Sonic Mania is, in many ways, everything I could have asked for from a new Sonic game. The levels, both new and old, look identical to how the Sega Genesis games did. The music could have been ripped straight out of 1990. Even the enemy and boss designs are unique and interesting, but the reality is that my favorite Sonic games — Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic 2, and Sonic 3 & Knuckles — are not as good as I remember. Sonic Mania initially surprises and delights fans of those classics of yesteryear, but by the end of the experience the sheen is well worn and shows its cracks revealing an ugly truth: Sonic was better left in the 90’s.
Sonic Mania is a project that should have come to life years ago. Since the days of the Sega Genesis, fans have clamored for a new 2D Sonic game. As year after year passed by, each seeing a newly awful Sonic product, I lost all hope that Sonic would ever be worth my time again. When Sonic dabbled with the 2D formula again, releasing the unremarkable and mostly bad Sonic 4, I figured that was it. 2D Sonic was dead, and the 3D games were even worse — animated corpses hoisted like marionettes and danced in front of Sonic’s bizarrely passionate fan base. Imagine my delight when I saw the first trailer for Sonic Mania; beautiful sprites and that classic Sonic art style, gameplay mirroring the 16-bit releases, and the entire package tied together with wonderful music by Hyper Potions — I was in. Not only was I in, but I was excited! About a Sonic game! To release in 2017! Damn!
When I first began my journey, literally spiraling into Sonic Mania, that enthusiasm bubbled over. The first zone is just Green Hill Zone, the classic first stage of Sonic the Hedgehog. The music is updated slightly, but still wonderful, and the look is exactly how I remembered but with crisp 4K up-rezzed on a PS4 Pro — it’s a striking experience. It is also immediately apparent that the game is going to utilize nostalgia to its advantage, and throughout the entire adventure, it does just that. The art is dead on and wonderful. The world is saturated with color; levels are very stylish and a mix of new and old content. Some levels are remixed and as you progress they change wildly to create entirely new landscapes. Each level is also accompanied by a soundtrack that may well be the best of the year. Sounding exactly how you remember a Sonic game to sound is no easy feat, and the volume of music on display is unbelievable. Every level of every zone has its own music and every song is spectacular, utilizing more modern composition and instrumentation to accentuate a very Sonic sounding game.
The original soundtracks are some of my favorites of all time, and I can easily say this stands alongside them in quality. Power ups introduced in Sonic 3 & Knuckles can also be found scattered throughout levels, allowing for additional protection and giving players additional ways to explore and interact with the levels. Sonic moves exactly as you remember: a sluggish warm up that eventually gets to a good tick if you spin or begin going downhill, and although Sonic feels a little snappier than from the Genesis days, the momentum, jumping, and spinning is nearly exact. The adoration for the series roots are on display in full force and when all cylinders are firing, Sonic Mania is the proper sequel to Sonic 3 & Knuckles that I always wanted. But, it is also this level of dedication to the original formula that brings the game to a grinding halt.
Sonic’s gameplay has always been something of a convolution with fans and the developers alike. Sonic was established on his speed; Sega bet their dollars on movement speed to be the selling point for Sonic and at first, it worked. They tried to convince players that Mario was a molasses-waddling plumber for children, while Sonic was cool as hell and even quicker. But even in Sonic’s heyday, this philosophy felt paradoxical. Moving Sonic at these blistering speeds is almost always punished by spikes or a rouge enemy, and the nauseatingly annoying sound of spilt rings cries out. No one found the solution during Sonic Mania’s development. Nearly every chance to “go fast” I took, I found myself regretting it — spikes, cliff edges, enemies that seem benign but cannot be touched, everything wants to stop you in your tracks from realizing Sonic’s potential as the fastest hedgehog of all. Even worse than going fast, is “going slow” in Sonic Mania. Sonic takes an eternity to get up to a useful pace, and touching anything hazardous in this state of meandering is guaranteed to result in harm. The more often I died, the worse I just wanted to complete the level. This created an infuriating snake-tail consumption cycle where I would repeatedly die for trying to “go fast”, just to desperately try to do the same to progress. There isn’t really a safe speed for Sonic to move at, and this isn’t just detrimental to Sonic Mania, but the franchise as a whole. It’s certainly not a new-found issue, but it is exacerbated by the increased length off the game.
The level design of Sonic Mania is sprawling, similar to the Genesis titles when compared to other platformers of the era. Sonic has multiple pathways to make it across a level, often broken into three: high, middle, and low. This gives levels have some additional replayability, but not enough to warrant the amount of times you may experience some. Each stage has 2 levels, both ending with a boss fight of wildly varying difficulty. Some bosses were incredibly unique and I even caught myself audibly uttering “whaaaaaaat” a couple times. Unfortunately, this sense of wonder fades away when fighting the same boss for the seventh time, after playing through both levels of the stage to get to it seven times as well. Each time the player dies enough times to get a game over, you have to play through both parts of the stage again to get back to the boss or area you died at — there are no continues. Some may have a “get good” mentality on the subject, but I implore you to reconsider.
The later zones of Sonic Mania go from difficult to nearly unplayable due crushing objects that kill instantly, despite a number of rings Sonic is carrying at any given time. The last two zones in particular almost entirely exchange tricky platforming and enemy placement for cheap, one-hit kills that can rapidly drain your already limited pool of lives. Upon each game over, you have to try both levels again, every time. The sheer frustration I was feeling toward the end of Sonic Mania was only heightened by the increased level length of the later stages. On more than one occasion I died just because the time allotment of ten minutes wasn’t enough for me to reach the end (time freezes once you reach the boss room). All the good faith Sonic Mania builds in the early zones is completely void by the end of the game, and that’s too bad.
Praising Sonic Mania for what it does right is important: it is a beautifully penned love letter to a genre-titan of a different generation, and the love and admiration for Sonic seeps into every pore. And I truly wish this was enough to make the game an outstanding experience from beginning to end, but it just isn’t. Under the shining coat and glorious soundtrack, which is the best part of the game, it is still a Sonic game. You still have to find bumpers to spin you up a seemingly impossible ledge, you can still drown if underwater for too long without finding a bubble, and you can still get crushed unfairly between two moving objects, which made my stomach drop in anguish two dozen too many times. The frustrations caused by the core principles of 2D Sonic games were not resolved with Sonic Mania, and I don’t know that they ever will be. My time with Sonic Mania was much like any Sonic level: I began from a high point, marveling at the color and sound, but as I rolled faster and faster downhill, I eventually hit a wall of spikes I couldn’t prepare for — truly the Sonic way.