In Sonic Mania, Sega’s blue hedgehog returns to winning form. Much more than just a remake, this fan-fuelled platformer recreates all the warm memories from those halcyon days of the early nineties, managing a fine balance between feeding nostalgia and evolving the series. Twenty years might be a long wait for some, but the classic 2D series finally has a worthy successor.
However, working out what makes Sonic Mania such a delight is more difficult to pin down. It’s almost like listening to a tribute act for a long-retired rock group, where the songs are so familiar you can mouth the words as the band plays. But, as you sit there nursing your beer and shooting the breeze with your friends, your ear begins to notice a change. These are the riffs you remember but the sound is richer, warmer, more encompassing. The melodies reach out, extending into new places. Before you know it, you’re falling in love all over again, driven giddily and headless by this sublime amalgamation of old and new.
So it is with the fifth installment in the Sonic series. Sonic Mania is not a slavish clone, but a reconstruction of how we remember playing in front of a thick glass TV on the Genesis all those years ago. It picks up that glimmer and pulls it like taffy with extended levels full of multiple pathways and hidden secrets. Alongside eight re-imaginings of classic zones are four completely new locations, backed by remastered music tracks and distinctive remixes.
For the seasoned Sonic fan, it’s a potent and intoxicating blend, even if I no longer have the reflexes I had when I was 12 years old. But there’s also a nagging fear that Mania is a love letter to aging gamers with graying hair, and doesn’t offer much to the more modern and sophisticated younger gamer. As such, more modern conveniences have crept in, such as the ability to save games and unlock achievements. Even so, mastering the formidable levels and defeating the reworked boss encounters is likely to be a satisfying challenge for both newcomer and veteran alike.
The story, such that it is, has Dr. Robotnik discovering a mysterious ‘Phantom Ruby’ that can cause dimensional ruptures. In order to put a stop to the Eggman’s nefarious schemes, Sonic teams up with Tails and Knuckles to take down hordes of robotic minions across each of those 12 levels. Each of those levels is carved up into two Acts, with various different boss fights against Dr. Robotnik’s henchmen at the end of each.
Just as a note, there’s some fantastic witchcraft that goes on when transitioning between the two acts that make it almost seamless. It was an evolving touch that immediately jumped out as a neat way of preserving momentum, but also served as a reminder that I still had more work to do before I reached a save point.
It wouldn’t be Sonic without special stages to collect Chaos Emeralds, and Mania even offers a unique ending if you manage to collect all 7. Unlike previous incarnations where you’ve simply needed to hit a ring threshold, the special stages here are accessed by leaping through a giant ring hidden somewhere in the level. It encourages exploration rather than simply picking the fastest route, particularly considering just how many ways there are to go from start to finish.
Despite all these updates, getting around each of the levels still feels instantly familiar, even though controller technology has changed radically over the last twenty years. Spin attacks work the same as they always did, and Sonic responds in the same way he always has. With a 2D platformer precision is key and, whether I was using the thumbsticks or directional pad, I never felt that it was missing.
While some aspects have been faithfully reproduced, there are a few notable areas where Sonic Mania evolves the series in a largely positive way. The animation is significantly smoother, taking full advantage of the 60fps that modern displays support. The color palette and pixel maps have been thoughtfully improved, delivering an experience that feels richer while being every bit classic Sonic. And, instead of reusing those classic chiptunes, each act features an electro-pop remastered or remixed theme, while retaining the original flair.
But, while I’ve heaped praise on Sonic Mania so far, it’s not entirely a bed of gold rings. Retro remakes have a knack of reminding us how and why game design has evolved, and this is no different. The fixed difficulty and lack of frequent saves, coupled with occasionally punishing level design, serve as a reminder on why modern experiences tend to have both. But, on the flipside, it plays to Mania’s strength of level variety – I often didn’t mind dying because it provided an opportunity to experience a different route.
Regardless, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Sonic Mania, and it’s a clear example of just how successful fan-created passion projects can be when they’re nurtured by a studio. I’m also hopeful that the 2D journey doesn’t end here either, but encourages Sega to continue further down this road with even more new content in the future. In the meantime, 3D fans have Sonic Forces to look forward to when it launches later this year.