Sonic Mania (Switch) Review
Sega has tried so many times to recapture just what was right about the Mega Drive trilogy of Sonic games, but never really succeeded. Really since the late nineties, Sonic has starred in what have been mostly mediocre games. There seemed to be a mass misunderstanding of what people enjoyed about the early Sonic games, in that the pursuit of a ‘Sonic is fast!’ goal we lost focus on anything else. There were some gems among the pile (I have fond memories of Sonic Rush and Colours, for sure) but their quality was so inconsistent that many had given up on the series altogether. With Sonic Mania things have changed – by using developers with a deep understanding of retro Sonic’s mechanics and appeal along with a clear passion for the series we have the best Sonic game in decades.
I don’t want to do a too much direct comparison to other Sonic games, as just comparing to the past doesn’t do justice to what has been achieved here. I do want to say though that if you are someone who had given up on trying to understand why the heck people like Sonic games – you should try Mania. More than any game in the last 15 years Mania truly understands why people enjoyed Sonics 1, 2 and 3.
Sonic Mania understands that Sonic was not only about going fast but going fast to aid exploration. High speeds are exhilarating by themselves but Mania rewards you with different paths to explore based on your skill and knowledge of its levels. Through smart level design, Sonic Mania lets you choose your own difficulty just through playing. It’s simple to choose an easier path, they’re usually at the bottom of a level layout and they’re where you’ll fall if you mess up on a higher path. You have plenty of opportunities to ascend to higher paths again if you choose to, and these multiple paths give Mania a whole pile of replay value. Your first time through is really mostly a dry run for the future, knowledge of the level layouts and combining this with mastery of character control make your future playthroughs all the more exciting.
Speaking of those levels, they’re all pretty dang wonderful. There’s a mixture of retro-remix stages and entirely new ones and I can’t think of a single zone I’d remove if given the choice. I’ll admit that maybe Lava Reef Zone wasn’t the best choice of levels to bring back for Mania but it’s still only the weakest of an impressive pack. Each of the zones is a visual treat with colours beyond what was possible on the Mega Drive and their own distinct vibe. They all feature myriad paths to discover through skillful control or considered experimentation. Each of the retro-inspired stages features remade music, similar to the originals but with a little more ‘oomph’, and the music for new levels is similarly fantastic. The music compositions and stages feel like they’d be exactly what you’d find in a sequel to the Mega Drive Sonics – if Sega hadn’t been trying to chase the 3D dream back then. Some adhere to the chunky Mega Drive synth sound, while others take on the eclectic style of Sonic CD. I do think there are too many remixed stages from earlier games, but even these stages introduce completely new elements over their inspirations. The retro levels are still fantastic to play, don’t get me wrong, but I would have loved the ratio to lean more to original levels.
Regardless of whether the levels are retro or new, they provide a whole pile of reasons to replay them over and over again. On top of the many paths through the level I mentioned before, every checkpoint is an opportunity to try the Blue Spheres bonus level. First appearing in Sonic 3, these levels challenge you to collect blue spheres while avoiding red, and completing these nets you a silver or gold coin. These unlock fun extra modes and features. Much harder to find are the giant rings which take you to UFO Chase special stages. Success here nets you a Chaos Emerald and amassing all seven of these lets you transform into a Super-Sonic form – super speedy and invincible for a short time. You can play through the game with Sonic, Tails and Knuckles who each have their own Super form to unlock as well. Sonic Mania is utterly packed with reasons to play over and over.
Sonic Mania is the culmination of a huge amount of work, from people peerlessly passionate about Sonic’s 2D games. Sega took a risk allowing outsiders to take the reins of their defining characteristics and it’s resulted in the best Sonic game in decades. It’s not perfect – there are occasional glitches, some people might find the crushing deaths and general difficulty of later levels a little off-putting – but as after being disappointed with many of Sega’s past attempts at following up Sonic’s early success, Mania did what I had almost given up hope on being possible. Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games have proven they absolutely understand what made Sonic great in the Mega Drive days and have modernised this essence for a modern audience with a follow-up worthy of standing with the best in the series.