Sonic Mania is a celebration of not only Sonic the Hedgehog, but also Sega and the rise of fangames. “ Taxman” Christian Whitehead rose to prominence thanks to Sonic fangames and then wound up creating essentially HD remakes of Sonic CD, Sonic 1, and Sonic 2 for mobile devices. His story is one that many wouldn’t see coming, and everything he has learned on those projects now feels fully-realized as he takes the lead on a full-fledged official Sonic game. Sonic Mania is the marriage of Sonic’s past with its present, and fittingly its overall game design features something old, something new, and something blue.
Sonic 1, 2, 3, and Sonic CD are ingrained in Sonic Mania in the best possible way. You get bits and pieces from each – with levels from 1 and 2 adding to the original level lineup, alongside bonus stages from Sonic 3 and Sonic CD. Blue Sphere returns along with the UFO catching game, which now features much better scrolling. Starting the game off with Green Hill Zone brings you back to Sonic 1, while following it up with Sonic 2’s incredible Chemical Plant Zone shows off a huge increase in versatility. Act 1 of these areas is a basic remake at points with some new portions, while Act 2 basically takes the settings and revamps them completely.
Chemical Plant is re-imagined with a whole bevy of new hazards and items, like a mechanism that drops hardening liquid on water to allow you to bounce around. You also traverse the stages with new DNA helix sending you from a lower portion of the stage to a higher one. Similarly, Flying Battery Zone gets a fresh coat of paint alongside new hazards and bosses that show how you can take an existing stage design and turn it into something new while still retaining what made it work before. Fortunately, the game’s original stages hold up just as well as the new ones – and showcase a more complicated stage design as a whole.
The first original stage is inspired by a litany of Sega history – from the diner in Streets of Rage being referenced to Daytona USA’s Hornet car, it’s a love letter to the fans that is capped off with a top hat-clad Dr. Robotnik dancing with a cane on a video wall. It’s a fast-paced zone that tests you constantly and shifts the design from being left to right to making things heavily vertical in nature. You might go from left to right to start, or vice versa, but things shift to taking you up and down quickly. New hazards like being seen only in silhouette aren’t only beautiful, but they add to the danger since you have less visibility to your enemies – who can still see you just fine from their viewpoint.
Sonic Mania brings back shields from the franchise’s 2D glory days – with some updates. The flame shield, for example, has been updated to now allow you to burn bridges down when you’re flying up through them. It’s neat and does make traversal slightly more tricky at times, but it’s a great little touch and it’s nice to see some elemental properties added to the shields. This continues into boss battles, where an early boss can actually take away your water shield easily. Against this particular boss, you can bounce up and hit him easier – but when he turns the studio lights on high, you only have a small part of the screen to stay on and avoid taking a hit. Losing your shield makes the battle tougher, but not impossible.
Sonic Mania keeps the speed intact that has made the series so beloved, but mixes in more things from various points in the franchise’s history. Sonic CD is referenced with a future area, complete with not only Metal Sonic. but also the 8-bit Silver Sonic from the Game Gear/Master System version of Sonic 2. Seeing Metal Sonic return was a huge thrill, but the biggest one came from the Puyo Puyo boss battle early on – giving Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine some love and also exposing Puyo Puyo to a whole new fanbase.
Everything that made past 2D Sonic games work is back again, and it feels great to see a high-quality Sonic game back in the forefront of gaming. Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles all control perfectly and retain what made them work before. Longtime fans may revile Tails, but he comes in handy to deal out extra damage during boss battles here – and actually has a bit of common sense now. Not a ton though, but a bit, and that’s a major improvement over how he was in Sonic 2. Mania controls just as it should, with simple d-pad and one-button controls that work well. The Blue Sphere stages are a dream, while the UFO catching stages work far better now thanks to much smoother scrolling. The two-player split screen mode from Sonic 2 returns and in the HDTV age, it’s actually playable since each half is about as big as some full-fledged TVs were then.
Visually, Sonic Mania is stunning. While the retro-inspired stages may not seem impressive on the surface, looking at them on their own shows a dramatic increase in background details. This shows off how truly beautiful they were in their time – since all that’s really been done here is having to scale them up for modern displays. Character animation is more robust, and you really see it in walk and run cycles. The increase in graphical quality gives this game a bigger color palette than anything seen before and reminds me of the jump from the 16-bit Sonic games to what we saw in the Sonic Advance games, only with far more depth in the colors. In a neat move, you can choose to play this either with a regular modern clean look, smoothed pixels akin to an emulator filter, or scanlines.
Sonic Mania brings with it remixed songs from the classic stages and then adds a slew of original songs as well. The new Studiopolis Zone’s music had me humming just like the 16-bit classics while Press Garden gives you a slower, melodic sound that is both catchy and soothing. The game’s sound design as a whole is strong, with things switching from happy to foreboding when bosses enter the fray. The increase in mid-bosses means you’ll be intimidated more than usual. Sound effects have seen an increase in quality, with enough things like rings staying true to the past while also making use of an increase in hardware power that comes with modern-day devices.
Overall, Sonic Mania is a remarkable game and the best Sonic game released in over a decade. When looking at the game as a whole, it’s hard to find fault with it. Some may wish all of the stages were all-new, but the existing stages have all been revamped – so it’s less a retread and more of a remix blended with a lot of new content. It’s clearly a passion project and one that should result in Sega revisiting the idea of more 2D Sonics, hopefully with a focus on taking what makes this game so good and expanding it into future 3D entries. Sonic Mania is a must-buy for anyone who has ever loved Sonic the Hedgehog games – it will remind you of why the character had such a huge peak, and is a great buy for either the Switch or PS4.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
This review is based on a digital copy of Sonic Mania for the PlayStation 4 provided by Sega.