It seems trite to call Sonic Mania a “love letter” to classic Sonic games, but that’s exactly what it is. Cutting its long development story short, Sonic Mania has been headed up by fans who have worked on fan projects, who’ve gone on to make some of the best, official classic Sonic ports. For the fans, by the fans.
In terms of game feel, Sonic Mania plays like an extremely refined version of those retro Sonic games we all know and love — from the first Sonic all the way up to Sonic CD. Sonic Mania replicates the gorgeous feeling of momentum and motion perfectly and tightens everything up so it feels more fluid, more animated. It’s classic Sonic how you remember it with rose-tinted glasses, made form.
Each zone has two acts that are quite different from one another, punctuated with some incredibly interesting boss fights that offer new challenges each time. Boss-wise, they can be devious, but once you figure out the tricks can be taken care of pretty easily, with the exception of Stardust Speedway’s boss (you can guess what it is), that did overstay its welcome a tad.
These are some of the best designed levels in any Sonic game ever.
To be honest, the way being hit works makes the game easier than the originals. Collecting rings protects you from a hit, whereupon they’re scattered, giving you time to recollect some. In the classics, these would bounce more aggressively with subsequent hits, making it hard to juggle just a few rings. Here, they always seem to bounce in much the same way, making some sections trivial with good use of invincibility frames and picking up those lost rings.
Every stage is densely packed with alternate routes.
But no amount of rings can save you from tricky platforming, so it might have been the right choice — focusing difficulty on navigating the levels rather than annoying boss fights. Every stage is densely packed with alternate routes, even from the very beginning. Two paths we took at the start Flying Battery Act 2 went in absurdly different directions, only meeting up together at the very end.
Sonic games have always boasted multiple routes, but for the most part were quite basic. In Sonic Mania every area zig zags wildly, with secrets and new thrills around every corner. We honestly can’t wait for full maps to be compiled online for us to drool over. These are some of the best designed levels in any Sonic game ever.
You can make your way through the early stages of Mania quite easily, but over time some of the routes will expect you to get more and more comfortable with the intricacies of Sonic’s movement, knowing how to flick Sonic off walls just right, and land some tight jumps. Holding right will only get you so far. Both Tails and Knuckles play differently to Sonic, and have some unique areas just for them, as well as some different in-game “cutscenes” (the style of which is very reminiscent of the Sonic 3 & Knuckles).
Sonic Mania delights in the details with outstanding results
Special stages are hidden throughout the zones, in the same way as in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, so you’ll definitely feel rewarded for fully exploring these gorgeously detailed maps. These have their own distinct low-poly design that is simply stunning to look at, and mash together elements from all of the previous Sonic special stages in terms of mechanics as well as visual design.
You’ll need to catch a UFO in a 3D race course to steal back a chaos emerald, balancing collecting blue orbs to increase your speed, and rings which count down how much time you have left to catch it. Collecting all the emeralds will reward you with an enhanced ability to use in the stages, as well as allow you to access the true final boss.
Speaking of which, both the final boss and then the “true” final boss were a little underwhelming, and sort of long rather than tricky. It never reaches the heights of Sonic 3 & Knuckles‘ Death Egg Zone boss leading into the Doomsday Zone. Sonic Mania delights in the details with outstanding results, but it doesn’t reach some of the epic scale of some of the originals when it comes to the end game.
The way the two acts of each zone change it up keeps things incredibly fresh in every single level, squeezing the most it can out of each new element before rinsing clean and moving to another. In fact, with some of the levels resurrected from the later retro Sonic games, it all feels like a natural evolution of Sonic level design.
The way the two acts of each zone change it up keeps things incredibly fresh in every single level.
With the changes ramped up in Sonic Mania it becomes clear how Sonic was always verging that way back in the day. The lava cooling in Lava Reef, the water slides being introduced in Hydrocity; it recalls to mind levels not featured in Mania and how those changed: Mushroom Hill’s seasons, going into the tomb in Sandopolis. Sonic Mania is quite simply natural evolution.
As well as adding entirely new concepts to the stage that feel right at home with the retro design, some of the stages also end up mashing up elements from other classic Sonic stages. As a whole, the level designs were clearly made by people who adore the classic games, and have such mastery and knowledge of them that they’re able to bring all these different elements together and add new twists and elements that work so perfectly.
You start to feel the patterns of the level design sheet music as you play, in awe at the effortless mastery of the mix.
Carnival Night gimmicks make reskinned appearances, and Flying Battery Zone begins to bake in some references to Wing Fortress, and even Sky Base Act 1 (and for the Game Gear-heads, Scrambled Egg Zone gets a nod later on too).
Oil Ocean is one stand-out, not only with how the fire shield reacts to the oil, burning it all up, but with how the second part is a huge callback to Sandopolis Act 2 — sliding down the oil pipes, jumping on pulley switches, it all fits together and makes beautiful sense, and you start to feel the patterns of the level design sheet music as you play, in awe at the effortless mastery of the mix.
Which isn’t to say Sonic Mania is immune from criticism. Some of the levels rely a bit too heavily on nostalgia, and not every stage is given a truly fresh coat of paint. Even the new zones sometimes feel like they fall back on calling back to other, old stages — when they’re really at their best trying new things.
It doesn’t mean what’s here isn’t incredible — it really is — but all of the smart, new additions make me yearn to see more of that, and that’s where a sequel could potentially go: being even more new. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of new content. Even the older zones are predominantly new content in how they’re put together, and with 12 full length zones it’s a pretty hefty adventure that will take a couple of hours to polish off. With multiple characters, extra game modes, a lovely time attack (with a quick restart feature natch), and Sonic 2-style horizontal versus, Sonic Mania is a chunky package.
Every new cog in Sonic Mania looks right at home next to the old ones.
It’s like a cover mix tape of incredible music gifted to you by a talented musician, who truly understands the music they’re playing, and adds in their own amazing riffs, licks, and entire tracks. Conveniently, Sonic Mania also features a fantastic soundtrack that is just as inspired by and in love with the original game’s as the level designs.
Every new cog in Sonic Mania looks right at home next to the old ones. Sonic Mania is a truly special game that breathes new life into the old games. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but by all means polish it up to be even better.
We reviewed Sonic Mania on PlayStation 4. The Dualshock 4’s d-pad was lovely for controlling Sonic. We hope to have some impressions on the Switch version soon, but were pleasantly surprised with the build at preview with how well the Joy-con analogue stick lent itself to 2D platforming in the short session we had with it.