There are few franchises that I once loved that I approach with such skepticism as I do with Sonic the Hedgehog. After a fantastic run on the Sega Genesis, Sonic the Hedgehog has been a really bumpy franchise, with only momentary highlights to keep the franchise with a pulse. Well, the occasional highlight and in inexplicably loyal fanbase that seems to be immune to getting burned by false hope.
So when Sonic Mania was first unveiled, I was cautiously intrigued. At first glance, the game appeared to be returning to the roots that were established on the Sega Genesis while shedding problematic baggage that the series has taken on over the years. I just hoped that Sega could show some restraint and keep the game simple and pure, like the Sonic games of old. Thankfully, that’s exactly what happened with Sonic Mania.
From the get go, Sonic Mania feels exactly as a good Sonic game should. The action is fast, there are tons of branching paths in huge level environments, little secrets are hidden everywhere, and you’re only mildly sure of how much in control of things you are at times. Oh, and the boss fights! The boss fights are absolutely fantastic. You can play as Sonic, Tails, Sonic and Tails, or Knuckles, and everything feels quite familiar, yet still full of new ideas and twists.
Levels offer tons of different ways to approach them. With Sonic, you generally approach things with speed, accurate jumping, and the occasional hard brake. Going through levels with Tails or Knuckles will give a more measured experienced where you can seek out more unique paths, find areas that Sonic can’t get to, and allow you to do a bit more exploration. Of course, if you want, you can speed through any of the levels with any character. The game let’s you approach things how you feel like doing so.
The music, the visuals, and the sound effects are all appropriately retro, but they’ve been given a subtle face lift that add to the game’s overall charm and presentation. The sprites animate beautifully and smoothly, levels have lots of layers to them, and the music is a great mix of classic tracks, remixes, and all new tunes. It’s a true classic Sonic the Hedgehog fan’s dream.
Going full retro here does bring back some of Sonic’s inherent flaws. At times platforming can get a little frustrating as it lacks the precision that you might get from something like a Mario game, but it is at least faithful to what you remember in the ’90s. The bonus stages are back, and they’re still going to be polarizing. I’m not a big fan of them, and I find them tedious and feel that they take way longer to complete than they should.
With the addition of save files, you can be a bit more risky with your play. Feel free to backtrack to uncover secrets, with running out of lives being far less of a penalty than it was back on the Genesis. The game begs to be played multiple times, and after completing it the first time, I immediately started over and approached things differently. I can honestly say that I have never replayed an entire Sonic the Hedgehog game so soon after its release since before I was old enough to drive a car.
Sonic Mania sports the finest level design I’ve ever found in a Sonic the Hedgehog game. And for me, levels are the biggest make or break aspect of a Sonic game. For so many years the franchise just couldn’t find its groove, and level design was the biggest reason why so many games failed (coupled with dodgy quality control/polish).
Five years ago I wrote about the rise and fall of Sonic the Hedgehog and wondered if there was a place for Sega’s faltering franchise now that the EXTREME ’90s!!!!!!!!! were behind us. As I look back on those words, I’m happy to say that Sonic Mania has shown me that there is room and opportunity for a Sonic the Hedgehog revival.