The Sonic franchise has struggled to keep it’s head above water for over a decade now. Can the likes of Sonic Mania really be the messiah the franchise has been looking for?
Not a single game franchise has influenced and disappointed me as much as Sonic The Hedgehog. Between sitting up late nights writing Sonic movie scripts in my preteens, to bemoaning the release of Sonic Boom just a few years back, remaining a fan has been a struggle.
It should come as no surprise then that, when SEGA pulled the curtain off of Sonic Mania, I had mixed feelings. I wanted to cry out of joy. I also wanted to throw up a little at the thought of it being yet another tremendous flop. Could Mania really live up to the hype? A little over a year has passed since I first began circulating that thought in my head, and now that Mania is finally out I can safely say I have the answer: Yes.
Being over 20 years late to the party might sound like a bit of an unforgivable act. Especially when you leave a lineage of look-alike catch-phrase-firing doofuses in your wake to pick up the slack. But here come dat boi. Just as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he did in his prime. If Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a 1970’s Dodge Challenger, Sonic Mania is a damn 2017 Challenger Hellcat. All the looks of its grandaddy, but with style and panache to spare.
To say this feels like a passion project come to life is an understatement. What Christian Whitehead and Simon Thomley have done is nothing short of stupendous. Both are long-time members of the Sonic modding community, and have contributed massively to keeping interest in these classics alive. Along for the ride as well is YouTube musician and ear wizard Tee Lopes, who has created about a decade’s worth of orgasmic remixes and fresh new jams for the soundtrack that I am currently feeding directly into my bloodstream.
Sonic Mania picks up essentially the second Sonic & Knuckles concludes. Robotnik is defeated, Tails just picked up a sweet set of aviator goggles, and the dynamic duo are biplane-surfing back to Angel Island to chill with Knuckles. However, after re-enacting the intro from Sonic 3, they slide to a stop beside a troubling scene.
A handful of egg-robos have turned their front lawn into an excavation site, and are ripping what looks like a giant Chaos Emerald from the ground. Before they can make heads or “Tails” of the situation, a strange, pulsating wave erupts from the stone and teleports them to Green Hill Zone.
To say this feels like a passion project come to life is an understatement.
Simplistic yet charming, Sonic Mania delivers a standard, no frills Sonic story with a few humorous winks and nods thrown in for good measure. Whitehead and Thomley really went out of their way to accentuate Sonic and Friends’ personalities in new and interesting ways. Mostly by way of small, one-off animations in-between the action. Easily my favorite is when Knuckles remembers how he got himself tased in the last game by being a moron. Classic.
These moments, as well as the entire game, are rendered in painstakingly crafted pixel-art. Classic Zones like Hydrocity are given tactful, well deserved face-lifts, and look better than ever. While places like Studiopolis dazzle and excite with tidal waves of gorgeous color and personality. I dare say the new Zones almost completely overshadow the remasters. Press Gardens in particular had me putting down the controller in awe and just staring at the scenery. I mean, just look at this place!
You’re too Slow!
Luckily for us though, Sonic Mania isn’t just a looker. I’m not sure if it’s their years of dedication to the franchise, or some kind of sixth Sonic sense, but Whitehead and Thomley really knocked this one out of the park. It replicates the feel of the old games so perfectly, I often forget I’m playing a SEGA game on a Nintendo console. Oh how times have changed.
For me, old Sonic games have always lived and died by one principle: momentum. Maintaining speed during the Genesis era was, more often than not, a reward for skillful play. This is generally true in Mania, but there are definitely a few indulgent moments of pure spectacle. Rocketing at such a break-neck pace that the camera loses you is just as satisfying here as it was in Sonic 2.
This is accentuated further by the use of a new maneuver deemed the “Drop Dash”. In a nutshell, if you press and hold the jump button again while airborne, you’ll do a midair spin-dash and launch off once you hit the ground. Having this ability is a game-changer, because one huge problem that’s always plagued Sonic is that re-gaining speed on hills or difficult terrain is nigh-impossible. Not having to struggle to get going during these moments is an absolute god-send.
Equally as rewarding and memorable are the special stages in Mania, both of which are revamped versions of old favorites. The standard checkpoint stages are none other than Blue Sphere, my all-time favorite faux-3D special stage. The main event they put front and center though is something akin to a Sega CD/Sega Saturn love-child.
What used to feel like playing tag on a Mario Kart course, now feels more focused and exhilarating. Learning the track patterns, shortcuts, and jumping corners to gain ground make it feel like you could play an entire game of just these special stages. It’s a shame then that there’s no way to generate infinite random levels of it like you could with Blue Sphere back in the day.
What’s Old is New Again
Sonic Mania is easily one of the greatest Sonic titles ever made, 2D or otherwise. It takes all the elements that made the classic titles great, while still innovating the old formula in subtle ways. Sending the blue-blur and pals down memory lane has never felt better, but I still wish we had been given more stages that were entirely new.