So I am by no means a fan of Sonic games. I never understood why Sonic was all about going fast but then his levels would slow down to a crawl after Green Hill Zone, not to mention all the hidden springs or spikes that often interrupted your momentum, or precarious platforming that could sometimes lead to getting crushed and insta-killed. I’ve thought on several occasions that I could even do a Bad Game Design episode on some of the old Sonic games someday, but I think all of that has changed now. Knowing my background, I hope you understand how important it is when I say that you NEED to play Sonic Mania. The highest rated Sonic game in over 15 years wasn’t actually developed by Sonic team, but rather Headcannon and PagodaWest games, lead by Christian Whitehead, all known for their experience on Sonic fangames, rom hacks and enhanced ports, so Sonic Mania was quite literally made by the fans for the fans of the early games.
There are 12 main zones to explore, split up into 2 acts each, 4 of which are brand spankin’ new. Now you’ll have to forgive my lack of Sonic knowledge because most of the zones were fresh to me, but I do understand that some people wish there were more of these new stages because it’s where the game truly shines. In fact, it would seem that Sonic Mania relies very heavily on its original influences, which is both good and bad. Good because it captures the Sonic attitude and spirit of the 90’s, more on that in just a minute, but bad because a lot of the design issues I just talked about are present here as well. I want to get the negatives out of the way here early because they are far outweighed by the positives.
So yes, there is still the occasional spring or spike trap that can catch you off guard and stop you dead in your tracks, and yes you can still get smooshed and die even if 1 pixel of you is in between two walls – can we just agree that this mechanic needs to go? Like, even if it was replaced with taking a hit instead of instantly dying, then you wouldn’t have issues like this in Chemical Plant Zone – this is only the 2nd level and I wasn’t able to get past it without dying even on my third playthrough. What’s funny is that the first act of each zone is essentially a remake of the original levels, while the 2nd act adds some new variety to spice up the area, so you really only see these unfair tactics from back in the day in the first acts. But overall they could have done a better job of switching up the level design, since the difference of the 1st and 2nd acts are quite noticeable. Another frustrating element is that Sonic Mania still uses a lives and Game Over system, pushing you back to the start of the zone upon failure.
I can assume they kept this in even though it’s 2017 partly as a callback to the original games and partly to increase the difficulty, but I certainly had some aggravating moments where I died from a cheap kill on the final boss and had to redo the entire zone over again. Now this might sound oversimplified, but at least in my opinion, these setbacks didn’t bother me too much because Sonic Mania is simply so much fun to play! Just look at this! Everything is so bright and vivid, the detail in the pixel art is unreal! This is the hi-bit era in action my friends. Sometimes I didn’t want to zoom through a stage because I’d rather take in all the awesome scenery, no wait go back! They’ve adopted this sort-of neon pastel color palette and it perfectly emulates the soul and style that Sonic had back in his heyday.
The opening cutscene put a huge smile on my face, and music by Hyper Potions is *muah* beautiful. Finally, we have a game that gets it – and all the new levels especially show us what Sonic is capable of with today’s technology. The breathtaking themes and objects Sonic can interact with are delightful, from the giant guns in Mirage Saloon Zone to the popcorn poppers in Studiopolis Zone. The blue sphere bonus stages are back, which I mean, are alright, but the new “catch the UFO” minigames are super fun and the perfect reward for exploring the levels in search of those hidden rings. Each act has its own unique music and a boss fight to top it off, and some of them are so remarkable that I won’t spoil them for you here, you just gotta play it.
Powerups are more important than just taking an extra hit this time, you can burn up bridges or attach to magnetic surfaces, and it totally changes how you complete a level. I love that you can play as Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles and they all play vastly different from each other. Knuckles can glide and climb walls, but he’s pretty slow I didn’t like him very much, but Tails might have been my favorite since he can fly up high into the air to reach new pathways and secrets. He can also speed up boss fights where they just hang out at the top of the screen, that was pretty sweet. The cherry on the cake is that once you beat the game you can select any level you want to play again, which is perfect because all I want to do is play Mirage Saloon Zone until the end of time.
But perhaps the coolest epiphany I had while playing Sonic Mania is that I can at last see what Sonic fans love about the series. Maybe it was the updated graphics and level design, or maybe it’s the fact that a game over only sends you back to the start of a zone instead of the entire game, but I was finally able to finish a Sonic game and have a blast the whole way through.
I realized that Sonic isn’t ONLY about being speedy, but it’s about journeying through these fantastical worlds as a character that just so happens to also go fast occasionally, and these bits of momentum are just a bonus and feel great. I now understand the appeal of playing through a Sonic game more than once and feeling like I’m actually becoming a master of the mechanics, and discovering the high routes and well as the low routes.
Even if you die, your next runthrough of a level could be completely different if you take another path. Like, what? I never saw these guys before, I didn’t even know they were down here! So while yes, there are still aspects of Sonic’s design that can be annoying, like dealing with slopes or getting lost and backtracking to find where to go next, it’s all worth it to get these moments of sheer speed and skill where you just have to go “YAHOO!” So am I a Sonic convert now? I mean I wouldn’t go that far just yet, but if this is where the series is headed, I can see a prosperous future for the blue blur. Hopefully Sonic Team will take note of what the hedgehog and crew are capable of, and allow even more innovation in the future from other talented devs who know what the fans truly want. If you’re like me and are hesitant to give Sonic a go, trust me, this is the game you’ll want to start with. And I hope it can open your eyes to a whole new world of possibilities for the platformer genre like it did for me.