With Sonic Mania, Sega has done the unthinkable for a corporate player in video games: They've given it to the fans.
Sega has had a nightmarish time trying to rekindle the magic and majesty of its iconic mascot since the blue hedgehog's peak in the '90s. After the Genesis console faded, Sega went an entire hardware generation without a "proper" flagship Sonic release on the Saturn. With the jump to 3D in 1999's Sonic Adventure, the series retained its flash, but something was fundamentally broken in the translation. While some fans defend the Sonic oeuvre from the Dreamcast onward, the series' best days were behind it, reaching its absolute nadir with 2006's disastrous Sonic the Hedgehog.
Since then, Sega has tried to reinvent the series over and over, with middling success. Meanwhile, various fan projects have sought to create new "traditional" Sonic games via hacked-in additions to original game code, as well as completely, faithfully recreated versions of '90s-era Sonics. Sega initially shut the project down, but in a move that surprised many, the publisher gave one of these developers the go-ahead to finish a port of Sonic CD for consoles and mobile platforms to generally positive reception.
Then Sega gave these same fan developers the keys to its mascot, a partnership between developer Christian Whitehead and studios Headcannon and PagodaWest games.
The result is Sonic Mania, a game that feels slavishly, almost fetishistically devoted to the old-school branch of Sonic gameplay and design. As a result, Sonic Mania feels like the series' Genesis-period ideas taken to logical extremes, and then some. But in its fixation on making a perfect recreation of '90s-era Sonic, some of the series' more egregious recurring problems remain present — with some modern quality-of-life elements nowhere to be found.
Sonic Mania opens as Dr. Eggman once again steals a collection of powerful gems called Chaos Emeralds, and it's up to Sonic, constant companion Tails the Fox and frenemy Knuckles the Echidna to get them back and defeat Eggman until … well, whenever Sega rolls this whole thing out again.
If you've played any of the Genesis Sonic titles, Sonic Mania is going to look and feel familiar.
No, really. Sonic Mania looks achingly familiar, to the point where I'm not clear whether or not many assets have been pulled directly from existing Sonic games. It certainly looks like a Genesis game, or rather, a Sega CD release — animations are more detailed than I remember them being from the cartridge titles, though the color palette feels like it came directly from the Genesis.
This extends to the way Sonic Mania plays as well. Sonic has a new ability, the Drop Dash, which allows him to immediately drop out of a jump and dash upon hitting the ground, but otherwise, you could draw a direct line between Sonic the Hedgehog 3/Sonic and Knuckles and Sonic Mania. It's a side-scroller that is, ostensibly, a platformer, but it's nothing like its contemporaries. Instead, Sonic and his friends collect rings as they race through each level, looping and backtracking at speeds that seem too fast for even the game's camera to keep up.
That feeling of barely controlled speed is Sonic's original schtick, and it's leveraged for everything it's worth here. Levels feel much bigger than they were in the Genesis games, with many, many more paths to barrel down, even as many enemies and bits of scenery hit your sense of nostalgia like a bucket of ice.
When it's working, this speed is exhilarating, and remarkably, no other game has ever managed to capture the same lightning in a bottle that Sonic did. Sonic Mania, more than any Sega-led project of the last 20 years, feels exactly the way I remember the original trilogy. As I made my way through the revamped, reimagined Green Hill Zone that starts the game, it was hard not to feel a little giddy — could someone have made a Sonic that feels as good as I remembered the originals feeling?
As it turns out, Sonic Mania is maybe too faithful. Sonic & co. are capable of incredible speed, it's true, but there's a sluggishness as they work their way toward it. It's not just stopping that takes a long time, which, hey, at least that makes sense. There's a windup to just about everything, from movement to jumping.
This windup time was always something that made Sonic feel sloppier than his industry arch-rivals, and it's in full effect here. On its own, it would be moderately irritating, but it’s coupled with level design that doesn't seem to have learned much about the kinds of obstacles the series used that were least suited to the tools available.
The chief example of this is surprise appearances and attacks from enemies and deadly obstacles from off-screen, whether actually coming from an area not shown at the time or something instantly appearing in front of Sonic. The sound of every ring you've collected exploding out of you when colliding with a hazard is a singularly enraging audio cue, and it's all the more infuriating because frequently, it just doesn't feel fair.
While these are primarily issues for Sonic moving at speed, slowing things down can occasionally pose its own frustration. Sonic has always been terrible with precise platforming. The controls and animation priority are just not up to the demands of pixel-perfect precision (and honestly, some hazards seem to hit Sonic beyond where it seems like they should be able).
For whatever reason, Sonic Mania includes these requisite precise platforming bits, and despite my own sense that they are somewhat more forgiving than in its 16-bit ancestors — maybe rings you drop stay on screen longer than they used to — they're still here, and they're still not especially fun. It's ironic that sections requiring twitch reflexes are often the worst parts of Sonic games, but here we are, 26 years later, and it's still true.
Somewhat bucking Sonic tradition, the most inventive and fun parts of the game lie within its boss encounters.
I know! I was surprised too!
Each boss requires a different strategy, which isn't unusual, but Sonic Mania really blows out its most basic gameplay structures, drawing from Sonic games outside of the traditional 2D platformers and digging deep into 16-bit canon. Some encounters aren't platformers at all, some involve battles on the move that go much further than even Sonic CD did, and all of them have enough surprises to keep them engaging. These sections were routinely the parts I most looked forward to.
Sonic Mania doesn't bat 1.000 here either, though. There are a few bosses out of the two dozen or so that fall prey to the same punishing predilection to cheap, unavoidable deaths, which exacerbates the game's frustratingly old-school retry system.
Like any other platformer, Sonic Mania gives you a pool of lives when you start a game, and you gain more through collecting 100 rings or finding them scattered throughout levels. As long as you have more lives, you'll resume at the last checkpoint you dinged when you die, but if you run out, you have to restart the stage you're on from the beginning.
This is marginally better than the original game, which had no continues officially apart from cheat codes. But it still sucks. When some of the less fun, more surprise-murder boss encounters are set at the end of a pair of acts that can take five to six minutes each (or more, if you're trying to find secrets), you can lose a hell of a lot of progress for what feels like no reason at all.
This is especially annoying because Sonic Mania, unlike the 16-bit era Sonics whose pieces it's largely built upon, doesn't need to pad out its length with progress-sapping deaths and restarts; there's plenty to dig through. There were multiple acts I had to race through more than once, and somehow, I always ended up down a completely different path than I had previously. This is something 16-bit Sonic games always did, but never quite on the scale in play here. And you can play as either Sonic and Tails, Sonic alone, Tails alone, or Knuckles, each of whom is able to get to areas of the game inaccessible to the others.
I'll admit to a closing complaint that I'm surprised to make — the packaging around Sonic Mania is surprisingly anemic. Yes, there's a multiplayer option, both cooperative and competitive (though due to deadlines we were unable to test it), and time attack is available for completed stages, but there's very little info or signposting within the game's campaign. I had to start a second game to realize how character select worked, and you can't actually change any of the game's sound or video options while the game is running.
At least the new animated intro and endings are nice.
Sonic Mania is forcing me to use one of the most forbidden cliches in a reviewer's lexicon. The mileage you get out of it will depend significantly on what you want it to be. As a synthesis and expression of a specific era of Sonic, Sonic Mania is devout toward its inspiration, for devout fans of Sega's beleaguered mascot. If more of what Sonic is what you want, then this is very much that, but more, and bigger, and faster. But for me, as someone with fond memories but key criticisms, Sonic Mania seems content to paint over some of the series' problems rather than fix them, making for a game that falls a little short of what might have been.
Sonic Mania was reviewed using a pre-release “retail” Xbox One download key provided by Sega. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.