Growing up in the 90’s gave me the privilege of witnessing the legendary “Console Wars.” It was a time when the video game market was changing monthly and every publisher was trying to find the “next big thing.” It was during this time that video game fans everywhere would be introduced to Sonic the Hedgehog, along with Blast Processing, but that’s a totally different story.
Since then, Sonic has found few successes in the mainline Sonic releases. After leaving behind the classic 2D gameplay and opting to fit into the more modern 3D platformer space, the mascot has continuously kept a loyal fanbase of gamers holding onto hope that Sega will once again return to the series’ roots and deliver a Sonic title which has the look and feel of first few entries of the series.
Well Sonic fans, the wait is finally over with the newest release in the Sonic franchise, Sonic Mania. The game boasts retro graphics with the promise of providing that classic hedgehog feel. It’s not difficult to see through screenshots and trailers that this is clearly a retro Sonic, but it begs the question if Sonic Mania can stand out on it’s own instead of simply borrowing systems and elements from the 16-bit titles that came before. Thankfully, Sonic Mania proudly displays its influences while not holding back from offering a new experience for all Sonic fans.
Sonic Mania does away with the spoken narrative and dialog of modern games, in the first scenes of the game we witness the new scheme that Dr. Eggman is brewing up. Basically, the evil scientist has discovered a power source which supplies ultimate energy (that fans of the series should already be aware of): Chaos Emeralds. In a race to acquire these Emerald crystals and put a stop to Dr. Eggman, Sonic begins his adventure.
I enjoyed the subtleness of the introductory level and the fact that the game doesn’t hold your hand or try and shove a huge backstory in your face. Furthermore, the first Act is Green Hill Zone which allows returning players the chance to relearn the controls in a familiar area while giving new players a chance to play a level that every fan remembers, it’s a win win.
What is most enjoyable about Sonic Mania is that it doesn’t play it safe. Sega could have easily recycled tons of old assets and level designs, repackaged it, and shipped it. However, Sonic Mania is overflowing with love from the developers in every scene. Each act introduces some new element that I’ve never experienced in a Sonic game before and they each worked well. Even the dreaded water levels have been designed in a way that doesn’t slow down the pace as much as I remember.
Each level in Sonic Mania stands out on its own and provides multiple routes and areas to explore, if that’s the way you’d like to play. Like in other classic Sonic titles, it’s possible to just run to the right and get through the level as quickly as possible, but that’s not the only way to play. Sonic Mania rewards those who take the more difficult routes or those handful of players who are curious to jump and explore off the path. Usually these paths lead to the Special Stages where players will have a chance to acquire a Chaos Emerald.
Special Stages provide a nice break from the 2D gameplay by putting the player in control of Sonic on a 3D road. During Special Stages, players are asked to chase after a UFO in order to get a Chaos Emerald. However, that’s easier said than done as there are multiple obstacles along with way and a countdown timer that can only be replenished by collecting rings found in the levels. Sonic will gain speed as he collects blue orbs, which increases the difficulty tremendously in the later levels.
Along with Special Stages, the Bonus Stages that fans remember have returned. This is where the player must turn all the blue orbs on the map to red. Each of these extra stages can be quite difficult at times, but that doesn’t take away from the fun they provide. Sure it’s frustrating when you lose or make a mistake and get sent back to the main Act, but the stages come up often enough for you to have another chance without waiting too long.
It can’t be said enough how well designed each level of Sonic Mania is. I’ve played through different Acts multiple times and found myself taking a different route each time. This opens up even more when you play through a level as Sonic, Tales, or Knuckles, who each have different abilities. In a game all about speed, any route I took felt like I was getting to where I was going fast.
Sure, there’s enemies and spikes along the way, but there is nothing more exciting than running through a stage at top speed while avoiding obstacles and never slowing down. However, there is a bit of difficulty spike in the later levels that require some quick platforming as well as knowledge of the level. It might be difficult to expect to run through some of these levels without being met with a few game over screens.
The issues that I had with Sonic Mania has nothing to do with the gameplay or level design, but I felt the mini-boss battles in the middle of an Act came off as uninspired and unremarkable. There were a few mini-bosses that could be beat before they even had time to complete a cycle of their attacks. Furthermore, on one boss in particular, who leaves the screen for a few screens, I had to awkwardly wait 15 seconds for him to return.
In addition, I felt a few of the main boss battles weren’t as fun as the actual levels. That being said, they are each unique and feature different gameplay mechanics. For example: At one point Sonic gets in a mech and must suck up Dr. Eggman who is swimming in water laying bombs everywhere.
The music in Sonic Mania is everything I remember it being and more. Hearing each Act theme added to the nostalgia that this game provides. More importantly, throughout the game the music is consistently great. There wasn’t a track that I didn’t enjoy listening to and that goes for the boss battle theme songs as well.
Sonic Mania has some cool power-ups that could change the way players play through the levels. Such as the flame shield which can actually burn bridges and uncover a new area that couldn’t be reached otherwise. I enjoyed finding these and using them to my advantage, but it will always be frustrating when you are blasting through the level as a burning flame ball only to fall on some spikes and lose it.
Additional modes offered are a Time Attack and Competitive Mode that will unlock as you complete Acts. More interestingly, there is a video setting option that can turn your game to look as if you are playing on a CRT TV, that’s right just like mom and dad.
Sonic Mania definitely took me by surprise. In a time where reboots and re-releases crowd the video game market, Sega took a chance on creating a brand new Sonic adventure for the long time fans. However, by adding new power-ups, new bosses, and running in 60 fps, Sonic is now approachable to modern gamers.
From the beginning to the end, I couldn’t seem to put Sonic Mania down. One playthrough, without collecting all the Chaos Emeralds took me about six hours, I never said I was the fastest Sonic player. Sonic Mania has helped me rediscover what it was I loved about Sonic growing up and it took me back to a time where I could just pick up a game and have fun. This is for Sonic fans everywhere and it will not disappoint.