Creating a new Sonic game means dealing with both nostalgia for the original Genesis games and the disappointment of the more recent modern interpretations. These challenges have plagued the Blue Blur’s legacy for well over a decade. But Christian Whitehead and Headcannon, a team that has made Sonic fan games in the past, took the stagnated series back to its roots and created a title that is finally running in the right direction.
Gotta Go Fast
Sonic Mania plays exactly like the 2D platformers of old. Running, jumping, collecting rings, attacking robot enemies, and speeding through obstacles to get to the flag post at the end. But while the game does have Sonic go at crazy speeds, running up walls, the ceiling, and even the water, it remembers to give the player tight controls. Sonic can turn on a dime and jump at the last second. Instead of worrying about hitting a spike trap that popped up out of nowhere.
Also at your disposal is the new Drop Dash. While in mid air, pressing and holding the jump button will allow Sonic to build up a burst of speed, which will shoot him across the ground the minute he lands. It’s a small but impressive way to keep the pace up, especially after a particularly tricky platforming section.
But Sonic isn’t alone. You can also play as Tails and Knuckles, both of which have their own special levels, and the ultimate Sonic experience: playing as Sonic with Tails along for the ride. Tails is essentially easy mode with the ability to fly and swim, but does bring variety with its own twist on boss battles. Knuckles has the ability to glide and wall climb, making his levels feel more like large environmental puzzles. Rather than a background to finish as soon as possible.
New Spin On The Old
The level design is easily the best in the series. The classic remixed levels from past games are all instantly recognizable, but as they progress they morph into a new identity completely. For example, Chemical Plant Zone starts off as a collection of ramps and tubes to speed through, but by the time the second half rolls around you’ll encounter gelatinous platforms and injectors used to change their properties. Better still, these additions blend seamlessly into the levels, instantly recognizable and simple to grasp.
The mix and match style of classic zones may be entertaining, but it’s the new Zones where the magic really takes off. The brand new Studiopolis Zone follows a Hollywood motif. Movie memorabilia is littered throughout, and the lights and sounds of a studio backlot fill the air, all with quirky details like being broadcasted as a signal from a TV van to popping as a kernel in a replica vintage Sonic popcorn maker.
Boss Battles, like the zones, are some of the best in the 2D series. Things start off familiar and end with the creative. Dr. Robotnik is accompanied by his Robot Generals this time around. While each time you square off with Robotnik features a twist on an original battle, the new Generals are all completely original fights ranging from a high-speed helicopter chase with rockets raining down or an impromptu magic show. These twists most times involve minor tweaks to his robots to unexpected surprises like Sonic taking the role of the boss himself.
Sonic Mania may play well, but it also inherits the same problems of past games. Many times you will be running at full speed only to plow head first into a set of spikes without any indication that they were there. Enemy placement operates in a similar fashion. Strategically placed in ways that make them feel like cheap shots instead of avoidable obstacles. For a game that pushes the series forward, it’s odd that it would include such tropes.
But unlike its 2D predecessors that tried to push the series forward, it takes subtle steps forward without trying to reinvent the wheel. Other Sonic titles would introduce or add a new gameplay trick and force the player to spam it until the game was devoid of personality, making it feel like a demo instead of a full experience. Sonic Mania adds just enough new to the platforming formula, but that new is handled with just enough care to stand out and be interesting without overwhelming the whole experience.
It also helps that stylistically, the game looks like the direct sequel to Sonic and Knuckles that never happened. The sprite animation, in particular, is so smooth and full of small touches that make each character feel utterly lovable. And the Zones backgrounds feature an insane amount of detail that brings the environments to life. When moving at high speeds the frame rate stays consistent, making sure you’re always aware of the action and the rainbow of colors on constant display. The only thing better is the Sonic CD inspired animations used in the game’s opening which is full of sincere whimsy and joy it’s not hard to smile.
One area where the game completely fires on all cylinders is the music. Composed by Portuguese artist Tee Lopes the arrangements are instant classics, making series favorites like Chemical Plant Zone even better. While creating new melodies that not only embody the spirit of Sonic the Hedgehog but tunes capable of being stand-alone hits.
It’s shame that Sonic Mania is as quick as the hedgehog himself. The ride’s over before you know it, with getting to the end being possible in an afternoon or so. It may be a blessing in disguise given Sonic’s history, but it would have been nice if it were a little longer. Luckily there is the allure of finding new paths in old levels, tackling secret levels and getting Chaos Emeralds.
I’m glad I lived long enough to see another great Sonic game; one that doesn’t need the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. It has learned from the past and forged its own identity. It’s not perfect, but it is a new standard that series needed. Believe the Mania because the Blue Blur is back.