There’s a meme that goes around whenever a new Sonic game comes out called The Sonic Cycle. A new game in Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog series is announced and heralded as a return to classic Sonic; fans get excited for this throwback; more details come out, revealing that it’s not really much of a return to form at all; the game is released and everyone is crushed when it ends up being terrible; a new Sonic game is announced and the cycle repeats.
That said, I’m happy to report that the Cycle’s finally been broken thanks to Sonic Mania, a retro throwback platformer that nails the look and feel of classic Sonic in a way few games have managed.
There’s a plot, sort of! Eggman (Robotnik?) is up to his old tricks again, this time with the help of robot villains called the Hard-Boiled Heavies. Sonic and co. have to stop them. That’s pretty much it, really. In true retro style there’s no real need for a captivating plot here; I’d actually argue that Mania is stronger as a result than, say, other Sonic games where the hedgehog hero falls in love with a human woman.
Anyway, that retro style continues when we’re talking about the gameplay because it’s pretty much the same style of running, ring collection and platforming that you’ll remember. Mania is most strongly reminiscent of the classic Sonic 3 and Knuckles, so a lot of the quirks from that entry in the franchise show up again here, including the ability to choose which character you’d like to control. Sonic has numerous elemental shields he can collect that provide him special abilities, Tails can fly around and give Sonic a hand where needed and Knuckles can glide, climb and bash throw walls. The most notable addition to the repertoire here is the Drop Dash, which allows Sonic to immediately rocket forward at speed after landing from a jump; it’s a nice trick but I didn’t find it essential.
You’ll explore both classic and entirely new areas as you pursue Eggman. I found myself appreciating the fresh take on zones that I remembered from my childhood; while I was definitely a Nintendo kid, I’ve got enough Sonic in my blood to get some nostalgia when that Chemical Plant Zone music kicks in, for instance. The new areas feel just right when considered with the older ones as well; the best adjective for the level design as a whole is “authentic,” really, as I could see Mania fitting in just fine on the Genesis. Well, the Sega CD, perhaps, since it’s got some fancy graphical effects that the 16-bit wonder probably couldn’t handle.
This is a game by the fans (the development team includes some renowned Sonic fangame creators) and for the fans, which means there’s plenty of fanservice-flavored secrets to dig up. You’ll chase after Chaos Emeralds in a new special stage, for instance, while Mania’s bonus stages are the classic Blue Sphere minigame introduced in Sonic 3. You can uncover interesting secret features as well, including several hilarious twists on the basic gameplay that I won’t spoil here. Taken as a whole, Mania’s additional content shows the degree of love that went into this title.
Likewise, Mania’s attention to detail both showcases the affection that the devs have for classic Sonic and makes it feel like an honest-to-God classic Sonic game since the glory days of Yuji Naka. It looks great. It plays great. Perhaps most importantly, it sounds great; this is one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard outside of a Supergiant game, and it makes playing and replaying zones a pleasure. Really, all I felt like I was missing was a Genesis controller, though I don’t think it’s possible to plug one of those into a PS4.
Beating up on poor Sonic has been a favorite pastime in this hobby for years now after the focus of the blue blur’s games began to shift away from classic gameplay to, uh…what I guess you could call a more story-centric direction. Sonic Mania thumbs its nose at modern Sonic and instead offers a loving look at the past. Sonic fans and, well, pretty much everyone who was a kid back in the ’80s and ’90s would do well to drop some rings on Sonic Mania.