Released in 2017 in the hope of reviving the Sonic franchise somewhat since SEGA's output for Sonic games over the years had been patchy with only the odd gem here and there, Sonic Mania was a retro-drenched reboot of sorts paying homage to the earliest Sonic games on the Genesis and beyond.
With a team comprised of developers whose work in fangames, ROM hacks and Sonic mobile game adaptations impressed enough to get them this official gig, Sonic Mania sold itself as a game from die-hard fans for die-hard fans and it certainly feels like it. While many of the levels are remixes of classic ones (Green Hill Zone, Chemical Plant Zone), there are also four new levels including the excellent Studiopolis and Mirage Saloon zones. All of them look, sound and feel the part for sure.
You can play as Sonic, Tails or Knuckles but also Ray The Flying Squirrel and Mighty The Armadillo, in the much better value expansion Sonic Mania Plus, which also includes Encore Mode, a slightly altered version of the full game.
A few of the levels, old and new, shouldn't present too much of a headache and, overall, the game is a lot easier than, say Sonic 2. That said, when it wants to present a challenge it certainly doesn't hold back. Flying Battery Zone, the 4th stage, already feels like a late-in-the-game zone and it can take a good amount of time to complete. The biggest pain here is the wind which will make certain gravity-defying upward jumps a trial-and-error kind of thing. Shout-out to those chickens and the annoyingly small and relentless eggs they shoot at you making landing near them a chore.
Stardust Speedway Zone, which culminates in an intense Metal Sonic battle, has a more confusing layout, though more so Act II than Act I, and nothing like Flying Battery. Hydrocity Zone, the obligatory water level, doesn't disappoint in terms of making your life hell, especially during the boss fight. But it's the final two zones, Metallic Madness and Titanic Monarch, that will truly test your patience. There's a good chance you'll run out of time in the last stage and be forced to restart the whole thing so make sure you pick up as many rings as possible, you'll need those extra lives.
The bosses you face throughout the game include, of course, Dr. Eggman in various forms (mech suit, Mean Bean Machine, weather machine, giant spider) but also his Hard Boiled Heavies, Metal Sonic, a giant flying caterpillar bot and all sorts of other crazy machines. One of the Heavies, Heavy Magician from the Mirage Saloon Zone, can turn into different characters from the franchise like Fang the Sniper, Bean the Dynamite and Bark the Polar Bear, each with their own ability. There's nothing too ground-breaking here but it's a nice variety of bosses paying homage to pretty much every classic 2D Sonic game out there.
There are giant rings located in every stage that lead to Sonic CD-style 3D mini games. Special stages see Sonic tackle a fun catch-the-UFO challenge and the old sphere-grabbing mini game from Sonic The Hedgehog 3 is back. Capturing all of the Chaos Emeralds unlocks the real ending and there is a Time Attack mode where you complete levels as fast as possible, share your results and unlock more features. This all helps give the game decent enough replay value.
It's tough to compare Sonic Mania to other similar Sonic games, seeing as it works as both a brand new game and a best-of, but it certainly ticks all the right boxes when it comes to what makes a Sonic game fun. The graphics are pitch-perfect: this is one slick-looking game that nails the retro look while also feeling quite polished. Familiar levels look better than ever (Oil Ocean Zone is frankly better all around) and the new ones are a treat, to the point where I can't wait to play a whole new game with all new levels just as good as these. The final stages are, unfortunately, too much of a pain to be truly enjoyable, however, and the same goes for the messy final boss.
Quite simply a must for any Sonic fan and a really entertaining game in its own right, Sonic Mania should even appeal to newcomers. It's a gorgeous-looking, nostalgia-soaked Sonic game with a killer soundtrack, colorful graphics and inventive level design.
Maybe it's a tad more uneven than some of the best Sonic games out there but it's such a joy on the whole that you definitely won't regret giving it a try and, indeed, I highly recommend that you do.