The Blue Blur is Back in Business
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
What I Played: Beat the game with Sonic and Tails, and Sonic alone. 5 Chaos Emeralds. Blue Sphere: 20 Silver medals, 8 Gold.
For almost two decades now, Sega’s tried and failed to give Sonic fans what they want, and while a few quality titles have slipped through (Sonic Colors, Sonic Generations, Sonic Rush, the hedgehog levels of Sonic Unleashed), most fans of the Genesis glory days have come to accept four out of five Sonic games as being little more than embarrassing nostalgia cash grabs or attempts to bring in younger audiences.
This is the first time in over 20 years that they’ve really gotten it right. Sonic Mania is so good, I’m already comfortable ranking it alongside Sonic 2 and Sonic 3, two of the most-played games of my childhood, and I’m confident that time may judge it to be even better than those classics.
There’s so much that’s incredible about Sonic Mania. It’s slick and true to the feel of the best elements of the Genesis/Sega CD games, it accurately captures and refines the mood, music, and gameplay of games that were considered cutting-edge twenty years ago, and perhaps most impressively, it’s able to innovate on Sonic’s existing level design elements in fresh ways to fuse something we’ve never really seen before - a sort of “perfect blend” of Sonic 2, Sonic CD, and Sonic 3 - a balanced, challenging, momentum-based platformer that rewards precision and exploration, never gets boring, and packs a lot of replay value.
Under the Lead Development of Christian “Taxman” Whitehead, whose impressive resumé includes officially-published enhanced ports of classic Sonic titles, and Headcannon and PagodaWest Games, Sonic Mania puts to shame every other attempt by Sega at rebooting Sonic over the years, and it does it all seemingly effortlessly, by weaving together reimagined classic levels with brand new levels that fit right into the classic Sonic aesthetic; they’re like lost levels from 20 years ago, with groovy music and highly appealing background elements.
Sonic In Its Best Form
Following the structure of Sonic 2, there are only two acts for each Zone - the first act usually hosts a mini-boss, and the second a challenging boss battle - you’ll usually face Eggman or one of his “Hard-Boiled Heavies”. There’s no shortage of new ideas in the 4 new Zones and 8 re-imagined Zones (many of which seamlessly combine elements from multiple classic Sonic levels), and the game has a surprisingly long length for a 2D Sonic title.
The level design in this game is so good, one has to wonder what the heck Sega has been doing all these years - nearly every new Sonic game is an experiment in taking on gimmicky mechanics, often to the detriment of the level design. Take the episodes of Sonic 4, for instance. The momentum-based gameplay was there, but it was coupled with silly or redundant additions like the team-up mechanic, which was shoehorned into mostly unmemorable levels.
Sonic Mania achieves the kind of balance in level design that eluded even the first Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic & Knuckles. It introduces new level-based challenges gradually, layers them upon established challenges, then throws enemies into the mix, with a smattering of rings and a few classic Sonic power-ups as your only lifelines. The result is a fast-paced, momentum-driven game that keeps you on your toes without feeling unfair.
Even in some of the most acclaimed Sonic titles, the developers often relied on cheap shots to stop you in your tracks and knock away all Sonic’s (or his companions’) rings. There are still cheap shots in this game, but they rarely feel unfair. The Zones reward careful platforming and patient and intelligent play without sacrificing the thrills and speed that set Sonic apart from his rivals.
Early bosses are easy and gimmicky, but as the game progresses, they begin to provide both fan service and a serious challenge. Though the final bosses are surprisingly simple, I was not disappointed with the challenges on hand. The developers were definitely not holding back.
Chaos Emeralds are unlocked in pseudo-3D levels similar to those in Sonic CD, with Sonic chasing down a UFO holding an emerald. He’ll be snatching up blue spheres to speed up, and rings to keep the timer going. Brutal new variations on the Blue Sphere levels from Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles make a return as bonus levels accessible from any checkpoint as long as the playable character has 25 rings. Completing these bonus levels leads to cool unlockable modes, options, and even a Mean Bean mini-game.
In addition to using Sonic alone, players can opt to play through with Sonic and Tails, Knuckles, or, once the ability is unlocked, any character with Knuckles. There’s also a Time Attack mode for each of the three characters with online leaderboards. Two-player co-op is possible, if anyone wants to relive the days of being left behind by player one. There’s also a split-screen mode where two players can race for the fastest times. The soundtrack, largely composed of both original and remixed versions of classic songs, along with several new ones, is definitely worth listening to. The backgrounds and art style of the game really shine, especially in motion. With the original Zones, Sonic Mania’s artists really managed to not just capture the essence of, but improve upon the titles that came before. Going forward, one can only hope that this same team gets the opportunity to work on new 2D Sonic games, because they really knocked this one out of the park.
I’ve gotta say, I’d long given up hope that we would see something on the level of quality of the original Genesis titles, so this was a pleasant surprise. My only wish is that Sonic Mania is only the beginning of a new chapter for Sonic, and not just another welcome fluke. This game’s critical success should be a wake-up call for Sega to rethink their approach to Sonic in general. Although I can’t speak from the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up on Sonic, I truly believe this game boasts cross-generational appeal. Anyone who appreciates challenging, well-designed 2D platforming should find a lot to love here.
- Fantastic level design with no shortage of branching paths and new ideas
- Gorgeous backgrounds, great music, and challenging boss battles
- Sonic’s signature momentum-based physics play a significant part in the gameplay
- Blue Sphere bonus level music gets repetitive and resets Act music tracks
- Many Chaos Emerald Special Stages are tough and will be hit-and-miss for some
- Little to no context for the story; transitions between levels make no sense