The idea of a new classic Sonic the Hedgehog title was but a lofty and impossible dream. I grew up playing and enjoying Sonic game after game ever since I first got into the franchise proper with Sonic Adventure 2: Battle, but I kept coming back to Sonic Mega Collection in particular. As I played and replayed Sonic 3 & Knuckles ad nauseum over the years, I made peace with the fact that the classic chapter of the Blue Blur was over, as much as I wished to see a brand new retro entry someday.
That said, I remember tuning in to the 25th anniversary livestream not knowing what to expect outside of a new modern Sonic experience, but a surprise reveal trailer SEGA proudly presented at the start of the event left me absolutely floored. A return-to-form Sonic game, and its development is almost entirely entrusted to community all-stars? I could hardly believe it!
One year later, the highly anticipated Sonic Mania is finally here, but the question remains: does it truly live up to the mania, or do they just not make 'em like they used to?
First, to understand the excitement for the game, one should learn about the origins of the team behind it. While Sonic Team is busy producing Sonic Forces, a new classic-inspired Sonic game was pitched to series director Takashi Iizuka, and with his approval, development began in earnest in early 2016. The selected dream team for Sonic Mania is thus comprised of ROM hackers and fan game creators who all became renowned over the years within the community, starting with Christian Whitehead at the helm.
Whitehead, also known as "The Taxman," developed a multiplatform "Retro Engine" that replicated Genesis-era Sonic game physics, which he first applied to his own work called Retro Sonic. He would later pitch an iPhone port of Sonic CD using his engine to SEGA, and his version would then receive an official remastered release in 2011 on contemporary consoles. Alongside later mobile remasters of Sonic 1 and Sonic 2, Whitehead's iteration of Sonic CD is considered the definitive version of the game with HD widescreen support and other features.
The man behind Headcannon, Simon Thomley, rose to prominence for being the first coder to successfully create a working Knuckles the Echidna in Sonic the Hedgehog in 2005, a lock-on feature Sonic Team themselves tried to implement in 1994 but failed. Thomley was also the project lead for Sonic Megamix, an incredible Sonic 1 disassembly hack that features several playable characters, new environments, and a custom soundtrack. His experience and skills in programming later led to his collaborations with Whitehead for the mobile ports.
Finally, this brings us to PagodaWest Games, an independent game studio based out of Portland and London. While their claim to fame was a fun physics-centric mobile game called Major Magnet in 2013, PagodaWest was also founded by former members of the fan-made Sonic 2 HD remake: artist Tom Fry and designer Jared Kasl, as well as musician Tee Lopes.
This doesn't even begin to account for some of the other recognized talent hired into the Mania dev team. Brad "Slingerland" Flick, project director behind Sonic Nexus (which then merged with Retro Sonic and Sonic XG into Retro Sonic Nexus), was brought on board as one of the level designers; Hunter Bridges, who worked with Flick and Whitehead before on RSN, became one of the game's programmers; Paul Veer, contributor to the Sonic 25th Anniversary Art Book by Cook & Becker, is now one of the artists; Tyson Hesse, former artist for Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog and renowned for his satirical Sonic's Adventure comic, directed a phenomenal opening animation for the game set to Hyper Potions' "Friends."
These are all fans who not only loved classic Sonic games, but who understood their presentation, gameplay, and overall sense of fun. Now it's time to see how they delivered on that promise, so with the history lesson out of the way, on to the actual review!
After the events of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Sonic the Hedgehog and Miles "Tails" Prower take a well deserved vacation after finally crashing the Death Egg for good. One day, following a sudden dimensional breach in the atmosphere, Tails picks up on a strange energy reading from an unknown source of power stronger than the Chaos Emeralds. Fearing that Doctor Eggman is already after it, Sonic and Tails take off on the Tornado and trace the signal back to Angel Island.
The pair are unfortunately already beaten to the punch, having arrived just as the Hard-Boiled Heavies—Eggman's elite squadron of Egg-Robos—dig out the source: the Phantom Ruby. The mysterious gemstone then triggers a distortion in space-time, catapulting Sonic and Tails back to South Island's Green Hill Zone and inadvertently dragging the nearby, knocked out Knuckles the Echidna for the ride as well. It is up to Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles to team up, chase after Eggman and the Hard-Boiled Heavies, and retrieve the Phantom Ruby before it's too late!
Just like Sonic 3 & Knuckles before it, the plot of Sonic Mania is told silently via quirky cutscene transitions between Zones. This helps tie in how the classic trio travels between areas, although oddly enough this isn't present consistently between every area. This left me to interpret these later instances as "Ah, the Phantom Ruby did it," which would explain how the player will find themselves warped to and fro Zones from South Island, Little Planet, West Side Island, and Angel Island in odd orders. Thankfully, it doesn't detract from the fun of the game, though it would've been nice to see these transitions nonetheless.
So the question is asked: "What would a 2D Sonic game look like on a SEGA Saturn?" This was the philosophy behind Sonic Mania's presentation, and thanks to its bright and colorful 32 bit-inspired palette, the old world of Sonic the Hedgehog has never looked this good. Both new and beloved locations have been reborn with more modern aesthetics, such as Green Hill's gorgeous cavernous backdrops, Studiopolis' layered backgrounds from visually-popping city heights to the dimmer city streets, or Mirage Saloon's transitioning from a soft, cooler dawn to a blazingly sunny day.
The game is presented in HD widescreen format and runs at a gorgeous 60 frames per second with zero lag or latency, another upgrade compared to the original Genesis games as it ensures better visibility for incoming hazards and a greater sense of speed during those moments where you get to go dizzyingly fast. Not that Sonic Mania is a graphically demanding game, but the lack of any lag also holds true with the Nintendo Switch port by Tantalus Media, whether docked to the TV or undocked in Handheld or Tabletop Modes.
Finally, there is the phenomenally engaging soundtrack Tee Lopes composed and arranged for Mania, with not a single beat skipped between each song. Like Sonic 3 & Knuckles, each Act features their own unique takes on the levels' leitmotifs, including Zones from Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 that didn't get this treatment in their own games, and the result is nothing short of well done. The original compositions for the new areas are wonderful in their own right and more than worthy entries in a series already rich with spectacular music.
The only very real, extremely glaring downside to Tee's work is that I don't own a record player so that I can preorder the physical vinyl soundtrack. Now if it were available digitally, on the other hand...
Gameplay – The Good
So it looks like retro Sonic, sounds like retro Sonic, and feels like retro Sonic. While I can't vouch for smell or taste, one thing is for certain: it definitely plays like retro Sonic, and those who grew up playing the older games will definitely feel right at home in Sonic Mania.
Players take control of Sonic the Hedgehog with his high speed and Spin Dashes intact, just like before. While there's no Insta-Shield like in S3&K, the Blue Blur has a new midair technique in the form of the Drop Dash, allowing him to rev up while airborne and take off once he hits the ground, and this tradeoff of split-second defense for extra speed feels like a natural progression to his abilities. However, you can unlock the Insta-Shield and even Sonic CD's Super Peel-Out as bonuses for the game's No Save Mode (more on these in a bit).
Mania also sees the return of Tails and Knuckles as playable characters in a new mainline Sonic game for the first time in over a decade. Like before, Tails can either accompany Sonic as an optional tagalong or venture out solo, with the added benefit of flight to better explore the intricate complexities of the game's level designs. Knuckles, while he still can't jump as high as Sonic and Tails, can glide over long gaps and climb up walls, and—in true S3&K fashion—access areas and levels unique to him.
Sonic Mania is both an original game and an, albeit belated, anniversary title, so it plays host to a number of original Zones and old favorites. Not everyone's favorite areas will have made the cut—rest in peace, Ice Cap Zone—but with how these stages were reinvented, they feel totally new. Green Hill borrows elements from its 8-bit incarnation and Angel Island; Stardust Speedway draws inspiration from Marble Garden with ball-and-chains, spinning pillars, and pulleys abound; Chemical Plant features new hazards and gimmicks including DNA helix-lifts and muck you can inject slime into to make them springy and reach new heights.
Conversely, the new Zones play on tropes never before seen in retro titles. Studiopolis introduces Sonic and friends to the glitz and glamour of television and cinema in the big city, and Mirage Saloon—itself based on scrapped concepts—brings the trio to the unexplored Wild West with taverns, cacti, and canyons abound. Sadly, this is where Mania didn't quite deliver, as you can count the amount of new Zones present in the game on a single hand; there is only one new level for every two old ones. Again, the remixed older Zones still feel like new stages unto themselves with how changed up they have been, though it would be great to see how the team could have applied their ideas into new brand new Zones.
As you poke around the level maps, you will come across Giant Rings that will transport you into 3D Special Stages, where you control a polygonal Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, and chase down a UFO for a Chaos Emerald. The Sonic R-inspired Special Stages aren't that difficult, but the frustration upon failing your run and being booted back into the main game is as present as ever. Thankfully, there are dozens of opportunities to find these access points throughout the game, and if you still remember where to find these and other hidden areas in previous classic Sonic titles, you already have an idea on where to start looking within the older levels. Needless to say, collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds nets you each character's Super form as a reward and, if playing as Sonic, the true ending after defeating the extra final boss.
Blue Spheres also makes a surprise return from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, accessible via checkpoints if you have 25 Rings or more. There are a grand total of 32 Blue Sphere Bonus Stages within the single-player campaign, some new and some old. The reward this time are Medallions; you earn Silver Medallions upon clearing all blue spheres within a map, and Gold Medallions for a perfect run with every Ring collected on top of that. A noticeable upgrade over its previous incarnation is how it counts down the amount of Rings remaining instead of up so you already have a goal to work towards.
It's a bit of a grind if you commit to it, and they do break up the pace of the game due to how lengthy they can get. However, the grind is worth it as they do net you some neat rewards as you go like secrets for No Save Mode—including an "& Knuckles" option, which is exactly what it sounds like—and additional content within the Extras menu, although there's no final reward for netting all Gold Medallions. New playable characters like Amy Rose or Metal Sonic would have been neat...
To keep you busy, there is also Time Attack, encouraging you to find the fastest route and cinch the shortest times for each Zone and Act—with the addition of a handy reset button if you mess up your run—and Competition Mode, where you can go head-to-head against a friend locally to reach the end of the stage first.
While dedicated speedrunners will sink their teeth into the former and players with fellow Sonic fans nearby will enjoy the latter, I personally haven't felt too invested in committing to either, especially with the latter due to the lack of online functionality. While online leaderboards and multiplayer were among Whitehead and Headcannon's previous Sonic offerings, those who want to race against friends from around the world in real time will find themselves disappointed by its absence. Of course, if you have the PlayStation 4 version, you can remedy this via Share Play.
Gameplay – The Bad
Finally, there are couple of thankfully minor but still present dents on Sonic Mania's otherwise pristine packaging, affecting both newcomers and veterans alike. To those for whom Mania is their gateway to the Sonic universe and have never been exposed to the series before, there is no proper tutorial on how to utilize Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles' moves, and I doubt many new players will think to check the Options Menu for the digital manual before playing.
Another issue is Time Over being brought back to Mania, where you immediately lose a life for spending too much time within a single Act. While I doubt it would surface within playthroughs of earlier areas, even longtime players could be in for a nasty surprise upon reaching the game's final Zone for the first time. An easy remedy for this issue is if it could have been either disabled in the Options or absent this time around.
My biggest and personal gripe with Sonic Mania, also unfortunately returning from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, is how poorly it implements Super forms. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely relish the feeling of playing as Super Sonic and have no qualms against the idea or the mechanic, but—and I can't believe I'm actually saying this—Super forms are something Sonic 4: Episode I and II honestly did better by assigning the rewarded transformation its own designated button.
When Sonic isn't adorned with an elemental shield and I find myself wanting to perform a Drop Dash, I'm instead caught with a Super form I didn't want to initiate. This problem is even worse for Tails and Knuckles when I can't even fly or glide without forcing a Super transformation on the same button used to perform each character's basic actions, and in each case I find myself gunning for the nearest checkpoint in hopes of warping to a Bonus Stage just to cancel it. If Super forms could be activated via their own unique input, I can then easily transform when I choose to and be happy with it, instead of begrudgingly going along with it and missing out on the given Zone's music on top of it.
The Verdict: Classic Sonic is Back and Better than Ever
So while not absolute perfection, Sonic Mania still comes pretty damn close and accomplishes just what it set out to do: allow fans new and old to rediscover what made Sonic the Hedgehog the cherished gaming icon he is today.
SEGA could not have chosen a better team for the job than Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games, who have finally crafted the worthwhile sequel to Sonic 3 & Knuckles that some fans have waited over 23 years for, packed to the brim with a ton of references, surprises, and easter eggs on top of marvelous levels and unforgettable music. This is a dream team of retro Sonic maniacs that not only truly understands what made the original Genesis games so special, but succeeded in delivering a fantastic love letter to the olden days that I know I'll return to time and again.
So the question remains: "what now?" With the unprecedented amount of positive reception Sonic Mania is already getting compared to previous Sonic games in the last 15 years, it stands to reason that Classic Sonic is back and here to stay for the better. Sonic Team could continue to create high-octane, story-heavy adventures focusing on Modern Sonic and not have to rely on Classic Sonic post-Forces, now that the Blue Blur of yesteryear is in extremely capable hands.
Will we see a Sonic 3 & Knuckles Remastered in the same vein as Taxman and Stealth's previous projects at long last? Can their definitive versions of the classics finally be brought onto modern platforms as part of the SEGA Forever initiative? Better yet, will Sonic Mania's team come back with a wholly original Classic Sonic title featuring only new Zones, and perhaps establish a new line of retro-inspired games? Only time will tell, and I'm hopeful for what the future will bring!
It feels great to be a Sonic fan again.
Sonic Mania is available now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch; it comes to PC on August 29.
A digital copy of Sonic Mania was provided to the author by SEGA of America for the purpose of this review.