Sonic Mania Review
Sonic Mania, released for the Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC via Steam and Playstation 4 (which is the version I played), acts as a nostalgic trip back to when the series was at, as many believe, its brightest. The game's mix of old and new, while not entirely perfect, was a blast to play through and was well worth the wait (though not the several poor attempts at this beforehand).
Stylish, sleek and colorful, the game sought to capture everything fans loved about the classic games in the series while still trying to forge new grounds. Overall, this was done wonderfully but not without a few minor flaws.
For Fans, by Fans
Christian Whitehead, known online mainly as "Taxman," was one of the lead developers for this game. Whitehead, who initially gained fame within the Sonic community for his work porting Sonic CD to the iPhone, a project which was initially hit with a Cease and Desist by Sega, ultimately Sega allowed Whitehead to port Sonic CD to iPhone as well as many other platforms. Whitehead was also commissioned to port Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 to mobile devices, each given various upgrades to make up for the fact that Sonic games handle poorly on touchscreens.
Though his name has become big (its one of the three main development "teams" behind Mania), there are other people like Whitehead who helped in the development and creation of this game. Their passion for the series, strengthened through their work on the iPhone ports of the older games, had to lend a hand in the overall quality of this game.
New and Old
Sonic Mania features 12 "zones", each broken up into two acts. Two thirds of the zones are pulled directly from older Sonic games (Sonic 1, Sonic 2, Sonic CD, and the combined Sonic 3 & Knuckles), with only four zones unique to this game. This novelty, perhaps a bit worn due to 2011's Sonic Generations using only zones from other games, feels fine here due to the fresh takes that most of the returning zones are given.
For instance, Sonic 2's Chemical Plant zone plays similarly to the original in Mania's Act 1, but Act 2 adds many new gimmicks and mechanics that make it feel like a new zone by itself. Elements from classic Sonic zones that didn't return still appear in one way or another as well: many elements from Sonic 3's Marble Garden Zone reappear in Stardust Speedway Act 1. Sonic & Knuckles' Sandopolis Act 2, whose mechanic of pulling levers to keep the lights inside the pyramid lit, appears in Mania's Oil Ocean Act 2 where pulling a lever clears the area of ring-draining smog.
Still, a few zones didn't receive major renovations. Hydrocity is the most notable example, with many stages elements in Act 2 returning from Sonic 3's Hydrocity Act 2. Three of the four new zones (Studiopolis, Press Garden and Mirage Saloon) were very well done, with interesting concepts and level designs that made them a blast to play. The last of the four new zones, Titanic Monarch, was okay, but I didn't like its Act 2, forcing the player to play the act in separate parts.
The bosses are more varied in this game than they were in the classics, for better or worse. Many boss fights refer heavily from the earlier games as well, with Hydrocity's two bosses being a major example of this. Overall, most bosses follow the basic pattern of 'hit the body 6-8 times', though some of the bosses throw curveballs - I don't particularly like Flying Battery Act 2's spider mech boss, and the Stardust Speedway Act 2 boss is far too lengthy for its own good.
The most unique bosses in the game are the "Hard Boiled Heavies", EggRobos which were mutated by some strange gem that they dug up which is never fully explained in this game (more on this in a second). The five Heavies act as bosses throughout the game, though you get a different Heavy for the Lava Reef Act 2 boss depending on whether you're playing as Knuckles or not.
For the most part, I didn't particularly enjoy the Heavies fights. The ninja and especially the circus act bosses were frustrating (well, the ninja was more annoying than frustrating), while the gunner heavy was just dull. The fights against the "main" Heavy were the most enjoyable of the bunch.
Despite this criticism, it isn't hyperbole to say that this game controls and plays better than any 2D-focused Sonic game since the Genesis days or maybe one of the Sonic Advance games if you're feeling generous.
Developed under the premise of "this is what a 2D Sonic game would look like had it been developed for the Sega Saturn", Sonic Mania oozes style. Many of the zones, especially the first three new stages, burst with color and strong level art.
The soundtrack, in particular, is top notch. Tee Lopes, in charge of the game's soundtrack, did a wonderful job remixing many of the songs of stages that returned from the classic games, and the original tracks for the new stages are wonderfully done as well. Even previously dull tracks like Oil Ocean's or Lava Reef Act 1's have been given a major improvement through this game.
Mania's special stages - which the player needs to complete to acquire the Chaos Emeralds to become a Super version of a character or get Sonic's "true" ending - combine many elements of special stage of games past: the layout and alien-chasing of Sonic CD, the need for precision and blue spheres from Sonic 3, and the race to acquire rings from Sonic 2's stages. Speaking of Blue Sphere, it returns as a Bonus Stage in this game. There are a total of 28 standard bonus stages (14 from Sonic 3 & Knuckles plus 14 new ones). Clearing them unlocks bonuses and extra modes for the player to enjoy - though most are only usable in the "no save" portion of the file select. Blue Sphere isn't exactly the most stylish thing in the game but I always felt it was the strongest special stage of the classics, and I'm glad to see it return here.
The overall presentation of the game, from its menu UI to its soundtrack, to the cutscenes that occur between zones, gives this game an unique look even against the classics it so mimics, giving the game an almost celebratory look and feel.
One Major Pitfall
One misstep I do need to point out comes in the game's handling of its story. Yes, I know, its a classic Sonic game, who even cares, but I do need to touch on it. Before I continue, I must issue a SPOILER WARNING, DO NOT READ BELOW IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO BE SPOILED:
While I do enjoy the zone transition cutscenes, not even such transition has a cutscene. For example, nothing is shown to explain how you get from Flying Battery to Press Garden. Once the player clears Oil Ocean, there are only a couple of act transitions but no further zone transitions. Its a small sign that the game might've been rushed here and there, but if this was the sacrifice then I'm fine with it.
I also need to mention the game's "ending". The mysterious gem that Eggman and his Heavies acquire, throughout parts of the game, warp you to various old stages but this stops happening halfway through. The gem itself isn't seen again until the last bosses of the game. The main heavy isn't seen in Sonic or Tails' route until you reach the final boss (Knuckles gets to fight him instead of the circus show heavy in Lava Reef but to no major consequence).
When you clear the game normally as any of the three characters, the end cutscene shows them escaping the Egg-whatever-it-is successfully and watching it blow up from afar, with the player character getting focus. That's it.
Getting all of the Chaos Emeralds and clearing the last Titanic Monarch boss (only as Sonic, the other two can only get the standard ending even with all emeralds) opens up the "true" Final Boss, a fun if not particularly "epic" final battle. Upon defeating it, Sonic and the gem are warped away. In the new ending, only Tails and Knuckles escape and see Sonic's face overlay-ed in the sky winking at them. Sonic, meanwhile warps to places unknown. Its highly believed by many that Sonic has been warped to the world seen in the upcoming Sonic Forces, and that the "Classic Sonic" featured here is the same Sonic as the one from Mania.
In essence, Sonic Mania's plot acts as a tie-in to Sonic Forces.
END SPOILERS FOR SONIC MANIA.
It is disappointing that the game doesn't have a strong plot. Given the style of Sonic CD's cutscenes, the simple yet effective storytelling in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, or even the ending of Sonic 2, this game's cutscenes just don't stand out. I don't want this to seem to be a bigger issue as it is, as the story of this game is probably the least important thing about it, but it is a flaw, perhaps the game's most glaring one at that.
In closing, while some of the odder bosses and the narrative miss takeaway from this game, its not nearly enough to make me even come close to disliking it. Make no mistake, Sonic Mania is one of the strongest titles in the series. Even if much of the game contains direct callbacks to older titles, most of it is remixed and redone well enough to make it a completely new and fun experience.
If you are a fan of the classic Sonic games, this is a must buy for you assuming you have a modern console or a PC decent enough to run this game (which you probably do). Fans of newer Sonic games like Adventure of the newer "boost" types of games should give this a try as well. Even if you still prefer the gameplay of the newer games, the style and precision put into this game should still impress.
For those new to the series, Sonic Mania still works well as an entry point. Even if you won't get most if any of the references, perhaps having the entire experience be new for you will enhance it that much more.