Sonic Mania was revealed at a 25th anniversary party as a surprise to a crowd of passionate Sonic fans who were eagerly awaiting news about a new entry in the “Sonic the Hedgehog” franchise. While the announcement of a game like Sonic Forces seemed more in line with people’s expectations, Sonic Mania took many by surprise as being a new two-dimensional Sonic title that maintained the Genesis art-style and approach as opposed to the ill-recieved and modernized Sonic the Hedgehog 4. One of the biggest surprises about the announcement though came with the information that the game was not being developed by Sega internally but instead by indie developer PagodaWest Games alongside Headcannon, a business run by Simon Thomley who had previously worked on re-releases of classic Sonic games. Based on the announcement, there was one thing fans knew for certain: Sonic Mania was going to be a game made by fans and for fans.
However, this fan affiliation did not guarantee that the game would be good by any means. Sonic fans make their own fan-games all the time and while some are warmly received the majority of them do not do a great job of recapturing or improving upon the formula used in classic Sonic games. Naturally, the expectations were high for a new Sonic game made by fans who had experience with different parts of the franchise before. But this excitement was also met with hesitancy as the last couple games in the “Sonic the Hedgehog” franchise were met with a very lukewarm response. Now that Sonic Mania has officially been released it is evident to critics and fans alike that the team behind it did a fantastic job.
Upon launch Sonic Mania begins with a wonderfully vibrant animation reminiscent of Sonic CD‘s opening. While this animation does not set up the full plot of the game, it does introduce the player to the characters and their respective personalities in a fun way without being exposition heavy in any sense. After this, the game starts with Tails piloting the Tornado while Sonic coasts on top as both then land in front of a group of Eggman’s robots who unearth a new gemstone unrelated to the Chaos Emeralds. This gemstone then teleports Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles (who happened to be nearby) back in time which forces them to relive previous stages in order to reach Eggman and stop whatever nefarious plan he has in mind. The story is then told through very brief animations between stages that explain Sonic’s next move without feeling like fully-blown cutscenes that interrupt the flow of the game. While the storytelling in Sonic Mania is brief, it does also appear to set up why Classic Sonic makes an appearance in the upcoming title Sonic Forces. While the game would normally end with Sonic and his friends leaving Eggman’s giant ship known as the Titanic Monarch after defeating him yet again, if the player chooses to go the extra mile and collect all seven Chaos Emeralds they are rewarded with an animation that shows the mysterious gemstone creating a wormhole that seemingly transports Sonic through time and space, explaining Classic Sonic’s presence in Sonic Forces.
Onto arguably the most important part of any Sonic game: the gameplay. In Sonic Mania the running from beginning to end is as fun and fast as before while also making great improvements to the overall structure. While some fans would argue that the main Genesis titles were the only good games in the “Sonic the Hedgehog” franchise others make the cases that the original games were not that good to begin with. After playing through Sonic Mania it becomes evident that not only is the game on par with classic Sonic titles, in some respects it is even better. The game takes improvements made by titles such as Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and not only revitalizes them, but also adds its own sense of style with small but rewarding features. A good example of this can actually be found in Green Hill Zone which is famous for its spiked, rotating bridges that often damage players coming in from above. If the player is to find a Flame Shield in the stage, walking on one of these wooden bridges results in the bridge burning which reveals a new area underneath. This is just one of the innovative ways in which Sonic Mania takes features from previous games and makes them brand new again to diversify gameplay without having to rely on gimmicks like the Wisps in Sonic Colors.
However, while the gameplay in Sonic Mania is improved it still has a few shortcomings which appear later in the game and take the form of boss battles and special stages. While the majority of the boss battles in Sonic Mania are unique and engaging a few still seem to fall victim to frustrating design that impedes gameplay. Not only this, but while special stages necessary to collect Chaos Emeralds are different from before, the race to reach the UFO can still be a bit troublesome, but not a huge issue in the grand scheme of things. Another welcome addition to the formula that Sonic Mania introduces is the drop dash. When in the air, the player can hold the jump button for a few seconds in order to immediately land on the ground and spin dash forward. The game never makes the player perform this move throughout their adventure, but when used correctly the move keeps the player moving quickly throughout the stage without having to slow down from a jump. Overall, the gameplay in Sonic Mania is an improvement over previous titles and while game still has its challenge it is also more accessible to newcomers thanks to its clever design.
Finally, Sonic Mania has vibrant and amazing artwork which is paired perfectly with a great soundtrack done by remixer Tee Lopes. Rather than re-using sprites and tracks players can easily see that almost every aspect of the game has been remastered in some sense in order to modernize the game while also maintaining the same classic style. Just as the zones change gameplay-wise from Act 1 to Act 2, the music and items in the zones also change in order to keep things just as exciting as before. However, these changes never feel out of place and always stay in line with the overall theme of the zone and only add to the experience rather than distract players.
Sonic Mania is not a perfect game, nor is it “Sonic the Hedgehog 5” or the beginning of a new line of Sonic games. At some points it feels like a romhack in the best sense of the term, with fun experiences like a fight against Dr. Robotnik himself in a rousing match of Puyo Puyo. Other times, it feels like a classic Sonic game with a balance between speed and platforming in classic zones like Green Hill Zone. Even if Sonic Mania is a standalone game that is set apart from the original 1-3, it feels right at home with the franchise while also making a name for itself. As said before, it is undoubtedly a game made by fans and for fans and it is better off because of it. Anyone who fondly remembers playing Sonic games in their youth should pick up Sonic Mania, and anyone who has never even played a classic Sonic game before should play it too. Sonic Mania is that good.