Just about everyone who regularly plays video games can trace their love of the medium back to one or two formative experiences in their childhood. They’re the moments you find yourself revisiting time and time again in your memory – the ones you wish you could relive, if only to feel excitement and wonder that strongly once more. For me, those formative experiences were playing Pokémon Red and Blue on the original Game Boy and enjoying the original trilogy of Sonic the Hedgehog games on my next-door neighbor’s Sega Genesis. A lot about those old games just grabbed me immediately – the colorful characters, the detailed environments, and yes, the exciting sense of speed. Unfortunately, over the years, my adoration has gone from genuine to a sort of masochistic, ironic laughter at the “so-bad-they’re-amazing” nature of the more recent games in the series (with certain titles, like Sonic Generations, happily excluded from that bunch).
Having noted the atrocious reception of the vast majority of Sonic’s latter-day career, Sega has done what few other studios seem willing to do (I mean, just try to imagine a company like Nintendo doing something like this): handed the reins to talented fangamers who know a thing or two about recreating the Blue Blur’s heyday. The result is Sonic Mania, a sort of “greatest hits” collection of the blue hedgehog’s best early stuff combined with a number of new stages, boss battles, and other little twists.
The old stuff is tried-and-true, from Sonic CD’s Stardust Speedway to the Hydrocity Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and each has been polished up and bolstered from the original. The bonus stages from those two games – the dizzying “get blue spheres” minigame and the pseudo-3D “catch the UFO” one – been repurposed here as well. The real excitement though, as far as I’m concerned, comes from the new material. Thanks to highly inspired art direction, stages like Studiopolis and Press Garden are visually stunning despite taking their inspiration from games originally made over two decades ago (just check out the newspapers being printed off en masse in the background of the latter stage, and you’ll know what I mean).
Each of these stages is also an inspired maze of interconnected paths, loop-the-loops and level gimmicks (such as giant popcorn machines and extending director chairs in Studiopolis) that wouldn’t have felt at all out of place in a proper Sonic the Hedgehog 4 (you know, rather than what we actually got). More importantly, they’re an absolute blast to play, representing some of the most inspired level design the series has seen in a long, long time. All of the boss battles have been given a creative makeover, too; while the fights against the Act 1 baddies are neat little affairs, it’s the big Eggman/Robotnik fights closing out each round that are really fun and impressive. I particularly enjoyed one where Sonic is forced to fight him, Mean Bean Machine-style, in a round of that game’s fast-paced puzzle gameplay.
A Few Concerns
If I have one complaint about the offerings as a whole, it’s that – as well-selected and polished as the old material is – it still makes up far more of the total gameplay than I thought it would. It’s why I described Mania above as more of a “greatest hits” with some new additions, rather than a sequel to the previous games. I suppose that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but the reliance on nostalgia in all of gaming is getting a little old at this point. And for crying out loud, with Green Hill Zone making an appearance in just about every new Sonic game at this point, is anyone really nostalgic for it anymore? That, and I couldn’t help but wonder what a whole new project’s worth of material would look like from these developers. That’s what makes this more of a nitpick than anything else; it’s not exactly a bad thing that the new stuff is so good that it makes me want more of it.
There are also a few sections where things could be a bit more polished, given that what Sonic Mania ostensibly aims to offer is the most refined version of the series’ Genesis-style gameplay. Slowdown occurs in certain areas that are heavy on particle effects, and I was even unlucky enough to trigger some sort of glitch that halted my completion of the second stage. I did eventually get things back on track after repeatedly slamming every button my controller has to offer, but it was a good two minutes before I managed to get poor Sonic out from where he was stuck. I’m pretty sure my experience represents the outlier rather than the rule (I couldn’t duplicate the glitch upon playing the stage again), but it’s still concerning nonetheless.
Sonic Mania Review - What's Old is New Again... Kinda (PS4)
A Treat for Fans Both Old and New
Overall, though, Sonic Mania succeeds a lot more than it stumbles. One other successful, notable area I didn’t mention earlier that has to be noted is the soundtrack – like the aforementioned stage visuals and designs, these toe-tapping tracks fit right alongside the most legendary that the franchise has to offer without ever sounding out of place. And as mentioned, both new material and refined and tweaked versions of old stages are an absolute blast to play – even though I admit I wanted a lot more of the new stuff, and could have done without playing another “revamped” version Green Hill for the fiftieth time in my gaming career. What this package represents, to me at least, is an opportunity for folks new to the series to discover the Blue Blur at his best, and for old fans to revisit a classic style of gameplay that hasn’t been properly done in years. Sonic Mania is a real treat.
Sonic Mania review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.