Back in the 90’s, Sonic was an icon of gaming excellence. The only truly worthy rival to Nintendo’s own universally beloved mascot, Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog once represented the very best that side-scrolling platform gaming had to offer, with the franchise being the biggest catalyst to Sega’s console gaming success with the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive during the era. Like some celebrities that were once on top of the world many years ago however, Sonic fell from grace when he found himself struggling to adapt to a shifting climate in the gaming medium. While Mario effortlessly transitioned into the modern era of three-dimensional gaming with instant classics like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, Sonic stumbled over numerous failed offshoots and three-dimensional ‘evolutions’ that ended up doing more harm than good for Sega’s once-celebrated series of mascot platformers.
Nevertheless, the Sonic the Hedgehog fan community persisted with their love and devotion to the franchise, even after all of its many ill-fated modern offerings, as they always pledged to keep waiting for the next truly great Sonic game. Among these fans was Christian “Taxman” Whitehead, a skilled modder who previously got the attention of Sega when he was hired to successfully bring the series’ fan-favourite Sega CD entry, Sonic CD to modern computers, mobile and then-current consoles several years ago. Teaming up with PagodaWest Games and Headcannon, Taxman has since been given the keys to the kingdom, commissioned by Sega to make an entirely new retro-style Sonic the Hedgehog game. Consequently, it’s thanks to these devoted fans that we can finally have the next truly great Sonic game.
Sonic Mania is simultaneously an excellent throwback to the glory days of Sonic the Hedgehog, and easily the best Sonic game since those days when taken on its own merits. It’s difficult to divorce the game from its classic inspirations, seeing as many of its stages, enemies and challenges are taken directly from them, but even then, this is a very high-quality side-scrolling offering that finally puts the magic back in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, bringing together the old with the new to provide the true sequel to the Genesis-era Sonic the Hedgehog games that the two-part Sonic the Hedgehog 4 previously promised, and failed to deliver. Sonic Mania is simply a must-play for anyone who considers themselves to have any degree of love and respect for retro gaming, especially if you first cut your gaming teeth on Sega’s highlight 16-bit console back in the day!
Sonic Mania maintains the 2D stylings of the Genesis-era Sonic the Hedgehog games that previously came our way during the early 90’s, but with more added 32-bit polish that makes it feel like a genuine lost classic series entry, one that possibly could have released on the successive Sega Saturn console, or perhaps even the Genesis’ short-lived Sega 32X add-on. Many of the fundamental character sprites and environmental templates from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles on Genesis (some stage designs and animations on Sonic himself are also lifted from Sonic CD), are maintained in Sonic Mania, though they’re also given extra detail, colour mixing and bright HD polish that exceptionally takes advantage of current consoles and PC hardware. This is especially true in the case of the PS4 version, which displays in native 4K resolution when played on a PS4 Pro, providing a gorgeous added sense of scale and detail to the experience for those privileged enough to own both a PS4 Pro and a 4K television!
What’s most important however is that Sonic Mania virtually always runs at a perfectly undisturbed 60fps performance clip, meaning that the speedy, responsive action is never compromised, nor does it ever lag or stutter during any component of main gameplay, on any platform! That’s crucial, and luckily, Sonic Mania definitely nails this classic franchise’s sense of incredible speed and reflex-driven platforming! The Nintendo Switch version of Sonic Mania sees a few small performance hiccups during the three-dimensional bonus stages, where players have to chase a Chaos Emerald within a time limit, but these hiccups are barely noticeable, and don’t seem to be present at all on other platforms. Moreover, outside of these bonus stages, even the Nintendo Switch version of Sonic Mania never dips below a perfect 60fps clip, regardless of whether you’re playing the Switch version in Docked Mode or Handheld Mode.
What’s also important to mention is that, even with the modern tweaks and upgrades, Sonic Mania looks distinctly like a classic Sonic the Hedgehog game, and that even applies to the game’s handful of all-new stages. Even the all-new stage quirks, such as Studiopolis Zone’s satellite-beaming warps and Mirage Saloon Zone’s hedgehog-firing giant guns, fit right in with the style and sensibility of the Genesis-era titles that fans have always loved. Right from first glance, you can identify Sonic Mania as a game by Sonic fans, for Sonic fans, and even then, it’s so great that it will be equally appealing to both watch and play for newcomers!
The highly polished retro throwback graphics in Sonic Mania are great enough, but perhaps even better is the game’s thoroughly outstanding soundtrack! Sonic Mania easily offers one of the best music suites among any game released in 2017 to date, period, with the soundtrack consisting of both touched-up old favourites from the Genesis era, several all-new remixes of said tunes, and finally, all new boss themes, bonus themes and stage themes to go with the brand new content that’s been added to Sonic Mania. Not only are the old tunes fun and catchy as ever, but the brand new tunes also fit right in, having the perfect composition that makes them feel like they could have been authentically featured in the Genesis-era Sonic the Hedgehog games, even when this new music is being put together on modern hardware.
Naturally, the sound effects in Sonic Mania are also spot-on in every respect, with the classic audio prompts for defeated enemies, attained items, damage taken, rings collected, and everything else all preserved perfectly from the Genesis-era Sonic the Hedgehog games, except now given a bit more punch with the improved audio memory afforded on modern consoles and computers. Even as the music is touched up and made better than ever, it feels like the classic Sonic the Hedgehog sound effects have been entirely left alone, but that works in this case. The sound effects are a big part of what makes Sonic Mania feel like an authentic new Sonic the Hedgehog entry, the very one that fans and general Sega enthusiasts demanded for decades. Fortunately, Sonic Mania sounds the part as much as it looks the part, which is to say, flawlessly.
Sonic Mania’s gameplay takes us back to the time when the simple gameplay foundation of Sonic the Hedgehog ruled the console gaming realm, stiff Nintendo competition notwithstanding. This is as simple a gaming experience as they come, with players using a D-Pad to run, and face buttons to jump, bouncing off of Badnik robots and springboards to speed through multi-layered side-scrolling stages as quickly as possible. Naturally, other moves, like Sonic’s Spin Dash, are preserved with the same simple button commands in Sonic Mania, and this also applies to other playable characters, Tails and Knuckles, who have their own perfectly preserved abilities from the Genesis era that are brought back in full for Sonic Mania.
Initially, especially considering that the bulk of Sonic Mania’s stages are taken from the classic Sonic the Hedgehog entries on Sega Genesis/Sega CD, you’ll get a sense of welcome familiarity with the game. Before long however, even formerly benign stages like Green Hill Zone will soon give way to new tricks, traps and twists, with even the classic levels redesigned from the ground up with new Badniks, new hazards, new hidden goodies, and new paths to explore! Even the oldest of classic Sonic the Hedgehog stages are made massive and sprawling in Sonic Mania, with many potential paths to the end boss battle and subsequent goal, making each stage in the game akin to the enormous stage scale from Sonic CD, and perhaps even larger! Obviously, avid Sonic the Hedgehog fans will love to discover the many all-new spins on their favourite stage designs!
The game progression is still a simple matter of running, jumping and reaching the endpoint of a stage, but it’s the finer design detail of Sonic Mania that really makes it superb, and no one will appreciate that more than longtime Sonic the Hedgehog fans who have been frequently frustrated at the series’ modern inadequacies. Each stage, boss battle and bonus challenge in Sonic Mania is intimately and passionately crafted to maximize all of the potential in formerly established challenges from the classic Genesis-era games, along with plenty of awesome new obstacles and foes thrown in for good measure. The bosses in particular are entirely new in Sonic Mania, making some small nods to the classic Genesis-era Robotnik monstrosities, but mostly existing as their own entities, all of which are impeccably designed, challenging and extremely creative!
Also preserved is the occasionally uncompromising challenge in Sonic Mania’s stages as well, which is likely good news for retro gaming enthusiasts that always thirst for a good challenge. There are some concessions made to avoid things becoming too unfair in Sonic Mania, namely generous arrays of rings and 1-ups strewn around each stage to collect, but if you were hoping that the game would pull some punches for a modern audience, it really doesn’t. Even the frustrations feel lovingly preserved from the glory days of Sonic the Hedgehog however, whether it’s blind drops that dump you into bottomless pits, long dashes that occasionally run you into some damaging spikes or enemies, or a mere handful of rings to sustain yourself on if you happen to lose a life against a stage’s boss, and need to re-challenge them. Those are all par for the course in the classic Sonic the Hedgehog games, and fortunately, while you’re kicked back to the start of a zone if you lose all your lives, you can at least save your progress and revisit completed levels at your leisure, without having to trudge through the entire game again to get where you want to go.
This is especially handy when it comes to the bonus stages, of which there are two varieties in Sonic Mania. The first, which can be entered after passing through any stage checkpoint while carrying 25 or more rings by leaping into a sparkling circle above, is a perfectly preserved ‘Blue Sphere’ challenge from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, whereupon you move on a three-dimensional spherical grid to try and collect as many rings and blue spheres as possible, while avoiding the red spheres that will kick you out of the stage. The second bonus stage variety in Sonic Mania is entirely new, and is entered when you find hidden Giant Rings in each stage. These three-dimensional bonus stages have you automatically dashing forward, and task you with collecting blue spheres to gradually speed up, while collecting rings to increase your time, in an effort to catch up to a robot that’s fleeing with a Chaos Emerald. As with any classic Sonic the Hedgehog game, there are seven Chaos Emeralds to optionally collect in Sonic Mania, and you’ll have to snatch up all of them to see the true final boss and true ending in the game, with each of the three playable characters also offering a different ending sequence to boot!
While Sonic the Hedgehog fans know the deal with Chaos Emeralds by this point, they’ll instead find themselves collecting Silver Medallions for completing the Blue Sphere stages, or Gold Medallions if they complete these stages by also collecting every ring hidden in them as well as the blue spheres. Silver Medallions and Gold Medallions are used to unlock several additional extras in the game, all of which will be highly enjoyed by fans, such as a sound test and a debug mode. Playing through Sonic Mania’s challenges will also net you more bonus modes, such as a Time Attack mode where you race to beat your best stage completion times, a Competition Mode where you can race against a local friend in a specialized competition stage, a la Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and Knuckles Mode, where you can naturally play as tertiary protagonist, Knuckles in the main ‘Mania Mode’.
In every respect, Sonic Mania provides a robust and perfectly realized Sonic the Hedgehog package. Even the controls and physics are preserved perfectly from the classic Genesis era of Sonic the Hedgehog games, with Sonic and other characters racing, leaping and overall handling with the same satisfying quality that they did in the Genesis days. The gameplay is undeniably nostalgic in nature, designed primarily for people who don’t mind the occasional frustrations that come with 90’s-inspired retro platformers and their inspirations, but Sonic Mania is so wonderfully designed nonetheless that even total newcomers to the franchise will find it to be an amazing jumping-on point. Even if Sonic Mania’s target audience is clearly established fans of this franchise, those entirely new to the classic Sonic the Hedgehog experience, the way that it was originally meant to be enjoyed, will also get a perfect highlight reel of ‘Greatest Hits’ stages, along with all-new stages and challenges, in Sonic Mania, delivering respect and faithfulness to the old ways, while bringing them up to date to make them just as appealing to today’s gamer.
Sonic Mania succeeds as a modern platformer, a retro-inspired platformer, a love letter to classic Sonic the Hedgehog games, and the perfect excuse to discover the best foundations of Sonic the Hedgehog for the first time, if you haven’t already. This game is full to burst with fan service for longtime Sonic the Hedgehog loyalists who have been dying for a game like this for so many years, but it’s also so well-crafted and lovingly made that even a new generation of fans can easily discover it and enjoy it, particularly given Sonic Mania’s modest $19.99 USD/$25.99 CAN price, and paltry 300MB-or-thereabouts file size on any platform. It may come in a small package, but finally, over two decades later, it feels like the proper second coming of Sonic the Hedgehog has finally arrived with Sonic Mania!
Whether you’ve loved the Blue Blur since his glory days, or are looking to see why other people did so many years ago, Sonic Mania is a must-play experience. It’s consistently fun, only occasionally frustrating, and always feels like it’s been put together with tons of heart and dedication. You really can’t go wrong with any version of the game either, since they all provide an outstanding experience, even if the PS4 version’s 4K advantage on PS4 Pro gives it a bit of a visual edge over the Xbox One version for now (until the likely Xbox One X patch arrives later), plus the Nintendo Switch version provides a particularly tantalizing advantage, since that one can be taken on the go with you, even if you lose achievements/trophies to earn in that case.
It seems that, in all of his many efforts to find renewed relevance in the modern gaming era, what Sonic was looking for was indeed right in front of him. Sonic never needed to change. Sonic never needed to forsake the speedy, snappy 2D fundamentals of what made him a star in the Genesis era. Sure, Sonic is very much an icon of the 90’s, but in our constant quest for nostalgic satisfaction in the modern age, he never truly needed to leave that decade to continue entertaining us. Perhaps Mario can change, evolve and still perfectly fit in with every new hardware innovation and modern game design sensibility, but in resigning himself to his place in time, Sonic finally found the renewed love and adoration that fans so badly wanted to give him. It just goes to show that, sometimes, you really don’t need to fix what isn’t broken.
Sonic Mania succeeds as both a nostalgic love letter to Sonic and a great new retro-inspired platformer. It's quite possibly the best Sonic the Hedgehog game ever made to date!
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THE GOOD STUFF
Outstanding visual presentation that nicely updates the classic Genesis style
Amazing soundtrack that combines re-imagined old tunes with perfectly fitting new ones
Speedy, satisfying and challenging gameplay that feels both faithful and new