Video game review: Sonic Mania

August 17th, 2017

This week saw the release of Sonic Mania, the latest entry in the long-running Sonic the Hedgehog series of video games, and a throwback to the franchise’s earliest entries on the Sega Genesis. It’s built on the Retro Engine, a platform which brings modern console features like 16×9 widescreen support, 60-frames-per-second animation, and online functionality to retro-style games. Sonic Mania lead developer Christian Whitehead originally developed the engine for a Sonic fan game, then worked with Sega to produce a port of 1993’s Sonic CD to modern consoles using the engine in 2011. Similar ports of the original Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic 2 followed.

I picked up the Nintendo Switch version of Sonic Mania, and I was immediately hooked. Its controls and gameplay feel just like those of a classic Sonic game. That’s a good thing, because Sonic’s simple control scheme, using only the directional pad (or the analog stick, in this case) and a single action button, has always been one of the series’ strengths. Of course Sonic Mania includes the spin-dash technique introduced in Sonic 2, and it features Sonic 3’s elemental shields. It also adds a new “drop dash,” which allows you to perform a spin-dash immediately after landing from a jump. As in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, you can choose to play as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, each of whom has different abilities. Tails can fly briefly, while Knuckles can climb walls and glide through the air. You can also play as Sonic and Tails together; you control Sonic directly while Tails is controlled by the computer, but a second player can join in and take control of Tails instead. This effectively gives Sonic Mania a two-player cooperative mode, which is welcome, although not having tried it extensively, I suspect it will be of limited fun for the second player, since the game is very fast-paced and the camera always follows player 1, meaning player 2 will inevitably be lost off-screen fairly often.

Its graphics are also reminiscent of the style of its predecessors, but upgraded to take advantage of modern hardware. Sonic Mania runs in 16×9 widescreen at 60 frames per second. And of course it includes the requisite CRT-scanline filters (a much more subtle pixel-smoothing filter is enabled by default, but the graphical filters can be disabled altogether). The game features a lot of smooth, detailed animation (not to mention the fully-animated intro, clearly inspired by the one from Sonic CD). It also includes a vibrant color palette which invokes the look of the Genesis games, but which I’m pretty sure could not actually have been pulled off on the 16-bit hardware. There are a handful of instances which use more advanced graphical techniques, such as polygonal models. These are chiefly employed to add subtle perspective effects to stage backgrounds and the like, so they don’t usually stand out as anachronistic next to the pixel graphics. If you haven’t played a Genesis-era Sonic game in years, Sonic Mania looks like you probably remember those older games looking. It’s the perfect combination of old and new.

Sonic & Tails in Sonic Mania

Again borrowing from earlier titles in the series, Sonic Mania includes twelve themed “zones,” which include two “acts” each. Most zones are repurposed from previous Sonic games, while a handful are new to Sonic Mania. However, even the repurposed ones have been rebuilt and “remixed” from the ground up. They usually include recognizable segments integrated into a new layout and with new stage elements. Green Hill Zone returns from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, but can now be traversed via zip line. Chemical Plant Zone is back from Sonic 2, but features pools of chemicals that Sonic can bounce on to reach higher areas. And Sonic CD’s Stardust Speedway Zone now includes giant man-eating (hedgehog-eating?) plants for Sonic to climb. Within a single zone, the two acts are often visibly distinct from one another. For example, the new Press Garden Zone is covered in snow and ice for its second act, while Stardust Speedway Zone uses the “past” and “present” graphical themes from its Sonic CD incarnation for acts 1 and 2, respectively.

The level design itself is outstanding, and is easily on par with the best of the Genesis-era games. The Sonic games have always emphasized speed (of course), but at times that emphasis has clashed with gameplay—while it can be exhilarating, it’s not very exciting to “play” through an area of the game that doesn’t require you to do anything more than hold right on the directional pad. But Sonic Mania deftly avoids this trap, and throws lots of interesting puzzles and obstacles in for players to traverse along the way. Each stage also includes multiple paths, some of which are accessible only by certain characters due to their unique abilities.

Every act ends with a boss fight, which means there are a lot of bosses in Sonic Mania. Fortunately, the bosses are creative, unique, cleverly-designed, and fun to fight. One early boss in particular is a nod to an oddball Sonic spin-off game that made me giggle uncontrollably when I saw it—I’m grateful not to have had it spoiled before encountering it myself. Some of the bosses fairly tricky, but the “you’re safe as long as you have at least one ring” mechanic combined with the ability to retrieve up lost rings after taking damage means you always has a fair shot at winning.

Sonic Mania cover art

Sprinkled throughout the game are two different styles of special stages. Passing a mid-level checkpoint lamp post with at least 25 rings gives you access to the “Blue Sphere” mini-game first seen in Sonic 3, a pseudo-3D affair in which your character runs forward automatically, and you must turn left and right to collect blue spheres and avoid red ones, with the gameplay gradually becoming faster as the stage progresses. This special stage plays exactly like its Sonic 3 incarnation as far as I can remember, but I’ve apparently become terrible at it in the intervening years; though there are many lamp posts in Sonic Mania, and therefore many opportunities to play Blue Sphere, I’ve only managed to succesfully beat it a handful of times. Your reward is a medallion of some kind which has no discernible affect on gameplay. A tally of the medallians you’ve earned appears on the game’s “extras” menu; I presume that some extra features are unlocked after collecting certain amounts.

Slightly less common are giant rings, jumping through which sends you to a special stage reminiscent of the one from Sonic CD. In these 3D stages, the camera follows behind your character who must chase a UFO around a track in a limited amount of time. Initially, you runs too slowly to catch it, but collecting blue spheres increases your speed, while collecting rings gives you more time. Catch up to the UFO, and you’re rewarded with a Chaos Emerald. I have not collected all of the Chaos Emeralds, but in previous Sonic games, doing so would allow you to transform into “Super Sonic,” granting invulnerability and increased speed, and change the ending of the game upon completion. I presume that collecting all of them in Sonic Mania produces similar effects, though I have not yet had the gumption to find out.

The Sonic series has long been known for its great music (and that’s even before Michael Jackson’s involvment in the Sonic 3 soundtrack was known). I’m happy to report that Sonic Mania lives up to the series’ reputation on this front. A lot of classic Sonic songs appear, particularly from the returning stages. But there’s plenty of new music, too, and all of it fits right in, invoking the FM synthesis of the Sega Genesis’ distinctive Yamaha sound chip. Since the first time I heard it, I’ve been unable to get the theme from the first act of Press Garden Zone out of my head, which is pretty much my measure of how effective a game’s soundtrack is. The soundtrack is even available on vinyl.

Knuckles in Sonic Mania

The story plays out mostly through brief in-engine cut scenes between stages, with a more detailed plot summary in the accompanying electronic manual. But it hardly matters. As always, Sonic and his friends are going after Dr. Robotnik/Eggman and his robot minions, and have to save a bunch of cute animals along the way.

Sonic Mania is reasonably long for a side-scrolling platformer, certainly longer than most players will want to tackle in a single sitting, so it includes save system very similar to that of Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, with a whole bunch of save slots. It also includes some additional modes, such as a time trial mode and a two-player head-to-head mode, plus a variety of extra features and secrets, most of which I still have yet to unlock (there’s both an “extras” menu and a “secrets” one, both of which are mostly filled with question marks so far).

I absolutely love this game, and I was ecstatic the entire time playing through it. It perfectly captures everything that was great about the 16-bit Sonic games, builds upon them with great new content, and serves it all up in a gorgeous package that will make you feel like a kid again. I even got goosebumps at certain moments that were especially nostalgic. This is what 2010’s Sonic 4 tried to do, with some success, but Sonic Mania blows it out of the water. I don’t have a single complaint about this amazing game, except the lack of a physical release. There is a “collector’s edition” that includes a Sonic statue and a replica Sega Genesis cartridge with a gold ring inside, but even that release includes only a download code for the game rather than an actual physical copy.

Sonic Mania is available now for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, with a PC version coming next week. At $20, it’s a steal and I cannot recommend it more highly.

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