Warning! This review does contain spoilers!
Announced at the commemoration of Sonic’s 25th anniversary, Sonic Mania (Headcannon/PagodaWest Games, 2017) is a side-scrolling, two-dimensional platformer in the spirit and style of Sonic’s original 1990s outings.
Headed up by Christian “Taxman” Whitehead, in collaboration with notable members of the Sonic fangaming community, Sonic Mania sets out to be the true sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles (Sonic Team, 1994) that Sonic fans have been clamouring for for over a decade.
Sonic Mania opens almost exactly the same way as Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (Sonic Team, 1994), with Sonic and Tails flying in the Tornado towards Angel Island. Sonic’s bad luck with the floating haven continues as he immediately runs into a group of Eggrobos who unearth a mysterious gemstone (the Phantom Ruby), which blasts them all through space (and, possibly, time) back to the Green Hill Zone, where the Eggrobos have been transformed into more powerful variants, the Hard-Boiled Heavies.
From there, Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles (whose encounter with the Eggrobos takes place as they flee with the Phantom Ruby) must travel through twelve zones in pursuit of Doctor Eggman, battling his Hard-Boiled Heavies, in their quest to obtain the seven Chaos Emeralds and put a stop to them wreaking havoc with the Phantom Ruby.
Players can choose to play as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles in a solo adventure or team-up as Sonic and Tails in two-player simultaneous mode. Each character plays differently but exactly as they did in Sonic 3 & Knuckles; Sonic is the fastest and can perform a Drop-Dash, where he instantly drops into a Spin dash attack, Tails can fly and swim for a limited time (in a welcome twist, solo player using Sonic and Tails can command Tails to fly and then have him carry Sonic around), while Knuckles has the shortest jump, can glide, and can bash through certain breakable walls that the other two characters can’t. As in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, playing as Knuckles will take players on slightly different paths and even involve battling slightly different bosses.
As always, players must collect Golden Rings to survive enemy and hazard attacks, break open monitors to acquire shields (the Water, Fire, and Electricity variants also afford Sonic the ability to bounce, blast, and double-jump, respectively), enter Bonus Stages stylised like Sonic 3 & Knuckles’s Blue Sphere stages by passing checkpoints with over twenty-five Rings, and leap into hidden Giant Rings to enter Sonic the Hedgehog CD (Sonic Team, 1993) style Special Stages.
In these Special Stages, players must collect Blue Spheres to increase their speed but also collect Golden Rings to add to the strict time limit in order to chase down a UFO holding a Chaos Emerald. Mastering these stages is the game’s hardest challenge as turns are tight, time is extremely limited, hazards are plentiful, and the UFOs do not give up their prize easily. If you try to get cute and run in the opposite direction, you’ll find yourself out of luck as the programmers thought of that and it’s basically impossible.
The first thing you’ll notice when playing Sonic Mania is that it is simply gorgeous to look at; the attention to detail is staggering. Backgrounds and environments are vibrant and colourful, full of life and little details that long-time fans will delight in spotting. The game features eight zones lovingly recreated from classic Sonic titles but expanded and given additional gameplay twists and mechanics, many derived from other Sonic gameplay mechanics (for example, Stardust Speedway features the pulleys from Marble Garden Zone, Flying Battery Zone is amalgamated with Wing Fortress Zone, and Mirage Saloon Zone features the Tornado as in Sky Chase Zone). In the case of the Mirage Saloon Zone, the programmers derived the aesthetics from cancelled desert levels from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Sonic Team/SEGA Technical Institute, 1992) and Sonic CD.
The fan service doesn’t stop there, though. Chemical Plant Zone features a boss battle ripped straight from Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine (Compile/SEGA, 1993).
Also, Sonic not only races against Metal Sonic in the Stardust Speedway Zone once more, but also has to battle an endless army of Silver Sonic’s from the Master System/Game Gear version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (SEGA/Aspect, 1992.
Finally, in perhaps the greatest piece of fan service I have ever witnessed, players will encounter and battle against Fang the Sniper/Nack the Weasel, Bean the Dynamite, and Bark the Polar Bear, three characters long missing from the franchise since 1996. Fans have been literally begging to see these three characters return to the franchise though, up until now, the best we got were some brief homages in Sonic Generations (Sonic Team, 2011). To be fair, their depiction in Sonic Mania looks to be more of an allusion created by the Heavy Magician Hard-Boiled Heavy but the joy I felt upon seeing these three finally return, in glorious sprite form, cannot be understated; the fat little ten-year-old in me was literally geeking out right there.
Sonic Mania features numerous endings, with the best ending obviously coming once players have collected all seven Chaos Emeralds. Blue Sphere bonus stages award players with either a silver or a gold medal which unlock additional bonus features (Sonic 3 & Knuckles’s Insta-Shield, Sonic CD’s Super Peel-Out, “& Knuckles Mode” to allow players to play as Sonic and Knuckles, Tails and Knuckles, or even Knuckles and Knuckles(!), a Debug Mode, and a Sound Test). Unfortunately, you are not allowed to save your progress when using these bonus features, which is one of the game’s biggest flaws.
Another is the plot. Honestly, there isn’t much more plot here than there was in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, with the gist of it being expertly told through in-game animations. However, given that this game takes place a short time after Sonic 3 & Knuckles, it makes no sense for Angel Island to be floating on the ocean again. it was also a bit of a contrivance to see the Phantom Ruby being unearthed on Angel Island, a place already known for being home to the Master Emerald; I would’ve preferred to see it be discovered in one of the new in-game locations. Furthermore, not every zone ends with an in-game transition to the next, making for a jarringly inconsistent experience at times as the Hard-Boiled Heavies disappear from the plot mid-way through the game. Finally, I can’t be the only one a bit annoyed to see Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone so soon after their recreations in Sonic Generations; I would’ve liked to have seen more emphasis on Emerald Hill Zone and maybe Mystic Cave Zone (possible with some Underground Zone and mechanical influences) and, while I loved seeing Lava Reef Zone return, the programmers maybe missed a trick by not incorporating some elements from Marble Zone and Sonic 2’s Hidden Palace Zone here.
These really are very minor issues, though, as the game plays flawlessly; the controls are just as tight and reliable as they were in classic Sonic titles. There are no cheap deaths or bottomless pits here (well, very few…I only ever fell down maybe two, actually) and the game is exhilaratingly fast and extremely fun to play, while also being very challenging. The ways in which classic zones are remixed add a new layer to the game as even seasoned veterans like myself cannot be sure of what they’re going to encounter. Every boss battle involves a bit of strategy; there is far more to each encounter that just bouncing on Eggman’s head.
Honestly, Sonic Mania is a must-buy not just for long-time Sonic fans but for anyone who enjoys beautiful graphics, crisp controls, and a fun, challenging gameplay. From the Sonic CD-inspired animated introduction to the eye-wateringly exquisite graphics and attention to detail in every single element of the sprites and backgrounds, to the remixed levels and soundtrack, Sonic Mania delivers on every single level. Finally, after over a decade of waiting and enduring lacklustre attempts at recapturing Sonic’s classic gameplay, SEGA have done the smartest thing they ever could and handed the keys to a group of developers with a real love and passion for the franchise and Sonic Mania exudes that from every aspect of its presentation.