SPOILERS AHEAD! I won't be revealing anything that wasn't discussed in early reviews of the game. However, if you want to keep a good amount of the game a surprise for yourself, I'd recommend coming back after playing the game.
These last two weeks have been exciting for me when it comes to retro gaming, and that excitement stems from something that isn't even a retro game (and not just because I snagged “Outrun 2006” on X-Box for a pittance right after reviewing Outrun 2...funny how that works).
"Sonic Mania" has arrived and has received plenty of rave reviews all around. Many have called it “a return to form” for Sonic (these words coming from sites that have had their writers claim there never was a “good Sonic game”...blasphemy!!!). And I felt it necessary to give my two cents on the game for this post today. It's my current game of choice (and I even started my very first playthrough of Undertale via its cross-platform PS4/Vita release, so...there's that). I grew up adoring Sonic the Hedgehog so much more than the Mario games until Super Mario 64 blew my adolescent mind, and from there, there was no going back, even in the light of Sonic's “good at the time” 3D games. I played the games time and time again, I watched as much of the cartoons as I could (except for Sonic Underground and onward...who could watch THAT trainwreck?!?), I even went several years proclaiming "Sonic 3 and Knuckles" was the bar none, full stop, greatest videogame of all time. So yeah, I likes me a good Sonic game.
Before I get into the game, I first wanna say that while I will be giving my impressions and coming to a final judgment on the game, I WILL NOT be giving this game any sort of rating or score. I simply believe, even though the staff adhered to a “technological cap” of not surpassing the power of the Sega Saturn, that holding retro game standards up to a game released in 2017, with the luxuries of online updates and functions as well as a more in-depth look at why the old games worked and tweaking those aspects, isn't much of a fair fight. I will give a good summary at the end, and hopefully that will help persuade you one way or the other into deciding if Sonic Mania is a game worth your time.
Even in widescreen and with more dynamic spritework, you'll still occasionally find your brain being fooled into thinking you're playing a more traditional Sonic game.
The first thing I believe is worth discussing is the control. I still recall me and my brother getting psyched as could be for the release of “Sonic the Hedgehog 4; Episode 1” and not being too impressed when the game felt so different. Now, don't get me wrong, different isn't terrible. But it didn't bring us back to our childhoods playing Sonic 2 and 3 in my room growing up, or trying to stamp our initials on the leaderboard in Sonic CD via the Sonic Gems Collection on Gamecube (until Ethan eventually just blacked out the leaderboards with “1. EJP – 2. EJP – 3. EJP”).
Sonic Mania pulls this off better than anything Sega themselves has attempted. Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and co. nailed the feel of Sonic 1 and 2, and the sense of speed in Sonic CD, with its camera trailing behind if you REALLY get going fast. If you're used to Sonic 3 & Knuckles, like my younger brother, it might feel a little less loose and more weighted. It took me only a couple zones to feel like I was getting the rust off, and by “Studiopolis” (one of the games all-new levels), I was as locked in as I once was...or as close to it as 29 year old me could be. Another thing I was impressed by is how the various elemental shields ripped from Sonic 3 work in a control style made to mimic Sonic 2. It feels natural to the point such a clash never dawns on you until you've put the game down.
The graphics are as on the spot as could be as well. Many classic levels echo their original games to the point that, sometimes, it seems to cross the uncanny valley. Within a few seconds of entering the “Chemical Plant” stage, it took feeling the PS4 controller in my hands to remember that I wasn't playing Sonic 2 again. There are some older stages where this doesn't quite click; “Stardust Speedway”'s first act feels nothing like it's Sega CD counterpart, and the flow of “Hydrocity” (no pun intended) feels nothing like the original stage aside from a few set pieces. However, this is something I can live with. It feels nice to see some “new” with the “old”.
Even newer stages contain plenty of throwbacks to older Sonic games, with some that end up being much more than just a subtle "wink".
In fact, I wish there was more of the “new” within this game. The new stages; including “Studiopolis”, “Press Garden”, and “Mirage Saloon”, are masterpieces all their own. Once the game ends, you'll be itching that they did more stages like this, and I hope when the inevitable Sonic Mania 2 arrives, they'll consider doing more of these original levels. I'd even be fine with the game being nothing but brand new levels. “Studiopolis” is the first stage that feels like the gloves are truly off and the game is ready to get wild. It plays like a loud, boisterous rendition of Sonic 1's “Star Light Zone” with high speed loops and settings interrupted by some slower (though not so slow that it ruins the pace) platforming segments. “Press Garden” is a stage that the team kept under wraps until the game launched, and also runs in this way, though with the much more fun use of conveyor belts in act 1 and ice blocks in act 2. It might be my favorite level in the entire game.
Sometimes playing as Knuckles provides an entirely re-arranged level, and even a completely unique level on one occasion. Other times, you'll play a nearly 1:1 rendition of Sonic/Tails' stage.
“Mirage Saloon” becomes somewhat of an anomaly, however. I dare not spoil how, but Act 1 will echo an old Sonic standby if you're playing as Sonic or Tails, but as Knuckles you're treated to an all-new level. Now would be as good a time as any to discuss the Knuckles playthrough. Just as Sonic 3 & Knuckles pulled off, playing as Knuckles will yield a different experience than using Sonic or Tails. Due to his climbing and gliding, as well as his lower jump height, you have to use him a little differently. Knuckles rendition of Green Hill Act 1, the game's opening level, is considerably different than what Sonic and Tails' versions are. Because of this, it leaves you with the impression that every Knuckles level is built with this uniqueness in mind. In fact, I even read reviews commending Sega for doing just that. However, this is not the case. Some levels are seemingly not transformed at all; I couldn't find one difference in either act between Knuckles' version of Stardust Speedway and Sonic/Tails' version. On the other hand, the aforementioned “Mirage Saloon Act 1” is a MUCH different beast when playing as Knuckles, becoming a stage tailored specifically to his climbing and gliding abilities. This is a level that, if using Sonic or Tails was even possible here, your chances of completing the stage are likely slim to none. This is the only level that builds the stage from the ground-up specifically for Knuckles, and I wish the game had more stages like this instead of just one act in one stage. There's also a unique boss battle for Knuckles later in the game, near the end, but it's still not different enough.
The classic stages are, for the most part, absolute gems. In most cases, the first act will be a revision of the level as you remember it, oftentimes combining parts of both acts from the original game. “Chemical Plant” has many infamous aspects of its stage within just the first act, instead of holding off on the water pieces or the trap floors until act 2. The second act will then add brand new elements, or even elements from other stages that aren't represented in Sonic Mania. This won't always be the case; Stardust Speedway Act 1 almost feels like more of a tribute to Sonic 3's Marble Garden than the Stardust Speedway stage from Sonic CD. However, act 2 will feel much more familiar.
The special stage is pretty damn fun, though sometimes unweildly to control.
The Special Stage in this game took some inspiration from Sonic CD while turning into a beast all its own. In Sonic CD you had to take out every enemy on a race-track like course, which led to many frustrating moments as a bot would shift direction just as you thought you'd hit it, making you think the game jipped you. All you have to do in Sonic Mania's special stage is to catch the UFO holding one of the series' prized 7 gems, the Chaos Emeralds. Your rings serve as a timer, counting down until you either collect the emerald or hit 0 rings. As well, there are blue spheres littered around the track, and collecting enough of those will speed you up, going from Mach 1 all the way to Mach 3. While in early bonus stages hitting Mach 2 and having a clean run will net you the emerald, eventually Mach 3 becomes a requirement, and steering a Mach 3 character feels like the Sonic series' equivalent of speeding down a snowy road in a compact car. You'll need to get used to this pretty quick, or else the failures will rack up quick around the 3rd Chaos Emerald or so. Obtaining all 7 emeralds will unlock “Super” versions of the three characters, enabling invincibility and incredible running speed and jumping height for as long as you can keep obtaining rings (once the ring count hits zero, you're returned to normal). The true final boss of the game is also hidden behind needing to unlock Super Sonic/Tails/Knuckles, so there's extra incentive.
The bonus stages also return in the form of the classic Blue Sphere minigame from Sonic 3. All you have to do is turn every blue sphere red to clear the challenge. However, in this game you're rewarded a medal instead of a Chaos Emerald. You'll be rewarded either a bronze or silver medal depending on if you simply came in contact with every blue sphere, or if you did that as well as collected every possible ring in the stage (fortunately, since continues are no longer a thing in this game, Sonic Mania now counts the rings down in this bonus game instead of upwards). Collecting enough of these medals will unlock extra secrets, such as a sound test, activating Sonic 3's insta-shield or Sonic CD's superdash, or an “& Knuckles” mode, which replaces Tails with Knuckles when playing as Sonic (or adding a second Knuckles to Knuckles' quest). However, this is where one of the major flaws of the game come in.
For one, you must start a new game outright if you want to use Sonic 3's insta-shield or Sonic CD's boost. Not only that, it must be a no-save playthrough. I would understand if this wasn't allowed until a save had the game cleared, but it takes a ton of the fun out if I have to play through Green Hill and Chemical Plant and so on to get to a level I think using those abilities would be fun in. On top of that, some of these bonuses require playing a TON of the Blue Sphere minigame. I've collected 4 bronze and 5 silver medals, and I'm already sick and tired of seeing these stages. Some of these Blue Sphere stages are ripped wholesale from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, while others are maddeningly difficult stages brand new to this game. If you love...and I mean L-O-V-E...the Blue Sphere minigame, you'll be fine with this. If you so much as “just like it”, I imagine you'll get tired soon. If you're totally indifferent to it, like me, you'll be sick of playing these bonus stages LONG before you unlock everything the medals offer. And yes, there is a level select present, but I still feel like the feature is just there to be able to actually use cheats/different boost types without starting from the beginning. Had they just allowed the use of cheats on completed files (which offer the ability to start on act 1 of any stage), it would've made a ton more sense.
Lastly, the music in the game is absolutely dynamite. There are no low points in this soundtrack, from even just the title screen and menu music to excellent remakes for classic stages (some levels being simple instrumental re-arrangements, while others are remixed tracks). And the new stages also have excellent tracks. Do what you gotta do to give these tracks a listen. Here's some samples of some excellent ones:
In the end, Sonic Mania is a no-brainer must-buy for Sonic fans new and old, casual and hardcore. At $20, there should be no hesitation to give this a chance. If you're new to Sonic, this game serves as a good intro, but it is possible to snag a classic Sonic game for much less on Steam or mobile, and it's hard for me to not recommend those to a newbie over dropping $20 on Mania (especially Christian Whitehead/Headcannon's prior widescreen upscales of Sonic 2 and Sonic CD). Hopefully when the bug fixes come out, this will fix a good handful of the glitches that are present, though none of those glitches will truly hamper the fun you'll have.