Review: 'Sonic Mania' (Switch)

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I grew up with Sonic the Hedgehog in my house, right alongside Mario. He was the coolest game character ever, and his games were the most exciting, fast-paced and engaging platformers that existed anywhere. After the highs of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, I got to watch the character's reputation sink into oblivion as his 3D games went from bad to worse. Even the 2D platformer Sonic the Hedgehog 4 fell far short of recapturing the magic of the original games. Now, over 20 years after the end of the Genesis series, Sega is teaming up with fans to bring the character back in a big way. Does Sonic Mania manage to bring back what made the original games so great?

Yes. Go and buy it right now.

Sonic Mania is the perfect love letter to the original Genesis games. It expertly recaptures the feeling of speed, exploration and wonderment that we experienced over twenty years ago. You'll zoom through levels as you have in nearly every Sonic game, but here you'll be constantly surprised and elated at the creations that Christian Whitehead (the developer of the Retro Engine that powers the Sonic mobile ports), PagodaWest Games and Headcannon have dreamed up to get Sonic from A to B. Old things are mixed up and made new and exciting again, while the entirely new creations are excellently designed as well. There are a couple of stumbling blocks along the way, and a small handful of bugs, but overall Sonic Mania is a triumphant return to form for one of the greatest icons in gaming history.

The story is fairly simple, and told in cutscenes without dialogue, though you'll need to pay attention to some points. Dr. Eggman (no, he's never going to be Dr. Robotnik again) and an elite group of minions named the Hard-Boiled Heavies unearth the Phantom Ruby on Angel Island, sending Sonic and his friends into a time warp that has them playing through stages old and new. The story of a Sonic platformer shouldn't be too complex, but I wish it were told slightly better like it was in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, where you watched the story develop and the stakes raise through the levels as you played. Still, the connecting tissue is better than nearly any other Sonic game; if I'm criticizing Sonic Mania for not being as good as the best, it's because I feel like it was close enough to contend for that title.

The core gameplay is basically perfect. The controls are extremely solid, feeling exactly like they did in the Genesis days; jumping, dashing, flying and gliding through the levels, you'll feel like you never left. One addition to Sonic's repertoire is the drop dash, which lets you charge up a spin dash in midair and unleash it the instant you hit the ground, letting you keep and even increase your momentum while platforming. Speed is heavily emphasized in these levels, but it manages to strike the proper balance between moments of dazzling speed and moments of careful platforming and exploration.

The level design in this game is top-tier as well. Sonic Mania features eight levels from Sonic 1, 2, CD, 3 & Knuckles, along with four original stages, and I'm not going spoil what any of them are here. The classic levels all start off as you remember them, going through familiar layouts before suddenly taking a sharp left turn into new territory (though I did find one level that was very nearly a carbon copy of what it was before). The new levels are designed exactly as well as the remixed old levels, with great themes and great layouts. All of the levels, however, end up borrowing various smaller elements from the classic games as well. You'll constantly see something in one level and recognize the classic Sonic level that it's borrowed from, but they're almost always used in new and creative ways, breathing new life into things we all know so well. (I'm assuming everyone reading the review knows Sonic as well as I do.)

Most importantly, the levels are both interesting and exciting. One of the biggest stumbling blocks of Sonic 4 was that even though it went back to a classic style of 2D platforming, it didn't really try anything interesting. All of its level design was safe and formulaic, feeling like Sega was retreading old ground because they didn't know what else to do. The levels in Sonic Mania are not only visually engaging, but the way Sonic moves through them is interesting and inspired. There is more creativity in Studiopolis Zone alone than in the entirety of Sonic 4. Knowing exactly what made the classic games good allowed the developers to innovate and take risks in the right areas, which paid off in spades.

The bosses in the game are mostly well done, with a couple of exceptions. A good number of them are remixed versions of old bosses, where you think you have an idea of what to expect, but you quickly discover that you have no idea. Other bosses are entirely original creations, which can be either brand new Eggman mechs, or any of the Hard-Boiled Heavies; almost all of them, however, will have you doing creative things that you've never done before in a Sonic game. Several of them have you running along as you battle, keeping the feeling of speed, while one boss in particular was so completely unexpected and delightful that my jaw basically dropped (and you will know it when you see it). Unfortunately, a couple of the game's bosses end up being real duds, either for obscure and unfun mechanics or just extremely frustrating precision involved. Moreover, there were a certain set of rules that the classic bosses always seemed to follow, and while it's great to see the ways this game breaks out of them, it would be nice to see more bosses that had a classic feel to them. As a general rule: always try to be more like Sonic 3, and less like Sonic CD.

On top of the normal gameplay, this game brings two additional bonus stages into the fold (at least right away - keep an eye on your unlocks). If you hit a checkpoint with 25 rings or more, you can jump into the resulting portal and play the classic Blue Sphere special stage from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, where you navigate a labyrinth of spheres trying to run over all the blue spheres and all the rings. All fourteen of the original levels are there for you to play, along with eighteen original levels (and there may be even more I haven't seen in the Extras menu). Completing these will give you silver or gold coins, depending on your level of completion; the more of these you get, the more bonus moves you can unlock for Sonic in no-save mode, or the more extras you can try out in the Extras menu. The problem with these is that they just throw so many at you; you don't lose your rings after leaving a Blue Sphere stage, which means that basically every checkpoint offers an opportunity to lose two to three minutes in a bonus stage. It eventually becomes outright excessive. I wish you lost all your rings after a bonus stage like in Sonic 2.

If you find a giant ring in a stage, however, you'll be transported to the game's new special stage in the hopes of getting a Chaos Emerald. These are modeled in part after the Sonic CD bonus stage; you run around a track, collecting blue spheres and rings, in order to chase down and catch a UFO carrying the Chaos Emerald. The whole thing has an intentionally low-quality, early-3D look to it, and it works well based solely on the power of nostalgia. It's one of the best special stages the series has ever had, combining speed with high precision and skill, and when you finally catch the UFO it is incredibly satisfying. Collecting all of the Chaos Emeralds is key to seeing everything the game has to offer; thankfully, when you beat the game the first time, it becomes much easier to grind out the remaining Emeralds you didn't find.

So much attention is paid to detail in this game, and it pays off in spades. There are so many fun touches, like an enemy that slowly grows sadder as it loses its shield, or the way that elemental shields can interact with the levels in meaningful ways, like a fire shield burning a wooden bridge. Things like flying by a level and seeing its layout before playing through it, or seeing elements from classic bonus stages integrated into normal levels, or the more bizarre implications of the game's secret "& Knuckles" mode. Even the obvious fanservice cameos are done at surprising moments, and in genuinely clever and charming ways. And the game has finally addressed a gripe I've had for eighteen years - the level-end jingle, which has been slowed down since Sonic Adventure, has finally been sped up and played back at its proper, high-energy speed, and it's so satisfying. You can easily tell that this game was a work of love, made by people who genuinely love and understand the series.

At the same time, there are things to take issue with as well. As I mentioned before, a couple of the bosses can be duds, while one of them became legitimately infuriating with how precise I had to be, as it felt like the game was working against me. It felt like playing a Super Mario Maker level where the level creator had lost all perspective of how difficult their level was, because they were too close to it. I also found a bug where the game's music would occasionally cut out entirely for long stretches of time, or one instance where a bonus item box blocked my character's path during a cutscene, essentially softlocking the game. I also wish that there were more Knuckles-specific paths (though the things they do specifically for Knuckles are excellent), and I really did miss that there weren't any really large-scale bosses like the series has done so well in the past.

On top of Mania Mode, which is the standard story mode, you can also play in Time Attack and Competition modes, which are both exactly what they sound like. Time Attack challenges you with zooming through a single act as fast as you possibly can, with no bosses waiting at the end; it's a pure speed test, with leaderboards and everything, which speedrunners are already taking to. Competition mode has you racing against another human player through a handful of selected acts that you choose; none of the classic Sonic 3 competition levels are here, which is fine because I'd rather be playing through full Mania levels anyway. In this mode, the screen is split so players take up either the top or bottom of the screen, and each half looks like it's squeezing an entire screen down into half the space. It doesn't look great, especially not if you're playing it on the Switch's tiny handheld screen. You can, however, play it easily with the two Joycons, so you can engage in multiplayer right away.

Sonic Mania is the best-looking Sonic game ever made. It's all spritework, done in the style of the original games, but with better detail and higher quality than ever before. Everyone and everything is animated beautifully, taking full advantage of the 60 frames per second that the game runs at. Characters are expressive and move fluidly, and the environments are detailed and colorful all the way from the foreground to the background. Everything is perfectly sized for playing the game on the Switch; even in handheld mode the game never drops a single frame, and everything is perfectly optimized and sized for handheld play.

The game sounds great as well; while most of the sound effects are pulled right from the original games, the music has all gotten a serious upgrade. Classic themes are redone with better orchestration, using a wider variety of instruments to give it a crisper and more robust sound. The themes also receive Act 2 variants like all the songs from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, letting you hear a new twist on a song you've known for so long. The entirely new songs are nearly as good as the best of the classic tunes, easily holding their own; one remix of a famous tune from Sonic CD was a real standout track that you should look out for.

There are a few extras included in the game to help extend its longevity; a classic Sonic-based spinoff game makes a return, while you can also play as much Blue Sphere as you like. You can also play the game with two players if you like, with one as Sonic and the other as Tails; the Switch's Joycons work well for this purpose. Most of the replay value, though, comes from the same place as it always has: playing the game over and over, because it's short and sweet and so dang fun. There are twelve levels to play through, which you can do as one of four character combinations; playing through with Tails or Knuckles offers a different experience from playing with Sonic and is worth taking the time to do. But really, if you enjoy going back to the original Sonic games to play them after all these years, you'll be going back to Sonic Mania for the same reason.

Sonic Mania is the game I always hoped and never thought it could be. It brings back the feelings I had playing through the original Sonic games - exhilaration at the speed, wonderment at the new and exciting worlds to explore, and joy at the creative platforming elements introduced in each new world. The game isn't perfect, to be sure; it has some bugs and some questionable design choices that weigh it down, and it falls just short of having the design feel of the best Sonic games. What it lacks, though, it makes up for in boundless creativity, attention to detail, and outright love for a classic franchise. This is the most solid and exciting game to come out of the series in years, and anyone who's ever shared a love for the Blue Blur owes it to themselves to pick this up and play through it, and then play it again, and again.

Welcome back, Sonic. I've missed you dearly.

Final score: 9.0 out of 10

A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of review.

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