For years, Sonic has been in need of a shake-up. Ever since the 16-bit era ended, the iconic mascot has struggled through one console generation after another. Some of his post-Genesis adventures were terrible, a handful were good, but most were aggressively mediocre — a sorry state for one of the biggest names in the medium. While Super Mario evolved over the years with inventive new takes on platform games, its longtime rival stagnated. Sonic has remained an enduring brand, thanks to comics and cartoons, but it hasn’t been an important force in gaming for some time.
Sonic Mania has been billed as a return to form for the series. It’s far from the first game to claim that mantle, so it’s easy to be skeptical. But Mania is different than its predecessors. Most notably, it brings the series back to what made it so popular in the first place: blazing-fast side-scrolling action. It’s a game that looks and feels like it was made 25 years ago, and I mean that in the best possible way. It channels the best parts of the series’s glory days — the speed, the twitchy action, the Rube Goldberg level design — and largely improves on them.
It’s the kind of game Sonic fans have been waiting for, because in many ways it’s a game made by Sonic fans. Mania was assembled by a team of indie creators who cut their teeth on Sonic fan projects, before partnering with Sega to reboot the franchise. They managed to create the kind of game the series has desperately needed for some time: an old-school Sonic brimming with clever twists and ideas.
Initially, Sonic Mania feels almost identical to the series’s 16-bit releases. You’re greeted with a familiar-looking pixelated Sonic splash screen, and even the first stage takes place in the iconic “Green Hill Zone,” with its twisting brown loops and copious golden rings. If it weren’t for the PS4 controller in my hand, I could’ve sworn I was playing a Genesis game. If you stop for a few moments, Sonic will still look right at you and impatiently tap his foot. But as you progress through the different stages, Mania reveals itself to be a game full of surprises. Its first stage is more of a proof of concept, showing you that it has the fundamentals down.
If you haven’t played a traditional Sonic game in some time, it can be hard to remember just how distinct these games feel. While Super Mario is slower and more thoughtful, playing a side-scrolling Sonic is like controlled chaos. Mania nails the sense of speed that defines those earlier games, and its level design takes advantage of this. During its best, most exciting moments, Sonic Mania almost feels like it’s playing itself. The hedgehog blazes through neon cityscapes, requiring your input at just the right time to avoid an enemy or obstacle and keep that momentum going. In some stages you’re spinning through a seemingly never-ending track of neon hamster tubing, in others you’re beamed around the level as Sonic is transformed into radio waves. But in each level there’s a moment where you hit a zen-like state as Sonic bursts forward with seemingly impossible speed, as if nothing can slow him down.
This was all true of the classic Genesis games, of course, but Mania builds on that concept in interesting ways. This can be best seen in the level designs, which feel more intricate than in games past. There are multiple pathways and hidden areas to uncover, and in general, the stages are more fun to explore when you slow down a bit. There are new ways to interact with the world around you — strange, bouncy plants; massive wood chippers; floating gondolas — and it’s a joy to mess around with them and find new ways to move around. There’s a playfulness to Mania that’s been missing from the series of late.
The stages also look incredible. Sonic Mania may be a 16-bit throwback, but it’s full of smart visual ideas that breathe a new kind of life into its levels, from the futuristic, casino-inspired world of “Stardust Speedy” to the cartoonish, purple-and-pink take on Hollywood that is “Studiopolis.” One new area, called “Press Garden,” might be the first Sonic level I’d ever describe as pretty; soft pink leaves float through the air, like snow made of cotton candy, while lit stone lanterns dot the background. It’s the kind of place where you actually want to slow down and enjoy the view.
The plentiful boss battles have a similar level of inventiveness, always keeping you guessing. Some are fairly standard Sonic fare; giant robots that stomp through the level, forcing you to memorize their patterns in order to defeat them. But each has its own unique feel. One stage has you using the wind to knock a huge robotic spider around, while another requires shoot ‘em up-like precision and timing to take down an especially speedy robo-Sonic running alongside you. My favorite boss battle is also the strangest: you play a round of the Tetris-like puzzle game Puyo Puyo against the evil Dr. Robotnik.
Sonic Mania never strays too far from the formula that inspired it. Its clever, playful new ideas are layered on top of a game fans already know, which makes its detours all the more exciting and surprising. But there are times where its reverence for the past can be frustrating. For one thing, it can be tough to parse some of the boss patterns, and there were multiple instances where I found myself stuck and unsure of how to proceed. The ensuing trial and error killed much of the game’s momentum.
The structure is similarly old-school, with a life-based system that forces you to restart an area when you run out of lives. Most of the time, this isn’t much of a problem, since each level is filled with checkpoints, and the stages are fairly short once you know your way through them. But on some of the tougher stages, it can be frustrating to struggle through a level only to come up against an inscrutable boss battle where you die almost immediately and are sent back to the beginning.
Outside of the main campaign, Sonic Mania also features a time trial mode and a fairly simple multiplayer offering, but it’s not an especially huge package brimming with extras. Which is fine: this is Sonic, pure and distilled. After years of forgettable games and aborted reboots, Sonic Mania is exactly what the franchise needs. It shows you why you loved Sonic in the first place — and it’s a chance for a whole new generation to discover that feeling.
Sonic Mania is available on August 15th on PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. A PC version is coming on August 29th.