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Lifewire / Andrew Hayward
Exacting recreation of 16-bit Sonic
Distinctive, entertaining levels
Each character plays differently
Affordable price for package
Frustrating old-school lives system
Stop-and-go cadence turns tiring
Recycles a lot of past content
Sonic Mania is a spot-on revival that old-school Sonic fans will adore, but a couple of modern tweaks could’ve made it even better.
Sonic Mania hearkens back to a time when Sonic mania was in full swing. The original Sonic the Hedgehog games turned the Sega Genesis into a legendary rival of the Super Nintendo, with no other game matching its impressive speed and unique aesthetic. Sonic’s fortunes have wavered over the years, however, and none of his more modern games have found the same level of popularity or acclaim as those iconic classics.
Sega has finally embraced that reality with Sonic Mania, a game that looks like a pixel-perfect 16-bit release from the early 1990s. Sure, it’s in widescreen and certainly crisper than the old Genesis could handle—but otherwise, Sonic Mania never breaks the retro illusion. This side-scrolling platform game looks and feels exactly like the classic Sonic games in the minds of fans, which is a very good thing in some ways and a frustrating thing in others.
Storytelling in Sonic Mania (as in the other core Sonic games) is shown and not told. There are brief cut-scenes here and there, but no spoken or written dialogue, so reading comprehension isn’t a big concern here. Sonic Mania sees series stars Sonic the Hedgehog, Miles “Tails” Prower, and Knuckles the Echidna caught up in a space-time warp instigated by nemesis Dr. Eggman, which sends them to a variety of different lands. They’ll have to contend with Eggman’s Hard Boiled Heavies, a crew of robotic henchmen, along the way.
Sonic Mania plays exactly like the old-school Sonic the Hedgehog games from the early 1990s, and might jog the memories of some parents who lived through the Sega Genesis’ glory days. Each side-scrolling level sees you control a character from the start to the finish of the stage, with a challenging boss battle awaiting you at the end.
Sonic Mania looks like a pixel-perfect 16-bit release from the early 1990s.
Getting to the end provides a significant challenge of its own. Sonic’s skill is incredible speed, and the levels are built to create a sense of momentum. You’ll roll down hills and go upside down on loop-de-loops, fling through the air, and hop on top of common enemies to eliminate them. You’ll also find items that temporarily make you invulnerable, provide a temporary shield to block attacks, or give you a magnetic pull towards parts of the levels, for example.
Along the way, Sonic will pick up golden rings that serve not as currency to spend, but rather a unique form of life force. If Sonic is hit by an enemy or hazard, all of his rings go flying around the screen—but so long as he has at least one ring, he won’t die. However, should he take a hit without any rings in hand, you’ll lose a life and start over at the beginning of the level or the last checkpoint. Conversely, collecting 100 rings will gain Sonic an additional life.
Sonic isn’t the only playable character, however. You can also switch to pals Tails and Knuckles, each of which is a bit slower but has his own unique movement perk. Tails can hover in the air briefly and float upwards a bit, while Knuckles can glide and grab onto walls, letting him climb to otherwise unreachable areas. In fact, the level layouts are even changed up when playing as Knuckles, and the two together add incentive to play the game multiple times—or experiment to find your preferred play style. The Sonic Mania Plus version also adds Ray the Flying Squirrel and Mighty the Armadillo as extra playable characters, expanding the variety even further.
Sonic Mania spans 12 total worlds, eight of which are pulled from previous Sonic the Hedgehog games and are lightly remixed. As such, this game is something of a greatest hits package, and the new worlds offer unique new play elements while still fitting well within the overall set. Each world spans two acts, essentially providing 24 total levels, and each act concludes with a boss battle. These enemies are typically oversized, robotic foes that must be hit multiple times to be defeated, and they offer distinctive challenges to overcome with each new level.
One of the biggest treats of Sonic Mania is the sheer amount of variety and diversity amongst the 12 levels. While they all utilize the same fundamental gameplay elements, they shake things up enough to feel significantly different. You’ll go from a bright green forest world at first to a metallic, robotic world next—and then things get much more eccentric later on. Eventually, you’ll in a film studio-inspired world with popcorn machines that flutter you upward, or an ice stage in which you sometimes get frozen into a massive ice cube and must slide around until you smash through an otherwise impenetrable barrier.
Sega’s adherence to the classic Sonic the Hedgehog formula is sure to endear nostalgic fans, but it also leads to some frustration. As mentioned, Sonic levels are built around momentum and maintaining the flow of constant movement—until that is suddenly halted by running into an unseen enemy or hazard. The constant start-and-stop shift can grow tiresome at times.
Sega’s adherence to the classic Sonic the Hedgehog formula is sure to endear nostalgic fans, but it also leads to some frustration.
More pressingly, Sonic Mania hasn’t adapted to the times, and the lives system feels incredibly punitive. If you run out of lives during the second act of a world, even if you’re right at the boss battle, then you’ll go all the way back to the start of the world’s first act. You could potentially lose 15-20 minutes of gameplay progress at a time, and have to start that whole chunk of the game all over again. That’s a tough blow to take, and players who are used to more forgiving progress systems in modern games might find it difficult to soldier on within such a punishing framework.
Sonic Mania is essentially a 16-bit game running on much more powerful hardware, but that’s exactly what Sega set out to achieve here. We’ve seen various 3D Sonic games over the years, as well as side-scrolling games that attempted to emulate the classic gameplay with modern graphics—but that combination never felt quite right. Sonic Mania nails the illusion, and pairs the spot-on retro graphics with the same kind of chippy, upbeat music that punctuated the original games.
Sonic Mania hasn’t adapted to the times, and the lives system feels incredibly punitive.
Content-wise, there’s nothing to worry about in Sonic Mania. It’s all bright and colorful, and even the sinister foes are cartoonish threats. That said, the boss battles can be pretty challenging at times, and the aforementioned progress system can make you feel like you’re losing a lot of invested time in a heartbeat. Younger players should be able to get a hang of the controls and basic gameplay elements, but it might be difficult for less-experienced players to make much progress through the adventure. Parents might want to be at the ready to help assist their kids.
Sonic Mania is a relatively compact game, but it’s much better-priced than the classic Sonic games were when they released. You can grab the downloadable version for $20, and it ought to take about six to eight hours to complete the main adventure once. The Encore downloadable content add-on pack brings in a couple of additional levels, two more playable characters, and remixed versions of the entire game’s levels, and that’s only $5 more. Alternatively, you can buy the Sonic Mania Plus physical retail package and get all of that together. It’s listed at $30, although you might find it cheaper.
On one hand, Sonic Mania is an ideal introduction to the series, given the mix of levels and widescreen optimization for current TVs. On the other hand, you can access the older Sonic the Hedgehog games for potentially much less money. The early games are available on smartphones and tablets for a few bucks apiece (although they don’t play as well with touch controls), plus there’s a Sega Genesis Collection for Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC that has both Sonic the Hedgehog and its sequel—along with dozens of other older games—for $20-30.
Otherwise, there are a lot of other great 2D side-scrolling platform-hopping games on the market, including Super Mario games for the Switch (like New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe and Super Mario Maker 2), as well as Shovel Knight, Mega Man Legacy Collection, and Celeste.
It’s back to basics for Sonic.
Sonic Mania is arguably the best Sonic game in ages, and that’s because it sticks to what’s worked so well in the past for this classic gaming franchise. Granted, that might seem a bit lazy on the surface, but nevertheless, this is the most authentic-feeling and entertaining Sonic game in many years—and the level diversity keeps things interesting throughout. That said, the same old annoyances in terms of flow and progression remain intact so if you didn’t like Sonic games before, then Sonic Mania probably won’t change your mind.