Everyone loves to pile on when it comes to bashing rotten Sonic games. The Blue Blur has had a tendency of delivering hit-or-miss software ever since the collapse of his publisher Sega as a hardware manufacturer. The leap to being a multi-platform hero hasn't always been kind to Sonic; titles like Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations have moved the series forward, while games such as Sonic Unleashed and Sonic and the Secret Rings have taken it right back to square one.
Thankfully, Sonic's 2D outings tend to be a bit more reliable. The Sonic Advance trilogy was exceptional, as were the Sonic Rush titles on Nintendo DS. In more recent times, however, fans have only gotten traditional Sonic action in the form of 2012's Sonic the Hedgehog 4. Sadly, that game greatly under delivered on the promise of a return to the character's glory days on Sega Genesis. Flash forward to now and the release of Sonic Mania, and Sega has finally found the spark that mode those original Genesis titles so endearing.
Sonic Mania marks a drastically different approach to game development than fans have yet seen from Sega. Christian Whitehead was the primary developer of the game. Fans who discovered his exceptional ports of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic CD on iOS and Android devices should recognize his name, as he did a masterful job of preserving the look and feel of those classic Sonic titles on a platform notorious for touch-only interfaces. The games shouldn't have worked on mobile, yet Whitehead made them do exactly that.
With Sonic Mania, Whitehead has brought his signature attention to detail and sound programming skills fully to bear. With the aid of PagodaWest Games and Headcannon, developers traditionally known for their work crafting fan-made Sonic games online, Whitehead has produced what is arguably the best Sonic the Hedgehog platformer in the past ten years. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Sonic Mania stands head and shoulders with any of the classic 2D Sonics, including both Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic CD.
High praise indeed, but the game is worthy of it. From the iconic cry of "Sega!" once the game boots up, to the sleek, modern, and yet ultimately familiar interface, Sonic Mania delights. Players can choose to play as either Sonic alone, Sonic and Tails, Tails, or Knuckles right out of the gate. There's a "No Save" mode for those who want to go hardcore old school, but otherwise there are multiple save files to choose from. The premise is simple: Dr. Robotnik/Eggman has stumbled across some kind of new gemstone that's allowing him to bounce through time and Sonic has to stop him!
If you're worried that this means Sonic Mania is nothing but a retread of Sonic's greatest hits, rest assured that it's not. What Whitehead and company have done is so much more than juxtaposed a bunch of random Sonic levels into a single package (a complaint that was levied against Sonic Generations). Instead, Sonic Mania takes classic Sonic Acts and Zones and turns them on their heads, while also plugging in new ones.
Starting with Green Hill Zone, it's evident from the second the music starts up that this isn't the exact same level that fans have been replaying for a quarter of a century. The music and layout of Green Hill Zone are similar to the original, but the vast majority of the stages are reworked and different. What Whitehead has done is dipped all of the gameplay in the traditional Genesis graphics and physics that fans know and love, but modernized and freshened it all with new mechanics and tricks.
Even the new Zones that were created for the game, like Studiopolis Zone and Mirage Saloon Zone, all mesh perfectly with their reinterpreted brethren. Studiopolis in particular pulled me right back into the days of Sonic CD without directly drawing anything from that game. The studio motif, with cameras and old tube TV sets all over the place, was a nice homage to Sonic's roots in the 1990s. The character is very much a product of the era and I think it was a wise move to embrace that.
It's also wonderful how Whitehead and his crew were able to find a graphical style that brings together all three of the different aesthetics featured from Sonic the Hedgehog through Sonic CD. Where Sonic the Hedgehog 4 tried to go the route of New Super Mario Bros. and embrace a very modern, heavily rendered look, Sonic Mania instead skews heavily towards the iconic imagery and feel of the series' heyday. It's a great example of how less can sometimes be more.
I was floored by how exciting Sonic Mania is to play. The usual flourishes of loop de loops and corkscrews are everywhere, not to mention the series' signature sense of speed, but the emphasis on genuine platforming is new. What's more, the injection of these platforming elements somehow miraculously doesn't disrupt the flow of gameplay. In short, it all just fits and I loved it.
For instance, Sonic can now be encased in brackets that house a red bumper inside. The brackets keep Sonic in place until the player taps the jump button on the controller, at which point he gets hurled forward in whatever direction the makeshift launcher is facing. It's such a simple idea (one that borrows from Donkey Kong Country's barrel launchers, I might note), but it fits perfectly within Sonic's world. The only letdown to me was the Drop Dash, which can be initiated during any fall, but ultimately didn't add anything worthwhile to the experience. I rarely used it, and even then only by accident.
There are also segments of gameplay that feature sticky platforms, bouncy floors, pulleys, and more. All of them are integrated so seamlessly that many players will swear they've seen it all before, but the truth is that they're new to Sonic and a testament to just how well the design team understands Sega's premier mascot. It's almost like Sonic Mania was born of a split in the Sonic timeline; this is the path Sega could have followed if they'd grown organically from all the games that came before, rather than embracing the 3D trend established by Nintendo 64 and PlayStation.
That we all had to wait years for Sonic to make a true, proper return to 2D is inconsequential. The Blue Blur is back and better than ever. Not only is it one of Sonic's best games in years, it's also one of the best platformers out there, period. The controls are tight, the new mechanics and Zones are a delight, and it has a soundtrack to die for. It's a complete package experience—and it's only $20! Not that the price matters, but it sure doesn't hurt. Sonic Mania is digital-only, so between my glowing endorsement and ease of access, there's no excuse not to get right to Blast Processing this one onto your system of choice.
SCORE: 9.0/10 (Excellent)
Positives: Great presentation; new Zones mesh perfectly with old ones; retreaded territory is all reimagined and tweaked in some way, making it fresh and new; killer soundtrack; co-op; new mechanics add to the experience and don't feel out of place
Negatives: Drop dash doesn't add anything new