2017 is a time for honesty, so let me get this off my chest right from the start: I like Sonic, and I always have. When I was young, I would spend the weekends with my aunt while my mother worked. She had a Genesis and I did not, so every weekend I’d ask the same question: Do you wanna play Sonic? Thankfully, she was a Saint and would indulge me constantly.
I’ve watched the decline of Sonic over the years, tinged with a degree of sadness as the dreary drip of dreck has sludged outward from within Sega, like molasses from an upturned tin. Countless re-inventions and re-imaginings have diluted what made the original three titles so special and pure. It’s now been seventeen years since Sonic 3 and over a dozen games later, nothing has come close to the original trilogy.
Thankfully, Sega has listened to its fans with Sonic Mania. At the core, Sonic Mania is a loving homage to the past: Twelve zones with two acts apiece, each with a mini-boss and fight against Dr Robotnik. Mechanically, it’s a damn Sonic game – you run to the right at a blistering pace, deftly avoiding enemies and a surprising amount spikes and springs.
What makes Sonic Mania so special is the inventiveness of the level design. Over half of the zones are re-imaginings of classic Sonic levels from the past. The first Act of each zone tends to feature a sort of “greatest hits” mash-up of the past, combining familiar architectural elements to create a truncated rush through Sonic history. The second Act tends to be more inventive: the music evolves further and remixes the classic track, whilst new mechanics and level design tricks are implemented. Where the first Act represents an homage to the past, the second is an opportunity to take a modern approach to making a classic level. It’s an extremely clever approach to level design. It’s been well over a decade since I played Sonic 2 with any regularity, yet somehow the way a pair of floating platforms in Chemical Plant Zone moves, or a series of speed boosts is placed was intoxicatingly nostalgic. I’ve never felt a heart-warming moment over a series of ramps before, but this has consistently tickled me right in the soul.
All the levels are presented in glorious widescreen and with a crispness of graphics that wouldn’t be possible on old hardware. The level design and theming of the entirely new Zones is fantastic, and more than holds up its end of the bargain. The first new zone, Studiopolis Zone, is a television-inspired world with cameras and clapperboard jump pads. It’s inventive, colourful and fires off to an amazing soundtrack that’s a joy to listen to. By maintaining a consistency with the classic Zones, Sonic Mania manages to create a cohesive experience out of a game that could have risked being decidedly segmented.
If there are flaws to be found with Sonic Mania, they’re inherent to the design of classic Sonic. The game simultaneously requires you to move as fast as possible, but also to be on the look-out for secrets and enemies. The punishment for mistake is to lose everything you’re holding, which from a modern perspective seems excessive. There is also an overabundance of bonus stages for the player to complete. In previous Sonic games, running past a checkpoint with 50 rings gave you an opportunity to try and get one of seven Chaos Emeralds. In Sonic Mania, there are over 32 possible rewards, and the cost to enter the bonus stages has been reduced to only 25 rings. This means that nearly every time you run past a checkpoint, you will trigger a laborious and difficult bonus stage, which completely stalls the momentum of a level. The bonus levels never change in structure, and whilst you could simply choose not to take part in the bonus, it seems counter-intuitive to the design of the game to actively avoid a reward for good play. If the bonuses required more rings to unlock, or if there were significantly less of them, or if the gameplay changed up at all, they would be enjoyable. As it stands, they’re just a chore.
The game comes packed with extra modes and bonus goodies that will keep some happy, but when it all comes down to it, they’re just a garnish on a fine meal. To this lapsed Sonic fans eyes, this is exactly what I have been clamouring after for at least a decade. This is easily the best Sonic game of the past ten years, and stands proudly with the all-time greats of the series. It plays fantastically, looks wonderful, has an amazing soundtrack and plenty of unlockable bonuses to keep players coming back for more.
Peculiarly, however, it’s still not a game that I could recommend unreservedly. It is unrelentingly, fastidiously reverent to its classic forefathers, and this will be a turn-off for certain players. It’s difficult, and old-fashioned, with a stern punishment for failure or misstep. It’s hard not to feel as though the design has become outdated since 1994, and it’s difficult to think how Sega proceeds, and is a sequel even possible? Personally, I recognize and forgive the faults inherent to the design, but whether you will is tough. It sounds flippant, but if you a desire in your heart to play some Sonic, this is a very good Sonic game and well worth your time.
Is Sonic Mania for you? Honestly, it’s a question only you can answer. Ultimately, the question is as simple as the one I’d ask my Aunt every Saturday: Do you wanna play Sonic?
Sonic Mania was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch using a copy purchased by the reviewer.