Sega released a new Sonic game, and for the first time in 23 years, it blast-processed its way into the hearts of reviewers. Let’s talk about Sonic Mania.
Let’s go back to Spring 1992. The Super Nintendo was rocking my world with Super Mario World, Mario had long established himself as the defacto video game mascot, and Nintendo was virtually unrivaled thanks to the success of the NES after the great video game crash. The early 90’s brought on a new era in gaming, where two viable 16-bit consoles were competing for that space on top of VCRs. The console wars tore at the ligaments of friendship. The parents of SNES households would warn their children to steer clear of the children who’s family only had a Genesis. Games that were on both consoles, like Mortal Kombat and Turtles in Time, always had a better version (let’s face it, it was usually on the SNES), but Sega’s marketing really took a big 16-bit dump on the Super Nintendo and its portly Italian mascot.
Sonic the Hedgehog was the drinkable version of the 90’s (if you don’t count Surge). He was edgy, impatient, and didn’t need a backwards hat to show how much attitude he had. Sonic was quite literally designed to be the front man of Sega and compete against Mario the straight man. Sega cranked out a series of four Sonic games in just four years, each more polished and impressive than the last. Sonic, if you had no clue whatsoever, is meant to go fast. Coined as the blue blur, or the fastest thing alive in the theme song of his Saturday morning cartoon, Sonic’s flagship games were momentum-based platformers with clever level design, solid mechanics, and simple yet effective progression.
After the Genesis era, however, Sonic games had trouble sticking the landing. After a notoriously sloppy jump into 3D, the Sonic franchise lost touch of the simple, momentum-based mechanics and replaced them with complex but stupid story arcs and edgy new friends. I’ve played every major Sonic the Hedgehog title, I’ve even enjoyed many of them (even those that were lambasted by reviewers). Sonic Unleashed (at least the speed stages) and Sonic Generations are a lot of fun, but they are nothing at all like the originals as a whole. I even sort of enjoyed that Shadow the Hedgehog game where you run around shooting demon aliens with SMGs, even though it made me feel very old and out of touch.
This might be me waxing nostalgia, but a few years ago, when it became a fairly common Internet argument to claim that the old Sonic games weren’t all that good, I fully disagree. The first one is clearly the weakest, but each got better and smarter. The series has one of the best video game soundtracks and those original games lead the pack. Michael Jackson and his producer worked on Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, but there’s an interesting story why he’s not in the credits. Go ahead and give that a watch. Sonic 3 and Knuckles (to explain this to newcomers, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were going to be one big game, but were instead split into two cartridges that connected to each other), had such a great ending, level progression, and boss fights. These were staple platformers that belong on the shelf with the Super Mario series and Megaman X.
So I haven’t mentioned Sonic Mania yet. Sonic Mania was developed by fans. It wasn’t built for shareholders or managed by executives who thought it might sell a little better if we turn Sonic into a werewolf. This was made with passion by people who loved the series. Maybe that makes it born from nostalgia, but it freaking works.
I have Sonic Mania on the Nintendo Switch. The game feels exactly like Sonic the Hedgehog 3. If the game came out in 1995, it would have looked beautiful. Despite the retro look, the animations look to have about double the frames, and little effects like background animation and foreground overlays remind you that the style was intentional as opposed to lazy. If I were to have on gripe about the look of Sonic Mania, it would have been to add more stuff going on in the foreground and background. If the goal was to produce a game that looked like it would have fit on the Sega CD in the mid-90’s, they nailed it, but I would have liked them to be a little more ambitious.
The music is fantastic. Cleaned up classics and remixes were nailed perfectly, and the new tracks are pretty good too. The sound design pulled from Sonic’s classic history, grabbing familiar sounds from the Genesis games, but I heard some throwbacks that were clearly pulled from the less popular Game Gear games as well. While the Game Gear games weren’t as renown as the Genesis ones, there are several nods to them as well, which definitely brings me back.
The level design is fantastic. While many stages are throwback stages (Green Hill Zone, Chemical Plant Zone, Hydrocity Zone, etc.) they are fully redone. There are plenty of similarities but 90% of each level is brand new, utilizing both the classic assets and adding new ones. Typically Act 1 feels more like the original stage, and Act 2 adds completely new assets and mechanics fresh to Sonic Mania. The new stages are unique and creative on their own, and fit perfectly in the series. The level design feels like a hybrid of Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic CD. In my opinion, Sonic CD was a little messy, and some stages start to feel a little hacked together, where Sonic & Knuckles was very linear, while giving the player plenty of options when progressing through the stage. Sonic Mania seems to target the middle ground. The stages are complex and busy, but very rarely do you question if you are progressing forward. The special stages are one of my favorite in the series. Utilizing low-poly models running over what looks like a Mode 7 playground, these really show how much love was put into making Sonic Mania feel like the game that comes after Sonic & Knuckles.
I have two major gripes with Sonic Mania: First, I wish every stage had a transition. Sonic 3 and Knuckles nailed this – it made you feel like the stages were connected, and it contributed to the simple story-telling of the games. Sonic Mania has some transitions, but sometimes a level simply ends and the next one begins. You’ll be in an underwater cathedral, and then high over the desert. I would have liked to see what got Sonic from point A to point B, even if it was silly.
My second gripe would be the ending. It falls flat. Sonic 3 & Knuckles went out like a bang, for both the Sonic campaign and the Knuckles campaign. So far, after beating it with Sonic with all of the Chaos Emeralds, I’m left feeling like I do most of the time when I beat a newer Sonic game. The last battle felt phoned in and overly tricky. And while this isn’t new to Sonic games, nothing I learned in the game prepared me for the final boss. It’s really disappointing, but I also know I’ll have a game I can keep coming back to just to enjoy the levels for years to come.
My final verdict: Sonic Mania has been a long time coming. Sega has tried to bring back the nostalgia so many times but it took a bunch of passionate fans to really do it right. Sonic Mania is a game for those who grew up with the Genesis. It’s short, polished, and a whole lot of fun. You can tell a lot of love went into it.