Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
What a remarkable game Sonic Mania is. Not just that it's good (which it is), but that it exists at all. You can check out my interview with some of the heads of Sonic Team for a glimpse into the uncertainty and reluctance that the game faced early on, and that hesitation is understandable. This is a game that looks, feels, and plays like something that should have come out in 1995, as an immediate follow-up to Sonic & Knuckles. It's a game made in part by a man who became famous working on unauthorized Sonic fan-games. It's a retro 2D Sonic game coming out in the same calendar year as a completely different official Sonic game!
The odds were always going to be against a game like this getting made, but the decades of persistence from Sonic fans has finally paid off. Sonic Mania is the new 2D Sonic title fans have wanted for many years, and it delivers on every bit of its promise both as a piece of nostalgia and a new Sonic title in its own right.
Classic Sonic gameplay packed with new ideas
Have you ever played any of the Sonic games from the early 90s? If so, you know the basics of Sonic Mania. You guide your chosen character (Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, or Sonic and Tails together) from the start of each level to the goal, battling robotic enemies and avoiding environmental hazards along the way. Speed is a big part of the game, and you'll encounter a variety of objects in the world that help get you moving fast. You'll collect rings as you go, and when you get hit you'll lose the rings you're holding (though you can usually pick up some fraction of the ones you drop, a technique that becomes essential during boss battles).
If you take damage without having any rings or one of the game's power-up shields, you'll die and respawn at the last checkpoint you reached. If you're totally out of lives, dying will get you a "Game Over," after which you can re-load your saved game and try against from the start of whatever Zone you had reached.
Sonic Mania offers twelve Zones, four of which are brand new. The other Zones are a mixture of stages from different classic Sonic titles, but all include significant new level and gameplay elements. In this way, Sonic Mania manages to deliver both nostalgia and novel gameplay, and you get both the fun of returning to a classic stage and the excitement of exploring a level that's different than you've ever seen it before.
There's huge variety in Mania's 24 levels (two Acts for each Zone). This game is bigger than any classic Sonic title other than the complete 14-Zone Sonic 3 & Knuckles, and each level includes unique gameplay you won't see anywhere else, whether it's the airborne portion of Mirage Saloon or the ice blocks of Press Garden. Some levels offer extended high-speed paths while others will demand more care and skill with your movements, but all reward exploration with power-ups and Easter Eggs. Critically, none of the levels get too bogged down with platforming elements, and the game never forgets that what really makes 2D Sonic games fun is going really fast.
Variety extends beyond gameplay into the game's presentation as well, as the twelve Zones offer a wide selection of color palettes and visual styles (often with significant changes between the two Acts of a single Zone). There's something for everyone in the diverse collection of stages in Sonic Mania, and if you're one of the many who never had a chance to play Sonic CD, you'll get a taste of some of the levels that made that game great in its own right.
On the soundtrack side we get the return of a number of fantastic Sonic music tracks in addition to catchy remixes and brand new music. The only place the music really falls short is in the game's bonus stages, which would have benefited from a few different songs given how often you can visit these levels over the course of the game.
Save games and crushing deaths
Of course with this much variety not every level can be an all-time great. Press Garden, in particular, feels like a Zone struggling to find an identity, and the game's final stage walks the line between challenge and frustration. Boss fights are hit and miss too, with some that are destined to be new classics and others that are confusing, tedious, or underwhelming. Fortunately, thanks to the fast-paced nature of Sonic Mania and the lack of repetition in its elements, once you're past a part of the game you don't enjoy you'll never have to worry about it cropping up again.
It's hard to judge Sonic Mania's save game feature from a modern perspective. It works exactly as fans would expect, allowing you to stop playing whenever you want and pick up at the beginning of your current Zone (not current Act) when you return, but most contemporary Sonic-style platformers are a bit more generous with their save points. Individual levels will rarely take you more than ten or fifteen minutes to complete, but if you run up against a challenging boss at the end of the Zone and die repeatedly, you'll find yourself facing the prospect of restarting all the way back at the beginning of your current Zone if you decide to close the game and take a break.
The peculiarities of the save game system make Sonic Mania oddly unappealing for gamers sitting down with a short window of time in which to play. Unless you are sure you're going to be able to get all the way from the start of a Zone through the Zone's final boss in one sitting, you face the prospect of losing all your progress when you have to stop.
Since the game records how many lives you had when you started each Zone for the first time, it's possible to get yourself stuck in a rough position with your save game if you start a difficult Zone with only a single life, so it's worth picking up as many extra lives as you can (through power-up boxes or by gathering 100 rings) in the game's earlier, easier stages. If you do get a game over in a Zone, you will be able to re-load your save with three lives (even if you started the Zone with less than that), though that still won't be enough to get every player to the finish line. If you get stuck in a portion of a level or on a challenging boss and get a Game Over or two in a row, you're going to be frustrated, but Sonic purists will appreciate that the game maintains the same challenge of the classic titles.
Another area of Sonic Mania that feels a bit out of touch with modern game design is the instant deaths that result from being crushed by one of the game's many moving platforms or objects. No matter how many rings or power-ups you have, being crushed will kill you, and I encountered several occasions when I thought I was clear of a crushing object but the game decided that, no, in fact I was totally dead. Outside of boss fights, the only times I died repeatedly in the same place in Sonic Mania were due to repeated crushings, which never feels as fair or justified as a more normal death.
Playing through the game as the different characters, I found Knuckles to have the hardest time getting through the main game, and it didn't always feel as though the difficulty was properly balanced. I encountered occasions where the character's slightly lower jump height left critical platforms slightly out of reach, which was likely by design but which feels very frustrating while you are playing. I also found several places where climbing a wall as high as you can go (a common practice while hunting for secrets) resulted in an "out of bounds" death with no warning, This didn't feel intentional or well-designed, and might be a sign that edge cases of the game (likely to be found as Sonic maniacs explore every corner of it) could have benefited from a bit more playtesting.
Sonic Mania includes both special and bonus stages, which allow you to acquire Chaos Emeralds and Medals. Collecting all the Chaos Emeralds will allow you to turn in to a Super version of your character (making the game much easier), while medals unlock extras and bonuses in the game's main menu. Both special and bonus stages offer fun diversions from the main game (which you can always avoid if you so choose) but I found both modes to be significantly more challenging and less fun than the rest of the game.
Extras and replay value
Sonic Mania's main game mode will take a typical player between five and ten hours to complete, and the game provides the same sort of completionist replay value we saw in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. Players can save their games and, once they've beaten all the Zones, replay any they like in a quest to obtain all the game's Chaos Emeralds and Medals from the special and bonus stages. It's also worth playing through the game as each of the different playable characters, because their unique abilities allow you to approach challenges in different ways. Playing as Sonic and Tails together is a distinct kind of fun thanks to the game's "younger sibling" style of multiplayer, which lets you give a second controller to another player to take control of Tails. In the right hands the infinitely respawning Tails can be a huge asset, especially in boss fights.
Right from the start, Sonic Mania lets you choose to play the game with an artificial CRT filter in effect, to truly re-capture that early 90s gaming experience. As you play the main game and earn Medals in the bonus stages you'll unlock additional extra content.
Time Attack mode is a gift for speedrunners and competitive players, and allows you to play any level you've unlocked in an effort to get to the end as quickly as possible. Your best times will be tracked locally for each individual character and level, while true Sonic pros can compete to be at the top of online leaderboards. Time Attack mode doesn't offer any special challenges or features other than an ability to quickly restart a stage when you screw up (which is a great inclusion). It would have been great to get the ability to tweak level aspects for this mode (maybe mirror the entire stage, or remove all enemies?) but I'm happy that this mode was included at all.
You can go head-to-head against a friend in the game's competitive multiplayer mode, which splits the screen in two as two players race through a level. This mode screws up the aspect ratio of the game in exactly the same way split-screen multiplayer did in Sonic 2, which is either a fun nostalgic nod or a strange annoyance depending on how fondly you look back at the quirks of a game from 25 years ago. Competition mode isn't likely to be anyone's favorite way to play the game, but it's a fun diversion and offers a way to fight for bragging rights against your Sonic fan pals.
The best Sonic game ever?
If Sonic Mania had been released following Sonic & Knuckles, it seems certain it would be regarded as equal or superior to the classic Sonic titles. With decades in between it's a challenge to directly compare the different games, but I expect Sonic Mania to earn a lot of accolades as "the best Sonic game ever" once it's in the hands of the fan community at large.
Everything in Sonic Mania that feels like a mistake (like the way the game's save system works) also feels authentic to the games it is remixing, while its positives go above and beyond anything we saw from the classic Sonic lineup. It's taken far too long to get a Sonic game like this, but franchise fans will be thrilled with the results.