He’s had his fair share of ups, downs, and loop-de-loops, but Sonic has proven to be one of gaming’s most beloved and enduring icons. With Sonic Mania, Sega brings Sonic back to his classic 2D side scrolling roots, taking direct inspiration from the 16-bit games that originally propelled Sonic and friends to super stardom. Sonic Mania is proof that no matter how much time passes, great gameplay is always in style.
Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles are back to fight Eggman’s forces the best way they know how: running, jumping, spin dashing, flying, and gliding their way to victory across twelve zones. You’ll see classic zones from Genesis-era Sonic games, like Chemical Plant, Stardust Speedway, and Lava Reef, alongside all-new areas like Studiopolis and Mirage Saloon. These new zones are particularly impressive: the theming and level design in each is colorful and creative, and I was eager to run around and explore, finding all sorts of challenges (and easter eggs) within. Take, for example, the glittering neon lights and electronic contraptions of Studiopolis, an area themed after a television studio in a big city. One route might have you thrust into the guts of a popcorn machine after being beamed around like a satellite signal, while another will send you speeding through the city’s underground subway passages.
But even the old zones are packed with plenty of new tricks. They’re bigger, more elaborate, and filled with traps and gimmicks both old and new that tickled my nostalgia bone and surprised me. Sonic 2’s Chemical Plant Zone was always been a fun romp filled with high-speed tunnels and ramps, but with the addition of chemical jelly goop that bounces you around and lets you cling to walls, it feels fresh and fun in a whole new way.
The zones aren’t the only things to get an overhaul, either. Reworked Sonic stages look more beautiful than ever, packed with vibrant color and dazzling visual flourishes, while the new zones’ artstyle meshes perfectly with the 2D pixel art of classic Sonic. Everything, down to the smallest of background elements, is more detailed and features more movement than ever before. That goes for the enemies, too Eggman’s new “hard-boiled heavies” are depicted with lots of quirky personality, making them interesting and unique villains without speaking a shred of dialogue. The soundtrack is also top-notch, packed with remixes of classic Sonic tunes alongside all-new compositions.
Sonic Mania has all the the crucial elements that go into making a great Sonic adventure: big, elaborate stages, responsive controls and movement physics, interesting and engaging tricks and traps, lots of hidden nooks and crannies to discover, and hazards that challenge you to stay alert and act fast. I replayed many of these stages over and over, finding little nuances and secrets that eluded me the first, second, and even fifth time around.
And there is incentive to replay these stages, as there are numerous hidden special levels you’ll need to conquer to collect the Chaos Emeralds and see Sonic Mania’s ‘true’ ending. In special levels, you chase a UFO through a 3D landscape by collecting speed-enhancing blue spheres and rings. It’s a fun concept, but it can be tough to see barriers that block your way on the ground, and collision detection on some objects seems off. Making matters worse, colliding with a bomb can start a chain reaction that sends you careening uncontrollably into other sets of obstacles, which can make otherwise good runs turn bad very quickly.
Also returning are bonus stages from Sonic 3, which you’ll find at the checkpoints scattered across the zones. These stages don’t unlock emeralds, but do unlock bonus features once you’ve completed a set number of them, like a sound test, a debug mode, and even hidden sub-games. They started out easy, but grew satisfyingly challenging, and completing them all perfectly took quite a bit of time and practice.
Not every throwback to an old Sonic game is welcome, though. Chances are that if there was something you saw in an old Sonic game, it’s in Sonic Mania somewhere even if it wasn’t a particularly good element of an old Sonic game. For example, it’s neat to see a callback to Sonic 2’s Sky Chase Zone, but let’s face it — the forced auto scrolling and wonky controls in Sky Chase Zone were not very fun then, and they’re still not great now. And that incredibly annoying “keep the lights on” mechanic from Sonic 3’s Sandopolis Zone remains just as incredibly annoying 23 years later.
And while the game’s boss fights are generally pretty cool, some of them have a tendency to drag , like the Studiopolis midboss and a revamped version of Sonic 1’s end boss. I know old Sonic games didn’t have checkpoints between multiple bosses, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have added them to Sonic Mania. And finally — Sonic’s new drop dash move? It’s a little weak and slow, and actually pretty hard to use – I stuck mostly to spindashing. (Annoyingly, you can unlock options to use the Sonic CD speed-up and the Sonic 3 instant-shield technique instead, but only in a mode that doesn’t save your progress.)