Less of a remake, and more of a frantic remix – Sonic Mania is the best Sonic game I’ve had the pleasure of playing in the past 15 years. Which is a sad statement considering how Sonic the Hedgehog nearly rivalled Mario back in the day, and just how many mediocre games the franchise has pumped out since.
I was always more of a Sonic kid than a Mario kid, but I tried to put all my nostalgic memories aside to review this game with an unbiased opinion. Which was no easy feat considering Sonic Mania kicks off with the iconic Green Hill Zone level – the instantly recognisable first environment from the original Sonic the Hedgehog way back in 1991. The rolling hills, energetic soundtrack, and a beautifully animated charismatic Sonic hit me hard in the sentimental boin-loins.
While 2D side-scrolling platformers were all the rage in the early 90s, what set Sonic apart from rivals like Mario was the sheer speed of gameplay and an unique sense of momentum. Kitted out with aerodynamic hair and snazzy red sneakers, you can have Sonic zipping through loops, flying into the air, and satisfyingly catching landings just right to continue your run. Sonic played out more like a daredevil motorcycle game than a traditional platformer.
Sonic Mania captures this essence perfectly, and now thanks to modern-day frame rates, gives you an even deeper appreciation for the pace of the game. As Sonic flies through levels as a blue blur, collecting precious golden rings and leaping over deadly obstacles, there is a satisfying flow that is undeniably rewarding, and... cool – as any kid from the 90s will remember feeling when playing the original.
The game features twelve zones, with two acts for each zone, and each ending with a big boss fight. Around a quarter of these levels are completely new to Sonic Mania, but the rest all close reference environments seen in Sonic 1, 2, 3, Knuckles, and even Sonic CD. While level progression is always left to right, often pipes or shortcuts will have you traversing up and down and even backwards to discover secret areas.
Sonic Mania (like the originals) mixes up the gameplay with slower levels such as Hydrocity which takes place underwater, but unfortunately Sonic has always had trouble with precision. Even in this new outing, the issues with accuracy are glaringly obvious when things slow down. Trying to land in-between spikes or hit a narrow platform can be a frustrating chore at times, amplified by the eye-wincing sound effect as Sonic spills all of his precious rings when hurt.
It also has drop-in / out cooperative play where a friend can accompany Sonic controlling Tails at different parts of the game, and if you’re playing singleplayer then your sidekick will be controlled by AI. In addition to the story mode, the game also includes a 1-on-1 competitive split-screen mode and a time attack mode for each act, where you try and beat each other’s score and time.
Each zone has multiple hidden Giant Rings to collect too, with each one unlocking a pseudo-3D mini bonus round where you have to collect orbs, rings, or items within a set time period. While the visuals and gameplay feel dated here, they help to break up the side-scrolling gameplay and they are a nice tip of the hat to Sonic CD which featured them back in 1993.
As experienced with other remake games like Crash Bandicoot, the difficulty factor is certainly noticeable. The simple controls are accessible, but as mentioned, they still lead to some frustrations where areas require precise movement. Even some of the simple actions such as trying to latch onto Tails while he flies through the air for some extra lift can be a matter of luck.
The break-neck pace of the game means that blinking can be out of the question too. The graphics have all been lovingly re-created based off the original, but the bold colours and chunky textures hitting your retinas at one time can sometimes make it difficult to see exactly what will kill you and what’s a helpful collectable. When the camera zooms in close to the action, you’ll often just need to replay environments to rote learn a sequence to be able to confidently clear it with all your rings intact.
It’s fascinating that for all of the 3D, more technologically advanced Sonic games that we’ve seen over the years, this retro approach is still the best in over a decade. It’s mainly thanks to the development team being able to channel the essence of what made Sonic so successful in the first place. The decision by Sega to engage with independent studios Headcannon and PagodaWest Games after their passionate work in the Sonic fan community was a stroke of genius. It’s not perfect and it’s not ground-breaking in the slightest, but it’s still great to see Sonic back in good form after so many years of neglect.
Angus received a digital copy of Sonic Mania from Sega for review.