If you are somewhere between your mid-20’s or mid-40’s, then you have played Sonic the Hedgehog. It doesn’t matter if you actually had a Sega Genesis or not; perhaps you had late night gaming sessions at your friend’s house (and let’s be honest, you no longer remember their names…), or maybe you were doing speed runs on Green Hill Zone on the demo system at Walmart while your parents were shopping ( I think they secretly enjoyed this…).
Not that I ever did any of those things…
The original was something of a revelation in terms of sheer speed for a platformer. Sonic 2 upped the ante by introducing the Spin Dash (which was awesome), the Halfpipe Chaos Emerald Special Stage (which was awesome), and Tails the Fox, who was awesome as cannon fodder and as a way you could get away with never letting your younger brother play using the main controller; you know, by letting him “play” as Tails.
Not that I ever did that… And c’mon, I need you to fly me up there. Thanks- see ya!
Sonic 3 got even sweeter by giving us a new nemesis named Knuckles, and then after he got betrayed we got to play as that lovable yet pugilistic echidna. Now you could while away even more time climbing walls that went nowhere, lazily floating over 16-bit landscapes in a game built on speed, and of course burning your eyes out on the Chaos Emerald Special Stage with the checkered pattern 3D cube that probably sent a fair share of people into epileptic shock, although of course you eventually memorized every pattern and snickered when your friend didn’t make the jump on that one stage and you knew they were finished.
Not that I ever did that…
Sonic the Hedgehog as a franchise looked to be unstoppable, until it had the misfortune of stopping itself. Games like Sonic 3D were simply unplayable, and while Sonic Spinball was a fine enough diversion, the franchise simply never got its mojo back, despite lots of attempts.
Sonic 4 was released a few years back, promising to reclaim the glory days. And while it wasn’t terrible, it simply did not have the je ne sais quoi that made its predecessors so lovably playable.
It was left to fans rather than studios to revive Sonic and bring it back to its halcyon days and make it actually a fun game again, this time branded as Sonic Mania. Eschewing modern trappings like 3D or updated graphics, Sonic Mania decided to not reinvent the wheel, and in many cases used many of the same wheels The result is a sentimental journey into many of our childhoods, and a reminder that simplicity of gameplay can still equate to fun.
If you remember playing Sonic 1, 2, 3 or Sonic and Knuckles, then you will feel right at home. There is a satisfyingly limited amount of controls; the joystick or D-pad provide directions, and the only button is to jump (or use the character’s special abilities). This is a straight-up Sonic game, repackaging a lot of the old motifs, tropes and the like into a shiny new package.
The first couple levels kick of this walk through video game nostalgia-land, as you are immediately thrust into a reworking of Green Hill Zone. A lot of it feels familiar, albeit with enough changes, twists and turns to not simply be a reprise of earlier games. However, the familiarity allows you to jump right in, or experience some classic gaming if it’s your first time playing Sonic.
The second stage is the beloved Chemical Plant Zone, which proves to be as fast and frenetic as the original, with some of the same frustrations: I’m looking at you, slowly moving blocks I have to jump up before I drown…
There are some other classic levels like Flying Battery, as well as a number of fresh new stages like Studiopolis and Starlight Speedway. The incredible thing is that game designers really managed to capture the feel of Sonic levels in these new offerings, as well as injecting some fresh new ideas and surprises every so often. One boss battle involves a weather forecast that just makes you smile at the cleverness of it.
Sonic and Co. are still chasing down Chaos Emeralds, and like all Sonic games there is a Special Stage for these. These involves a sort of 3D course where you are chasing down a UFO that is holding the Emerald. Rings provide you with extra time (sort of like in the 3D halfpipe in Sonic 2), and collecting Blue Spheres causes you to fill a speed meter which helps you catch up to the UFO. There are naturally mines to avoid, pits you can fall in and end the stage, etc. All in all I found this stage to be a nice addition to the game, although probably more challenging than previous Chaos Emerald Special Stages. Personally, I’m still hunting a few down.
The 3D Sphere special stage from Sonic 3 makes a return as the Special Stage you can enter after activating a progress marker. This Stage works exactly as you remember it; a nice touch is that on Xbox it actually retains that bit of lag from the original, which is both nostalgic and infuriating, just like it always used to be.
It’s just now a much more expensive proposition to throw the controller across the room in frustration.
Not that I ever did that, of course…
There are a few other extras you can unlock by means of these special stages, things like debug mode, which can let you get SuperSonic without the bother of getting all those Chaos Emeralds.
Not that I ever did that, either…
Finally, there are a couple other modes to keep you coming back for more. A Speed Trial mode lets you compete for the fastest times, and a Co-Op mode lets you battle it out on the various courses. You even get the annoying anamorphic stretch from the original games.
Graphics and Audio
It’s clear that Sonic Mania was a labor of love, and the graphics and audio reflect this. There is no attempt to update or modernize the graphics; rather, it’s straight-up 16-bit goodness, as Sonic is probably meant to be. The worlds still look gorgeous, and even the new ones integrate without skipping a beat. There are some new animations for Sonic (like when you complete a stage), but all in all it seems the authors wanted to remain true to the original, and it really works nicely.
For those who really want to go back in time, there are options to even add CRT scan-lines as an overlay.
The soundtrack is glorious, incorporating tracks from the original levels as well as some new additions, which feel just as in place as if they had been written 20 years ago. The sound effects integrate well and make the entire package complete; this game is an old-school platformer, and it feels and plays like one.
The game hits almost every note just right, although there are a few missteps, most notably in that the story and the ending felt fairly underwhelming. Granted, Sonic has very rarely been about story, but in something like Sonic 3, for example, you have this noticeable plot-line where Knuckles thinks Sonic is trying to steal the Chaos Emeralds and destroy his home, but finds himself eventually betrayed by Dr. Robotnik. There’s then a shift in Knuckles’ demeanor as he actively begins helping Sonic, even at the cost of himself. It’s not much, but it gives the game just a little bit of pacing and meaning as you progress through the final levels.
Sonic Mania has very little of that, and, to be honest, I was very much unaware I was on the final boss until I defeated it and the short ending sequence began to play. I was kind of wishing for something more hardcore like the Death Egg Zone of Sonic 2, which is one of the preeminent final zones ever to have been created.
And as a personal note, I always loved Ice Cap zone. I would have loved to see a remix of that stage.
Sonic Mania doesn’t pretend to break any new ground, and in many ways that is what makes it such a great game. No franchise is perfect, but the early Sonic the Hedgehog games did a lot of things right, which is why they are still so playable today. Sonic Mania is perhaps less ambitious in wanting to be a tribute rather than a sequel or a new game, and in this way manages to retain nearly everything that the old Sonic franchise did right while tossing in a few ideas that feel like they could have been there all along. If you ever loved playing Sonic the Hedgehog, this is a game well-worth playing.