What do you do when you’ve lost that special mojo in the eyes of your fans? For SEGA’s Sonic Team, after two decades of hit and miss (but mainly miss) releases, the answer was staring at them every time they saw how much more fun the fan ‘ports’ were than their own, official, Sonic product. But has handing the keys of the classic 2D hedgehog to developer Christian Whitehead and his indie crew made for a famous boss battle or just another tedious ring-drop?
Aesthetically, the game is stunning. Both old and new levels are brought to life with a beautiful retro vibrancy. Everything is so animated; even the backgrounds are in perpetual movement. The music, always of great importance, is no let down either, consisting of excellent remixes of various classic Sonic themes, alongside completely new melodies that fit right at home with the originals. And if you miss that old tube TV look, no problem, there’s an option to put those 625 lines back onto your HD screen. Bliss.
This game was made by fans, so it’s no surprise that fan service is everywhere you look, even going back to reference the most obscure titbits. Long-time Sonic players will share the pure glee that comes from seeing these throwbacks and nods. While most of these will make little difference to non-fans, one sequence in particular may prove quite difficult and confusing, as the references are way too arcane for a newbie to solve the puzzle without help.
Sonic Mania's challenge-curve is very satisfying, starting off quite easy then progressing smoothly to more difficult levels that require that much more skill and concentration. This is reflected in the absolutely marvellous Bosses. All of them are wonderful fun to take on, with great gameplay design that demands smart thinking and quick reactions to prevent defeat. Be warned though: there is an overabundance of crush obstacles which means you’ll die a lot on your first play-through. It's infuriating to build up momentum, gathering rings to protect yourself, only to be squished by a falling pillar or closing door. You’ll get used to it over time and learn to adapt, but it’s old-school 2D torture at its most brutal.
Although it’s nice to see many familiar zones given a fresh twist with new mechanics, the standout stages in the game are the brand-new ones. A shame, then, that there are so few of these. Special stages return in a SEGA Saturn-esque throwback to Sonic R design. These levels contain a certain low-poly charm and are often quite beautiful to look at. They are also great fun to play, requiring a devious balance between timing and speed.
Not just for old-school Sonic fans, but anyone who yearns for the pure excitement of 1990s gaming, Sonic Mania proves that the side-scrolling platform genre, especially this beloved, hi-octane breed of it, still holds up majestically well. A Sonic comeback worth celebrating.
SONIC MANIA / DEVELOPERS: HEADCANNON, PAGODAWEST GAMES / PUBLISHER: SEGA / PLATFORMS: NINTENDO SWITCH, PS4, XBOX ONE, PC / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW