Gotta Go Fast… And Then What?
My first clear memories as a gaming-obsessed child growing up in the 1990s are of the console war between Sega and Nintendo that spilled from the pages of magazines onto playgrounds and living rooms. Danny, my best friend in the third grade, defected from the ranks of Mario maniacs to go do what Ninten-didn't. At my dad's, my brother had a Genesis. At my mom's, I had a Super Nintendo. That was okay, though. I played Sonic the Hedgehog 2 with my brother, and he played Super Mario World when I lugged my SNES over every other weekend.
I learned quite about my gaming tastes over our experience exchange. The first was that Sega of America's in-your-face advertising worked its magic. Although I preferred the thoughtful, precise platforming of Mario and friends, Sonic was one cool cat. He was also a fast one. He looped through loops, blasted through barriers, and tunneled through tunnels at breakneck speed, and even though I was old enough to know "Blast Processing" was just a buzzword, it was still impressive. Even so, speed wasn't enough to win me over. Don't get me wrong. I've never disliked Sonic. I just didn't care to buy what he and Sega were selling. Judging by the poor sales and scathing critical reception to Sonic titles over the last couple of decades, neither did many others. The speedy hedgehog was weighed down by bloat across a spate of 2D and 3D offerings that seemed to indicate the character's makers had no idea what had endeared him to so many back in the 1990s.
To their credit, the powers that be over at Sega finally realized they were doing more harm than good and passed Sonic's red-and-white sneaks to Christian Whitehead and the folks PagodaWest Games and Headcannon. That trio prudently ignored every Sonic title released after 1994 and encapsulated within Sonic Mania the essential ingredients that, I've come to discover, made the first few Sonic titles so much fun—literally, in many ways.
Footloose and Fancy-Free
Sonic Mania opens with Green Hill Zone, the starting "world" of the original game and one of many fan-favorite regions that join new playgrounds. The new areas are solid, but the oldies-but-goodies deserve special mention because they comprise the cornerstone of what makes Sonic Mania so great.
Each oldie-but-goodie zone starts with familiar terrain, then gradually weaves in new mechanics and areas. Chemical Plant Zone still has you zipping through lots of pipes, but instead of diving into one and watching Sonic roll through, as per tradition, you come to junctions where you have to choose which pipe you take next. In the same region are giant syringes dipped in pools of chemicals that, after you interact with them, makes the goop buoyant so you can spring up to reach greater heights.
Boss fights are more prominent than they were in the Sonic's formative years. Instead of squaring off with Dr. Eggman at the end of each zone, you'll go up against him after every level. There are plenty of throwback encounters centered on finding the boss's weak spot and bashing it until it explodes in a shower of fire and emancipated animals. The best of the bunch change things up just when the formula is in danger of getting stale, such one battle that unfolds as a round of Puyo Puyo.
Sonic Mania's perfect mixture of new and old ideas opened my eyes to the brilliant interplay between level design—which Whitehead and companies handle as deftly as if they had pioneered the character and his brand of platforming—and his speed. You can play Sonic Mania as a passive observer, putting the pedal to the metal and marveling at the rate at which scenery flies by. But by doing that, you're passing up opportunities to marvel at the incredible scale of levels, and the amount of secrets, power-ups, minigames, and terrain each one offers up for you to explore.
These qualities were evident in Sonic's best outings, but Mania's additions make it a much more active game than its predecessors and, for me, an order of magnitude more enjoyable.
Sonic Mania's technical pedigree further demonstrates the game's fine balance of classic and contemporary fixings. Sound effects fuzz and pop from your speakers, a wink and a nod to the Yamaha YM2612 sound chip that gave Genesis cartridges a slightly distorted yet distinctive quality. Though I was indifferent to Sonic's gameplay way back when, I never scoffed at its tunes. Sonic Mania's soundtrack carries that torch, spanning remixes of greatest hits and plenty of new earworms heavy on bass and adrenaline. Graphically the game is even more nuanced, sporting a color palette and pixelated personality that could have been lifted straight from Sega's 16-bit machine augmented with little touch-ups that give it a modern sheen without disturbing its retro look.
Ironically, the only downsides to Sonic Mania hail from its best predecessors. Some later levels incorporate mechanics that slow your pace, a misstep in a franchise predicated on making the speed of light look sluggish. Choosing to ease off the gas and poke around is one thing. Having the game make that choice for you by throwing frustrating enemy configurations and other speed bumps in your path ruins the fun.
The other problem, somewhat of a good one, is that Sonic Mania wraps up too quickly—at double time, in fact, because the game is good enough to sit down and finish in one go. Before you know it, you'll have reduced all of Dr. Eggman's giant robots to scrap metal and freed hundreds of forest critters. It's a testament to Sonic Mania's quality that the end credits will leave you hungry for more instead of pushing the plate away, already dreading whatever half-baked Sonic dish Sega plans to serve up next.
Looking Ahead by Looking Back
Retro fever has been burning brightly for years, resulting in a glut of shameless nostalgia grabs. As someone who was ambivalent toward Sonic the Hedgehog, I can safely say Sonic Mania isn't one of those. Rather than being the game's centerpiece, nostalgia is a foundation built to support the character, visual, audio, and design tropes that made Sonic great instead of forcing the franchise to be something it wasn't and never should have been.
Sonic Mania is at once a blast from the past and a wormhole to Sonic's future, bypassing everything between it and the early '90s. Come for the callbacks, stay to get a firsthand look at what Sonic's custodians have in store for his future.
This review was based on a PS4 digital download provided by the publisher. Sonic Mania releases on August 15 for Xbox One, PS4, and Switch, and will be released on August 29 for PC, for $19.99.