Developer: Christian Whitehead, PagodaWest Games, Headcannon
Platform: Nintendo Switch, Steam, PS4, Xbox One (Reviewed)
I have been complaining about the direction the Sonic series for twenty or more years depending on where I start. If I start with the disappointing Sonic 3D Blast or the virtual absence on the Saturn, I could certainly date it that far back. But really, it would be my experience with the series since the Dreamcast releases where I became most disillusioned.
For me, the 3D titles to this day have not properly transitioned the series into 3D like was done successfully with so many older game series. There are a variety of reasons for this from the physics to the general level design. It hasn’t just been these 3D outings but also new 2D games beginning with the Sonic Advance trilogy and the unfortunately named, Sonic 4. In short, although there have certainly been great games released, the games have never been comparable with the main five games on the Mega Drive (and Mega CD) in the early 90s.
That is until now.
Sonic Mania is the best Sonic the Hedgehog game since 1994. I loved Sonic Generations and Sonic Colours. I enjoyed Sonic Advance, Sonic Adventure and even the Wii U’s Sonic Lost World. None of those games ever compared to the original series though. Sonic Mania is exactly what a Sonic game should be.
There are number of mistaken assumptions that have been made about the Sonic series over the years. One was the emphasis on speed which while certainly true, was over emphasised. Sonic games from the beginning have been a mixture of exploration, careful platforming and speed. The speedier sections generally broke up the gameplay, adding variety to the game. As well as this, the speed was used to show off the technical capabilities of the Mega Drive at the time. That Sonic was a technical marvel at the time, is hard to appreciate today.
Sonic Mania is more of a tribute to the original series than anything else. Most of the twelve zones featured in the earlier games with a number of new zones mixed between. It is important to note that the older zones only start out familiar and the level design is almost entirely unique to Sonic Mania.
This brings me to what more than anything makes Sonic Mania great. The level design not only shows an understanding of the classic level design but even improves on it in some respects. The new Sonic releases were replete with sudden bottomless pits, thoughtlessly placed enemies and odd difficulty spikes. Much like the early games, Sonic Mania intelligently telegraphs dangers giving players a chance to respond even on their first time through the zone. This gives players a chance to react and adjust rather than having them learn the level layout from repeated player deaths.
As well as this there are a number of unique ideas used from the bouncing gel in Chemical Plant Zone to the way you can ignite oil with a fire shield in Oil Ocean Zone. The boss battles also show some improvement with plenty of new ideas used. Even the throw backs to previous games have a unique twist. I would rather avoid sharing some of the better ideas but most are interesting even when the challenge isn’t there.
Something else that they absolutely nailed was the soundtrack which was composed by Tee Lopes. Many of the compositions are a remix of tracks from the previous games but there are plenty of new compositions which fit the style perfectly. I’ve even been listening to the soundtrack outside of play sessions.
There are a few complaints I have about Sonic Mania which are relatively minor and seem to be in-line with what I see to be the general consensus. One is that the majority of zones are remakes. Considering how well made the new zones were, I would have preferred that they made up the majority. It was certainly nice to see new takes on the old but the care and skill and shown with the level design suggests they would have done better to make all new ones. Still, I can see the desire to appeal to fans old and new, so perhaps the balance works better overall.
Another is with regard to the Blue Sphere bonus stages. While I enjoyed having these in the game, they seem like something that should have been separate from the main game as they have no bearing on the gameplay. Having a different kind of bonus stage that affects the actual game would have been a better choice.
There were a few moments in the game that while not bad, were a little underwhelming but I can’t mention them without sharing what I’d rather players experience for themselves.
This is really all I have to complain about.
Sonic Mania is the best Sonic game I’ve played since Sonic & Knuckles released in late 1994 and arguably betters the originals. This is how a Sonic game should be made and is proof that despite all the failed efforts, it can still be done. This is something like what we should have seen on the Saturn and it took fans to finally do the series justice.