Review: Sonic Mania
Welcome to the Next Level.
In October of 1994, SEGA released Sonic & Knuckles, the final mainline Sonic title for the SEGA Genesis and the completion of a trilogy which began with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 only two years prior. Unbeknownst to fans at the time, it would be the last time they would see the version of Sonic they’d grown to know and love worldwide for some time.
When SEGA moved on to their next platform, the 32-bit SEGA Saturn, Sonic was generally considered to be absent from that generation. Not for a lack of trying, mind you; plans to bring the Blue Blur into the third dimension to continue his rivalry with Mario as well as newcomer Crash Bandicoot were underway, but ultimately fell through (that’s quite a tale, if you care to read up on it). The resulting cancellation of Sonic X-treme left a handful of oddities to fill the void for fans, including a compilation of the Genesis games, a racing game, and a hastily-readied version of a Genesis spin-off.
Sonic would come back in full force after a five year wait in 1999, but for the doomed Dreamcast console with an adventure that finally brought him onto a 3D playing field. Those holding out for more 2D Sonic would continue to wait a couple more years, after SEGA went third-party. It was then that they had Dimps produce Sonic Advance, a Game Boy Advance title that was respectful of the Genesis style of gameplay while using the characters’ more contemporary designs. At this point, things went downhill for fans of the Genesis style of Sonic gameplay.
As SEGA and Sonic Team continued to pump out new 3D titles, new 2D titles also continued to come out. While some were good in their own right, they tended to stray by focusing more on pure speed boosts, gauges, and tricks than the momentum and physics-based gameplay that originally granted that speed in the first place. This went on for some time, with fans increasingly begging for the return of “classic” Sonic, and the straw which ultimately broke the camel’s back was the two-episode Sonic the Hedgehog 4, which attempted to continue the legacy of the Genesis games in a more modernized New Super Mario Bros.-esque fashion; a blend of old and new which arguably pleased fans of neither.
But between the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 4‘s two episodes in 2010 and 2012, respectively, something remarkable happened.
As SEGA was doing one thing with Sonic Team in Japan, they had also employed the services of Christian “The Taxman” Whitehead and Simon “Stealth” Thomley, longtime members of the Sonic fan community who had managed to impress the right people with Whitehead’s Retro engine, to port Sonic the Hedgehog CD to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, and mobile. Their work, which went above and beyond the original release in various ways, would come to be seen by many as the definitive edition, leading to their updating of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for mobile as well (leaving many of us wondering why there is still no console version of these new and improved releases).
So successful were their efforts that many fans cast their eyes upon SEGA with one shared thought in mind: “If you won’t make a new classic Sonic game for us, then let these guys do it!” And guess what?
As revealed at the Sonic the Hedgehog 25th anniversary party in July 2016, they did just that. Under the supervision of Sonic Team, Sonic Mania is a joint production of Christian Whitehead, Thomley’s Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games, and is effectively a Sonic game by the fans, for the fans.
Sonic Mania is a classic Sonic game through and through, and to a less discerning eye, could easily be mistaken for one of the 16-bit classics. However, closer examination reveals that this title is something more, as the crew (hereafter referred to collectively as the “Sonic Mania team”) shot for something more than just another Genesis Sonic.
Recall earlier that Sonic was largely conspicuous by the absence of a new title for the SEGA Saturn? Accounts vary, but the developers designed this game to be anywhere from more akin to a SEGA CD title to the Saturn Sonic we never received, and it comes through in many little ways, perhaps most notably the increased number of animations and animation frames the characters sport. Even the Tornado, Sonic’s biplane, has a bit of added nuance as it tilts back and forth slightly towards the player on its 2D axis. Loving touches like this and the myriad references and Easter Eggs found throughout (the Mirage Saloon boss is a treat for longtime fans especially) lend themselves to the idea that this is the classic Sonic we know and love, but still somehow just a bit more than that.
The main game itself spans 12 Zones, each consisting of two Acts, as well as a final showdown available to those with the fortitude to collect all seven Chaos Emeralds (more on that in a bit). This is effectively one Act shy of the total of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the two games combined (via Lock-On Technology, which is what we had to use before downloadable content was a thing) to make the biggest Sonic adventure on the Genesis.
Of those 12, only four are all-new creations from the developers. Even so, the likes of the Studiopolis Zone and Mirage Saloon Zone fit in beautifully (albeit a touch bizarrely in some cases) with the other eight Zones that have been pulled from the four Genesis games as well as Sonic the Hedgehog CD. The Sonic Mania team even brought back the transitions between Zones that make going from place to place feel more seamless, though they unfortunately only did this part of the time, making the remainder feel a little more abstract in the process. In truth, the omissions that are there feel almost shockingly uncharacteristic of the attention to detail spread across the rest of the game.
With that said, the return of Zones from the original games have borne criticism, with the seeming impression being that they’ve been lifted wholesale from their games of origin and given a bit more polish. This is anything but true; while there are some bits of the original maps reused, these are no more the same levels than one Mario desert level versus another, proving there is unquestionably unexplored life left in these earlier concepts. The first Act tends to feel like the more familiar of the two, while things really get shaking in the second Act as more new elements are introduced, such as zip lines in Green Hill, or bouncy and sticky goo in Chemical Plant. Throw in the return of the three elemental shields from Sonic 3 & Knuckles (alongside the original standard), and things can get even wilder still.
A dozen stages of two acts may not seem like much, but some can get pretty big, with lots of places to explore. In fact, some may even be too big, as I found myself going for the goal as quickly as possible yet finding myself with only a little of my 10-minute time limit remaining. In fact, I’ve died on a few occasions (including during a boss fight) due to Time Over. Thankfully, Sonic Mania doesn’t follow in the footsteps of the earliest games in the series by restarting you at the last checkpoint without refreshing the clock if you do die in that manner (die to a hazard, on the other hand…).
Each stage also features an original or a remixed musical composition by another Sonic fan on the team, Tee Lopes. You’ll hear one track as the standard version for the first Act of each Zone, and just as in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, it gets a wilder remix in the second Act, blending the new and the familiar in the masterful way the game makes its trademark. Each Act also leads to a new boss encounter, which has all-new music as well.
Speaking of the bosses, they prove to be a highlight of the game, which is something I couldn’t say for the most part in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II. As with the rest of the game, these are more classically-styled, right down to the fact that a skilled player can land several consecutive shots in a row on most of them without having to wait through repeated attack patterns and animation cycles.
Many are original as well, and even the rehashes bring something new to the table. The Death Egg Robot pictured above, for example, chases Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles through a portion of the Green Hill Zone, using an extending punch rather than a rocket one, destroying pieces of the landscape all the while. Others are more original, creative, and even fan service-y — plus, they’re not all just fights with Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik in different machines, as he has a new group of henchmen on board to help out: The Hard-Boiled Heavies, Egg-Robos who have been enhanced by the powers of the game’s central plot device (known as the Phantom Ruby) and extend the Classic cast in a way that feels completely natural to the early games.
The boss fights are never dull, but they can get pretty frustrating on occasion — at least until you figure out what you can and/or need to do. The boss at the end of the ninth Zone (no spoilers) was one that seemed impossible, but thanks to the miracle of YouTube, seeing someone else handle it with ease has be champing at the bit for another round. Another against one of the Hard-Boiled Heavies at the end of the fifth Zone also had me using words I don’t think I had the courage to utter in 1994, and even managed to stunlock/juggle me until I died on my replay with Knuckles. Then I saw a video earlier that revealed that you can actually jump on their projectiles like a normal enemy, and my jaw dropped (to my credit, would you ever think jumping on an Asteron was safe? Probably not).
Instances like these are indeed frustrating, but to their credit, it’s a very familiar frustration — a frustration I remember well from when I first learned how to deal with the many bosses found throughout the five Genesis-era games. It’s the sort of thing that passes with time, knowledge, and practice.
One area in which your mileage will probably vary is at points where the game eschews its platformer identity. The boss fight in Act 2 of the Chemical Plant Zone makes for another fantastic reference for longtime fans of the series, but at the same time, I question how well I might have fared had I not gotten plenty of practice in another recent SEGA release.
Likewise, there are the Bonus and Special Stages. Full disclosure: While I pretty much had the Bonus Stages of Sonic 3 & Knuckles mastered, I’ve never been much good at Special Stages outside of Sonic Generations for the Nintendo 3DS. In Sonic Mania, however, the Sonic 3 & Knuckles Special Stages (Blue Spheres) are Sonic Mania‘s Bonus Stages. On the bright side, I’ve probably successfully completed more Blue Spheres stages here than I ever did on the Genesis, but at the same time, not nearly enough to get any of the cool unlockables (more on those in a moment).
Meanwhile, the Special Stages are probably some of my favorites of any Sonic game… but I’m still not much good at them. I’ve only successfully completed two out of the seven, and the giant Warp Rings which take you there seem to be hidden a bit more thoroughly here than in Sonic 3 & Knuckles (or maybe it’s just me), making practice a little more difficult. Still, the bizarre mashup of Sonic CD, Sonic 2, and Sonic 3 & Knuckles elements just works, as does the low-poly look which is once again evocative of something I’d expect to see on the Saturn.
Assuming you’re able to master these entirely different gameplay styles, conquering all seven Special Stages will get you all of the Chaos Emeralds, thus allowing you to turn into Super Sonic, Super Tails (sorry, no enemy-seeking Flickies this time), or Super Knuckles, accordingly, as well as see the true ending if you’re using Sonic. Get enough medals from Blue Spheres (silver or gold, the latter granted for getting all the rings as well, doesn’t matter), and you’ll unlock various moves for Sonic, including his Insta-Shield from Sonic 3 & Knuckles or the Super Peel-Out from Sonic CD, along with Debug Mode and some other fun surprises.
Unfortunately, this kind of sucks if you’re like me and, well, suck at these sorts of stages. I’m hopeful someone will unearth some sort of cheat codes, which would be another nice throwback from the 90’s era of gaming that you don’t see as much today.
Even more unfortunate than that is the fact that for some reason, you’re only allowed to use any of these unlockables in the “No Save” slot of the game, meaning if you want to enjoy these features to the fullest — including one that provides you with a special alternate ending — you’re going to have to do it all in one sitting. Considering how useful some of these might be, including/particularly Sonic’s alternate moves, it’s nothing shy of disappointing.
Sadly, I wish that was all the unfortunate things I had to say about Sonic Mania, but facts are facts. The original games weren’t exactly water-tight in their programming, and sadly, this is another area where Sonic Mania fits right in.
I am happy to say that incidents of bugs and glitchiness are largely infrequent, but there are still things that can happen that might ruin your day. There have been varying reports of people getting stuck upon beating the Chemical Plant Zone boss for reasons that I don’t believe have been quite ironed out, and while I haven’t experienced this, I have had my own incident wherein beating the boss ended up killing me as well for no discernible reason. Others have shown instances of getting stuck in walls, and it seems that hit detection with regards to the player getting crushed does not favor the person holding the controller, either. I ran into too many instances of this myself, many of which felt kind of cheap, while others have posted videos and gifs of their own problem areas that have plagued them.
Generally speaking, it wouldn’t be too bad, but the save system in play sends you all the way back to the beginning of the Zone you’re in when you lose all your lives, so watching a relatively small number drop at an alarming speed can certainly ramp the tension up.
What’s more, the Switch version has some odd bugs which seem unique to it. For instance, pressing the Home menu during the game results in nothing happening for several seconds, while bringing up the Sleep menu saw me retain control of the action in the game while the overlay was present but untouchable. These are some odd quirks and nothing particularly devastating, but worth noting, as well as the fact that I did not encounter any issues of the sort in the Xbox One version.
I do hope that SEGA will allow the Sonic Mania team to patch this stuff up, because while such things may have been a part of the original Genesis games, this one deserves better than to have it be a part of its legacy.
In addition to the standard story-based “Mania Mode,” there are some other modes included as well, such as a race against the clock in Time Attack or a second player in Competition. Sadly, Competition is local multiplayer only, and brings back the squashed split-screen of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. On the bright side, a second player can still join in as Tails in the main game when Sonic and Tails are both chosen.
One other thing I’d like to address are the controls. Maybe it’s just me, but while the controls of Sonic Mania feel faithful to their Genesis forebears, I think they might be even a little bit better. Somehow, the more precise platforming sections just feel better to me than the originals, almost as though Sonic and friends are just that little bit more responsive than before. I can’t complain, and this has even emboldened me in how I play the game to some degree, as more daring maneuvers feel like any risk is now all on my decisions and less on whether I had Sonic in just the right position.
I suppose this is as good a place as any to mention Sonic’s new Drop Dash move. Replacing the Super Peel-Out and Insta-Shield (unless you use the aforementioned unlockables to swap out), this move allows Sonic to rev a Spin Dash in mid-air as he falls, taking off in the direction he’s facing as he hits the ground. The frustrating part in the early going was that there is no explanation anywhere in-game for how this move works, nor is it as intuitive as the previous moves. Fortunately, while there is no manual in the game itself, there is one online, but I’ll just say here that the key is the hold the jump button down when you’re in the air. It doesn’t always work and it takes some practice and getting used to, but once I knew what I was supposed to do, I employed it a lot more frequently.
At this point, I’m not sure what else to say without getting into some sort of more detailed analysis. Despite the faults I do find with it (as true to the originals as they may be), it doesn’t change the fact that I love this game. Even after the few times I had to walk away from it due to a boss getting the best of me or just getting crushed, it wasn’t long before I was back to it, and eventually overcame what had thwarted me before.
Of course, this bears mentioning: If you actively dislike the Genesis-era games of the franchise, then I can’t imagine how this one would possibly change your mind. But if you love those games, then I similarly can’t imagine how you couldn’t love this. Unlike the 2D Sonic games released between the turn of the century and now, this is just so unquestionably pure. I’m not even sure that Mega Man 9 hit the mark this precisely, and it was more actively trying to emulate its earlier entries.
Simply put, the hype is real. If true Genesis-styled Sonic is what you’ve craved for the last 23 years, then get Sonic Mania and allow yourself to be welcomed to the next level.
Then, once you’re done, you can join me in waiting for what will hopefully be an entirely new game from the Sonic Mania team. I mean, is there any way it can’t happen after this?
Sonic Mania was released for the Xbox One (version played), Nintendo Switch (also played), and PlayStation 4 on Tuesday, August 15th, 2017 and will come to PC via Steam on Tuesday, August 29th, 2017 at various prices for the Standard Edition (depending on which storefront you buy from) and $89.99.
A review code was provided by SEGA.
David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.