Other review taglines considered: For the Mania, by the Mania, Nostalgia Ultra, Sonic Mania Review & Knuckles and pretty much any joke that references blast processing.
Sonic Mania makes me smile and it makes me happy, and those are two of the highest compliments that I can give to any medium of entertainment. Every inch of this game is dripping with personality, and it truly feels like an authentic classic Sonic the Hedgehog experience that was created by fans, for fans.
The history of the game’s developers is well documented on the internet, so I won’t be detailing any of that here, but I will say that it is extremely apparent that the team knew their stuff about 2d Sonic games. From the programmers, to the level designers and lead composer, Sonic Mania was lovingly created by an all star cast of long time Sonic community members.
Sonic Mania has amazing presentation on pretty much all fronts. The lovingly created pixel art is gorgeous, and the animations are super fluid (plus, the idle animations are super in character). I’ve always loved the background art of the classic games, and Sonic Mania has some of the coolest ones in the franchise. The game’s crisp visuals are accompanied by what I believe to be one of the best Sonic soundtracks ever, special mention to Mirage Saloon Act 2, and both acts of Studiopolis.
Sonic Mania’s entire premise is old levels with new twists, with a handful of really inventive original levels sprinkled in along the way. This is almost exactly like 2011’s Sonic Generations, but Sonic Mania executed the concept with a lot more style. The returning levels in Generations were fairly similar to the original versions, just with a different gameplay style.
Sonic Mania on the other hand, really mixes things up. The first act of most of the returning levels share many similarities with their original counterparts, but the second acts are different enough that they could almost be considered new levels. Chemical Plants turns into, well, an actual chemical plant where you can bounce off various types of gels, while Flying Battery incorporates elements of Sonic 2’s Wing Fortress.
That’s another thing about Sonic Mania. Beyond the old levels that were chosen for the game, gimmicks from various other levels were brought in for a bit of variety. I would’ve never expected to see the pulleys and switches from Sonic 3’s Marble Garden used in Sonic CD’s Stardust Speedway, and nods like this are constant throughout the entire game.
Continuing Sonic Mania’s theme of celebrating Sonic’s history is the game’s level design mentality. Sonic Mania combines the best ideas from each of the classic games. This means it has the verticality of Sonic CD, the expansive level design with multiple routes and hidden special stages from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, as well as the general pacing that I loved about Sonic 2.
Levels are big, huge in fact, but I never got lost or felt overwhelmed with just how open ended the levels presented to me where, nor did I feel that any particular levels drug on for too long. Whenever I wanted to just charge straight to the goal, the game would allow me to do so with ease.
Conversely, the game also encourages and incentivises active exploration. The levels aren’t just big for the sake of, they are jam packed with tons of secrets to discover. For example, when I did my first playthrough as Sonic, I found a handful of special stages on the main path, as well as plenty of shields and extra lives.
I went in as Tails on my second playthrough, and I was able to obtain four Chaos Emeralds in Green Hill alone, not to mention the bevy of top routes that yielded greater rewards. Knuckles (tougher than the rest of them) also has plenty of areas that he can find by climbing, gliding or breaking down obstacles.
Unique character routes are one of the best parts of Sonic 3, and Mania really turns it up to 11. Each of my romps through the game with Sonic, Tails and Knuckles have felt fresh and new every time, and I’m still finding new areas to explore. The level design as a whole is a great mix of speed and platforming. The speed is a reward for smart and skillful play, while the platforming challenges are a fun test of your reflexes, but they never ask you do any precision jumping.
The trio also come equipped with their classic movesets. Each of them can roll into a ball and Spin Dash, while Tails can fly and swim, and Knuckles can glide and climb walls. Sonic this time around has a new move called the Drop Dash, which essentially allows him to charge a Spin Dash in the air. I found myself using this move all the time, and I’m sure it’ll be a great tool for speedrunners.
Sonic Mania also does a really cool job of incorporating the elemental shields into the design, and it does so in a very natural way. The shields are never presented to the player as set pieces, rather, there are a handful of levels where having a specific type of shield is a huge benefit. These examples range from using the electric shield to access a special stage in Flying Battery, or using the fire shield to make Press Garden’s ice hazards a non issue.
As is standard for classic Sonic, the game has it’s own special and bonus stages. The special stages are an interesting mix of Sonic CD’s UFOs and Sonic 3’s blue spheres, complete with polygonal, Sega Saturn-esque graphics. Players must collect blue spheres in order to become fast enough to catch the UFO, all while navigating obstacle courses and collecting rings to increase your time limit.
These might be my favorite special stages in the series. They are easy to pick up, with one or two of them being fairly challenging, and I love being able to enter them by finding the giant rings in the levels, another way in which the game encourages exploration.
The bonus stages are accessed by jumping into the portal of stars that are formed when you pass a checkpoint with a certain amount of rings. The game’s only bonus stages are various layouts of the blue spheres, and completion nets you either a gold or silver medallion, which unlock various secret content.
The bonus stages are my only major complaint with the game. I adore blue sphere, I just wish it wasn’t the only type of bonus stage available, as I grew tired of them by my third playthrough of the game. I think it would’ve been better if these stages existed alongside one or two other ones that award you extra lives and power ups, similar to Sonic 3.
When it comes to most Sonic boss fights, I’m not a fan, and games like Sonic Rush have bosses that I actively dislike. But with the exception of the act two boss from one of the returning stages, I love every boss in Sonic Mania, with special mention going to Eggman’s army of Hard Boiled Heavies. The Eggman encounters are fun, if not pretty standard, but each of the Heavies brings something new to the fight.
The Hard Boiled Heavy that is fought in Studiopolis drives a high speed helicopter and is equipped with a rocket launcher, while one of the later Heavies is a ninja who can freeze our heroes with quick sword swipes, and throw the Asterons from Sonic 2’s Metropolis Zone as shuriken. Besides presenting unique challenges, the Heavies are just a charming group of bad guys.
The one fatal flaw of Sonic Generations (an amazing game, to this day) didn’t have anything to do with its gameplay, but with its fan service. As a game to celebrate the 20th anniversary for the series, it did have a handful of callbacks and references, but not nearly the amount that was expected.
The entirety of Sonic Mania is filled with this type of stuff, and I refuse to spoil any of that here. But I will say that these references just feed back into the theme of Sonic Mania being a game that was created by fans, for fans. It’s rare that something in a game genuinely shocks me, but there were moments in this game where I noticed my mouth was either legitimately agape, or defined by an ear to ear smile.
Sonic Mania is a celebration of Sonic’s past, and hopefully, a strong indicator of his future direction. I don’t know that I’ve ever played a game where every single element of it was so lovingly crafted and given the same amount of attention to detail, and that really does make for a wonderful experience.
No matter what you love about Sonic the Hedgehog, be it exploration, the characters or just tried and true speed, Sonic Mania has it in spades. I’m not ready to say this definitively, but Sonic Mania may very well be the best classic Sonic game, and will probably end up being my favorite. Sonic Mania is also a great entry point for newcomers, and is what I’ll be recommending to them going forward.
I’ve never wanted more for people to just play and have fun with a game. I genuinely believe that anybody who loves gaming can find some enjoyment to be had with Sonic Mania, and I hope that we get more and more games, with all original ideas and levels, going forward. And oh yeah, Tyson Hesse’s classic Sonic is best classic Sonic, and the animated intro cutscene is my favorite thing in the world right now. Additional shout out to Hyper Potions for the awesome trailer music.