I’ll be the first to admit that I am not what you would call a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog. I’ve only ever beaten Sonic Generations and Sonic Adventure DX and my attempts to play the Sonic games that people deem the greatest have only ended in disappointment. My affinity with Sonic games lie within Classic Sonic; although I’ve never beaten a classic Sonic title, I consider them much more well-designed than the 3D outings for what Sonic is about. Sonic is all about multi-track platforming, where multiple paths lead to an inevitable stage clear, but those paths all have different styles of play. From your slow-paced platforming and enemy destruction, to the routes that have plenty of track to gain speed and momentum. Imagine my surprise when I heard all the news about Sonic Mania, a return to the Classic era with a focus on speed and momentum.
Sonic Mania is developed by several developers from the Sonic romhacking and fan-game community. Over the years, Christian “Taxman” Whitehead (creator of the Retro Engine, used in the 2011 releases of Sonic CD and in Sonic Mania) and Stealth (founder of Headcannon Games, assisted with Sonic 1/2 on Android/iOS with Taxman) were contracted by SEGA of America to make mobile ports of the Genesis Sonic games (Sonic 3 notwithstanding). These two along with PagodaWest Games were finally given total freedom to develop a brand new Sonic game on the Retro Engine, and that game was Sonic Mania.
Your adventure begins on Angel Island Zone where some of Robotnik’s Egg-Robos are pulling out a “Phantom Ruby,” which suddenly causes a rift in space-time, taking Sonic and Tails to Green Hill Zone. These five Egg-Robos gain sentience and free will, while Eggman steals the Phantom Ruby and plans to use it for evil. The rest of the game takes place over 13 Zones, all a wide variety of places from the Genesis Era. There are eight remastered stages and five brand-new Zones that take a heavy inspiration from past concepts.
These new Zones are incredible and blend beautifully with the already-established Zones of the past. There are subtle throwbacks and nods to other parts of the Sonic universe without being too direct, but maintains its own identity in special ways. Every Zone has two Acts, and they usually follow a pattern if you are familiar with the original stages. For returning areas, the first Act is a pretty close remaster of the original style while the second Act turns the style on its head and adds a ton of unique gimmicks. Like Chemical Plant Zone, which starts off about the same as Act 1 from Sonic 2, but Act 2 adds substances that allow you to bounce high in the air, as well as pipelines and sticky wall panels. Every Zone does not repeat another Zone’s gimmick, making every level special and fun to learn.
This also applies to bosses. There are very few bosses that are returning from other titles, and if they are a returning boss (like Green Hill Zone Act 2), then they are given a new gimmick to make that fight different. The new bosses are out of this world, having a special style that blends into that Zone beautifully, while maintaining a constant challenge. My favorite boss has to be from Metallic Madness, where Eggman is in a Gacha machine containing miniature versions of bosses from Sonic 2, 3, and CD. It’s a literal mini-boss fight, and I love it.
Movement has also greatly improved. Sonic and friends have their own special moves, including Sonic’s very special Drop Dash. Controls are simple; a d-pad and one button that jumps. Holding down while moving makes you spin, letting you keep your momentum. Should you stop, you can jump, then press and hold the button again to begin a Drop Dash, giving you a full Spin Dash when you land. This lets you maintain constant speed and feels amazing to use. Tails keeps his lovely Fly and Swim abilities, while Knuckles, although much slower, has his Glide and Wall-Climb abilities. Knuckles also has alternate routes from Sonic and Tails in certain Zones.
There are special power-ups you can obtain in every level, and most of them are classics: Rings, invincibility, running shoes, the Shield, Flame Shield (gives you fire immunity and a forward dash), Lightning Shield (gives you a double-jump, electromagnetism, and immunity to electricity), Aqua Shield (gives you a bubble bounce and infinite air underwater), and the Hyper Ring from Knuckles’ Chaotix (combines your rings so you can regain a portion of your lost rings instead of collecting rings one by one).
There are also Special Stages found by entering Giant Rings (hidden in every level; completing one gives you a Chaos Emerald) or Star Circles (opened by having 25 rings and passing a Star Gate). The Giant Ring stages are throwbacks to Sonic CD where you run around a track in 3D while chasing down a Chaos Emerald. Grabbing Blue Spheres increases your mach speed and falling out of the stage or running out of rings ends the stage. There are also bonus stages akin to Sonic 3’s Blue Sphere stages that gives you Medals which unlock stuff like Debug Mode, the Super Peel-Out, Insta-Shield, or the ability to play a special version of Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine (AKA Puyo Pop).
In short, Sonic Mania is meant to be played over again and again. While I have yet to return to any other Sonic game, I keep going back to Mania, improving my times and getting all the unlocks. I can see myself playing this game for a long while because it’s so easy to pick up and put down. It helps that this game has gorgeous graphics and music. There is also a split-screen competitive mode where you and a friend race each other, and a Time Attack mode for speedrunners.
The game focuses its style more from Sonic CD, meaning it has a much higher color fidelity than most of the Sonic games. The artists of this game did masterful work in having vibrant colors against dark colors, giving areas these amazing backdrops that only rarely blend into the foreground.
This game also runs at 60FPS, meaning there is a lot of emphasis on high-animation sprites. Sonic and friends have full-rotation when entering a loop or hitting a ramp, and anything rotating has a natural, smooth look to it. I noticed myself thinking about Gunstar Heroes which had fantastic animation with limited resources. This is attributed entirely to the Retro Engine, which overall is why Sonic Mania is the smoothest-feeling that Sonic has ever been. The controls are absolutely responsive and easy to grasp.
The sound features a wide array of effects from the early Sega Genesis and Game Gear era. I found myself recognizing certain sounds immediately, while also smiling at the fact that it was a natural fit in this game. And the music is to die for. Every first act of a remastered Zone is usually the original track while Act 2 goes for a complete reimagination; this usually makes the track more jazzy and upbeat, and it sounds incredible. I’ve found myself listening to these tracks over and over again in my spare time and wanting to own a physical copy of the OST. It’s incredible sound.