In the middle of Sonic Mania’s main adventure mode, Sonic is warped to the Little Planet and finds himself in a spectacularly familiar place. Golden speakers line a series of curvy narrow chutes that catapult our blue hero into the sky, against a starlit backdrop.
Reviewer: Svend 'Dreadknux' Joscelyne
But alongside that satisfying pang of nostalgia, I'm struck by a refreshing revelation. This fast-paced Zone in Sonic Mania, while maintaining the intriguing and complex level design of the Sonic CD original, also manages to eschew the frustrating flip-switch, stop-start gimmicks in favour of a fluid momentum that better echoes Sonic 2, or Sonic 3 & Knuckles.
"My God, they've done it," I remember saying out loud. "They've finally made Stardust Speedway playable." Maybe a little tear formed in the corner of my eye, as well.
This design philosophy is one that runs throughout the entirety of Sonic Mania. It's a game that honours past 16-bit adventures, but doesn't tie its wagon so closely to those it pays homage to. It often dares to deviate from the source material - in many cases, improves upon it.
A lot of this is a happy result of the older remixed stages being subjected to power-ups that are usually found in Sonic 3 & Knuckles - allowing developers Christian Whitehead, HeadCannon and PagodaWest Games to toy around with nostalgic convention. Picking up a fire shield in Green Hill Zone and backtracking towards the infamous spiked bridge will result in it burning to the ground, opening up a new route (and finally offering closure to countless 90s kids traumatised by having to jump across that thing on the Mega Drive).
In other cases, these twists in stage design come from the freedom that the developers have had, thanks to collaborating with Sonic Team. Chemical Plant Zone Act 2 introduces a brand new gimmick with these strange syringes that turn toxic chemical pools into bounce pads, while Flying Battery Zone adds trash compactors and electric shield-magnetism to an already engaging level.
And just like the aforementioned Stardust Speedway, most of the Zones here have a flow and momentum that's at once interesting, exciting and challenging - to new and seasoned players alike. The developers have truly studied and applied what makes a Sonic level great: branching pathways with opportunities to deviate from your chosen route (should you have the skill or curiosity); enemy placements that hinder your progress if caught unawares but are never a frustration; and of course, long straights built for 'blast-processing'-style speed as both reward and segment-threader for every area of each vast Act.
Good level design doesn't mean anything without a decent engine to work with, though. Although, let's be honest, we all know the quality of 'Taxman' Whitehead's 'Retro Engine', which has powered literal official reconstructions of Sonic CD, Sonic 1 and Sonic 2. The curvature of the long stretches in Studiopolis, married with the physics-based pinball engine, make for some exhilarating scenes. Curling down U-bends and loop-de-loops feels as good as it did in 1994, and the inertia of Sonic, Tails and Knuckles is simply pixel-perfect. In our review copy, we saw the odd glitch here and there, but nothing that really took away from the authenticity of those classic games.
It's fair to say that Sonic Mania is a rather inspiring love letter to the past - and not just to the Sonic franchise, but to all of SEGA. Homages can be found oozing out of almost every pore of this game, from the 'Hornet' trucks and SEGASonic Popcorn Machines in Studiopolis to 'Wanted' posters of Sonic the Fighters brawlers Bean, Bark and Nack in Mirage Saloon. Even the local split-screen Competition mode intentionally crushes the resolution for both players in reference to Sonic 2 - and, incredibly, features the vocal work of Takenobu 'Rolling Staaaaaaart' Mitsuyoshi as announcer.
In fact, even though four of the twelve Zones on offer are brand new, it is clear that Sonic Mania is, for all intents and purposes, a celebration game in the same vein of 20th Anniversary title Sonic Generations. The storyline involves a similar motive and structure for Sonic to be re-visiting each stage. The nods and winks to days past is the icing on the cake. Focusing on the remixed levels only tells a small part of the tale here.
Just as impressive as seeing Chemical Plant Zone re-imagined, is experiencing the all-new original stages in Sonic Mania. The initial worry going in was that, as a group of former fan game producers, the Mania development team might have ended up building new stages that would feel 'amateur' compared to the Sonic Team originals. I'm happy to report that this is absolutely not the case.
Studiopolis looks and feels like something Hirokazu Yasuhara may have dreamed up (Yuji Naka probably would have insisted in the SEGA references, though). Mirage Saloon has echoes of the long lost 'Dust Hill' Zone from Sonic 2, but ultimately feels very much like its own creation, adopting Wild West themes and a number of colourful, original badniks.
It's important to note that while Studiopolis and Mirage Saloon have adopted various gimmicks from past Sonic Zones (as have the remixed stages; Stardust Speedway includes hazards and obstacles found in Sonic 3's Marble Garden Zone), such as Spring Yard bumpers and Scrap Brain rotating conveyor belts, there's a huge amount of new material here too. Mirage Saloon features spritzers that allows Sonic to travel to new areas for a limited time, while lottery number machines in Studiopolis are an inventive play on Casino Night's gambling slots.
All of this is wrapped up in some beautiful presentation. Tee Lopes' soundtrack is a masterpiece through and through, but is one that somehow manages to sound better during multiple play-throughs. At first, the seemingly conservative renditions of Green Hill and Chemical Plant subconsciously force you to draw comparisons to the Masato Nakamura originals, but once you replay stages (and particularly hit Act 2 of these Zones) you start to appreciate Lopes' intricate attention to detail and instrumental choices. As a composer, he has really come into his own and the result is a soundtrack that would definitely not be out of place in an official Sonic OST collection.
Graphically, Sonic in 2D has never looked so good. Using the design mantra of 'What if Sonic was on 32X or Sega Saturn', the developers have drawn an authentic 'enhanced-16-bit' experience in Sonic Mania. Colours pop with incredible vibrancy, and the recreated backgrounds for classic stages are a delight. Animations for the character sprites are top notch, from Sonic's re-worked impatient foot-tapping to Dr. Eggman's angry gesticulations at his arch-nemesis.
Equally great are the variety of wonderfully-retro 3D models that appear throughout the game. You notice it mostly in the background - in environments as you approach large structures, or tense moments during gameplay - but the 3D 'Saturn-style' renditions of Sonic, Tails and Knuckles are also present in the new Special Stages, which are challenging as hell but offers, surprisingly, an interesting new method of obtaining Chaos Emeralds.
You must collect Blue Spheres to increase your speed level, grab rings to extend your time, and chase the UFO holding the Chaos Emerald before you either fall off course or run out of seconds on the clock. All the while controlling a character that has the handling of a tank, which is satisfying (yet incredibly scary once you hit Mach 3).
Blue Sphere also makes an appearance as a Bonus Stage, and it's amazing to see just how well the Mania team have recreated - I assume from scratch - the mode in its pixel perfect form. As you would expect as well, the game allows you to play in a multitude of character set-ups - Sonic & Tails, Sonic solo, Tails solo, and Knuckles, with Knuckles seeing some unique stages and Zone intros of his own (in true Sonic 3 & Knuckles fashion).
And the nostalgia trip doesn't end when the main 'Mania Mode' does either; there are a number of unlockables that you can use to enhance the main play experience (one of which is really damn funny, and has to be seen to be believed), as well as additional extra modes that rounds the whole sentiment off rather nicely.
So, does it touch the epic highs of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, arguably the highest point in Sonic's 2D history? Not quite. Almost. But not quite. It certainly comes damn close.
After several playthroughs, I've realised a few things holding Sonic Mania back from true perfection. The first is in an over-ambitious level design in the later Zones - while the Mania team have studied hard on great level design, they appear to get a little lost in the spirit of that towards the end-game. While the first half of the game flows excellently for players of any skill, the difficulty curve later goes through the roof for first-time Sonic gamers, with some of the stage design seemingly built to satisfy dedicated time-attackers instead of casual players.
Once you nail the final Zone, and are able to replay it to the point where you can complete it without taking damage, you can begin to really appreciate this kind of stage design a lot more - but on the first go, it's likely that it will confuse and even frustrate. It's not quite Death Egg Zone, that's for sure.
This experience can extend to the bosses as well, as excellently designed as some of them are (and trust me, I was howling at the idea of a certain Act 1 boss); on your first try, it can be hard to fathom a direct method of attack that doesn't involve losing rings several times. This has a side-effect of diminishing the nostalgia value contained within some of the surprises, too. I remember tackling one part of a boss for the first time, that had me squeal in excitement and grinning from ear to ear - but the effect started to wear off after spending around four to six minutes figuring out an effective way to beat it.
Mania also falls short on its storytelling - some of this isn't necessarily the developers' fault, as anniversary titles rarely tell interesting stories (Sonic Generations' was barely an excuse to replay old levels) and knowing exactly where the original Zones sat within their respective games also has a side-effect of giving a slight feeling of displacement.
But more importantly, the level threading often isn't told in a very coherent way. Sonic Generations offered the White Space that, while pretty basic a concept, at least held your understanding of where each level sat against each other (i.e. not at all, just through abstract portals). Sonic Mania, while admittedly trying to do something that isn't quite so base, doesn't pull it off as elegantly as it would have liked.
Indeed, a little more storytelling in general would have made the whole adventure feel a lot more connected and epic, rather than a series of (awesome) stages taped together with the chase of a strange MacGuffin. It all culminates in a boss fight (once you collect all seven Chaos Emeralds) that similarly leaves things on a bit of an anti-climax, not really knowing what you were fighting Eggman (or the Hard Boiled Heavies) for, or understanding what was at risk. The object of Eggman and the Hard Boiled Heavies' desire just isn't explained enough (or made interesting enough) to the player.
However, all of these things do little to detract from the overall package. Niggles aside, Sonic Mania hits the mark; it's classic retro perfection in the gameplay department, the soundtrack is aural pornography that gets better the more you listen to it, and the presentation is absolutely stunning with eye-watering and heart-clenchingly vibrant scenery and animation (that's to say nothing of the incredible intro/outro animations produced by Tyson Hesse).
With so many homages, references and faithful recreations, Sonic Mania feels more like a band performing the world's greatest festival gig, rather than a stadium-filling tour of a new comeback album. It's packed to the brim of Sonic's - and SEGA's - greatest hits, lovingly remastered and remixed. And, like any good 'Greatest Hits' album, even though there are some new tracks to enjoy, the experience leaves you wanting more original material.
I really hope that Sonic Mania is internal proof to SEGA, if any were needed, that Christian Whitehead and his co-developers can be trusted with the franchise, and that this can mark the start of a new 'Classic' branch of 2D titles in the same vein. As a passion project, Sonic Mania is one of the best Anniversary games ever made, and an exciting sign of the potential that can come in the future.
Second Opinion: T-Bird
Forged by a highly-skilled team drawn together by mutual adoration of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic Mania delivers on all fronts; it is a worthy testament to the classic series, and will almost certainly be regarded as the true sequel to the 16-bit series. This multi-faceted title sparkles from all sides, be it the cleverly-designed stages old and new, to a soundtrack that pays fitting tribute to the works of Hataya and Ogata amongst others.
The Mania art team have excelled in not only fashioning a wonderful set of emotive sprites and models, but have embellished the classic universe in both sensation and style, something seldom seen for two decades. Whether due to apprehension on SEGA’s part to allow the team full creative freedom or a bandwidth limitation, the new zones are noticeably outnumbered by old 2:1, and in some places the transition between zones feel like they are missing.
I hope that Mania has served as the proof of concept to instil confidence in the team, and a conduit to move on to creating a completely original second instalment. For the old guard of fans, including myself, Sonic Mania is the game we have been waiting 23 years to play - and like those old games, it will be one we will keep coming back to play time and time again.