A Grand Celebration of Sonic’s Glory Days
No doubt about it, recent years haven’t been especially kind to Sonic the Hedgehog. While SEGA’s speedy blue blur may have been able to keep pace with Nintendo’s mustachioed mascot in the 1990’s, ever since the demise of the Dreamcast, he’s had some serious trouble keeping pace with the competition. Now, after stumbling time and time again with a series of lackluster sequels and cringe-worthy spin-off titles, SEGA has finally managed to spindash to success with Sonic Mania by enlisting the help of esteemed Sonic modder Christian Whitehead and studios Headcannon and PagodaWest Games to create a nostalgic throwback to the glory days of the Genesis.
Sonic Mania not only looks the part of a long-lost relic of the 16-bit era – it feels like it, too! It’s a back-to-basics celebration of the heroic hedgehog with attitude’s glory days that no Sonic fan should miss.
Racing Against The Past
Sonic Mania once again puts players in control of Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles as they speed across 12 challenging zones to foil the plans of the evil Dr. Robotnik and his new gang of robotic sidekicks, the Hard-Boiled Heavies. Eight of these zones are familiar classics such as Sonic 2’s Chemical Plant and Oil Ocean Zones, along with fan-favorites like Sonic & Knuckles’ Flying Battery and Lava Reef Zones.
While there’s hardly a dud in Sonic Mania’s selection of stages, the four new locales are some the series’ best to date. One of my favorites is the Western-themed Mirage Saloon Zone. The first act begins with a Sky Chase Zone-inspired flight atop Tails’ biplane as you battle swarms of airborne badniks. Thing get even crazier after you abandon the plane mid-flight to duke it out aboard a speeding train with Dr. Robotnik in the conductor’s seat. The second act is just as satisfying. In it you’ll speed through a desert boom-town full of fun gimmicks, like loading Sonic chamber of over sized pistols to launch him across the stage like a blue bullet, or running across gushing jets of water.
Another new stage, Studiopolis Zone, has Sonic beaming himself via satellite across a funky studio setting and features an explosive battle down a freeway as you trade blows with a helicopter in a showdown that would feel right at home with Treasure’s Gunstar Heroes. And these are just a handful of highlights featured in these sprawling new stages. Just wait till you see what’s in store for yourself.
Something Old, Something New
Despite the fact that Sonic Mania is made up of mostly remastered stages, each of these zones has been lovingly tweaked and updated in ways that make them feel completely fresh. For example, the Chemical Plant Zone now allows you to inject green goop into pools of chemicals to turn them into a super bouncy substance – perfect for launching Sonic to new heights. Another cool mechanic comes in Oil Ocean Zone’s second act. Here, Robotnik’s oil refinery is in flames, and you’ll need to quickly track down levels to clear the toxic smog that’s choking the screen before you’re choked to death by the polluted air. These are small but ingenious changes that make the game’s selection of classic stages feel new all over again, and largely make up for the lack of totally original zones.
Whitehead and company also deserve credit for crafting some stages that feel great no matter who you’re playing as. Whether you’re racing as Sonic through dizzying corkscrews, gliding from platform to platform as Knuckles, or hovering over hazards with the helicopter-tailed Tails, each stage is masterfully designed to take full advantage of each heroe’s suite of abilities. And you’ll want to experiment with all of the characters, too. Because each stage is simply enormous when compared to previous games in the series, and filled to the gills with secret power-ups to uncover and hidden bonus stages which, when completed, grant you those precious Chaos Emeralds you’ll need to unlock Super Sonic.
The sphere-snatching bonus stages from Sonic 3 also return once again, and they’re trickier than ever. Completing these stages unlocks some fun bonus features. These include the always handy debug menu, sound test, and even more mini games. Simply put, there’s a whole lot of content here that makes Sonic Mania feel like one of the franchise’s most massive adventures yet.
Blast Processed Perfection
Despite being released in 2017 on hardware that makes the Sega Genesis seem like a potato in comparison, Sonic Mania makes a conscious effort to keep its visuals firmly planted in the 16-bit era. For example, one stage has you racing down a freeway that circles a tower in the distance. Rather than simply rendering the tower in 3D like any developer would in this day and age, the tower is actually made up of a scrolling texture that imitates the 3D rotation effect – a technique employed countless times on the Genesis. Similarly, the Mirage Saloon mid-boss is a giant worm made up of about a dozen interconnected spheres. When he leaps from the background towards the player you’re treated with a scaling effect that will make anyone who grew up with a Genesis feel right at home.
Honestly, the whole game feels like it could have been possible on SEGA’s dusty 16-bit workhorse. And that’s a huge part of what makes Sonic Mania feel like such a brilliantly authentic experience. You can almost imagine wandering into a long abandoned SEGA warehouse and discovering a Sonic Mania cartridge buried in the bottom of some forgotten crate of Genesis prototypes. This game is a love letter to the 16-bit era through and through, and a real treat for any longtime SEGA fans looking to scratch that nostalgic itch.
Chili Dogs Not Included
Hands down, Sonic Mania is the best Sonic game released in years. It’s a grand celebration of everything that makes the series so great, hamstrung only by its lack of fresh stages to explore. And while it would have been nice to see a handful more truly original levels, the ones that made the cut are simply outstanding. With 12 massive zones to explore, three characters to play as, and tons of hidden content and Easter eggs to experience, there’s a whole lot of bang for your buck crammed into Sonic Mania. And with how much fun it is, you’ll be hard-pressed not to try to squeeze every bit of content out of it that you can.
What else can I say? If you’ve been waiting for Sonic’s grand return to the spotlight, your wish has finally been granted. Sonic Mania is as good as it gets, proving that sometimes a franchise needs to rediscover its roots to move forward.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Switch, PC ; Publisher: SEGA ; Developer: Headcannon, PagodaWest Games; Players: 1-2 ; Released: August 15, 2017 ; MSRP: 19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail PS4 copy purchased by HeyPoorPlayer.