Sonic Mania Review
As a game reviewer, you can catch a lot of heat for something you might write or say. It happens to all of us, and most of the time the controversy dies down and people move on. But in my nearly 12 years doing this (I can't believe it's been that long, either), one paragraph, in my review for Sonic: Lost World, stood out like no other. You can read it yourself RIGHT HERE, but the main point was that after years of despicably awful Sonic the Hedgehog games, I pleaded with SEGA to kill the mascot forever, rather than continue to besmirch his 16-bit legacy. As you can imagine, that didn't sit too well with some of the Internet's most dedicated (crazed?) Sonic fans.
Four years later, and I'm happily eating crow. Sonic Mania, the new throwback, side-scrolling Sonic game from Christian Whitehead, Headcannon and PagodaWest Games, NOT Team Sonic, the developers behind the character's disastrous recent legacy, is truly the first great Sonic the Hedgehog game since either Sonic Adventure on the SEGA Dreamcast or Sonic Rush on the Nintendo DS. Yeah, it's really been that long since the venerable mascot appeared in a game that didn't completely suck. So by having clearly dedicated fans, rather than Team Sonic, develop a new game, we now have the best Sonic the Hedgehog title in decades, and possibly the finest one ever released. Thanks for not killing him off, SEGA; can we be friends again?
Sonic Mania, like the earliest and best Sonic games, doesn't have much going in the way of story. Dr. Robotnik (I still stubbornly refuse to use the asinine "Eggman" nickname) has kidnapped a bunch of fuzzy critters and it is Sonic, Tails and even Knuckles job to but the scientist's machines and rescue them. So if you played Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic 2 or Sonic & Knuckles, you are getting essentially the same plot here, but like a lot of 16-bit era games, the lack of a compelling narrative doesn't matter much.
What does matter is how the game plays, and it plays beautifully. The game is made up of slightly tweaked classic stages, stages in the same style but with all new layouts and completely new creations, and they all flow together wonderfully. Each act plays out precisely like that; the old, the refreshed and then the new. It's clear the developers were Sonic fans as some of the newer or completely new stages take exactly what made the classic games fun and add that little extra zing to make them even better. Running through the Green Hill Zone in the first level feels familiar, but the second stage takes things to the next level, with lots of branching paths and more than a few secrets to go back and search for. It's these additions and updates that make Sonic Mania so much more than a "greatest hits" type game; it is an entity unto itself, and a great one at that.
Of special note are the boss fights. There really is no one boss fight that resembles any other in the game, and with one or two exceptions, all of them are landmarks in quality game design. Whether you are bouncing a giant spider off the walls, running from a rampaging robot in an auto-scrolling battle or, and I can't believe this one either, playing the classic Puyo Puyo clone Mean Bean Machine competitively against Dr. Robotnik, every single boss encounter is a new experience, and most are ones you won't soon forget. Playing Sonic the Hedgehog on SEGA Genesis as a teenager, I mostly remember being awed by the game's graphics and sense of speed, but the boss fights are now, decades later, a fuzzy memory. I doubt the same will be said of Sonic Mania when I'm resting comfortably in a nursing home, eating soup and watching my stories.
One last thing the game brings back is secrets. Remember when games had secrets? You'd discuss them on the playground, whisper about them in class or discover them in the pages of Nintendo Power (well, not for a SEGA game, but you get what I'm saying). Before the Internet, before DLC, before achievements and trophies, games had secrets that were, well, secret. Sonic Mania brings that back in glorious fashion. It was days - DAYS - an eternity in Internet time, before anyone discovered a certain "thing" (no, I'm not going to ruin it here) was unlockable in the game, and that alone brightened my overall opinion of the game. It might seem like silly nostalgia to the younger set, but seeing the developers go "all in" for the retro feel of things makes the whole package that much sweeter.
So, I'll reiterate - my apologies to SEGA and Sonic himself. After nearly 20 years of almost universally horrible games, the 16-bit icon has returned to his former glory and redeemed himself in the eyes of this long-suffering fan. Sonic Mania does a great job of reminding us what made Sonic great in the first place, while also FINALLY bringing the mascot into the modern era. Everything comes together - the music, the stages, the boss fights and the secrets - to form a package that is both appealing to the retro gamer and irresistible to anyone who enjoys a good game of run and jump. Whether on the Nintendo Switch or any other system, Sonic Mania needs to be in your collection yesterday.
Final Rating: 93% - I never thought I'd see another good Sonic game, but here we are.