Sonic Mania was born with the intention of being a celebration, a simple gift to the hedgehog and his fans on the 25th birthday of the release of the saga’s first game, but it ends up being much more than that
Fans always know what they want. Sadly, from a creative standpoint, their wishes tend to fall inside a very limited spectrum; after all, as much as they hate to admit it, the object of their desire is never a new idea or an outrageous concept, but a retread onto ground that has already been plowed. Fans crave for the good old days to make a glorious comeback, for a product that recreates the magic of the gemstone that captured their hearts; that is why, regardless of the medium, the greatest moments in the history of entertainment came not when fans got what they wanted, but when they were surprised by an artistic turn towards a landscape whose existence they had never even conceived. That is why creators thrive in subversion; awards and accolades are not given to those who walk with a checklist of expectations that need to be fulfilled, but to the ones who overthrow hopes and amaze despite not giving the audience what it was anticipating.
In general, that rule works. In the case of Sonic and Sega, though, it most certainly does not. When the creator spends twenty full years fumbling attempts to satisfy its fans, and tries to find hundreds of ways to subvert expectations only to fail in almost every single one of them, there comes a point when playing it safe and giving fans precisely what they want may be a valid option. Sure, the final result may end up not being revelatory or earth-shattering, but not every excellent product of creative thinking needs to reach those marks. Moreover, sometimes recovering pride and honor can work as some sort of midway step on the path that leads from hell to heaven, and getting out of the fiery furnaces might be more vital than reaching the summit of Olympus. More importantly, after a certain point where everything is rather dire, an excellent but safe delivery may on its own succeed in being might blowing, because it will subvert expectations by simply being great.
All of that needs to be said because Sonic Mania is frighteningly good. Following two decades of unsuccessful attempts to recreate the magic of the original Sonic the Hedgehog trilogy, Sega decided to do the unthinkable: hand the series over to a group of fans. Truthfully, those fans in particular happened to be talented developers who had proven their worth by working on remakes of Sonic classics; nevertheless, in a way it felt Sega had finally broken the barrier that separates creators and consumers, allowing enthusiasts to take the reins of a project of their greatest star. Unsurprisingly, those Sonic addicts, alongside Sega, proceeded to build a game that is so perfectly close to what fans wanted that it looks, plays, sounds, and feels like a Sonic game of the first half of the 90s.
The old-school production values are, by all means, planned and deliberate, for Sonic Mania was intended as a celebration of the character’s 25th birthday and of the trilogy that launched him into the world. What is neither devised nor predicted, however, after all such a thing cannot possibly be sketched, is how absolutely fantastic the game is. As the universe had, by now, grown used to expecting Sonic games to be lackluster, Sonic Mania subverts those hopes. Its mesmerizing value, though, does not exist just because it is a good game that shocks due to catching everyone off guard; it is flooring because it constructs a very solid argument that supports it deserves to be put on the same level as the Mega Drive games by which it is clearly inspired.
Sonic Mania begins when Dr. Eggman as well as Sonic and Tails track a major energy source coming from a dimensional breach. Eggman’s robotic henchmen make it to the place of the event first and unearth a gemstone called Phantom Ruby, which immediately gives them freewill. Having lost control of his subordinates, Eggman appears and steals the stone from them to harness its power. All of a sudden, then, Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles – who was just hanging nearby – see themselves against not only the traditional villain of the franchise but a bunch of rogue robots. And their journey starts in Green Hill Zone; not coincidentally, the first zone from the original Sonic the Hedgehog.
As a celebration of the franchise, and also perhaps secretly as an attempt to revalidate it and appeal to the audience’s nostalgic bones, Sonic Mania borrows quite a bit from classic games of the saga; namely, from the original trilogy as well as from Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic CD. Out of the twelve zones that make up the adventure, eight are extracted from those five titles, with the remaining four being completely original to Sonic Mania. A superficial glance might, therefore, cause some to accuse the game of being more of a rehash than an original work; such claims, however, would be inaccurate, for Sonic Mania does quite a bit to use the pieces it gets from its sources to put together a quest that feels fresh even to those who have been through the original material quite a few times.
The first act of Green Hill Zone, for instance, is exactly the same as the one from Sonic the Hedgehog; its second act, though, is completely new, incorporating elements that would only appear in future Sonic games and using a few different quirks. Chemical Plant Zone, meanwhile, employs a somewhat similar strategy; the difference is that where the first act combines the two levels of that zone that appeared in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the second one builds it all from scratch, deploying a distinct background, and amusing traps such as pools of bouncing water and walls covered in a substance that lets characters stick to them. This pattern that matches the recreation of what has been done with invention – the latter of which is achieved either via entirely new gimmicks or the combination of old fan favorites in different ways – is always present in the two acts that make up all eight re-used zones, and it makes the ride through them be quite a joy.
What is bound to impress the most, though, is how amazing the four new zones are. Studiopolis Zone has so many outrageous devices (such as satellites that transmit Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles to different places) that it is hard to choose a defining trait for the level; while Press Garden Zone presents two acts that are so different from one another (visually and gameplay wise) it is incredible to see how so much was packed into a single zone.
Truthfully, those compliments serve for any of the levels of Sonic Mania. There is a ridiculous abundance of clever ideas, surprising moments, and genuine awe to be found in the race to the end, and although the frustration of bumping into enemies that seem to have been devilish placed just to cause Sonic to lose rings still looms, the mixture of speed segments with tight platforming challenges is perfect. Sonic Mania manages to be thrilling like a roller coaster ride in one second and as tense as a bomb-defusing in another, and by doing so it recaptures the aura that made the franchise the 90s juggernaut that remains alive in the minds of all of those who went through the classic games.
While not fully original in its levels, Sonic Mania brings in a brand new set of bosses. And given there is a total of twenty-five of them (with the two acts of all zones culminating in an epic duel plus a secret final boss that is only unlocked when a certain requirement is met), it is quite amazing the team behind the game was able to make them so consistently fun and creative. Even the big bad guys that are clearly inspired by classic bosses are significantly different from the source, and the fact the battles alternate between skirmishes against Dr. Eggman’s machines and the wacky robotic henchmen that are under the control of the Phantom Ruby makes them quite varied.
As it is already traditional for the series, Sonic Mania is not just about getting to the end of the journey: it holds plenty of awesome secrets. Firstly, there are the Chaos Emeralds, which transform the heroes into their mightily powerful super versions and unlock a secret ending; they are acquired by finding hidden giant rings in the acts and then engaging in a fun and exciting mini-game (adapted from Sonic CD) where characters chase a UFO on a Super Mario Kart-like racing track, collecting blue orbs to increase their speed and golden rings to feed the ever-decreasing timer. Meanwhile, bonus stages, taken from Sonic the Hedgehog 3, are accessed by reaching checkpoints with twenty-five rings or more; these have the heroes running around a spherical planet while collecting blue orbs and avoiding red ones, which cause players to immediately fail if touched. As usual, these mini-games are not enticing just because they lead to full completion of the game, but because playing them is genuinely fun, challenging, and addictive.
The high replay value of Sonic Mania is not solely attached to the seven chaos emeralds and the thirty-two bonus stages, though. The wish to replay the game also stems from the intricate level design, which makes each act have a handful of paths. In terms of how it balances straightforward get-to-the-end platforming goodness with complex and branched stage setup, the Sonic franchise stands on its own in the realm of sidescrolling platformers, and Sonic Mania – both in its new and remixed stages – validates the hedgehog and his peers deserve that throne. It is literally mind-boggling how Sega and the other teams were able to pack so much into such a restricted space and keep it all approachable.
Therefore, even though a relatively experienced gamer can get to the end of Sonic Mania within four hours, playing through it once is barely scratching the surface of its content. Moreover, plentiful extra modes extend playing hours to a considerable degree. There are time trials with online leaderboards, one-on-one matches in which the victor is the one who reaches the end of the stage first, and the possibility to play through the adventure cooperatively. For hardcore gamers, a mode in which no saving is done is also included, which means that instead of being sent back to the beginning of the first act of the zone they are in upon losing all lives, players are instead forced to start it all from Green Hill Zone if they run out of continues.
Sonic Mania was born with the intention of being a celebration, a simple gift to the hedgehog and his fans on the 25th birthday of the release of the saga’s first game, but it ends up being much more than that. From its visuals, which pay homage to the 16-bit days by bringing slightly improved character models and glorious multi-layered backgrounds, and its music, which mixes old themes with new tracks that are by all means just as good as the classics, to its gameplay, it deserves to stand side-by-side – with no caveats whatsoever – with the games that made the franchise so popular. By handing talented Sonic aficionados control over the game, Sega gives the character’s fanbase exactly what they had been craving for since the late 90s: an utter classic, a title that makes – after quite a while – Sonic have one of the best games of the current generation.