It’s no secret that Sonic the Hedgehog has had more ups and downs than a fiddlers elbow, which is why I was especially surprised to learn that SEGA had trusted its flagship franchise to out-house developers. You really don’t often see this level of trust (or experimentation) from huge companies to smaller lesser known individuals or groups. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully aware that this happens on a regular basis, but for iconic franchises such as Sonic the Hedgehog? It’s a big risk to take. We all know how it fared when Capcom extended the same level of trust to Slant Six Games for Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City. However unlike that comparison, Sonic Mania has undeniably proven that business decisions like this can offer up a fruitful outcome. Christian Whitehead and the rest of the team responsible for Sonic Mania have quite simply outdone themselves.
I have the benefit of being able to say that I grew up with our favourite blue hedgehog, and the one thing that always comes to mind when I think of Sonic, is gimmicks. More often than not we see Sonic games being injected with gimmicks (I’m looking right at you, you freakin Werehog), which can either make or break the experience. The problem isn’t with the design or the cast, the problem lies simply with the formula. Sonic is fast, so fast that you can often see him flying off the screen as the camera attempts to catch up. In 2D environments, it’s much easier to structure a game around this concept. When you switch it up to 3D, that’s an entirely different ball game.
Despite the rather fantastic Sonic Adventure 1 and Sonic Adventure 2, this is where the Sonic franchise began to lose its footing. If it wasn’t the agonising loading screen from Sonic 06, it was the aforementioned clunky Werehog, if it wasn’t that, it was the slow pace of Sonic 4, and so on and so forth. Mercifully, Sonic Generations proved to be somewhat of a comeback, and Sonic Forces (albeit comes with a gimmick) seems quite promising from what we’ve seen so far. Sonic Mania on the other hand, goes right back to square one. Back to the time where Sonic was on top of the world, and let me tell you, it’s easily one of the best Sonic games the franchise has seen in a great deal of time.
The game opens in such a way that almost identically mirrors that of Sonic the Hedgehog 3, but instead of bumping into Knuckles the Echidna, we bang heads with a band of Dr Eggman’s robotic henchmen. I’ll make it clear from the onset, I wont ruin the story of Sonic Mania for you. Instead, I’m going to dance around the plot and keep the unannounced secrets away from this review. Secrets, you ask? Trust me, these little additions are something you’ll want to witness first hand. SEGA did request that outlets try to avoid spoilers when conducting reviews, but seeing as this was just a request and not a demand, I fully suspect many of these secrets will be laid bare before the day is out. That’s not a bad thing by any means, but if you want to be fully surprised, approach with caution.
Sonic Mania houses content that’s mostly taken from Sonic 2, Sonic 3 & Knuckles, and Sonic CD, along with a collection of new zones to give long-term fans something fresh to sink into. The game allows you to play as Sonic, Tails, Sonic and Tails, or Knuckles. You’re given a total of three lives to make it through the adventure, but (as usual) you’ll be rewarded with an extra life per-every 100 rings that you can pick up without dropping. If you lose your lives, you’re sent straight back to the beginning of the stage. The aim of the game is as straight forward as the classics, being that you simply need to make your way from A to B, which is typically from the far left of the screen to the far right.
Each stage has been littered with enemies, environmental hazards, heaps of hidden secrets, and those all important checkpoints and bonus stages. The checkpoint bonus stages has you in constant motion as you carefully navigate through the fields of play. The objective here is to collect every single blue sphere whilst avoiding the red spheres. Once you touch a blue sphere it will turn red, and it’s an instant return to whatever checkpoint you touched if you so happen to bump into a red sphere. If you successfully turn all of the blue spheres to red spheres, you’ll be rewarded with a medal that can be used to unlock bonus content later on. These bonus stages vary in both design and difficulty, making it progressively harder on each attempt.
You can also locate gigantic rings that are hidden in the main stages. All you simply need to do is jump into the centre of the ring and you’ll be transported to 3D environment, to which you’re tasked with chasing down a UFO. The style here is clearly an inspiration from the bonus stages found in Sonic CD, only this time, you’ll need to collect blue spheres and rings to keep your speed up. If you manage to catch up to the UFO, you’ll walk away with one of the seven fabled chaos emeralds. Be warned, the huge rings that you need to locate to enter these stages are very well hidden. So it pays off to remain vigilant as you make your way through the main stages. The same can be said about the many power-ups that are dotted carefully around each stage, most of which seem to be deviously tucked away in hidden areas.
Christian Whitehead and the rest of the team have clearly paid close attention to what made the classic Sonic games so great, ensuring that Sonic Mania is chock-full of excellent level design that dishes up several alternate routes. There’s no denying that some stages stand out better than others, mostly due to some unfair difficulty spikes, but for the most part Sonic Mania nails the stage layout effortlessly. Many of the stages offer intricate and complex puzzles that you’ll need to overcome, whereas other stages will see you constantly darting from left to right as you try to work out where the hell you’re going. Enemy variants are plentiful and need to be dealt with via timing your attacks, though for the initial phases of play, pretty much everything can be bounced on to see you through.
Boss battles play a significant role in Sonic Mania, due to the fact that there’s an encounter (of some sort) at the conclusion of every stage. Despite the bulky amount of boss battles, each battle feels unique and in place. You’ll come across huge mech that need to be bounced on whilst avoiding huge projectiles and extendable arms, to action packed chases that has you quickly jumping over homing missiles, and much more. Much like the level design, these encounters tend to vary in difficulty. Mercifully, there’s almost always a checkpoint at the beginning of each boss fight.
Depending on who you choose to play as also changes the pace of the game to some small degree, seeing as specific characters are capable of pulling off moves that other characters cannot. This alone adds a great deal of replay value to the mix, which is further bolstered by the additional game modes you can unlock, such as Time Attack and Competition. Time Attack has you running through an act as quickly as you can in an attempt to achieve a high score. Competition pits you and a local player against each other via racing to the end of the stage to get there first. These modes are hardly new to the Sonic franchise, but they do indeed fit in. It helps of course that all of this is tied together by some amazing soundtracks that will get stuck in your head, long after you put the pad down.
Sonic Mania is by no means the best game in the series, that honour rests with Sonic 2. With that being said, Mania is easily the best game the franchise has been graced with for a great deal of time (Generations to the side). The level design is fantastic despite some harsh difficulty spikes, the bonus stages are intense and challenging, the boss battles are action-packed and memorable, and the enemy and stage variants do well to keep the overall experience feeling fresh and energetic. Throw in the solid soundtracks, the additional modes, and the commendable amount of replay value, and this is one Sonic game that fans or newcomers should not overlook. SEGA have done the series a justice by allowing a talented team to take a trip back to the roots, and pull that core formula into 2017. Easily put, Sonic Mania is a must have.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.