By the fans, for the fans. Truer words have never been spoken when it comes to Sonic Mania, a game does the unthinkable in 2017: get everyone excited for Sonic the Hedgehog again. And by everyone, we’re not talking about just fans of series, but folks who have been withdrawn since the days of the Genesis, people who haven’t considered playing a Sonic game since 1995. And there’s good reason for that too, after a year of development, Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, PagodaWest, and a whole gaggle of friends, members, and family from Retro and beyond have created one of the series best entries ever.
Mania is absolutely gorgeous to behold. Every returning zone has been recreated from the ground up, mixing in the right level of classic nostalgia with plenty of new along the way. The new zones are where the game shines the brightest. Levels like Studiopolis and Mirage Saloon are chock-full of references that keen-eyed players can find, as evidenced from the number found by players when the game was first announced a year ago alone. My personal favorite touch is how wonderful every character looks. Running at 60 frames per second, the animations pop on screen with every sprite ooze personality. This is exemplified heavily by the cutscenes and level transitions between acts. While later Sonic games have given us dialogue heavy, story-based cinematics, Mania is able to say far more without a single word uttered by a character. And to top it all off, Mania even has an animated opening, rivaling that of Sonic CD from Tyson Hesse and co. It’s just as beautiful as the rest of the game and leaves you yearning for an entire series helmed by Hesse himself with his personal takes on Sonic and the crew being at the forefront.
The majority of the music within Sonic Mania is attributed largely to Tee Lopes, a community favorite whose been doing remixes on YouTube and other outlets for quite sometime. The remixes for the old stages are excellent, arguably the best being the second act of Chemical Plant. Just like the art, the music has a very distinct vibe that’s the right level of old with the new. While the soundtrack for Mania is very strong, it does a few outliers. It’s more than obvious that Lopes has a love of jazz, and while that’s fine, a lot of the original tracks have a clear jazz inspiration behind them. They’re not quite as strong as those that are remixes from the original Genesis games and tend to use a lot of piano solos and other jazz hallmarks, which works in it’s own right. The issue in this case is that there’s a lack of variety that becomes noticeable when cruising through the new zones. However, the most noticeable offender in particular doesn’t come from Lopes, but rather the opening track that’s coupled with the superb opening animation. While on it’s own legs, the track “Friends” by Hyper Potions is a very average track, there’s a distinct lack of energy when compared to other similar songs, namely “Sonic Boom“ and “You Can Do Anything“ from both soundtracks of Sonic CD, it falls noticeably flat. Some of this can be blamed on the lack of catchy vocals, but it’s the fact that the song doesn’t much of a hook or any sort of catchy melody. It’s a shame when stacked against an immensely strong soundtrack, some lack of variety aside, that the opening is coupled with a forgettable dud. Fortunately, allowing the opening to roll through a second time presents a different, far superior track by Lopes himself, proof that even Mania’s weakest side knows how to make things right once more.
Fortunately, the music is about as low as it gets, which should already set the bar pretty high. Mania looks, sounds, and plays like the game we never got on the Sega Saturn over two decades ago. And this wasn’t by accident, the devotion to the Saturn runs deep in Mania, to the more noticeable winks like the White Saturn controller that hovers over the options menu, to the draw distance in the Special Stages being capped similar to what you’d see while playing Daytona USA or Panzer Dragoon. That’s the kind of people behind Sonic Mania, it’s not just folks who are fans of the series, it’s people who know it on an intense, technical understanding. And that shows through with the level design.
Acts in Sonic, as many of you know, typically have a few different paths, an upper, middle, and lower path. The upper path is typically the most rewarding but most difficult to maintain, while the lower path will lead to death if you fall any further, but is usually easier to keep your feet planted (aside from some exceptions designed to punish the player.) Mania takes this sort of formula and makes sure to shake it up as hard as it possibly can. The formula is certainly still there, only you’ll have zones like Chemical Plant where there’s a points with a whooping five different paths to blaze through, some of which are unique to specific characters, like Tails and Knuckles. These sorts of twisting, sprawling levels are in play for two very specific reasons: speedrunning and exploring.
Given the series tendency for moving quickly, speedrunning is no stranger to Sonic. Mania returns with a time attack mode, as seen in Sonic games of the past. But like everything else the team put in, they’re aware of the amount of trail and error it takes to perfecting a run in a Sonic game. With the press (and hold) of a button, the game will restart the player from the beginning without having to go through menus or require the game to reload. This one simple change means saving time and getting right back to your run, all without breaking your groove. Having a quick restart button seems like such an obvious answer to an overlooked problem that you’ll wonder how you ever went without it! And of course, to prove you’re the absolute best in the world, Mania has leaderboards for every act in the game.
Exploring is pretty self explanatory. Doing so in levels can turn up different rewards, like caches of rings, power ups, extra lives, or best of all, the giant polygon rings that take players to the special stages. Mania’s special stages are a bit of a mix between those from Sonic CD, Blue Spheres, and Sonic R all wrapped into one package. While Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles run forward on their own, players have to controller them running left or right. Your rings work as your time, starting you off with a very finite amount, with more that can be collected throughout the stage to add extra time to the board. Alongside rings are blue spheres, grabbing these adds them to your Mach meter. Once enough have been collected, you gain a new burst of speed, up to the third level. Mania’s special stages may seem a bit too ambitious at first, crammed with a vaporwave-esque aesthetic, there’s a lot to worry about given the environment has pits to fall out of, or grass that slows the player down. The sense of speed you get from these stages, especially at Mach 3, it’s almost overwhelming to make turns and catch the UFO in time. But slowly, you figure out the key to drifting, jumping and turning at the same time, and you’ll be acing these stages in no time flat. It’s a shame that there’s so few, as they’ve successfully bucked Sonic CD to become my own favorite set of emerald collecting mini-games.
The real beauty of Mania is its ability to subvert players’ expectations at almost all times. For instance, bosses are a huge highlight of Sonic Mania, as evidenced by the screenshot about. Like the rest of the game, there are plenty of nods and winks with previous games and their bosses, but Mania ensures to counter the norm. You have plenty of opportunities to wail on certain foes over and over again, but as the game wears on, that tactic becomes less and less possible, even going as far as to steal the one ring rule away from players (and warrant twelve Game Overs worth of frustration if you’ve been using it as a crutch far too much!) The difficulty within Mania is something that’s executed with phenomenal precision, the right amount of challenge, without the frustration. If you fail, it’s not because you didn’t see something coming or the game cheated you, it’s due to yourself. The age old complaint of being unable to see things before you is gone when Sonic is thrown into a widescreen ratio and Mania’s more than aware of this. Nothing illustrates this fact more than how the game approaches the traditional, two act structure of your typical 2D Sonic the Hedgehog game. Act 1 typically works the same way, introduce the player to gimmicks that will be throughout the zone and ease them in. Act 2 then proceeds to go buck wild, the scenery changes, the music changes, and the gimmicks that are expertly woven into the level design begin to truly test players skill and what they’ve successfully learn. This, on top of introducing new themed stage gimmicks, gives Sonic Mania that level of not knowing what to expect and making your play through that much more exciting.
And it simply cannot be overstated how much content is crammed into Sonic Mania. On top of all the fantastic level design are even further unlockables, earned from the bonus stages, the returning Blue Spheres. The inclusion of Blue Spheres is both a blessing and curse. Folks that have had over 20 years to hone their skills at the 45 degree world spinning mini-game will no doubt feel at home when playing on Sonic Mania. The original stages are all there, ready to be run through once again. The reward in place of Chaos Emeralds are familiar looking medallions that come in two varieties, gold and silver. Collecting these unlock a variety of new modes and settings, some of which will heavily change how you can play the game. You’ll get a silver for every basic completion you earn, but gold will require you to get a Perfect on every single stage as well. For the uninformed, getting a Perfect in Blue Spheres means one has to get every ring in a stage and finish. It’s an ultimate test of skill and defeat is crushing, thankfully the barrier to entry is very low and you’re given a chance at every checkpoint you hit, if you have enough rings.
Competition mode returns with the squashed look from Sonic 2. Although the mode works well for 2 players, even at the goofy resolution, the mode is slightly limited to a best of 5 different stipulations, meaning getting to the end the fastest doesn’t guarantee a win. Competition mode doesn’t feature all the zones either, likely due to changes being required for them to work. As neat as it is to have a two-player mode in Sonic once more, it would’ve been nice to have a few more options available, mainly to restrict winning conditions down to a simple race. There is, of course, and absence of online, and while it would be lovely to take on friends around the community, the refined single player experience makes up for it. (And hey, you might not have friends locally that want to play, but hey, the Sonic & SEGA Fan Jam put on by our friends over at SEGABits is in November!)
Sonic Mania is proof that when a company wants to work with its fans, they can make unbelievable things happen. Mania has an incredible level of polish and love poured into it, and it shows with every single second that the clock ticks. Make no mistake, this comes from a team that has known what made Sonic the Hedgehog work in the first place, some of which have been on this very front page, telling it like it is, years ago. The greatest achievement of Sonic Mania is that it successfully transcends the norm of being “another good Sonic game.” It’s the best Sonic game since 1994, but in its own right, it’s easily the best 2D platformers to come out in recent memory, much less this year alone. If you’re a casual fan or someone who is looking for a magnificent platformer that goes all out, Mania is for you. And if you’re a Sonic fan, chances are, you’ve already got it in your sights. And as you should, Sonic Mania did the unthinkable: Sonic the Hedgehog is cool again.