Sonic Mania finally delivers a Sonic game that long-suffering fans of SEGA‘s beleaguered mascot deserve.
If you thought that the seemingly endless stream of pre-release videos from Sonic Mania might have spoiled all the surprises that the game has to offer, you’ll be pleased to know there is so much more to see here. Indeed, at several points I found myself torn between wanting to see more of the game and not wanting it to end at the same time.
Forget any attempt to recreate 2D Sonic from the past two decades – this is the real deal. Developers Headcannon and PagodaWest Games have perfectly captured the way Sonic runs and jumps from his Mega Drive days. The movements are precise and consistent – no sloppy homing attacks here.
What you start to realise with the classic zones is that whilst the first act feels a little like déjà vu, with stage layouts that tap into your muscle memory, the second act is jam packed with new designs and concepts that are completely unrecognisable from their 16-bit counterparts. Chemical Plant is probably the finest example of this, with a slew of new game mechanics thrown in, culminating in a brilliantly unexpected boss fight.
Although around two thirds of Sonic Mania is focused on revisiting past stages, there are new zones thrown into the mix. The biggest compliment here is that they sit inconspicuously alongside the classic zones – the fusion of old and new is seamless and offer up convincing evidence that the Sonic franchise isn’t entirely reliant on its ’90s heritage. Mirage Saloon in particular has a very Nintendo-esque quality to it in terms of its attention to detail.
Sonic Mania still uses the traditional checkpoint system should you lose a life, but there are plenty of them throughout each stage. It’s also much easier than it used to be to grab back your last remaining few rings if you get hit as they bounce around on-screen for much longer and don’t fade.
The graphics are designed to emulate the 16-bit era and thus the game does look pixelated on a big screen – although after the garish Sonic 4 colour palette, that’s probably a blessing. Nonetheless, both the foreground and background animations do a lot more than they could have in the early ’90s – Sonic, Tails and Knuckles are all brimming with personality, despite being mute. The soundtrack is also top-notch – Lava Reef‘s second act in particular is dreamy electric guitar riff heaven.
As with any Sonic Mania review, it’s easy to be blinded by nostalgia – and when Sonic Team have spent so many years getting it so wrong, it feels a little unfair to criticise a game that gets so much right. However, Sonic Mania isn’t perfect. The Mode 7 UFO chase bonus stages (based on Sonic CD) feel very imprecise in terms of handling and the game also isn’t big on explanation. In some respects that’s fine, but you’ll unlock bonuses and have no idea how to use them. It’s also unclear during some of the boss fights what you’re actually supposed to be doing.
Such complaints are minor in the grand scheme of things – particularly when we’re talking about a franchise that has at times struggled to make its protagonist walk in a straight line. Sonic Mania clearly owes a lot to the early ’90s, but this is far more than a flashy re-make: it’s a completely new game, albeit with some familiar environments – and an absolute steal at £15.99.
The most exciting thing is what this means for the future – Sonic Mania shows there’s a lot of life left in the franchise and SEGA now have a groundwork 23 years in the making to give Sonic the library of games he deserves.