Sonic Mania
by Polly

Sonic Mania's announcement in 2016 came as quite a surprise to eager fans who, for going on almost twenty years now, have been clamoring for Sonic Theodore Hedgehog to make a grand return to his 2D roots. Not that there haven't been any 2D Sonic games over the years, but the results have been middling at best with 2D entries retaining life mostly on portables. And let's not forget (though some of us would like to) the Sonic The Hedgehog 4... thing. (You know how much drugs one has to be on to have given Sonic 4: Episode 1 a decent review? As much as I was on.)

But fans of the series old and new had good reason to be excited for the announcement of Sonic Mania. For almost ten years, we've seen a wonderful resurgence of old-school throwbacks from indie and AAA devs that more than live up to, and even surpass, gaming's "golden age." Many of these titles come from smaller fan-led dev teams that have a real passion and love it takes to create games that can tap into those nostalgia veins and deliver a pure hit of, "the good ol' days."

Galaxy Trails' 2014 release of Freedom Planet showed what a group of dedicated Sonic nerds had in mind when they imagined a true modern 2D Sonic experience that explored and added to the formula in loads of cool ways. So, what happens if Sega hands the series over to a a different devoted and very capable group of fans who know these games in and out, gives them a budget, and just lets the magic happen?

They make a Sega Genesis Sonic The Hedgehog game.

There's really no other way to put it, Christian Whitehead and company made a Sonic the Hedgehog game and didn't really go much further beyond that. I won't waste your time going over what a Sonic game is. Run fast, rings, Chaos Emeralds, Dr. Robotnik, more run fast. Sonic Mania is a game that's merely here to scratch an itch and wants you to say, "Hey, I remember that thing," a whole lot as you run, spindash, and fly your way through each of the game's thirteen zones.

The game is primarily composed of remixed versions of zones from the first three games (& Knuckles!) with some "new" zones scattered about, making it about a 60/40 split on old/new content. Your typical setup for any zone will usually be the first Act retreading its original counterpart and a second Act that tosses in a new gimmick or bends an old mechanic in a way that can sometimes be interesting.

What becomes readily apparent however is that while each zone or Act may provide a new gimmick or twist on an old idea, overall level design is rooted firmly in a very simple set of actions: Hold right, do a bunch of loop-de-loops, and just keep going fast. Sonic Mania offers very little resistance with its level design and doesn't feel like it's all that far removed from the same complaints long-term fans have had with games like Sonic Rush. There's springs, boost pads, and plungers everywhere to make sure you're hitting the speed cap as often as possible. Sure, it's great spectacle, but there are still numerous portions of the game where you can hit a boost pad and not press anything for sometimes up to ten or more seconds and still be making unmitigated progress. Nearly every stage has the same exact breezy feeling with the only difference being a change in background. Playing as different characters can change things up a bit, but the overall approach is still the same.

It's very rare that Sonic Mania ever breaks away from its light and breezy level design, and when it does (in particular the final two zones of the game) you end up with stages that feel completely at odds with what the game has presented up until then. There's no lead up to the monstrosity that is Titanic Monarch Zone. It's just a dead stop right at the end of the game that's never hinted at in any meaningful way in the stages that came before it.

That's kinda one of the biggest problems with Sonic Mania. Since it's more or less a Greatest Hits playlist of early Sonic games, there's no sense of pacing or flow. It's just a big collection of stages that have no real ties to each other that you're dumped into. There are a few cute transitions here and there that try to tie things together, but more often than not, you're unceremoniously plopped into a new stage that doesn't really feel like it's some kind of progression from the previous.

The only other time Sonic Mania feels genuinely clever it thankfully nails it with some really slick and imaginative boss designs that are probably some of the best that the series has ever seen (though the Metal Sonic fight is probably one of the worst the series has ever seen.) Like everything else in the game, there's a lot of remixing going on with new ideas sprinkled in. You'll almost immediately recognize your foe in these encounters and have a general idea of what to do if you've played these games before, but in most cases the devs have added cool new quirks to them that make puzzling them out quite a bit of fun. The Hydrocity Zone Act 1 boss in particular springs to mind as something that was completely unexpected and is probably my favorite moment of the game.

As far as presentation goes, nobody in their right mind is going to deny the work that went into this one. Everything you remember from previous games' stages is faithfully represented with an added bit of shine that the Genesis originals weren't quite capable of and the new original sets definitely have their own fair share of visual flair and polish. Sonic and pals have a wider range of fidelity and animations than ever before and on the whole, the game just looks fantastic in motion. Enemies and boss designs alike are also very well put together and animated and still manage to stand out despite the fact that most of the game is just kind of whizzing by at breakneck pace most of the time. Some portions of the game (Studiopolis and other similarly saturated palettes) could have used some contrast adjustments however, because it can be very difficult to determine background objects from platforms.

And that sountrack...good lord. Sonic Generations' stellar soundtrack of remixed and updated tunes was quite an amazing piece of work, and the spread of tunes that Tee Lopes and company have assembled is equally as impressive. The soundtrack is structured similarly to the stages in that you've got a version that's close to, but not quiiiite the original, then a version that takes the original idea and really runs with it. In actuality, the soundtrack is more varied than the game's stages themselves, and if there's anything that's going to stick with me from this game, it's the tunes.

Sonic Mania had all the potential to finally, for really-reals this time, show that good 2D Sonic games could still be made. It had a chance to show the untapped potential older games in the series couldn't quite reach due to limitations of the hardware or a strict adherence to convention. Instead, what we're given is a Greatest Hits compilation where the original tunes have been remastered to be louder and at times more grating with a few B-sides or throwaway studio outtakes sprinkled in to add value. There's no real focus, no cohesion, and no pacing whatsoever, and along with that, no ambition to be anything more than broadest of brush strokes.

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