While Sonic the Hedgehog has had many ups and downs in his long career, there is no denying his legacy and importance to the incredible medium that is video games. When the iconic “SEGA” is heard or the Green Hill Zone music rushes back into one’s mind, memories of speed and a blue blur are undoubtedly accompanying those thoughts and, in many cases including my own, trigger an immense stream of nostalgia. Sonic Mania is the epitome of this feeling, but not simply just for nostalgia’s sake. Sonic Mania, a 2D, 16-bit callback to the best of Sonic, makes a statement and shows the power that these games can truly hold.
Sonic Mania allows you to step into the shoes of Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles and play through a variety of retro and new stages that all feel pulled from a time long gone. While we’ve visited levels like Green Hill Zone tons of times, Sonic Mania makes even the most recognizable feel new and fresh. Sonic 2’s Chemical Plant Zone, for example, adds chemical jelly goop to the mix that adds a new element of gameplay and strategy to the time-tested level and lets the player stick to walls and bounce around.
As for the new levels, they fit right in and feel like classics in their own right. The charming level design and music build upon the history of the franchise and throw in new elements that don’t feel tacked on. One zone actually encourages you to turn yourself into ice in order to break through certain walls. These levels have their own distinct identity and keep this title feeling fresh throughout all twelves zones.
Speaking of identity, this game would not be as great as it is without the incredible music. There are classic tunes included, remixed versions of said tunes, and brand new music that, once again, feels right at home. Launching Sonic Mania for the first time and hearing “SEGA” and having the start menu music play and then being welcomed into Green Hill Zone was a feeling I wish I could re-experience over and over again. I strongly believe that music is a gateway to memories and feelings, and when those above three moments happened, the gates were opened and it felt as though I was a kid again.
As for the story, it actually takes place after Sonic & Knuckles, and has you facing off against Dr. Eggman yet again as he searches for a mysterious emerald artifact. Dr. Eggman has enlisted the help of the Hard-Boiled Heavies this time that serve as each zone’s end boss. It would be an injustice to spoil the bosses here but suffice to say, there are some pleasant and wonderful surprises that kept me on my toes each time.
As mentioned previously, you have the option of playing as Sonic, Tails, Knuckles or cooperatively with another player (or by yourself) as Sonic & Tails. Sonic feels ever faithful, but has a new ability called the Drop Dash, which lets sonic zoom forward after a jump. This took a bit of getting used to, but once practiced felt like a great way to avoid danger or pick up some much needed speed. Playing as Tails with his flying abilities or Knuckles and his climbing skills just improves the replay value of the game and feeds into one of the game’s strengths, which happens to be level design.
Each level, which has two zones, is packed with multiple paths, secrets, hidden items, bonus areas, and much more. I played through each level multiple times, and with multiple characters, and felt as if I was learning something new each and every time. One of the best secrets to find are these hidden special levels which, once completed, allow you to collect a Chaos Emerald and get to Sonic Mania’s true ending. The levels change the perspective to a 3D one and task you with chasing a UFO. The catch is that a timer is slowly ticking down and you must collect speed-enhancing blue spheres and rings if you hope to be fast enough to catch this elusive foe. Some of the turns and the collision detection seemed to be less than perfect and lead to some unfortunate deaths, but I loved the change of pace and it was a nice reward for exploring.
In addition to the 3D stages, you will also find the bonus stages from Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, which don’t reward you with Chaos Emeralds but with unlockable bonus features, including a sound test, the ability to play as Sonic & Knuckles together, a debug mode, and more surprises I won’t ruin here.
As for the gameplay itself, Sonic Mania does a good job of recreating the sense of speed, but there were still times where I would come to an unexpected halt, be it running into a pesky enemy or wall, or not having enough momentum to make it around a classic loop-de-loop. Also, the dedication to preserving the gameplay and levels of the past titles is very admirable, but certain levels like Sonic 2’s Sky Chase Zone and its auto-scrolling are still as frustrating as they were when they were first released. It’s safe to say that if you never loved Sonic, there isn’t a drastic change here that will change your mind, but for those who find themselves with these memories will be happy for the many improvements that do overshadow some of the series’ shortcomings.
Sonic Mania is full to the brim with nods, surprises, secrets, and nostalgia that kept me smiling throughout my entire time with the game. I don’t want to go any deeper into explaining this game, because the joy of Sonic Mania comes at those moments where you are playing and get to a point that transports you back to your first experience with Sonic and reminds you why you fell in love with Sonic, and video games, in the first place. I haven’t felt this magnitude of nostalgic joy in such a long time, and I couldn’t be more thankful to the development team who put their hearts and souls into this game. While some of the issues that Sonic has always had do make their way into Sonic Mania, the good far out-ways the bad and makes this a must-play for fans of our favorite hedgehog.