So I picked up Sonic Mania from the US eShop in the recent Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales. When you see a deal, gotta go fast, right?
I’m not the biggest Sonic fan by any means but I did grow up around (not exactly with) Sonic games for the Megadrive. Of those early Sonic games I spent the most time with my favourite, Sonic 2. 2017, 25 years after Sonic 2 was released, Sega finally released a worthy successor. I kid of course – it’s fun to argue which of the classic Megadrive games is the best but honestly they all have something to recommend them. Post-Megadrive though, there’s no doubt that the Sonic series went from system seller to mixed bag. After all that Sonic’s been through I’m amazed how well Sonic Mania turned out. To the point where I have no qualms saying this is the best Sonic game ever made, even after just a few short hours.
To justify this bold claim I need to explain how good Sonic Mania feels to play. On the Player One Podcast (a mighty fine podcast by the way), Greg Sewart said once that the classic Sonic games have nothing to do with speed, and everything to do with momentum. Gathering and maintaining momentum is the pleasure of 2D Sonic, and that’s something Sonic Team have failed to grasp and implement in the modern 3D games.
Anyway that’s a whole other rant right there. Sonic Mania bypasses all the BS by faithfully recreating 90s Sonic… only better. Sonic’s movement in Mania makes 90s Sonic feel stodgy by comparison. He’s easier to control at slow speeds than in the Megadrive games, without losing the aforementioned signature momentum. Our hero’s range of animations have been expanded too, with more fluid and detailed representations of walking, trotting, running, sprinting – all the things Sonic does best, naturally.
The levels are a catchy blend of old and new, with no shortage of references to by-gone glory days and less than glorious Sonic spin-offs. Classics Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone open the game, with more original stages showing up later. It’s a best-of Sonic 1, 2 3&K in many ways, capturing the highlights and cutting out the filler.
I mentioned the animations but there’re a host of subtle gameplay improvements: when you have a high number of rings and you take a hit a few larger rings worth 10 rings scatter so you can recover a fair proportion of what you had, the number of bottomless pits is reduced, you retain all your rings in the main game after playing a bonus stage… They may be small touches individually but together they make a compelling case.
Last thing I have to mention are the music and sound. As with the rest of the game, the audio is lovingly done. The sound effects are all intact, and evoke strong nostalgia. Classic stages have expertly done, faithful remixes, with strong original music for the new stages.
At the end of the day Sonic Mania is a passion project through and through, oozing with 16-bit Sonic love (that came out grosser sounding than I meant it to). The fact that this was made with minimal, if any, input from Sonic Team should serve as a serious wake up call for Sega. It seems they are paying attention, given the recent announcement of Streets of Rage 4. Like Sonic Mania, Streets of Rage 4 is a “back to basics” 2D game developed by an outside indie dev with beat ’em up experience. Here’s hoping it reinvigorates the franchise (and the fanbase!) in the same way Sonic Mania has. A toast to Sonic!