You might want to sit down when reading this review. What I’m about to say is potentially controversial, blasphemy even, to a hardcore 2D platformer fan. One might say that the opinion I’m about to share is just based on a first time playthrough, but I can assure you that I have exhausted all the potential this game has to offer and it has led me to one conclusion: Sonic Mania is not only the best Sonic game in recent years, it may just be the best 2D Platformer, period.
Now, I can see those pitchforks you’re brandishing like an angry mob. “How dare he say that Sonic Mania is better than the Mega Drive/Genesis originals!” you’re all saying. “It’s just a fan project with a few of the original team working on it!” That much is true to an extent; after all it is the creation of fans of the early games who had originally created mods of the classics. However, it goes beyond that.
Let’s start with the premise. Dr Robotnik (he will always be Dr. Robotnik in this setting) has excavated what looks like a Time Stone from Sonic CD that was buried deep within Angel Island Zone. He uses it to take over the world with the help of the Hard Boiled Heavies. It’s a basic premise, but it’s also more than we ever got out of the classic 2D games and does set up the reason why we’re revisiting old levels in a dynamic way.
Length of Sonic games fluctuate heavily depending on characters used. Sonic Mania has all three main protagonists – Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles – and is around the same length as Sonic 2 in terms of places you visit. However, Sonic and Tails aren’t always visiting the same levels that Knuckles heads to, with him even having a unique and exclusive level that uses his gliding and climbing abilities extensively.
Levels on the whole are well designed and mostly comprise of remixed levels from Sonic’s 2D history. Within the older zones there are new features that flesh out the level design, but also familiar layouts that veterans will know exactly what to do in.
As Sega have teased the game, we’ve already seen the likes of Chemical Plant Zone having chemical pools that do different things depending on what colours are there, but other zones have also become more fleshed out settings that occasionally use gimmicks lifted from different zones from entirely different games. Every one of the classic levels that wasn’t revealed in the marketing was a genuine surprise and a joy to travel though.
Sonic Mania also includes a handful of unique zones exclusive to this game and these just show the inventiveness of the team involved with the project. To say any more than this would spoil just how good these levels are, but my only real gripe with Sonic Mania is that I wanted more of these original levels and to see the ingenuity of the designers with a blank slate. Hopefully they can be given this kind of freedom in future games.
Of course, we can’t forget about the visuals and the music. Each zone is full of character, including some stage transitions that are fitting – the one for Stardust Speedway is particularly on point, while the new ones have a similar level of excellence. Sprite quality is also top notch, with smooth movement for all characters and enemies, as well as some great idle animations that show bags of character.
The soundtrack, which was composed by Sonic Remixer Tee Lopes, is another success story as not one track is a dud. Each act has its own versions, which are distinct in style and tone. They’re all catchy remixes or awesome original pieces that fit the setting wonderfully. Even bosses have different music depending on who you are facing at that given moment.
All of this would be moot if Sonic and his friends controlled horribly as in Sega’s last attempt at reviving the glory days of 2D. The difference is night and day, with all three characters acting just like their Mega Drive counterparts, with the exception of Sonic’s new drop dash ability. This is arguably his most effective tool as it can be used whenever Sonic jumps, rather than requiring you to be standing still before using it, or using it to grant brief invincibility.
Power-ups are the same as those found in all the classic 2D Sonic games – standard and elemental shields. There are also Blue Coin TVs that for one time upon being hit scatter larger rings that are worth a divided value based on rings obtained before being hit, meaning you can salvage a larger amount of rings upon being hit once. Elemental shields also have properties beyond their original purpose, such as burning the rotating wood spike bridge in Green Hill Zone.
Then there are the bosses, with a mix of encounters with purposefully created sub-bosses and Dr Robotnik encounters. Again, spoiling these would be detrimental to your enjoyment of the game, but they’re among the most original designs for boss battles devised for a 2D platformer and are a major highlight.
It even gets something that Sonic Team has been trying to do for ages with its 3D games right – an enemy team. The Hard Boiled Heavies are four modified Eggman Robots who each have their own gimmick. These encounters are just as good as the other bosses, with one even incorporating sound effects and movement from another classic Mega Drive game. They don’t speak, but are full of character in their appearance and battles.
When talking about Sonic games, there are of course Special Stages. The Chaos Emeralds can be obtained by going into giant rings hidden in each zone, and chasing down UFOs. Blue spheres increase your speed when the gauge is maxed out, while Rings increase the time remaining. It starts off rather simply, but eventually includes bombs that reduce your rings and places that when you run off them immediately end the attempt. One of these is significantly harder than the others, but generally they’re a lot more inventive than any Special Stage previously devised.
Speaking of previously devised Special Stages, Blue Spheres returns from Sonic 3 upon collecting 25 rings and hitting a checkpoint to reveal swirling stars. This is where the completion incentive lies in that completing special stages unlocks new features in the Extras menu, as well as the Secrets option found when starting a “No Save” game. On top of this, you can collect all the rings in a special stage to achieve a gold ranking. Progress for this is carried over games, so you need not start again when playing as a different character.
Sonic Mania also includes a Time Trial mode that features all but one level in the game (for reasons that upon playing will become obvious), as well as the return of Sonic 2’s Competition Mode. Time Trial now includes a button where, should you mess up, you can hold to teleport back to the start of the level to try again without reloading. It’s a great addition for those seeking the perfect run. As for Competition Mode, it has a lot more levels that are playable than Sonic 2’s version did and is fun for those with a score to settle.
Sonic Mania surpasses the Mega Drive/Genesis originals. It not only incorporates what made Sonic great, but has the inventiveness to shatter what was possible in a 2D platformer. As a nostalgia trip, it sets the bar for what comes next for the modding community. For those unexposed to what made 2D Sonic great, this is still a solid game in its own right and may create new fans in the process. If being this good took ages, it’s about damn time.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4