Sonic Mania: The Retronauts review
The Old Hedgehog's Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Eggman Regime)
Do you ever end up killing the things you used to love? One day you suddenly start fiending for something -- maybe you used to like Jelly Babies but you haven't had them in years, or there was this one fantastic kid-friendly burger n' pizza joint that your parents took you to on special occasions which you pass on the street and think "wow, that's still going! I want to go back!"...but it's just not the same. The recipes have changed, the waiter forgets your order, the All Killer No Filler cheeseburger is barely above rancid and harder than a hockey puck...it's bad. And maybe it was always bad. It's easy to kill the things you love...but sometimes, the magic's still there. Sometimes, if the mood's right? It IS as good as you remember, and you take that journey all the way back -- that's the best thing. And that's what Sonic Mania gives you the chance to do again.
Sonic Mania is the game that many people have wanted for years -- a true return to the old school. It's not as if Sega haven't tried before, although the results have varied somewhat -- Sonic Generations mixed 2D and 3D Sonic together, resulting in a game that was often half-quite entertaining and half-irritating, and the less said about Sonic 4 the better really. The arrival of Sonic Mania, a game that looks and plays like a classic Sonic title -- you might imagine this game being the true Sonic game that never ended up coming out for the Saturn, in fact -- may not signal a full change in direction for the Blue Bullet who still has something of a young market to appeal to, but it is a magic potion for those who grew up with '90s Sonic, something that's clearly close to the heart of developers Headcannon, Pagoda West, and lead programmer Christian "Taxman" Whitehead (who gave us the exceptional ports of Sonic CD and Sonic 1 on mobile).
This is not just a nostalgia trip, mind you -- Sonic Mania kind of fakes the player out in this regard. The levels based on zones from the past such as Green Hill, Chemical Plant and Flying Battery all tend to start in familiar ways, with layouts and designs taken straight from the original games. As you progress however, change gradually happens and the old zones gradually become something new that still fits in perfectly. Other zones that are brand new such as Studiopolis and Garden Press also feel like evolutions of the likes of Casino Night and Ice Cap, but with plenty more to offer -- it really feels as though the people behind this game went deep into the mechanics and reasons why old Sonic worked so well, and followed them to the letter.
This means that you end up with a lot of expansive zones that you can still go through at a fair clip, but that you can really lose yourself in -- lots of different routes to take and secret paths to be found that you almost end up drifting into naturally, one little jump taking you somewhere new and giving the zones a lot of replay value. There's also plenty of different challenges to be had -- Sonic Mania is not the easiest Sonic game, and there are plenty of sequences and bosses that will provide a pretty stern test even for the most hardened vets of Flickies' Island. Frustrating? Sometimes, yes -- but then that's what you expect. It feels as though the team also took notes from games like Freedom Planet that have been heavily inspired by the Sonic games of old, but they took all the right ones while still maintaining the classic gameplay where you collect rings, every button jumps on enemies, and you go fast.
If a lot of this sounds quite familiar to old Sonic fans, then it shouldn't surprise you that of all the Sonic games, Mania is most heavily influenced by Sonic 3 and Knuckles -- not exactly a bad choice seeing as it's often regarded as the best of the series. The zones are equal in size, it retains the same two-act structure, and the blue spheres bonus game makes its return. This is not to say, however, that elements of 2 and 1 are not there -- there's plenty of that too, along with all manner of references to other great Sega titles, from a quick round of Puyo Puyo to the Pink Pot bar from Streets of Rage...those who like to go reference spotting will certainly find a lot here, but again -- there's so much more to be enjoyed about this game than the nostalgia. Even if this isn't the best Sonic game ever or anything, it's really not far off at all -- Sonic Mania legitimately belongs in that conversation, not just for the welcome surprise but for the sheer quality of it.
It is not uncommon these days for people to say that Sonic, as a series, was always somewhat flawed...in many ways, after the years that the spiky blue hedgehog has spent producing games of widely varying and often extremely iffy quality, this is understandable. But Sonic Mania is a statement that says no -- in fact, Sonic was not only one of the best of its day, it's still pretty damn good now if done right. Add in gorgeous 2D graphics, dazzlingly bright colours, and faithful new versions of the old themes, and you've got something that, when I was playing through it, locked my face in a constant smile. For those who've kept any bit of faith whatsoever in Sonic through the years, this is a game worth waiting for. But more than that, it's a great platformer for everyone that's absolutely worth the money whether you were into Sonic or not.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.