It feels strange that I consider Sonic Mania as the true sequel to Sonic and Knuckles, especially since we’ve already had Sonic 4 in the mean time. It never felt like a real 2D sequel though, with it instead attempting to modernise things and in turn lose the simple magic of the Mega Drive (or Genesis for you US folk) classics. Sonic Mania changes that; at first glance you’d easily think you were playing a 16-bit release from the 90s, but it offers so much more. It’s a true return to form for the Sonic franchise that’s unlike anything we’ve seen for the last twenty five years.
Throughout this review I want to avoid as many spoilers as possible, with Sonic Mania offering some genuine surprises that really brought plenty of smiles to my face. Outside of nods to the classic games, it also does some new things that were fantastic to play through – however, mentioning them here would ruin it for anyone who hasn’t played the game. Avoiding spoilers means that I can’t talk about a lot of what makes Sonic Mania so damn good, but in doing so I’m making sure that your experience of the game will be as refreshing and rewarding as mine was.
One of the best parts of the classic Sonic games was that there wasn’t some overly convoluted story – there was just a hedgehog who wants to recover the mystical Chaos Emeralds and defeat the evil Dr. Robot- I mean, the evil Dr. Eggman. You know what, this is a throwback to the 90s so I’m calling him Dr. Robotnik!
Well, it’s the same case in Sonic Mania. You won’t find Sonic snogging humans, wearing a stupid scarf, or transforming into a werehog here; this is a simple affair that prioritises all-out action-packed gameplay rather than a silly over the top narrative. It makes for a better experience overall, with no cringe worthy scenes that’ll have you wincing at each interaction Sonic has.
What this means is that you’ll be speeding across complex 2D levels that look like they’ve come straight from the Mega Drive. I mean, seriously, the visual style features cleaned up sprites and environments that look like they belong in the original game as well as its sequels. It’s not just that the levels look familiar because of their graphic style though, but a lot of them are actually based upon the stages you’ve sped across in the past.
Whilst it has its fair share of original levels across all-new environments, Sonic Mania also puts you in levels that are remixed versions of those in the classic games. The first level you play feels exactly like the original Green Hill Zone from the very first game to begin with, though it won’t take you long to see a variety of changes have been made. It makes everything feel both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, with the game pulling at your heart strings with its all out nostalgia but also giving you something completely fresh in the process.
There are elements of Sonic Mania that you’ll only fully appreciate if you’ve been a long term fan of the series though. A lot of the levels and environments are remixes of classics after all, so if you haven’t already played through them a hundred times before like most gamers you won’t be able to appreciate the changes that have been made. Sure, it does mean you’ll get all-new levels to try out instead, but I feel a lot of what makes Sonic Mania so special is the fact that it’s more of the same but… well… newer. Even minor little nods like the classic SEGA logo reveal as you boot up the game won’t be as appreciated, which is a crying shame since it brought back so many childhood memories for me.
I think everyone will be able to appreciate the fantastic boss encounters though. I can say with complete confidence that not only does Sonic Mania have the best boss encounters out of any of the classic Sonic the Hedgehog games, but also out of any 16-bit style platformer I’ve ever played. They’re so entertaining and incredibly varied, with the game constantly challenging you to do something different. Don’t get me wrong, they were predictable at times and will never really push you as far as their difficulty level is concerned, but the game is second to none in providing entertaining showdowns against a myriad of foes (including good ol’ Dr. Robotnik time and time again). As mentioned, I won’t spoil anything so I can’t go into too much detail about the boss encounters, but I can certainly promise you that you won’t be disappointed.
Sonic Mania gives you the choice to play as Sonic, Tails, Sonic and Tails, or Knuckles, in turn offering different experiences as to how you approach each level. Admittedly, having Tails by your side doesn’t spice things up too much, but Knuckles’ unique abilities means you’ll have a whole new way to play the game – in fact, he even has a unique level that’s only available for him, meaning that it’s worth playing through the game as everyone’s favourite echidna just to get the most out of it.
Whilst everything that Sonic Mania offers is superb for both veterans and newcomers to the series, it would be all for nothing if it didn’t *feel* like a classic Sonic game to play. Thankfully it plays just like it did all those years ago, with the controls feeling tight and giving you the sense of freedom that makes you feel in total control of each character’s actions. Sonic has always been all about speed, but you’ll always be the one doing the running; scenes where the game seems to play itself for you because of its outright speedy nature aren’t as present here as in newer releases, so everything always comes down to your skills and what you’re doing.
You’ve got all of the classic moves too, with the spin dash allowing you to literally rev Sonic up as you smash your way through enemies and across incredible heights. There’s also the addition of an all-new move, with Sonic’s new drop dash allowing him to blast off as a spinning ball from mid-air. It actually feels like it adds something unique to the game instead of being there for the sake of adding something new, with the move giving you a lot more flexibility with Sonic’s manoeuvrability without forcing you to come to a complete standstill.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Sonic game without a myriad of special stages to race across, and Sonic Mania includes what I’d consider to be one of my favourites out of all of the 2D games. Basically, you’re left chasing down what looks like a UFO that’s carrying a Chaos Emerald across 3D race track environments – it’s a bit like Sonic CD’s Special Stages in that respect, but a bit more intricate and with just the one UFO to hunt down. In order to speed up, you need to collect the countless blue spheres that are littered around each area. Once you get enough you eventually pick up the speed needed to catch the UFO. You’ve got a time limit though, with the collection of rings boosting your remaining time up a second per ring. These levels are incredibly fun, offering something that felt different to the classic special stages whilst still maintaining the charm that made them so endearing to begin with. Be warned though; they can get pretty tough, so don’t be surprised if you miss out on a couple of Chaos Emeralds during your first run through of the game.
Outside of the main game, Sonic Mania also features a Time Trial mode as well as a Competition mode that allows you to face off against your friends in local multiplayer action. They’re nice additions to have in the game and will certainly give you something else to strive for after beating the main single player component, but the multiplayer is slightly let down by the lack of online play.
Much like the recently released Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, Sonic Mania proves that you don’t need to change the classic formula to offer a superb gameplay experience. In fact, fans are crying out for it, with Sonic Mania’s all out nostalgic showcase offering the most fun that I’ve had with the franchise for quite some time.
If you’re a fan of the classic games you’re going to be in platforming heaven with Sonic Mania. On the flipside, if you’ve been living under a rock for the last twenty five years and haven’t played a single Sonic the Hedgehog game, Sonic Mania is an absolutely fantastic place to start. You might not appreciate the nostalgic elements as much as a long-time fan, but you’ll certainly appreciate the incredibly fun gameplay that’s on offer from start to end.
Developer: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, PagodaWest Games
Release Date: 14/08/2017 (Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch) 29/08/2017 (PC)
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC