you up en route to the final battle.
Completing a zone gives you a save point to resume from if you do manage to mess things up, or come up short when taking on one of the bosses, which vary wildly in terms of difficulty. You’d expect Eggman’s contraptions to become more complex and difficult to beat as the game goes on, but that’s not the case. One zone will have a tough final battle, while the next will be a relative cakewalk. The viscous black seas of Oil Ocean Zone (which appear halfway through the game) make the boss in that area’s second act particularly tricky, to the point that I saw the “Game Over” screen more than once. Then the game’s final boss – some six zones later – was beaten on the first attempt, when I started the battle with only one life and one ring to my name, having no previous knowledge of his attack patterns or moves. With multiple endings come multiple final bosses though, and the real final boss – should you ever even turn into Super Sonic and make it his way – is a much tougher test.
There’s an implied variation in the early going that isn’t carried through to the later levels when it comes to bosses. When a confrontation unexpectedly consists of an impromptu round of Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine at the end of Chemical Plant Zone, you’d expect that you’re in for surprises at every turn. With the licenses Sega has on hand, you could have been racing Eggman in Out Run, or shooting him down in a Space Harrier-styled level. Instead, you get that one stand-out surprise (which is a genuine delight) and then every remaining boss reverts to being the standard dodge-and-hit style of fight.
Still, to call that a downer would be somewhat harsh on Sonic Mania, given that the bosses manage to fit perfectly with what you’d expect from the type of Sonic title that it’s trying to be a continuation of. That can be said of a lot of the aspects of the game, and the development team have carried out their task so well that you’d probably believe it if someone told you that this was in fact a “lost” Sonic game, that was developed back in the mid-nineties but never released. If you like the way the original Sonic games play, your only decision when it comes to Sonic Mania shouldn’t be whether or not it’s worth buying, but rather, if you’ll play it with or without the classic CRT scanlines enabled.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version, which we were provided with.
Sonic Mania is a fantastically well-worked continuation of an iconic franchise and a great reminder of why the Genesis games were so well loved. Everybody who has waited patiently for 20-odd years for Sega to get it right again is in for a treat. Top notch.