As it turns out, repeating the success of the early Sonic games isn’t as easy as it looks. SEGA and various development studios have taken cracks at recapturing the glory of the franchise’s Genesis heyday over the years, but in the eyes of many fans, no effort has managed to get it just right – no effort, that is, until Sonic Mania. In bringing the franchise back to pixel-driven platforming, Mania heavily invokes nostalgia for the Genesis era, but luckily, the game backs this nostalgia up with some of the best and purest gameplay this series has seen in a very long time.
Sonic Mania is powered by an improved version of the Retro Engine, which means you get exceptional physics and silky-smooth performance, just like what we’ve seen in the remastered mobile ports of Sonic 1, Sonic 2, and Sonic CD. Moving, jumping, and running around at the speed of sound all feel as natural and responsive as they ever have; if the mechanics aren’t a one-to-one match for the classic games, they’re incredibly close. In summary, the game is fun – so, so much fun. If you have any concerns about the core mechanics, know that they are incredibly sound, and Mania is as smooth and fun as any Sonic game I’ve ever played.
So if the movement feels good, how about the stages you’re moving around in? The level design feels just like the classic Genesis titles, with all of the expansiveness you would hope for. The acts on display from Studiopolis and Green Hill both felt substantial, with loads of alternate routes to explore. Studiopolis in particular is packed with nooks, crannies, and hidden goodies to discover; after playing the act nearly a dozen times, I’m still not convinced I’ve seen it all. New gimmicks appear tastefully and in creative ways in Studiopolis, including the popcorn machines that send you flying skyward. The design feels so natural that it’s almost to the point where, if you cropped it out of widescreen, you could honestly mistake this game for one Sonic Team created in the mid-1990’s and never released.
It’s not all a throwback to the old games, though. There are some new mechanics on display, and perhaps the most interesting addition is the Drop Dash. By holding the jump button down after performing a jump, Sonic will take off in the direction he’s facing once he hits the ground. While not as fast as a charged-up Spin Dash, the move is great for restoring your momentum after hitting a wall or running into an enemy. In fact, the Drop Dash feels so effortless and natural, you’ll wonder why it hasn’t been introduced before now. How did we live before this move?
Of course, we would be remiss not to mention the presentation because the graphics are, in a word, fantastic. Backgrounds and level artwork feature a level of detail that simply wasn’t possible on the Genesis, so Green Hill looks sharper and, as you’ve likely seen by now, Studiopolis absolutely explodes with personality. More advanced sprite work means Sonic runs, celebrates, and teeters on ledges with even more expression than ever before. Eagle-eyed fans will notice subtle references to deep SEGA and Sonic history throughout the game, and even hardcore fans will be challenged to find all these hidden references. Small flourishes, such as a fun 3D effect when you lose a lot of rings, give the presentation a more advanced twist, and it helps elevate the graphics beyond simply looking like a retread of the Genesis games.
That’s a fair bit of information, so let’s sum it up a little more succinctly. Imagine someone found a long-lost Sonic game, one that was made for the Saturn right after Sonic 3 & Knuckles came out, and that’s close to what this game is. Simply put, Sonic Mania just feels right, and it presents the most natural continuation of the Genesis games that I’ve ever seen. The game is very clearly an honest labor of love, and it shows in nearly every second of gameplay. This is a classic fan’s dream come true, and if the rest of the game can turn in this level of quality and fun, we may well have one of the best games in the franchise on our hands. Get ready, Sonic fans – this might finally be the big one.
Sonic Mania launches this spring on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Nintendo Switch.