Sonic Mania is more than a revamp or continuation of the 16-bit games of the franchise. It’s a labor of love to the Sonic of old and it plays so fast and is so enthralling, it may be the biggest fan favorite for years to come.
Type: Single-player, Co-Op,
Genre: Platformer, Action,
Adventure, Casual, Arcade
Developer: Christian Whitehead,
Headcannon, PagodaWest Games
Engine: Retro Engine
Release date: August 15, 2017
Why look, it’s a pixelated blue hedgehog!
Sonic Mania is bliss in a bottle-rocket. It’s as if Sonic got derezzed by a Tron laser, zapped into the Grid and came back at Flynn’s Arcade all decked out in 16-bit glory. The best part is, the return to the old school 2D style is absolutely what many fans of the franchise have been dreaming of for years. Oddly enough, the evolution of Sonic has mimicked his rollercoaster gameplay. Since the early days of Sonic the Hedgehog’s 1-3/Sonic and Knuckles and Sonic CD, there has been some fantastic success with titles such as the Sonic Adventure series and a wonderfully adept racing game with Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, however, along that same path Sonic would slow down and simply fall flat as some releases did more harm than good. Even games like Sonic Colors, which gave a strong nod to the days of old within the scope of a 3D world, would get mixed reviews across the board. I won’t detract from the 3D Sonic fans, just because Sonic Mania is like a Sega Genesis game doesn’t mean it’s better than all the rest. However, it does mean it’s going back to the very roots that made Sonic a joy to play back in the 90’s and that trip is very much worth revisiting.
Sonic Mania is such an apt title. A whole new generation of gamers will now be able to experience Sonic in all his animated sprite goodness as a 2D side-scroller running so fast that his eyes can’t blink. The neo-retro fans will cheer and hum their favorite Sonic game music, and the old timers like me will simply smile and be content that 16-bit Sonic has arisen once again. Many young gamers don’t even know what Sonic was all about in the first place unless they’ve dived headlong into the vast ocean of vids and Sonic history online. I think the timing is right. There is a resurgence going on, a renewed emphasis that has been slowly growing stronger each year. Even Lego Dimensions has a Sonic level, and I saw it’s reception firsthand with my son as he opened the box with sheer adoration and excitement. We even added a Sonic plushie to his toy collection, and when we did, I had to ask him if he wanted an old Sonic or new Sonic plushie. He promptly told me a short history of different Sonic’s and decided on the new Sonic toy. That’s where the franchise is now, the new generation is somewhat transfixed with the little blue guy. So, with Sonic Mania I have a wonderful situation where a father and son can sit down and be excited to share a bit of history together. I’m looking at him and seeing myself in his eyes as he jumps up and down while playing. And of course, he has better reflexes than dear old dad, argh.
So, what’s all the hubbub then? Sonic Mania is amazing you say, well how? As you may have surmised from the lack of 3D effects in the game trailers, Sonic is back with his pal Tails and the artwork looks like he just passed by the year 1991 on the way there. The controls are mostly the same with Spin Jumps, Spin Attacks, and the Spin Dash. However, we’ve got a new Drop Dash we can play with that is enabled when in mid-air and holding the jump button to charge up. It allows players to drop down from a mid-air jump and hit the ground at high speed. While this is certainly new and fun, it still doesn’t really explain why Sonic Mania is so good. New controls are not enough.
Truthfully, the actual level zones take the game above and beyond expectations. Eight of the zones are remastered and five are new. Fire it up and the first thing you’ll notice is the pinpoint controller movement and agility of Sonic burning through these zones which define Sonic and give him that street cred as the high-speed traversal platformer worthy of his namesake. I swear once he gets going, my eyes can barely keep up with the insane amount of movement going on. Is it me, or is he actually faster than before? If it were not for these spot-on controls along with the absolute perfect attention to detail on where to place speed boosts and jumping locations, I really doubt Sonic Mania would be the game it is. Many games have blower fans, ice hazards, conveyor belts, electromagnets, chemical vats, balloon bouncing and the like. It’s how Sonic uses these areas to keep the momentum going and give that constant thrill of excitement that is so astoundingly fun. That edge never leaves you. I’ve played other more recent Sonic games and the action will generally slow down a bit somewhere down the line due to platforming or dealing with 3D geometry. In Sonic Mania, the speed can be maintained for a very long time, and even longer with practice. The feeling is akin to taking on the tallest waterslide you’ve ever seen and sliding down while just barely keeping your body from flying out. I. must. go. faster! That’s all I have on my mind. What’s more, the game is never bogged down with overly complex controls, you can stick to the tried and true maneuvers and do just fine. On top of that, there are hidden power-ups scattered throughout the game that can turn you into such cool things as a super sparkly Sonic or Flaming ball of fire attacking Sonic. Just don’t get hit, or it goes away with an “oh no!” look on Sonic’s face.
Even if you are new to the Sonic franchise, if you like platforming or, hell, even pinball games, then you will understand the things in Sonic Mania that I see. It has that “OMG I was not expecting that just now” action going on. Every centimeter is carefully laid out like few games ever manage to achieve. With the rush of the constant momentum, players will literally feel like they are Sonic because, when played just right, this game will test your reflexes like few games can. It’s optimized for the replay value, you will play again and again just to see if you can finish even faster than before. There really is no equivalent to this from other platformers because you not only have to get through all the pitfalls, but you have to do it at breakneck speed. Sonic can seriously make you want to hone down that speedrunning record you’ve always wanted because it is so incredibly fun to do so.
What if you don’t like speed trials and are a mid-level platforming gamer? Then, I still think Sonic will still fit in nicely in your game collection. Why? Because after all the multiple playthroughs, there are still hidden bits ALL OVER. I mean, I actually played the Flying Battery level so many times, because of all the pitfalls, I thought I would tire of it. Except, I’d notice a little alcove to the side or a bottomed out area. Curious little ol’ me would venture down to see and find a completely new area of the same zone I’d played thirty times. It never failed, each zone is PACKED with content, it’s almost like trying to play the modded Skyrim of Sonic games, it’s just a good time no matter how many times you’ve played it. I have no idea how much of that content is directly taken from the Sonic and Knuckles game in the Flying Battery level because it looks almost identical, but it feels and plays amazing. The Retro Engine developed by Christian Whitehead does an absolutely fantastic job of bringing old Sonic to the PS4. So, if you are the type that enjoys Shovel Knight or a bit of Rayman, it’s an instabuy. For those others who play platformers once in awhile, I think you may want to practice first. Your reflexes will be tested, trust me. This is a gamer’s version of the game, made for the retro fanbase. Casual play, while not impossible by any means, will likely lead to some frustration at some point, especially for young kids around the age of eight or younger. Oh, and my thumbs hurt.
When you first open up Sonic Mania, not all the available options are there. You have to unlock those after you beat the Green Hill Zone. Keep that in mind as you head over to the Mania Mode to start. After you’ve beaten a Zone you’ll unlock a time attack mode where you can try to get on the leaderboards as well as a multiplayer mode where you race times against another player with a top and bottom split screen. I played it locally, but did not try to see if it involved online players or not. You’ll also find multiple game save slots, which is always welcome in my book. There are gaming options to play as Sonic, Tails, Sonic and Tails, or Knuckles. Each is fun, I advise trying them all out since there is more than one save slot. Knuckles can glide and climb, which adds a whole new dynamic. Tails is sort of odd, almost like Rayman because of the hovering but not quite the same. After I practiced enough times, I slowly got the hang of it. Still, I prefer playing as Sonic and Tails because you have the option of having someone come along and help you out a bit, which is very useful during a boss fight since Tails can’t really lose a life if playing co-op. One thing to note, Tails is very hard to control in co-op mode and often doesn’t help a ton unless Tails is just bumping up against the boss all the time.
I won’t really get into the storyline at the beginning because I honestly could not follow it. There was no script or dialogue to speak of. For the most part, all I saw were bad robot guys from Dr. Eggman hanging around after Sonic and Tails land on their plane. Then the screen went wacky and the game started. Ta-da! You can probably look up the actual scenario, but without any sort of background intro the beginning cutscene of the game made no sense at all to me.
Now, before I get further, I want to say something to those of you who have never played the older Sonic games, or perhaps any Sonic game. There is no tutorial. You will have to simply use some trial and error as you figure out the controls. The basics are in the manual website link, but I suggest looking at some old vids to get a handle on what you need to do and how to work up strategies. Some simple things like if you can’t climb out of a curved area, hold the down arrow on the D-pad and hold a Jump Button then release it to spin out. Also, try to keep the momentum going, you may not be able to make a jump otherwise. As for damage, Simply touching a baddie by accident will bang you up, but as long as you have at least one ring, you will automatically recover. Once out of rings, you are very vulnerable and can lose a life, which is depleted and saved with the game until you die, starting the whole Zone over again.
There are no save points within a level. It only saves once you finish both Acts of a Zone. There are respawn points, but that is it. For those used to save points, this may come as a shock. However, keep in mind that at least you don’t have to replay the entire game from scratch, it’s just both Acts in a Zone. You also have a ten-minute time limit which, if you fail to play quick enough, will take one of your lives. My advice is to spend the first few times in a Zone just looking around for extra lives before you die, it will help tremendously during boss fights to amass a few extra lives because it is not a simple three-hit fight to defeat them.
The first two zones are the Green Hill Zone and the Chemical Zone, which are remasters from the original Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 respectively. They do look very familiar, I noticed a few other levels were very much culled from the Sonic archives, but there are so many little mini-areas tucked away that it feels fresh regardless. You can run like crazy followed by mostly Spin Jumps and Attacks to avoid baddies, but you invariably get stopped deeper into the level and then have to perform some more traditional platforming. This is where it can get hit or miss since Sonic is all about moving at jet engine speed all the time. When I jump from one area to the next, unless I keep that momentum going, I generally fall off a platform because Sonic likes to keep running. You have to move the D-pad or left joystick in the opposite direction very quickly and then back again to avoid falling into pitfalls. I encountered a few bugs on the Flying Battery level, one was that if I jump down at the second area of Act One, I can run across the bottom and jump on top of some yellow buttons but if I jump on them, it sometimes bounces me backward into the wired cylinders. Another bug I found there was while getting a hidden life. I was about to activate it and misstepped, rocketing away from it and I clicked restart as I was jetting away and somehow it added that life to my game when I restarted. I was unable to replicate it, though.
What you will encounter is that each level Zone has two Acts. Act One is generally the more basic part of the level that teaches you a new mechanic or technique most of the time. Once completed, you have a mid-boss to dispose of. These vary but are generally on the easy side. Next, comes Act Two which is mostly a more advanced level and ends in a substantially more difficult final boss. One thing that does come up is that the bosses can be a giant question mark with a time limit. You never quite know how to attack until you get there. If you die, you must start the entire Zone over from the beginning of the Zone, but not the very beginning of the game. For some, this can be frustrating and nerve wracking. All I can say is try to go in with the mindset that you will have to repeat levels several times. Sometimes it works out in one go, and other times you will be learning every single step as you replay that level over and over until you finally beat that Act Two boss.
Now, there are some special stages hidden within the game, you will simply have to delve deeply into each level to find them. Once you see a giant ring somewhere, you have hit the jackpot. A 3D race begins in which you are chasing a UFO holding a Chaos Emerald. You run forward, like the 3D Sonic games, and try to collect as many speed-boosting blue orbs as you can to get faster and collect rings to get more time to run. There are supposedly seven stages in total and once you beat them in a gameplay save, you’ll be able to access the SuperSonic power by pressing two jump buttons together and unlock some content at the end of the game. From what I know, these special stages are similar to the ones from the Sonic CD game.
Additionally, there are Blue Orb Bonus Stages, which is a callback to Sonic the Hedgehog 3. You access them after passing a respawn location called a Star Post with at least 25 rings on you. Once you enter the stage, you are in on 3D curved surface with a checkerboard layout and must collect blue orbs by running forward and turning at 90-degree angles. It’s a not easy at all, and frankly, I am just terrible at it. No matter how often I tried, I just could not make turns at the right moment. Occasionally, I was able to convert the blue orbs to rings by enclosing a blue orb inside an area of red orbs, but that was about the extent of my abilities. If you win, you are awarded a medallion. Collect all 32 medallions and you will unlock a new Blue Sphere stage that is otherwise hidden.
Graphics and Sound
The vibrancy of the color profiles with bright tones and fantastically rendered 2D layouts are such a treat. I see all these new games with cutting edge realistic graphics, and then I play Sonic Mania and I have the same feelings if not more intensely. There is something about brightly colored animations and funny faced sprites that never gets old. Every Zone made me feel like I was in an arcade, and I’ve had the pleasure of being in one in Hong Kong that literally looked exactly like how these Sonic levels look. It’s so bold, the scenery pops right out at you with neon colors and gold and silver coated artwork. Every bit the same, Sonic is a work of art in my opinion. From the iconic red airplane to pink Tesla coil balls, I enjoyed every inch of the graphic work.
The sound design was composed by Tee Lopes and all I can say is that it sounds EXACTLY like the old original music, even though he based it off Sonic CD and the Saturn version of Sonic 3D Blast. If you enjoy the Sonic music, then you’ll probably want to buy this soundtrack. I believe it is being sold as a vinyl LP collector’s edition. I’m not sure anyone else could have done it besides Tee Lopes, it is that good.
So, being a dad, I have two elementary kids to test out the game with me. My son is ten years old and had no issues playing the game, however, he would get easily upset when he had to start the level from the very beginning after working so hard to get to the final boss fight on a Zone. It wasn’t pretty and there were tears involve. Eventually, he managed to overcome his frustration and get past those levels. For a ten year old, he did good. Now, my eight year old daughter refused to even try the game. She isn’t as into Sonic as my son, but mostly it just seemed hard to her. So, keep that in mind if purchasing for children.
Sonic Mania is more than just a remaster of old levels, it’s a re-experience. I’ll put it like this, you can always go to your favorite pizza place and enjoy the pizza. But, what if you also had the best milkshake ever along with it and a then followed it by discovering a new flavor of pizza from the same restaurant that you never thought would be good? It’s like that. You are revisiting the old, but adding new flavors and aspects that make the whole experience new again. I was discussing it with Nikoback, who is playing the Switch version right now, and he said something that put it into good perspective. “I feel like Sonic Mania understands what makes the classics good and builds on it by playing past the limitations of the Genesis.” That right there is so very true. It feels like the game goes a few steps beyond what was done before and perhaps reflects what the current generation of gamers feel what the old Sonic should be like. I’m so very glad for this game to be on current consoles and soon on PC. Nothing in my mind could be changed in this game, even though there is a metric buttload of bosses. The pure essence of what makes a Sonic game uniquely Sonic and nothing else came through here. It’s worth its weight in blue orbs, trust me.