Sonic Mania is something of a rarity in the video game world. We've seen plenty of these retro tributes in recent years, the kind where a franchise will return to the style and presentation that originally made it famous, but more often than not, these games vanish quickly and don't have much bearing on the franchise's overall legacy.
Very rarely do they ever actually supersede and build upon the immortality of their classic formulas.
Mega Man 9… PAC-Man Championship Edition… maaaaaaybe New Super Mario Bros (if I'm being exceptionally generous)… I can count the number of retro tributes that actually hold up to the source material on a single hand.
And this includes Sonic Mania, a game that is so groundbreaking that I would like to dedicate an entire fist too. Not just because it pays tribute to everything that we love about the 16-bit days of Sonic the Hedgehog, but because it is a remarkable game in its own right.
I'll say this straight faced, if it's not the best Sonic the Hedgehog game ever made, then it at least ties for the best.
Laying it all out for the newcomers
The hardest part about this review is explaining 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog for someone who's never played a 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog game before. Although, that seems almost an impossible task at this point since all of the original games have appeared on every platform since the PlayStation 2. SEGA preserves and makes its classic library more available than even Nintendo or Square Enix.
Years from now, I would be surprised if Sonic the Hedgehog nostalgia finds better footholds that Super Mario or Final Fantasy.
Contrary what you might believe, Sonic the Hedgehog was not always the spokesperson of SEGA's home console, the Genesis. In 1989, SEGA managed to steal a majority of the gaming market away from Nintendo for a year or so by leaning on its former mascot Alex Kidd, its classic arcade franchises, and those sweet, 16-bit, arcade perfect graphics.
However, this run of success changed in 1990 when Nintendo launched the Super Nintendo, and Super Mario World shattered sales records and dominated the SEGA lineup. The company needed an answer to the newest Mario game, and it needed it fast.
"Fast" was where they found their answer. Sonic the Hedgehog first released in 1991, and while it never landed SEGA back in first place, it helped solidify it as a major player in the video game world for the rest of the decade. Sonic was everything Mario was not. He was a character created out of customer research and critical thinking, whereas Mario was born out of convenience with that iconic hat and mustache being easier to render than hair and a mouth in the 8-bit days.
Sonic was, for all purposes, cool, and Mario… we love him to death, but he's not cool.
The game's design would also follow in this ideology of distancing itself from Mario. Super Mario World was, indeed, an entire world. It was an expansive game with an enormous map that covered several levels. Mario could move about these levels freely, and he could find secret entrances and exits that lead to further branching paths through the world. When Super Mario World came out in 1990, comparisons to Skyrim aren't really that far off. The scope was enormous!
Classic Sonic the Hedgehog games are often put on a pedestal with Super Mario World, but the comparison ends with them being 16-bit platformers. Sonic the Hedgehog games are not grand, expansive adventures. They are based more on SEGA's arcade mentality and strictly linear in their progression, moving from one stage to the next, the same path you'll take each time you turn the game on. It makes up for this and competes with Super Mario World on two grounds:
- Sonic the Hedgehog games are flashy! The colors they employ, the music they blare, the speed that they run at all make Super Mario World's simplistic approach look kinda boring side-by-side.
- Sonic the Hedgehog's stages have many ways of running through them. You might be playing the same levels each time you turn the game on, but each stage has three, four, maybe five viable paths to take from beginning to end. Uncovering all of these paths and finding the most fun, the most efficient, and the occasional secret path is where the replay value comes from.
Classic 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog games have their shortcomings compared to Super Mario World, mostly in the physics department, but their bombastic arcade approach helped set a different tone for SEGA and allowed it to operate as Nintendo's polar opposite, giving it a niche that helped it become the company it is today.
Okay, grandpa. Why does this matter?
Whippersnappers! This matters because understanding Sonic the Hedgehog's roots is essential to understanding why Sonic Mania is both a masterpiece and the game Sonic fans have been begging for for nearly two decades. You don't have to have played a classic Sonic the Hedgehog game to know that the series hasn't exactly maintained its reputation throughout the years.
Given that flailing reputation and the fact that retro nostalgia is a popular force in the video game world these days, you can see why SEGA sunk time, effort, and love into making sure this project was a success.
To put it simply, Sonic Mania is the Sonic the Hedgehog sequel that we never got. Imagine yourself in an alternate universe. It's 1995, but CD technology is really cheap. SEGA gains an early upper hand thanks to the SEGA CD not totally bombing, Sonic CD doesn't disappear as a lost masterpiece, and the Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64 fail to find a foothold since cartridges are rendered useless far earlier than in reality.
In this universe, Sonic Mania is the sequel to Sonic CD that crowns SEGA as king of the video game world.
Everything that the original Sonic the Hedgehog games do properly, that's Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and Sonic CD, is here in this retro tribute game. Sonic still runs as the same blazing speeds, those slick SEGA Genesis graphics never looked better, and the branching level design, the true secret to Sonic's success, has never been smarter.
Each stage in Sonic Mania carefully crafted to do exactly what a video game should do: reward players for playing well. If the player makes a difficult jump or hits a necessary speed on a particular ramp, he is rewarded with a better path through the stage. Needless to say, "up" is the direction you want to move in Sonic Mania because that's where the more exciting paths through the level are.
Nobody wants to fall and run in a straight line where the bottom paths are. That's where Sonic Mania devolves into a standard platformer and players have to contend with remedial, tedious obstacles like spikes. Practice makes perfect, and when you're good enough to understand the basics, that's when you can soar in Sonic Mania and get to tangle with loops, corkscrews, and the absurd set pieces that SEGA's developers came up with for this new game.
It all falls right into place, and everything you love about classic Sonic the Hedgehog games is right here. However, it supersedes the originals by defying your expectations! Most of the zones Sonic travels to in Sonic Mania have appeared in previous games, like the Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone. Each of these zones is divided into two stages with a mini boss separating them, and the first stage is usually a very straight forward take on the classic Sonic the Hedgehog settings.
The surprises usually start to spring up in the second stage. I'll use an early example in the Chemical Plant Zone, the first level with Sonic's infamous underwater portions. The first stage feels like it was pulled straight from Sonic the Hedgehog 2, but the second stage adds trampoline chemicals to the fray. Landing in a puddle of blue chemicals gives Sonic a small bounce, but if he mixes in the green chemicals from a syringe, the same puddle gives him a much larger bounce.
It's little ideas like these which help take Sonic Mania into new territory, so you don't feel like you're playing just another retro throwback. As you progress through the game, you find more and more of these new ideas tucked into familiar settings, and they blow your mind every time.
Extra modes and love of SEGA's past
Sonic Mania throws a lot more love at the original games than just in its 16-bit presentation and killer soundtrack. Many of its alternate gameplay modes stem from ideas that appeared in earlier games. The Competition mode comes from a popular idea from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in which you could race and compete against your friends.
Secret stages tucked away inside the levels are also inspired by the secret stages in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic CD. The Sonic CD secret stages are found in secret areas hidden within the level, and completing them will grant player a Chaos Emerald. Collect enough of these, and you'll be able to activate the invincible "Super Sonic." Completionists will find a challenging goal here!
The Sonic the Hedgehog 3 bonus stages can be accessed by having enough rings when you hit a checkpoint. Beating these earns players gold or silver coins, depending on if they perfect the stage or just beat it. These coins can be used to purchase other bonus modes and extras from the main menu.
The true joy of replay value in any Sonic the Hedgehog game comes from beating your scores, improving your times, and feeling awesome by nailing all of the best paths, but if you're a younger gamer who foolishly believes that replay value is something that has to be tangible and quantified, then these modes should give you the inspiration to keep coming back.
However, with all this Sonic the Hedgehog love going on in this package, it's important to point out that plenty of other classic SEGA franchises and infamous moments get Easter Egg nods as well. I don't want to spoil anything, but the final boss of the Chemical Plant Zone is… really really special.
He's the fastest thing alive!
I hope I'm getting the point across. Sonic Mania is for everyone, and everyone should buy it. It succeeds at being a love letter to SEGA's classic days just as much as it succeeds at being a smartly designed video game with all of the reasons in the world to return to it over and over again. Older fans will love it, newer fans will love it, parents can play it with their kids. AND it's only $19.99!
It's also clearly in the running for Game of the Year, I'll just get that out of the way.
During development, SEGA claimed that it wasn't sure if it would consider another project like this. Like Activision about Crash Bandicoot N' Sane Trilogy, it said something along the lines about being unable to tell if it was a vocal minority demanding a classically stylized Sonic ogame like this or if it was everyone. Doesn't matter anymore. Even if it was a vocal minority to start with, everyone will want to play more Sonic Mania games after getting their hands on this.
I'm not so sure if I would want that, though. There is something really special about Sonic Mania that I feel might be cheapened if it were to turn into an annual event. This sensational game is a cultural moment for SEGA fans, capturing all that they loved about SEGA when they were kids and delivering it in the slickest, most stylish package imaginable. You can replicate a Sonic the Hedgehog game, but you won't be able to replicate this nostalgic feeling year after year.
I'll settle for Sonic Mania being the best game in the series in two decades, and hope that SEGA instead turns similar retro aspirations elsewhere in the coming years… like Shining Force or Ristar.