Way past cool.
23 years. That’s how long it’s been since the last truly good Sonic the Hedgehog video game. There’s been plenty of Sonic games in that time, of course, but few of them could be considered anything even approaching ‘good.’ Sonic became the epitome of a washed-up videogame icon; his relevancy dulled by developers not knowing how to make the transition from fast-paced 2D platforming to the 3D world. Even more retro 2D efforts felt off, with Sonic Advance and Sonic 4 not recapturing the feel of the older games. It was starting to feel like SEGA really didn’t know what to do with their beloved franchise, especially after the failure of re-imaginings like Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Boom.
And in a move that other developers could stand to learn a lot from, SEGA turned to the fan community. In particular, to Christian Whitehead, whose work on fan games landed him the job of adapting classic Sonic titles to newer platforms, as well as Headcannon and PagodaWest games, also known for Sonic fangames. And would you believe it, they’ve turned out the most authentic, most enjoyable Sonic game since Sonic & Knuckles.
The game takes place following the events of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, with Robotnik – sorry, Eggman – stealing a Ruby gemstone from Angel Island. This Ruby grants his robotic henchmen, the Hard-Boiled Heavies, strange new powers, and sends Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles back in time. The setup is a smart mcguffin that allows Whitehead and his team to revisit previous Sonic locations, as well as adding new twists to the classic formula, effectively remixing classic levels to introduce new gameplay mechanics and take advantage of capabilities of the Retro Engine that powers the game.
Twelve zones feature, eight of which are returning Zones from Sonic, Sonic 2, Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic CD, and each split into two acts. With the classic Zones, the first act is a mostly faithful recreation of the original level, though extended and with additional course options. The second act introduces new elements; in Chemical Plant Zone, for example, you’re able to mix chemicals with the purple water to turn it into a bouncy surface, whilst Oil Ocean act 2 adds a gradual buildup of smog which has to be cleared before it fogs your vision completely. The new elements never feel out-of-place, and the remixed layouts are designed to evoke a sense of familiarity whilst introducing enough new elements to encourage exploration. The new Zones are a perfect fit both thematically and visually, and fit in snugly alongside the classic levels.
The level design is pretty special, striking a delicate balance between allowing for high-speed runs whilst at the same time rewarding the more curiously minded. The game is mercifully light on high-speed traps – a trick Sonic Advance employed much too often, sending Sonic hurtling into spikes faster than the player can react and forcing memorisation of the levels – and the new mechanics and boss fights that are introduced make for some great, entertaining gameplay with few of the annoyances that plagued earlier games. Remixing the levels has allowed Whitehead and his team to pick and choose the most enjoyable elements of the games and sidestep the more frustrating mechanics – though that’s not to say you won’t sometimes be faced with drowning in underwater sections or crushed between moving platforms, or that the game doesn’t offer up a reasonable challenge.
Sonic Mania certainly looks and sounds great – the pixel aesthetic of the Mega Drive games is retained, though benefits from widescreen support and the careful removal of some constraints – sprites boast more detail, colour, and animation frames than their original versions, and the level art has been similarly tweaked. The soundtrack, which consists of remastered and remixed tunes alongside some new additions, comes from famed Sonic remixer Tee Lopes, and again fits Sonic mania perfectly. The result is a game that looks and sounds the way you remember Sonic looked, though viewed side-by-side there are clear differences. Likewise, the Bonus and Special Stages – lifted from Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic CD respectively – benefit from super-smooth framerates and a cleaned up appearance. The bonus stages also score you medals on completion, which unlock additional in-game items and game modes.
Most crucial of all, though, Sonic Mania feels like a classic Sonic game. The movement and jumping controls are tight and responsive, the physics and inertia feel natural, and the levels are designed to complement them perfectly. That’d wouldn’t be such a big thing were it not for the fact that Sega has tried and failed to recapture these elements for two decades, but Sonic Mania finally manages it.
The kicker, and what really sets it apart, is simple: Sonic Mania is not just a great Sonic game. It’s a great game by any standards, and maybe – just maybe – it’s the shot in the arm Sega’s mascot was so desperately in need of. Fans have been clamouring for this title for years, and now it’s here, it doesn’t disappoint.