Sonic Mania has finally created what several branches of Sega, including the official Sonic Team staff, haven’t done for decades: a great old-school Sonic game. That in itself is a monumental thing, when you consider how long Sonic has struggled as a series – and how many times its great contemporary rival Mario has licked it, in both modern and retro flavors.
With that in mind, it’s tempting to overlook some of these Sonic Maniaits shortcomings. This is a lean game, taking about 3-4 hours for an initial playthrough – which, to be fair, is comparable to how much you’ll find in a Genesis or Mega Drive Sega game. A few quirky design decisions (and, at launch, bugs) can hinder the fun you’ll have in your first playthrough. And this game has no interest in holding your hand, so don’t expect a relaxing reintroduction of the blue bomber.
But having a good Sonic game again means having a platformer that emphasizes the word “speed” and all it entails, including level density, tucked-away secrets, perfect controls, and satisfying running and jumping. Many games have tried to recapture the magic of Sonic over the years (including Sega itself, with 2002’s) Sonic Advance 2 worthy of a compliment). But this week’s Mania combines the familiar and the new to declare that maybe, just maybe, only Sonic can do it best.
Gotta go fast
Mania begins with a bit of plot: Dr. Eggman (aka Dr. Robotnik) is back and has a variety of robot assistants to help him wreak havoc in a mix of familiar and brand new environments. The game’s short, confusing, wordless cutscenes appear between some zones but not others, and they’re honestly one of them Maniathe biggest disappointments. The game never really explains why we run like crazy from old environments to new ones and back again.
What the game lacks in sensible plot, it makes up for with ridiculous amounts of fan service. Mania uses an interesting design tactic to recreate the zones from older games – a lot of them, in fact, with eight classic zones represented from five games (Sonic 1-3, Sonic & Knucklesand Sonic CD). You can expect the worst after diving in Mania‘s first level: an almost identical version of sonic 1‘s Green Hill Zone (which Sega has remade about 40 times to this point). But eagle-eyed players will notice a few intriguing differences in this first level, in terms of brand new running tracks and other hidden secrets. But that’s nothing compared to the zone’s second phase, where design studio PagodaWest opens up the tried-and-true level with a simple zip-line system.
The other zone remakes are even more adventurous. They usually open with note-for-note remakes of their ancestors, but these only last about 10-15 seconds for minor and major changes to become apparent – like a new bouncy castle system in Chemical Plant Zone, a pair of giant lava hiking boots needed to traversing the Lava Reef Zone, and a pollution timer issue in the Oil Ocean Zone that requires players to regularly vent dangerous smoke. The familiar never takes long to give way to the new and refreshing, and the same can be said for four brand new zones that borrow generously from the best of other Sonic games. The brand new zones carry the “Sonic Spinball” torch of elements, such as flippers and bounce pads, and they add even more intense zip-around mechanics, such as a magnetic pull and launch system in the final Titanic Monarch Zone.
Playing my time Sonic Mania‘s 12 zones (two levels each) improved dramatically once I completed the game – freeing my mental energy from the simple act of getting through. Each level is designed to turn exploration and route optimization into fun actions in their own right. Finding the right place to get frozen – then launched like an ice cube – in the new Press Garden Zone is a joy, and I loved getting to grips with the verticality and route experiments opened up by Lava Reef’s second, incredible act.
Other little secrets and discoveries piled up from there (including, among other things, learning how the “special” shields do special things in certain parts of the game). A lot is happening in the field of 2D level design in Maniaand the time-attack mode is a great way to relive the highlights.