Platforms PS4, XBO, NS
Developer Headcannon, Pagoda West Games
Publisher Sega
Release Date August 15, 2017

Review by Patrick Welsh (@scurvekano)

Reviewing Sonic Mania almost feels redundant. It’s such a perfect synthesis of everything that made Sonic what it is that it feels like I’m trying to review my own nostalgia, to pass comment, on the Sonic in my head, rather than the aged relic of the 90s. It’s Sonic as I remember it should be, with all its highs and lows sharpened in high def.

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I’ll freely admit that Sonic has disappointed me for over a decade now. As a franchise that has staked its reputation on blazing fast through massive levels, Sonic has always felt constrained in 3D, always too eager to reach out for a new and outlandish gimmick to paper over the cracks, whether that’s lycanthropy, imprinting on humans or the endless cavalcade of Sonic’s worthless woodland cronies.

I’ve never understood why Sega never wrote off Sonic 3D as a noble failure, or why they kept grasping for it even after the Dreamcast burned on re-entry and they left the hardware business: why could they not accept the fact that a franchise built on speed worked better in two dimensions. Sonic Mania has many course corrections to make. So, it’s a relief that it doesn’t just live up to the standards of classic Sonic games: it somehow manages to meet the expectations of the nine-year-old in my mind.

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It’s as if my favourite memories of Sonic were plucked from my head and rendered in 1080p at sixty frames per second. Mania is undiluted Sonic, as it was always meant to be, unburdened by the cruft that the series has accumulated over two decades: blazing twitch-platforming through a cornucopia of colourfully themed stages.

The cast has been mercifully scaled down to the core trio of Sonic, Tails and Knuckles (and Sonic with Tails, for the Sonic 2 die-hards), allowing for different playstyles. Where Sonic himself offers uncomplicated platforming blitz, Tails can use flight to manoeuvring deftly around enemies, and Knuckles is ideal for those strange people who think Sonic is about leisurely exploration.

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However you want to play, you’re in for thirteen zones made up of twenty-five acts, alongside the special stages and all the Blue Sphere action your heart can take. Eight of the zones are reused from Sonics 1-3, Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic CD (a selection that seems to deliberately exclude an armada of portable games, not to mention Sonic 4), compared to four (and a half, with the final boss) that are new.

The selection is well-cultivated, though inevitably some favourites are going to be left out, perhaps leaving them open for inclusion as DLC (fingers crossed for Ice Cap Zone and its glorious Michael-Jackson-inspired soundtrack). Each stage ends with a boss fight, and it would be remiss not to mention how inventive and unique each one feels, with classic encounters, races and one memorable recreation of a Mega Drive puzzle spin-off. Be warned that many of them will kick you in the teeth, repeatedly.

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It would be easy to take the game to task for leaning too hard on classic stages, but nostalgia is the aim of the game here, and in any case, the game uses retro zones intelligently. Each zone consists of two acts; the first is a straightforward rendition of the classic level, albeit with some additions, refinements and a boss fight. The second stage in each zone, however, is a kind of pastiche that takes the mechanics, themes and enemies of the first zone and iterates on them.

In a historical twist of irony, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect from a Mario level: a constant, inventive iteration on a single mechanic that the next zone abandons for something new from the playbox. It also put me in mind of Retro’s reboot of Donkey Kong Country: another series that melds retro themes while developing them creatively, from a Western studio working on a Japanese IP. By doing what Nintendoes* It ensures the levels always feel fresh, with something new to offer besides the same old loop-de-loops.

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There’s plenty to do if you feel like breaking the pace, though personally, I found the action was slowed down by my constant need to stop and play the Blue Sphere bonus stages from Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles, a change in gameplay that distracts from the sugar rush of the regular levels.

It doesn’t help that these stages contain some of the most diabolical puzzle design known to man or hedgehog, or that my arthritic mind has lost a lot of my nine-year-old self’s agility. Thankfully, they’re mostly optional since all they do is gate the bonus features, and progress is shared between playthroughs so at least you don’t have to bang every anthropomorphic head against them three or four times.

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There are other areas where Mania could have used some 21st Century quality of life improvements to cushion but the cheaper artefacts of Sonic’s past. Insta-death traps like getting crushed abound: yes, the same thing happens in Mario, but Mario levels tend not to consist of ten minutes of frenetic moving pieces. The ten-minute time limit is pointless: in shorter levels it’s irrelevant, but in longer stages, it’s one more thing to worry about.

Is Sonic really improved with an arbitrary time limit placed on it? Just to add injury to insult, this is yet another retro release that still uses extra lives; but whereas the generosity of modern Mario games has rendered the 1-up a quaint redundancy, Mania’s late-game difficulty makes it seem stingy in comparison.

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The biggest annoyance is the save and checkpoint system. The game saves progress by zone, rather than act, and when you lose a life, it throws you back to the last checkpoint: but once all your lives are gone, it’s back to the start of Act One of the zone. Consider that after a Game Over, you must navigate two stages, including boss fights, on three lives (plus whatever others you can pick up).

Given the size of the latter stages and the fact that the bosses are no picnic, it’s entirely possible to lose twenty minutes of progress, and it feels like the game is forcing you to repeat stages you’ve already beaten. Through in the possibilities of being crushed to death instantly or spinning into a bottomless pit, and it’s a shortcut to frustration. Yes, this is how the original games played, back in an age of endless summer days and no internet, but it’s a harder pill to swallow in 2017 when I have finite time and a hundred other things to distract my attention.

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So, it’s classic Sonic with all the settings on full, with a 16-bit+ visual style and a soundtrack unchained from the limitations of the Yamaha YM2612, but with the cheap gameplay feeling more pointed than ever before. Maybe it’s not surprising that it’s taken a fan game to remind the world what Sonic was— and perhaps even what it could be again. It’s a game aimed squarely at the thirty-something fan that grew up with the Mega Drive games and laments Sonic’s descent into a badly-controlling 3D caricature of himself.

It’s harder to gauge how well it’ll play with an audience that isn’t accustomed to the tribulations of 16-bit platforming, and it’s hard to look at Sonic Mania without looking at Sonic Forces, a far more typical “nu Sonic” offering for the franchise’s twenty-fifth anniversary. It’ll be interesting to see which interpretation proves more successful: for now, it’s enough for me that Sega has finally made the Sonic game I’ve wanted for twenty years.


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