To say that Sonic the Hedgehog has been going through some turbulence in recent years is a humongous understatement. After 2014’s appalling Sonic Boom: Rise Of Lyric, SEGA’s once proud mascot seemed to be utterly defeated, and even the hedgehog’s most dedicated followers were at a loss as to how he could ever recapture even a slither of his former glory.
It is for this reason that Sonic Mania has caught everybody drastically off guard. By now, people the world over have become conditioned to expect poor to mediocre quality Sonic games. However, Sonic Mania isn’t poor quality. Sonic Mania isn’t mediocre quality. Sonic Mania, in short, is a phenomenal achievement, and pure platforming bliss. Lovingly hand crafted and developed by a small team of magnificent talents, from lead programmer Christian Whitehead, to composer Tee Lopes; what is staggeringly impressive is that said team has accomplished what Sonic Team (who boast a far larger budget and quantity of staff) has failed to accomplish time and time again in recent years: make a top notch adventure for the blue blur.
Sonic Mania pulls its players through a wealth of varied environments, drawing from both reimagined classic and fresh new stages. From the immediately recognizable toxic machinery of Chemical Plant Zone to the brand new wild west themed Mirage Saloon Zone, no two stages feel alike, and as a result, Sonic Mania continues to feel vibrantly unique throughout its entire adventure. Studiopolis Zone stands out as a particular highlight in level design, due to its radically differing first and second acts, as well as its perfectly nuanced balance between challenge and comfort. Like two-dimensional Sonic games before it, Sonic Mania is at its strongest when it prioritizes speed and exploration over death traps and hazards. Much of Sonic Mania understands this, and as a result, it rarely implements a level of difficulty that impedes the flow of running fast and discovering secrets.
Much like the excellent stages, Sonic Mania’s boss battles are consistently fantastic. Boasting a range of confrontations with both Dr. Eggman and his Hard-Boiled Heavies, each encounter feels unique and intelligently designed, without a tedious gimmick or sloppy attack pattern in sight. Many of the boss battles, much like the stages, also feature nods to both Sonic’s and SEGA’s rich and varied history. From the Heavy Shinobi opponent that flaunts abilities and sound effects that mimic Joe Musashi from SEGA’s classic Shinobi series of games, to the Chemical Plant Zone boss battle’s unexpected surprise that will be immediately recognisable to any true Sonic fanatic, Sonic Mania shows time and time again that it exists primarily to satisfy long time followers of the titular hero.
Sonic Mania’s special stages are also deserving of praise. Taking inspiration from Sonic R, they task players with chasing a Chaos Emerald throughout a three-dimensional course. Said courses are laden with rings to increase your time limit, blue spheres to increase your speed, and hazards to prevent your victory. Whilst becoming accustomed to the nature of these special stages can take some time, they never feel unfair. Should you collide into a cluster of spiked balls and lose your rings, or fall out of the course boundaries, it will always be your own fault for failing to steer your character appropriately or neglecting the utilization of the jump button to tackle a tight corner. Sonic Mania’s special stages handle well due to their simplicity, and as a result, they exist as an enjoyable challenge to overcome. The Blue Sphere mini-game, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. Whilst it successfully serves up a sizeable helping of Sonic The Hedgehog 3’s and Sonic & Knuckles’ addictively tricky special stages, small tweaks to the physics and handling will catch many veteran players of the original off guard. Additionally, many blue sphere stages feature what could be considered a mean spirited layout, with an overuse of hazards and maze-esque design. This results in your success sometimes being a product of learning each and every correct manoeuvre through meticulous trial and error, which unsurprisingly becomes irritating over time. On a more positive note, however, those clamoring for more blue sphere action will most certainly find a plethora of it within Sonic Mania, which is most definitely a good thing given just how addictive an activity it really is, all problems aside.
It should, of course, go without mention, but Sonic Mania’s soundtrack (courtesy of Tee Lopes) is sublime. Featuring an array of compositions that flaunt catchy melodies and wild stylistic variation, both the reimaginings of classic music and the newly created original works stand tall. Sonic Mania’s spattering of secret unlockables is also another great addition to the package. Featuring a range of fun features, discovering and indulging in them feels exciting and enjoyable.
All in all, Sonic Mania is so damn good that it becomes very difficult to criticize. It is a beautiful marriage of both old and new ideas and succeeds in both tickling the nostalgia of long time followers, as well as being a marvelous franchise introduction for first-time players. Admittedly, it won’t convert those who don’t already adore Sonic’s classic outings, but why should it have to? With issues that never amount to anything more than the most microscopic of nitpicks, what we are witnessing is a true return to form for one of gaming’s most iconic mascots. If anybody deserves an extra life, the opportunity to rise from the dirt for another try at gaming greatness, then there is no hero more suitable than Sonic the Hedgehog.