Sonic games have always been a roller coaster when it came to quality with often the best ones being the games that closely related back to past Sonic games. Sonic Mania, pulling inspiration from specifically the 2D versions of Sonic planned to not only offer a compelling return to form but also showcase how excellent a new Sonic game can be. Thankfully SEGA and significant developers of the Sonic community have brought this dream to life in what quite possibly is the best Sonic game yet.
What can’t be understated is how practically every section of this game pays homage to the 90s version of Sonic while still managing to offer new and compelling content for both old and new fans alike. The intro and menu all instantly bring you back to an earlier time and really make you feel as if this game was created after Sonic and Knuckles. Like Sonic 3 you have the option of playing either as Sonic and Tails, just either one of them, or simply Knuckles.
Borrowing also off Sonic 3 are scenes between zones which tell the story throughout the game of the latest villainous plot of Dr Eggman and his new Hard-Boiled Heavy robots. Sonic isn’t exactly known for its story but what is given here is enough to explain why Sonic is returning to many of his classic stages. It was also great to see how each zone was connected even when they were drastically different, although near the end of the game these connecting scenes did start to diminish a bit.
The narrative is just there to set stage for gameplay and Sonic Mania does not disappoint in that regard. The fast-paced, multi-leveled ring collecting returns with all the mechanics found in classic Sonic stages but with some new improvements. The elemental shields now have additional effects such as the fire shield setting the environment ablaze. These effects are spectacular and add something new to an otherwise familiar item.
In terms of character abilities, Sonic is the only one that really gets anything new. The drop dash ability is introduced the allows Sonic when jumping to enter the spin dash state before landing on the ground. I found this ability to be the perfect balance of not being essential to gameplay while still being useful enough on occasion. With the mention that it will be included in the upcoming Sonic Forces game, I would expect it will most likely become a staple of Sonic games going forward.
Equally as important to Sonic gameplay is the levels themselves, and Sonic Mania has quite possibly the best collection of Sonic levels yet. Most of the levels are returning classics from Sonic 1 through CD but that doesn’t mean you are just playing a remake of their old stages. Smartly, the developers have used the first act as a nostalgia kick with many familiar layouts and obstacles.
Upon commencement of act 2 though you are presented a level with brand new mechanics offering up a fresh and unique take on the stage while still fitting the theme of that zone. This change offers up some of the biggest surprises, and kept the game feeling exciting between every act and zone. One of my personal highlights was the Chemical Plant Zone Act 2 which featured many new mechanics such as creating bounce pads and sticking to moving walls.
Impressive as the act 2 of returning zones are the brand-new zones featured in Sonic Mania may be the best new thing. Studiopolis, the first new zone you encounter, is one made to represent a studio set with obstacles such as film reels, popcorn machines and microphone enemies present throughout the stage. Nothing about it seems out of place, and it truly feels like a zone that fits into Sonic’s previously established universe.
Every new stage added I felt the same level of satisfaction for, and discovering these new zones were some of my biggest enjoyments in this game. They were so great that I wish there was more of them but unfortunately most zones are returning ones. Not that I’m complaining about the old stages, but the creative ideas present in the new zones were so compelling that I wish there could have at least been an even split between them.
Another way in which Sonic Mania keeps the game enjoyable is by throwing a huge variety of bosses at the end of every act. Almost every one of them is unique in some way with returning bosses often having a new phase or spin on them. Like the zones each one offered something different, and there are some great fan service moments featured in these battles.
One boss I struggled on later in the game presented a potential problem especially for new Sonic players. Upon Game-Over, you must win both act 1 and 2 again with only three initial lives. This can be quite frustrating especially as some of the later zones can become quite long and challenging. This game is supposed to be reminiscent of the classic Sonic games but I think starting back at least on the current act would have gone a long way in helping players become less annoyed upon losing.
Other than gameplay the music has always been another standout in Sonic games even if the gameplay was lacking, and Sonic Mania once again is an ace in this category. Each returning zone has its classic tune along with a new variant for its second act, offering a great new take on an old track. The new zones also include some excellent music which easily sits alongside the best Sonic has had to offer.
Bonus stages also return as a Sonic game wouldn’t be complete without them. The bonus stages for collecting all 7 chaos emeralds to unlock the all-powerful super version of a character is similar to the one found in Sonic CD. The race of collecting enough coins to not run out of time while gaining enough speed via blue orbs to catch the emerald is very enjoyable, and a great change of pace from the main game.
Additionally, if you have 25 rings when hitting a checkpoint it is possible to jump into it to experience the bonus stage from Sonic 3. This mode features you trying to collect all blue orbs and rings while dodging red orbs, some of which can be quite challenging. Upon completing these rounds you are given medals that when you reach a certain number unlock some rather unique modes and abilities from the other Sonic games.
I did enjoy this inclusion, especially some of the content these medals unlock but I would have preferred diversifying the mode with perhaps the bonus stages from Sonic 1 and 2 as well. Not only are there bonus modes but also additional content and areas for each character due to abilities they can perform. There are even some unique bosses and levels found in the different character’s campaigns, so it is just as enjoyable doing the game again as them to experience everything.
In addition to the main story there are also a couple other modes to draw your attention. It is possible to play the entire game in a non-save mode that allows the use of certain abilities and modes unlocked via collecting the bonus stage medals. These modes are truly something that make the struggle of the bonus stages worth it but it is a bit disappointing none can be used in a saved file.
As expected with a game all about going fast another mode is Time Attack which is essentially a very typical beat a level as fast as you can to top the leader boards. Additionally, the old split screen Competitive mode returns allowing you to race one friend locally to a collection of stages from the main game. No boss rush mode is featured, but all these extra modes make Sonic Mania an even more substantial game then it already is.
Sonic Mania is a game the remarkably delivers on its premise in practically every way. From start to finish, this game doesn’t let up on its surprises and plays like a fan’s dream of what a new Sonic game can feel like. Let’s hope that whatever the blue blur does next can be just as exhilarating as this ride.
Written By Russell Collom
Reviewed on PS4 Pro
Available on PS4, PC, Switch and Xbox One