Can any game be worth a 23-year wait? Yes
The Blue Blur is still running [gold] rings around the competition.
By the Mania, for the Mania”. That’s what Sonic Team’s Takashi Iizuka said when he first saw Christian Whitehead’s pitch for this game, spawning its name and perfectly encapsulating its essence. It is Sonic fandom incarnate. And against all odds, after 23 years, ‘the Mania’ finally gets the Sonic game it’s been wanting since 1994’s Sonic & Knuckles. Incredible. Mind you, it will take an exceptionally devoted Sonic fan to notice and appreciate every morsel of fan service that’s been put in here. The Sonic Spinball shakedown, Game Gear sound effects at key moments, the grainy resolution of the team logos at the start of the game – it’s all beautifully-executed and a joy to discover. There’s even 3D pop-in during the special stages because Sonic Mania has been developed as though it were running on a Sega Saturn, which makes it the closest we’ll ever have to the then'next generation’ 2D Sonic game that never was.
From a modern newcomer’s point of view, this fan service may mean little, but it has a very welcome side effect: all the characteristics that made Sonic a global phenomenon in the first place are back, and he feels at the very top of his game, which he hasn’t done in decades. The action is fluid, fast, vibrant, and exciting. The hog doesn’t utter a single word, instead oozing personality from vastly-improved – yet still faithful – animations.
The level design is intricate yet flowing, thanks to the team’s clear understanding of Sonic’s physics and what makes them fun to play. The new ‘drop dash’ doesn’t break the game, either, instead feeling like it should always have been in Sonic’s repertoire, and giving him a signature move to rival Knuckles’ and Tails’ gliding/ climbing and flying respectively. The result is some four to six hours of rampantly inventive action in your first playthrough, though that figure can be dramatically altered depending on the frequency of your trips to the bonus levels.
The showcase special event is the sequence of seven UFO Chase stages. Appropriately difficult to beat, they blend old ideas and iconography with new gameplay in real style. Conversely, the returning Blue Sphere stages from Sonic 3 feel like obvious filler. With 24 Blue Sphere stages to beat, gold/silver medals to be won, treacherous difficulty, and unlockables to be found only by playing them, completionists will hate them. And since they’re so easy to screw up and there’s a checkpoint pole every 60 seconds or so, Sonic Mania can feel like Blue Sphere Mania at times. You can just run past them, if you choose, but
“THE NEW STAGES LOOK AND FEEL EXACTLY LIKE PEAK SONIC 3-ERA SONIC TEAM.”
that’s not the point. Something new would likely have been much better, especially since this team so obviously ‘gets it’ when it comes to creating sympathetic new content.
So while there are many allnew boss fights, new zones, and new moves, there is just a little too much ‘old’ here, compared to the new. Familiar, classic levels like Green Hill, Chemical Plant, and many more are revisited, replicating significant chunks of old layouts blow-for-blow, albeit with some new secrets here and there. That’s fine – it’s a megamix of all the best bits you remember from the ’90s. But when the completely new stages like Studiopolis look and feel exactly like peak Sonic 3-era Sonic Team, it would have been nice to have just a few more of them.
In the end, though, only the Blue Sphere stages feel like an obvious misstep. For that to be the only significant criticism of a new Sonic game is unheard of since 1994. And, just like the Mega Drive games of old, it’s the small things that make you love it. The hundred tiny touches that make you grin like a kid who got a Game Gear for Christmas. The pixel art backgrounds, the timbre of the music, the amazing role-reversal boss fight. Sonic Mania recaptures what’s been missing from Sonic games for far too long: a sense of joy, wonder, excitement, and magic. The result is simply one of the slickest, most dazzlingly-produced, and enjoyable platform games ever made.
While the ratio of old to new ideas is a little too cautious, and the Blue Sphere stages can become annoying, this is everything fans have been wanting for far too long. It’s the best Sonic game. Justin Towell
Sonic even looks the way most fans prefer: short and round.
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Below Sonic’s biplane, the Tornado, returns, and we love it.
Right The twoplayer mode is squashed, like in Sonic 2. No slowdown this time, though.
Above right OMG! Sonic’s wearing the goggles that were cut from Sonic 1!