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16-Bit, Blue Blur Perfection
Sonic Mania takes the series back to what made it successful on the Sega Genesis and Sega CD in almost every way. Sega called upon Christian Whitehead, known for the well-received mobile versions of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and Sonic CD, to create a true successor to the 16-bit classics. Using Whitehead’s original game engine, Sonic Mania aims to combine elements of the earlier games to produce an experience that will resonate with long-time fans, but also show newcomers to the series what made Sonic a serious competitor to Mario.
Sonic Mania nails the 16-bit visual aesthetic and sound. With the exception of some modernized sprite animation and effects, the majority of the experience is presented in what feels like a brand new Genesis game. Tee Lopes has done a superb job remixing the music from the classic stages and creating upbeat ‘90s-style pop tracks for the original stages. Occasionally, a true easter egg is noticeable, such as a sound effect from Sonic Spinball. The game looks and sounds fantastic in both the Nintendo Switch’s docked and portable modes.
The game includes eight remixed zones from previous 2D Sonic games, as well as four brand new zones, for a total of 12 playables zones. Like Sonic the Hedgehog 2, each zone is divided into two acts, the first of which ends with a mini boss, and the second with a main boss. In the eight remixed zones act one remains loosely structured the same as the original level, with the second act providing new gimmicks. This is where the game really shines. The new gimmicks feel like they were conceived back in the mid-’90s, and fit in perfectly. The zones are extremely detailed, with branching paths that encourage exploration and multiple play-throughs.
Hidden throughout the acts are giant rings that warp the player to a special stage presented in pseudo-3D, perfectly replicating the visual style prominent in 16-bit era games. Completing them awards Chaos Emeralds, and collecting all seven allows transformation into “super” versions of Sonic, Knuckles, or Tails. Holding 25 or more rings and passing a checkpoint opens one of 32 “Blue Sphere” bonus stages from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. Completing these earns unlockables such as game mechanics from specific Sonic games, hidden mini-games, and debug mode.
What makes the Switch version of Sonic Mania notable is the ability to be played in portable mode. The Joy-Cons can be detached so a friend can play as Tails in the single player campaign or as a rival in the two-player competitive mode. While a bit longer than in previous entries, each act is perfect to be played in short bursts, but they also seamlessly flow together for longer play sessions in docked mode.
Sonic Mania features crisp and responsive controls, akin to the aforementioned 16-bit titles. Sonic, Knuckles, and Tails all control as expected, complete with Knuckles’ gliding and shorter jumping, and with Tails’ flying and swimming. Tails can once again lift Sonic if a second player is participating. The Joy-Cons, Classic Controller, portable mode d-pad, and even the SNES pad from 8bitdo worked and felt great.
With no real flaws other than those present in the original 16-bit Sonic games, Sonic Mania proves to be a fantastic work of art that feels both fresh and nostalgic at the same time. Platforming veterans and newcomers alike will find something to appreciate in Sonic Mania. Every version of this title is surely enjoyable, but having the ability to take it on the go seems so natural on the Switch. Games like this feel right at home on Nintendo’s newest console, even if they are produced by its great rival of the 16-bit era.
More of Yesterday’s Sonic Today
Sonic the Hedgehog is back in Sonic Mania, a recently-released 2D platformer on PC, PS4, Switch and Xbox One. His return this time has strong points but also has shortcomings that prevent it from standing out from the series appreciably.
The level design is generally fantastic. Levels are complicated in layout and, with occasional exceptions, smooth in navigation. Each zone has two levels with a couple of bosses. Some zones shine more brightly than others but overall they are pretty strong. Unfortunately, several of the zones and levels, including the special stages, are borrowed from previous Sonic games. Although they are still fun to play, and may have a few interesting new quirks, I felt it was an homage that was unnecessarily redundant in execution.
Some of the levels wear out their welcome a little in their length. This is a good problem to have because it translates into more content, but I had trouble staying engaged as long as the designers were expecting me to. This brings me to a separate criticism that the game should have allowed readier access to these levels, like through the zone select feature used in Sonic the Hedgehog 4, so that it would be more palatable to learn these zones at your own pace rather than having to play the entire game each time.
I feel brief discussion of Sonic Mania’s more daunting problem is warranted. The series’ gameplay was based on speed and simplicity from the beginning. These two traits reinforce one another, too, as a fast moving platforming character can only leave so much time for a player to handle complexities. With more than twenty Sonic games, excluding racing games and spinoffs, is simplicity still the best model for this character? At what point do games become inherently homages to their predecessors due to this shared characteristic? There are only so many zones you can make with the same templates without the content going stale. Since speed and simplicity are necessarily complimentary, Sega is a little cornered here with this franchise.
Why was the very first level I played in Sonic Mania twenty-six years old? And why are the earlier Sonic games so prominent in what was borrowed from? I think the answer is that these early games, Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic CD, were successful and that experimentation with the model has often been met with rejection, if not rebuke. The fans are forgiving though, myself included, and continue to buy and play new Sonic games.
Sonic Mania is a good game and fulfills its role as an old school Sonic 2D platformer. The levels are beautiful and fun, if a bit wearisome at times. The lack of a zone select feature makes the game less accessible and players should know that if they don’t still like the original 2D Sonic games they won’t enjoy this one.
Sonic Mania was developed by Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games and published by Sega. It was released on consoles on Tuesday, 15 August, 2017 and on PC on Tuesday, 29 August, 2017.
Brian and Erik paid for their own copies of the game. Neither reviewer was in direct contact with Sega.
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