For people who grew up with the Sega Genesis, hearing the old-timey “SEEEGAAAA” crackle through my speakers as I launched Sonic Mania was enough to put a smile on my face. Developed by Headcannon and PagodaWest Games, Sonic Mania is only licensed and published by Sonic Team; effectively rendering it as a title made by the fans.
Like many hit-or-miss spiritual successors of classic gaming properties such as Sonic 4, it can prove harder than you’d imagine to faithfully capture that childlike zeal and still create new gameplay concepts throughout the entire duration. At this, Sonic Mania deftly succeeds by using the years of classic gameplay as a foundation, building and soaring even higher than before.
The premise is what you should expect; Sonic and Tails dive into action when something is amiss, and Dr. R̶o̶b̶o̶t̶n̶i̶k̶ Eggman is naturally the cause; messing with forces he can’t control, including what appears to be a new, reality-altering jewel. This tears apart time, space, and all that jazz, throwing Sonic into remixed worlds from his past as well as new ones, and naturally ya boy needs to go real fast and clock some Badniks, including his new renegade squad of Egg-Robos, the “Hard-Boiled Heavies.”
Running around at the speed of sound in Sonic Mania is just as veterans would expect. No wacky physics here, the engine is faithful and optimal, allowing those who’ve been around the Zones a few times to spindash on and make use of that sweet, sweet momentum to carry you through. Joining Sonic’s arsenal this time is the Drop Dash, a subtle but helpful move that allows you to carry over any areal momentum into a roll right when you touch the ground by holding the stick down.
New tricks such as these exemplify the secret, hidden and forbidden truth about Sonic gameplay; going fast is just one part of the equation, the rest is using that to propel yourself up to secret platforms and around the right threats. Sonic is a platformer, not a “hold right until you win” simulator, and therefore careful consideration must be made with every lightning-fast maneuver. The tricks are tough, but the circumstances typically forgiving; more often than not there’s a path waiting below to catch you and continue your trek rather than a quick drop into hell placing you back at a checkpoint.
This adoration for the true core conceits of the Sonic tradition flows on into the level design as well, forcing the player to engage with their environment in continually growing and interactive manners. Toying with existing Zones from Sonic history is so much more interesting when the second Act spins the game on its head and offers an entirely different perspective from the more faithful first Act.
When you’re at a brisk pace the game can’t waste time to explain itself to you, and conveying the different mechanics at play with each new obstacle is elegant. Whether its an ice machine that lets you plow through walls, green goop that shoots you right up in the air, or flinging themselves off poles into opposing forces. Each Act in each Zone has its own little mixups to the formula that stick around just long enough for you to feel like a master of it by the time its over, and just quick enough to prevent it from becoming trite. The same can be said for the game as a whole; as a standard playthrough should take no more than four hours (unless you start racking up Game Over’s) and having at it again to get all seven Chaos Emeralds for the True Ending will add a few hours as well.
So who is Sonic Mania for? Is it for the nineties kids? For the twenty-teens kids? Is the game a relic of a bygone era, or too modernized to serve as an accurate nostalgic trip? I would heartily argue that Sonic Mania manages to skate past these worries without glancing in the rear-view mirror. Modern game design philosophies are evident in the overall more forgiving nature, but its not to the point where it feels like a dumbed down rendition of your childhood. Sonic Mania would be one of the best games ever made if it was released in 1995. Being released in 2017? It’s still one of the best 2D platformers I’ve played in years, and should be in the guidebook for developers on how to look to the past to create a better future.