Sonic Mania Review: Rolling Around at the Speed of Schmaltz
Sonic's first true 2D, pixelated outing since 2004's Sonic Advance 3 was well worth the wait.
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If you let Sonic stand still long enough in Sonic Mania, his foot taps impatiently. He stares through the screen at you, eyebrow furrowed. Eventually, he readies up a running pose, as if to say, "Come on [Insert Your Name Here], let's go already." Sonic in this idle animation is clearly annoyed. He wants to go, and wants to go fast.
This restless Sonic is a familiar sight for anyone who's played a classic Sonic game. He was the antithesis to Mario in every way, displaying a loud attitude without even having to say a word. Sonic's distinct finger wag as he crossed the finish line or pummeled a boss into an explosion was all you needed to know about him. He broke the fourth wall often to stare directly at you, the player, to get you to move him across the screen with the touch of direction.
Sonic Mania is a game carefully engineered to elicit players' memories of previous Sonic games. There's no tutorial, but you're not expected to need one. Sega anticipates that the motions are embedded in your thumbs already, your muscle memory triggered by the very first step of the blue hedgehog's red sneakers onto the grassy turf of Green Hill Zone. Jump, roll, go; that's all you need to know. You remember Green Hill Zone. You remember Chemical Plant Zone. All these levels are familiar, not note by note necessarily, but the feeling of them. Even the levels that are entirely new to the franchise.
Unfortunately, there's not many new-new sights to find in Sonic Mania. Most of the stages in the game are remixes of old ones. The rehashed levels have new things to offer at least, helping them feel newer than they look. This comes in the form of intricately designed multi-route layouts or Act-exclusive mechanics. Even as you race through the very familiar Flying Battery Zone for what may be your third time in the series' history, the new layout of the level helps it feel good as new.
Luckily, despite all the fuzzy-warm-feelings Sonic Mania is almost jamming down your throat, the game manages to be more than a basic nostalgia ploy even in the face of all the reiterated zones. Instead, Sonic Mania is a boisterous, confident celebration of all things Sonic—its one-off characters, random low-poly bonus and special stages, energetic music, silly bosses, and odd spin-off games. You'll find a little bit of everything in Sonic Mania. And as a game made by Sonic fans but with the production value of a true blue Sonic game, Sonic Mania actually ends up feeling pretty special.
To offer additional legitimacy to the games that inspired it, Sonic Mania is often hard as hell too, like a true 2D platformer from that Sega Genesis era Sonic first hailed from. The difficulty comes like a tide. Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone are child's play in the beginning, but the deeper you get into Sonic Mania, the more zany (and even frustrating) the levels get. Sonic Mania is a game that's unafraid to challenge you at every turn, especially in its later levels.
Whether that's chasing Chaos Emeralds in Bonus Stages, diving into every nook and cranny of a level to find said gambles, or just rushing too fast through a level and finding yourself ring-less on a bed of spikes; Sonic Mania does not mess around. The bosses have a propensity to sometimes feel just a tad bit unfair (like a certain semi-submerged octopus-like boss—trust me, you'll know when you get to it), but once you learn their loop, they're a bit easier to defeat with just a few bops on the skull.
After all, there's no sweeter feeling though than overcoming adversity. I'll never forget the anger pulsing in my veins as I fought against a giant pink octopus thing that seemingly taunted me with multiple game overs in a second Act, launching me back to race through two entire stages again and again. When I finally prevailed, it felt good. Like, really good. (Even if shortly before I considered chucking my controller out a window.) I reckon that all the times I stumbled won't be an isolated incident either.
There's a number of obstacles aside from bosses. Sometimes it will be an entire labyrinthine level keeping you at bay, depleting your ten-minute window for completion as you navigate the zone's own specific topsy-turvy logic. In the end though, the difficulty never feels unbalanced or impossible to overcome. They served as moments of reflection to assess how I was approaching situations, and making my playstyle all the smarter as I progressed through the game. As old platformers were, Sonic Mania's flagrantly difficult at times, but that's not a bad thing.
For a game that depends on companionship, whether you're alone with Tails on your, well, tail or playing side-by-side on the same screen with a friend, hopping into versus multiplayer was a disappointment. When going head-to-head in a direct race, the split-screen stretches each player's side abhorrently. After playing a couple rounds against someone, we wondered if old Sonic games were as severely stretched across split-screens. According to light Googling: they weren't. It's the type of thing that feels like it could be easily patched anew to remedy the horizontal stretching. But in the meantime, co-op is the only multiplayer way to go for the time-being.
Visually otherwise though, Sonic Mania's stunning. Easily, it's pinnacle of the perpetually running hedgehog's pixel-embellished career. Sonic Mania's filled with the most intricate minutiae: the baroque, dense backgrounds of stages; Sonic running across the new Press Garden Zone and causing pink flower petals to float in the air in his wake. Both the familiar and new zones glisten with newfound energy, and the soundtrack—composed by musician Tee Lopes—helps bring a modern finesse to it all. Sonic Mania isn't just rewriting the Sonic formula, it's bringing it to the modern age and making it work with all the pixelated niceties modern technology can muster.
My favorite moments of Sonic Mania were at odds with one another: one thing completely new, and a throwback that I frankly hadn't anticipated in the slightest. On the new end was the aforementioned Press Garden Zone, a chilly new area where Sonic could be cemented into a giant ice cube and slide along surfaces. The color palette of icy blue, green, and fuschia married one another just right. On the opposite spectrum was a callback to a Mega Drive-era spin-off game in the Sonic lineage—a game I hadn't thought of in probably a billion years. The moment brought a genuine smile to my face though.
That was the moment I realized that Sonic Mania truly got it, and was wholly aware of what it was doing. It was counting on some level of nostalgia, yes, but the game burrowed itself in the fondness of those memories and actively engaged with them in a new, exciting way. Nothing in Sonic Mania was a shameless callback for no reason. (*coughs* Like Sonic Generations.) Everything, just as in the Sonic universe, served a purpose.
Aside from past Sonic games, Sonic Mania actually reminded me the most of another throwback game of recent years: Super Mario Maker. Yet where Super Mario Maker put the labor of its intensely-driven stages on the players themselves to create, Sonic Mania instead offers something else. Levels with so much care, detail, and buoyancy implemented into every pixel, that they feel fan-created themselves. (And as luck would have with a non-Sonic Team-developed game: They are.) Like a great Mario Maker level, now crafted with thousands more tools at their behest. But down to both games' cores the levels are all brewed with the same amount of love, care, and creativity tossed into the mix.
During its best moments, Sonic Mania feels like a Sonic fan's dream game. Now that that dream is fulfilled, maybe it's time for a new dream. Like an ideal, hypothetical Sonic 5 in the vein of Mania where we get only new levels thrown into the mix, instead of mostly remixes.
If you bought Sonic Mania after reading our Sonic Mania review, check out our Sonic Mania Guide Hub, which is full of useful tips. We’ve also got a Sonic Mania Boss Guide that will help you defeat every boss in the game.
Lasting AppealWith Chaos Emeralds to collect in sometimes-hard-to-find Bonus Stages, Time Attacks to beat, co-op and versus multiplayer to play alongside friends, there's plenty to master in Sonic Mania.
SoundComposer Tee Lopes captures and remixes the classic Sonic spirit with a modern twist perfectly.
VisualsIf nothing else, Sonic Mania is gorgeous to look at. That is, if you're able to take in all the scenery as you dash through it all at the speed of sound.
ConclusionSonic Mania is a brilliant return to form for the series' long-time away from traditional 2D games. Even if a few less remixed stages and more new zones would have been a nice change of pace, Sonic Mania's joyful level of ingenuity even in reimagining familiar sights is a testament to some of the franchise's best days.