A New Genesis
Sonic is truly the little hedgehog that could. As the most popular Sega mascot, he went head-to-head against Nintendo’s Mario for years, combatting the mustachioed plumber’s powered-up platforming with speed and style. After a handful of classic 2D Genesis platformers and divisive 3D titles, Sonic couldn’t keep up. Sega began giving the blue blur more side characters and gimmicky gameplay styles but ultimately gave fans less of what they wanted. The infamous Sonic loop was in place and would remain until Christian Whitehead came along. Whitehead, a passionate fan who developed his own engine to mod and later port Sonic games, helmed the development of a new celebratory Sonic game—by fans for fans. With the help of PagodaWest Games and Headcannon, known throughout the fan community, Sonic Mania has zoomed into existence – and it plays like a dream.
Here’s the Video Version for your viewing pleasure! With some added fun callbacks!
Like in the old 16-bit games, you play as none other than Sonic the Hedgehog (by himself or alongside his high-flying fox buddy Tails). You can also play as Tails by himself, or as the air-gliding, wall-climbing Knuckles. Regardless of your character, you blaze across stages rushing down ramps, going though loops, and bouncing off springs. Along the way, you can collect rings, which act as both collectibles and your life bar. Get hit once, and you lose all your rings. If you don’t have any rings and get hit, you lose a life. In addition to the standard run and jump gameplay, Sonic and friends can also perform a spin dash to build up momentum.
Sonic Mania should feel familiar to anyone who has played the original trilogy; and that’s no understatement, as Whitehead’s engine replicates the classic Genesis-era games’ physics. Unlike other 2D modern Sonic titles where Sonic stops moving once you let go, Mania has that exhilarating sense of momentum that constantly propels you forward, forcing you to react quickly if you want to achieve maximum speed. And despite racing at supersonic speed, I never felt overwhelmed, thanks in part to the multiple paths in each stage, a series mainstay. Make death-defying jumps at top speed, and you are rewarded with the blazing top path. Make too many mistakes, and you will find yourself in the stage’s bottom portion, which is typically slower-paced but also rife with deadly hazards and bottomless pits.
Speaking of stages, they’re another reason why Sonic Mania will feel familiar to fans. There are 12 zones, each with two acts. However, eight of the zones are taken from older games including the first Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic CD, leaving only four completely new areas. This sounds much worse than it is. The eight returning zones are heavily remixed, implementing both old and new stage gimmicks. For instance, Chemical Plant Zone introduces gelatinous bouncy platforms in addition to the characteristic warp tubes. Some levels even mix and match implements of different zones together. As a result, every stage feels fresh, while satiating your nostalgic taste buds at the same time. Consequently, the new areas are amazing and introduce impressive set pieces and elegant design. I still can’t get enough of Studiopolis Zone’s glass-shattering silhouette rooms, satellite wave travel, and giant popcorn machines. They’re ridiculously fun to play through, and the biggest shame is that there aren’t more of them.
Each act ends with a boss fight against Dr. Eggman, I mean, Robotnik, or one of his lackeys. If you must know, the simple story involves the evil doctor sending Sonic through time and space. As a simple reason to explain why Sonic is retreading Green Hill Zone, there’s no real significance beyond a few short dialogue-less cutscenes. Either way, Dr. Eggman’s robotic bosses are very inspired, and some original encounters actually left me speechless.
Unfortunately, I encountered several glitches in the game, one following Zone 2: Act 2’s boss. After defeating the boss, I somehow became stuck in the background, finally escaping after about a minute of desperate button mashing. In another instance, I got stuck in the foreground and had to restart the stage. While neither glitch is game-breaking, there are enough issues to raise an eyebrow and taint the overall experience.
At 12 zones, the game isn’t very long, but I found it easy to pick up and play a single stage through the time attack mode. The game’s sense of speed is unrivaled and an adrenaline rush to blaze through. Replaying as Tails or Knuckles with their special abilities also added to my playtime. In Knuckles’ case, there is even an extra stage and some exclusive pathways. As you would expect, simply beating the game isn’t enough; seeking out hidden bonus levels and Chaos Emeralds is the only way to complete the game. And yes, the Blue Sphere bonus game is back, along with the UFO-catching race from Sonic CD.
As is the case with the popular indie game Shovel Knight, Sonic Mania manages to invoke nostalgia through its presentation, even though its visuals and soundtrack are leaps and bounds above what the Genesis could produce. The 16-bit visuals are filled to the brink with eye-catching backgrounds and beautiful pixel-art. The new stages, in particular, are glowing with fun light tricks and hidden references. All of the classic upbeat tunes have been lovingly remixed with a smooth jazz flavor by Tee Lopes, a video game remixer. And my goodness is that opening animation gorgeous.
There’s a reason I began this review with an overview of how this game came into being. Chock full of references and tributes to the entire franchise, Sonic Mania is a love letter to anyone who’s grown up with Sega and a representative display of what the series should stand for to newcomers. There are some chinks in the armor, but the game otherwise runs at supersonic speed. Christian Whitehead and the development team have injected their hearts into this passion project, creating an experience by fans for fans, and their love for Sonic rings loud.