Sonic Mania is a gift. For Sega kids everywhere, it is a portal to your childhood. For long-suffering Sonic fans, it is a well overdue homecoming. It is proof that the Sonic the Hedgehog formula, abandoned in the Saturn era, is as fun, interesting and engaging as it was in the early 90’s. After nearly 25 years of Sonic games that made me want to forget he ever existed, I can’t tell you how good it is to have the Sonic I know and love returned to me.
Sonic Mania is equal parts spiritual successor, loving homage and a fresh take on the Mega Drive era material, wisely eschewing every game to come out of the Sonic franchise since 1994’s Sonic & Knuckles.
It is not the first game to try plumbing the nostalgic depths of the 16-bit era Sonic titles — the passable Sonic Advance and Sonic the Hedgehog 4, a game utterly unworthy of the number it placed upon its own head, both gave it a go and failed to measure up. That was the early-to-mid 2000’s, though — flush with powerful new hardware that let us leave the graphics and mechanics of old behind, we weren’t looking back, only forward. And so began the long dark period of Sega fundamentally misunderstanding what made their landmark character so great, a period that has yet to actually come to an end.
In using the Mega Drive era titles as its springboard Sonic Mania makes it clear that, much like the vast majority of Sonic fans, it doesn’t give a shit about anything Sega have done with the series since 1994. What it does instead is look critically at the original four games and studies them inside and out, looking at what made them work, and seeks to not only replicate it but iterate logically on it as well.
For those who, like me, spent hundreds of hours playing these games in their youth, there is so much that is recognisable about Sonic Mania. The intro pulled from Sonic 3 that ties the game’s story to the end of Sonic & Knuckles. The way the game remixes enemies, devices and mechanics from each of the four games in different ways to create startlingly well-crafted new levels. The impeccable sprite and background work that flawlessly evokes the Mega Drive colour palette while performing subtle animations that hardware could have only dreamed of. The way it recreates those old levels in such minute detail that you are instantly transported back to your parents living room at the age of eight.
Over the course of its fourteen stages, Sonic Mania follows a fairly tight script — each level is two acts (ala Sonic 3) with a miniboss fight at the end of Act 1 and a fully-fledged boss fight at the end of Act 2. When it pulls levels from classic titles, Act 1 is typically a flawless recreation of the original to ease you back in. Act 2 then remixes the level with their own modern design and mechanics. When the game did throw a new level at me, despite never having played them before, I wondered for quite a while if I had because they all felt so intuitive.
This is the highest praise I can give developers Christian Whitehead (an Aussie, bless his heart), Headcannon Games, PagodaWest Games and even composer Tee Lopez — even when they bring something entirely of their own invention to the table, it is completely in sync with the design, look, feel and spirit of the originals. When they throw things in from other games, it’s always in a way that will surprise and delight you.
To be clear, the things you maybe weren’t so fond of about the Sonic games of old haven’t gone anywhere either — the dreaded water levels, the bogus deaths due to moving platform clipping, the fact that the second player controlling Tails gets to do basically nothing but provide situational air support (and thanks to my sister Erin for being a willing and lifelong Tails co-pilot, I look forward to playing this with you). Each of these gripes, every last one of them, I am as willing to overlook now as I was as a kid. In no way do they detract from the joy of the experience. If anything, they only serve to further highlight just how accurately the devs have been able to recreate the originals.
Sonic Mania is a masterpiece. It could have easily been a greatest hits package and I would have been happy to let it slide, such is the quality of the presentation. But it never rests on its laurels, it’s great fun, it hits the nostalgia button in just the right way and, most importantly, it gave me my speedy blue son back.
I love Sonic Mania and, if you were a Sega kid too, so will you.
Score: 10 out of 10
Highlights: Flawlessly recreates the Sonic of old; Clever, inventive new content; Dat soundtrack
Lowlights: The almost 25 years of terrible games that led to this beautiful moment
Developer: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon Games, PagodaWest Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.