Looking back at Sonic’s classic days with Sonic 2, 3 and Knuckles, CD, there’s been attempts by Sega to recreate the 2-D formula that started the franchise off and boosted it to the success it has today. When the Sonic Team made Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Part 1 and 2, fans rejoiced thinking it was going to be the revival of the 2-D blur that they came to love in the first place. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
Buggy level design, horrible music and the 2.5 model of Sonic instead of the original 16-bit design made fans skeptic of what the future held for the franchise. For the 20th anniversary, a brand new game was released for modern day consoles called Sonic Generations. It introduced Classic Sonic levels, but not in the traditional retro sense. Fans rejoiced because it brought back 2-D gameplay they could get behind but also a break for the modern Sonic players.
The success both financially and critically gave hope for SEGA to continue down the 2-D path with future installments. Now, six years later fans finally got what they’ve been asking for since Sonic CD — Sonic Mania.
Looking back at the original 2-D Sonic games, the stories have always been simple in plot. Sonic has the emeralds. Sonic loses the emeralds. Dr. Robotnik is trying to take over the world, and now it’s Sonic’s job to stop him once again.
The story for Mania expands not just in the plot, but the characters as well. The story leaves off after Sonic 3 & Knuckles, with Sonic and Tails receiving a frequency from Angel Island. After finding the source of the frequency, Dr. Robotnik appears with the Hard-Boiled Heavies by his side (a new group of enemies introduced in the Sonic franchise). Dr. Robotnik just found the Phantom Ruby, a power source capable of bending time and destruction. The Phantom Ruby is a key item in Mania’s plot because that’s how the player travels to different zones and progresses through the story.
It is where the story plays perfectly into the nostalgia of past Sonic games. Activities like traveling through time to Green Hill Zone for the hundredth time it seems like, Chemical Plant, Stardust Speedway and more will transport fans back in time when they played those stages for the first time.
Sonic’s gameplay has always had mixed results from fans and critics alike for aspects like being too fast, too slow or featuring too many “just hold the stick to the right” sections. Looking at all those together, Mania pulls off an impressive amount of moves seamlessly without effort.
Right from the first stage being Green Hill Zone, it has the right amount of platforming, speed sections, hidden secret rings and blue ball bonus stages from Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Each stage has a variety of gameplay and gimmicks which brings a new challenge to the fray. It helps Mania stay fresh even when the mechanics and gameplay loops are tossed together in a different order than before, especially when there’s a variety of directions to go in stages. Players have to take the high road, bottom section or stay in the middle. Sometimes it can be switched instantaneously, allowing players to keep their next playthrough fresh.
New mechanics are introduced too with the remade zones. In Chemical Plant Zone for example, the player can bounce on a platform depending on its color based chemical. It shows different mechanics being used in each stage in interesting new ways and makes the player think and not just go through the motions with every level. Instead, the player has to be enticed, focused and understand what Mania is setting out the player to complete.
There are times, however, Mania feels like it’s overstaying its welcome. Especially the last couple stages of the game being Lava Reef Zone, Metallic Madness and Oil Ocean Zone, to name a few. The stages don’t overstay their welcome either, and each keep a respectable amount of time without feeling old. It keeps the fast pace from going act to act without feeling like a player is in one stage for too long. There are some stages, particularly at the end, that feel like they linger on a tad bit. Throw in some cheap deaths at the final boss fight for the zone and it’s game over. The player is looking at doing the whole entire zone all over again for about 15-20 minutes.
Then again, it is the tale of two cities with the Sonic franchise. Amazing moments flood Mania, but there are moments spruced through the end that break the waves. Often in Mania, gameplay will change completely or the player will have to focus on a specific area in Sonic’s abilities. Boss fights do it beautifully as well, which is the special move in Mania’s performance. It throws surprises at every spin dash, each revealing a new nostalgic driven adventure.
Mania’s visuals have one of the best 16-bit designs seen in a revamped retro game, especially for the Sonic franchise. Starry nights filled with shooting stars pass Sonic as he bolts to the next checkpoint. The game’s visuals capture its imagination. The vessel that holds Mania’s creativity is what brings the visuals to life. Often, 16-bit designs aren’t made anymore because of the extraneous hours of crafting a well-rounded product. The fact that Mania achieves this is a marvel of its own, but the minor details help the game shine like golden rings. When Sonic is about to fall off a platform, he shakes around trying to regain his balance. His eyes extend showing emotions never seen before in a 2-D Sonic game. The color palette is pushed to its full potential — from red rocks covering the landscape to machine driven streets. Every stage is distinct in its level design, backgrounds and enemies. Players eyes will never be taken away from the visual amazement that is Mania.
Mania’s music pulls straight from the back catalog in a creative and fresh way. New reimagined remixes bring a new life to the classic music seen before in past games. Right from the intro song, Mania knows what it wants to be. It’s like the startup music to a console or the intro to a movie. Each song has the perfect tone for the stage that’s present, such as the techno lifts in Chemical Plant or the wild west beats of Mirage Saloon. The stage design and music work well together beautifully. The upbeats, chill chord structure and simple bass line help entice the experience.
Video games are about emersion — getting pulled into a world and being encapsulated by the design of the levels, music, graphics and characters. That’s what Mania does brilliantly without any drawbacks. It’s not just a great Sonic game, but a great game period which is a testament in of itself. Sonic’s formula has been shifted around the washer and dryer till the beginning of his legacy. What Sonic started off with is a 2-D platformer and a fanbase that loves Sonic just as much as the creators. Sega looked back at the drawing board and found the two ingredients to make a Sonic game that both fans and gamers would enjoy immensely — platforming and fans. Because of the characters, fans have a huge commitment to the franchise. There has always been spikes in the road to Sonic’s return, but there’ll always be coins to pick it back up. And a Green Hill Zone for fans to spin dash through.