Most people can (and will) tell you that Sonic’s strongest games came out early in its timeline, with the first three installments on the Sega Genesis interchangeably holding the title of “Best Sonic Game.” After the Blue Blur made the jump to 3D, though, things kind of, well… went to shit, as it were, with only a few notable exceptions the past decade. Modern Sonic in general has always been littered with clunky 3D navigation, and is often affiliated with heavy-handed gimmicks and questionable design choices, both story and gameplay-wise. That’s been evident even before the beautiful trainwreck that was SONIC THE HEDGEHOG (2006). The few Sonic games in recent memory that have been relatively both well-liked and financially successful for Sega, like SONIC GENERATIONS, have done so by harkening back to ye-olden-times of his heyday on the Sega Genesis, and capitalizing on fans’ nostalgia by recycling certain stages and elements of the past.
SONIC MANIA, though, is much more than just a simple recycling or remixing. Being the officially sanctioned fan project and lovechild of developer Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games, SONIC MANIA is a giant love letter to those Sega Genesis classics, mashing up all the aspects of what makes those games special while also sprinkling in tons of new assets to make itself fresh and different.
SONIC MANIA goes out of its way to feel like a natural progression on those three core games, so much so that it makes itself out as the sequel to SONIC 3 & KNUCKLES (because the actual sequel was just kinda “eh”). The conflict is still the same as ever with our speedy, primary-colored hedgehog duking it out with the evil, mechanophilic Dr. Eggman and foiling his plans of conquest, with the McGuffin mineral of choice this time around being the time/space-altering Phantom Ruby. Like most games from that 2D era, the plot’s not much more than a justification for SONIC MANIA’s action, so the bulk of its enjoyability boils down to gameplay and presentation. And to the game’s credit, both are done exceptionally well.
Sonic’s basic formula of getting from point A to point B as fast as possible stays relatively unchanged from the original trilogy, and keeps things fairly simple. But in its simplicity, the game allows lots of experimentation to be had, be it figuring out shortcuts, trying out different paths to the end-goal, and exploring each stage for secrets like power-ups, bonus stages, and minigames. Likewise, each of the three playable characters (Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles), while having most of the same mechanics, like being able to Spin Dash to pick up speed, all enable different playstyles that makes choosing one over another important.
Let’s be real, though, Tails is obviously the best one
The stages offer a lot to be loved, especially to those who are fans of the Sega classics. While the obligatory Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone show up as homage to the originals, not every stage is a rehash or recycled mockup of the trilogy’s “Best Of” highlight reel. There are a number of returning stages from said games that are (for the most part) similar to their original state in Act One, yet by Act Two are mixed in with a slew of mashed-up enemies, new mechanics, and varied structure that make it into something completely different and infinitely more enjoyable. Each stage both encourages and makes exploration actually feel like it’s worth doing, and made me take things a bit slower to appreciate every little detail in the environment, the characters models, and especially the music. In a game where the main objective is “Go Fast.” Even the Bonus Stage minigames, which are usually the most boring part of a Sonic title, were immensely enjoyable this time around compared to the game’s predecessors.
Boss fights in SONIC MANIA are also something worthy of note, and were honestly my favorite part of the experience. While some of the bosses did feel a bit on-the-nose in their patterns, or too smart for their own good, the most noticeable aspect of the boss of each stage was how unique their inspirations were. They matched the game’s theme of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, and mutating it until it became something both nostalgic and ingenious. While not insanely difficult, experimentation and toying with the playstyles of your three different characters is definitely encouraged while tackling these portions of the game. And while some of the bosses limit themselves to one screen like in the originals, there are plenty of different flavors of boss fight to keep the experience feeling fresh, including fast-paced boss escapes, Mega Man-esque duels, and (my personal favorite), one that involves recreating DR. ROBOTNIK’S MEAN BEAN MACHINE.
As you may know, PUYO PUYO often results in death
Probably the most telling thing about the whole game though is that none of the bosses, stages, what have you, feel overly gimmicky or blasé. Even if that seems odd to mention, it’s a pitfall that Sonic seemingly finds himself falling into quite often. And the fact that a Sonic game, a sanctified fan-game, is able to succeed without feeling tired or reliant on its namesake for perceived “quality,” able to stand on its own while at the same time giving its fans the kind of experience they’ve been craving for years, is something truly endearing. Who knew that all it took to make a good Sonic game was to keep things simple and just improve on what worked, rather than have the poor hedgehog reinvent the wheel for the billionth time.
That’s probably one of the biggest praises I can give SONIC MANIA, all things considered. Given a passing glance at Sonic’s track record the past decade, the game had every possibility to be a cloying grasp at nostalgia and a gimmicky hot mess, like being a knight, or werehog, or whatever. But instead of doing that, SONIC MANIA chose to keep things simple, a figurative and literal return to roots that does so much with so little, and succeeds because of it. Hell, I didn’t even grow up with Sonic and didn’t play the originals until, like, maybe four years ago (unfortunately having my first impression be with the aforementioned werehog), and I can say this is the best experience I’ve had with the franchise. Whether you are a returning fan or a greenhorn, SONIC MANIA delivers a ride that Sega hasn’t been able to give for a long time. Considering you got a hankerin’ for the retro stuff, you won’t do better than this.
Reviewed on the PlayStation 4