Sonic Mania is a celebration of the franchise’s beloved and highly praised past. Since the franchise’s jump to 3D and 1998, the focus has undeniably been on the third dimension. As of 2009 Sonic’s newer 2D adventures were side games that usually ended up on Nintendo’s handhelds exclusively. Despite this, Sega still had an interest in the series’ history and began considering porting older titles to Apple’s latest device: the iPhone.
Enter Christian Whitehead.
Also known by the alias Taxman, Whitehead presented Sega with a demo of Sonic CD running on the iPhone, powered by his very own Retro Engine. While displeased at first, Sega eventually ended up releasing the port officially on every mobile and console platform possible at the time. This led Whitehead into a partnership with the company, later releasing enhanced ports of the first two Sonic games on mobile platforms.
Whitehead still had more in mind for both himself and the Retro Engine, showing an early version of Sonic Mania to series producer Takashi Iizuka last year – after that, the rest was history. Whitehead made it clear that it was a passion product, and that’s arguably the main reason Sonic Mania is as good as it is: it’s made by someone who absolutely loves the classic Sonic games and dedicated to people like him.
That love can be seen in every single part of Sonic Mania. The returning zones still feel fresh, new zones feel as if they could have been in the original games and the music embodies the best of the series’ style. Fans of the franchise will be in love with every part of it, but that doesn’t mean this is bad for newcomers. It’s one of the best games I’ve played this year – even when you strip away all the nostalgia and hype surrounding it.
Sonic Mania’s gameplay is almost identical to the classics that came before it. To sum that up for those who might not be familiar: it’s a classic 2D platformer. Sonic’s main ability is going fast, and he’s still as speedy as ever. The game’s physics seem to be a perfect recreation of the original games, although Sonic has a new move that lets him instantly drop to the ground & dash. All of the shields from previous games are also available.
All of this blends together with the incredibly well-designed levels. The design philosophy also feels close to the classics: you can’t just get through the entire game by holding right and occasionally jumping, but speed and platforming are perfectly balanced and blended. Difficulty is similar – while you’ll die for sure (and get at least one game over) you’ll still be making progress regularly.
You’ll find optional power-ups and additional paths scattered about nearly every level, as well as an area where you can enter a special stage. Sonic Mania’s special stages are presented in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has played Sonic CD, but don’t let that fool you: they’re completely original. Sonic 3’s special stages are also available as bonus stages, mostly unchanged.
You’ll find a boss waiting for you at the end of every stage. Most of these are based around previous bosses faced in the series, but they still include something that makes them different in some way. Some of Sonic Mania’s best moments can be found in these fights, with one of them being so far from what you would expect that I recommend avoiding spoilers if possible.
The game’s soundtrack is the cherry on top of everything else. It perfectly captures the fun and excitement to be found in each level – and it’s just as catchy as you would expect. The original songs are just as good (or better) than the reimagined classic tunes, mirroring the different levels they accompany.
While the main single-player mode is phenomenal, it isn’t the only thing you’ll find in Sonic Mania. The classic competition mode also returns, allowing players to race each other throughout the game in split-screen. There’s also a time attack mode for those who feel competitive.
All in all, Sonic Mania is one of the best games to come out this year and one of the best games in the Sonic franchise. It’s a love letter that Sonic fans and newcomers will both end up enjoying, providing a fresh taste of what’s now considered classic game design. Difficulty exists, secrets are everywhere and boss battles are well done. Here’s to hoping that we see more from this team in the future.