"Sonic was never good" has been the most broke-ass take in game circles for years now. It's just a reflex for people who want to feel like they're saving face and distancing themselves from a franchise that had been in a steady decline and stagnation for years. "You miss when Sonic was good?" They say, leaning back in their armchairs, putting on the airs of a wizened intellectual. "My sweet summer child... Sonic? Sonic was never good."
The thing I've personally felt is that people have long misunderstood what it is that makes a good Sonic game – thinking that he MUST got fast, when what's more important is that he CAN be fast. You might think it's semantics but I feel it's an important distinction; if it was just about going fast, then give him an infinite, flat strip of land and call it a day. Good job, Sonic was fast!
But the best games in the series involve intricate, and surprisingly large, levels, full of gadgets and obstacles, things to slow you down and keep it so it's not just a game about holding right until you win. When you get those levels down and you get that freedom and the open space to then fully unleash your speed, that's the reward for a game well played – and when you replay and figure out a level and its intricacies, finding the best path, you'll find yourself blazing through at high speed the way you wanted. He CAN go fast, and you have to earn it. It's not so much about precise platforming, and more about pathing and finding a route and nailing it.
For the most part, Sonic Mania understands this better than any game in the series has in years.
The story about the development basically seems to be that Sega gave over the creation of this entry to fans of the series who've worked on remakes, upgrades, and remixes of previous games in the series – who better to make a new Sonic game that's in the vein of the sainted old entries than people who have been freely doing that on their own?
Their choices wind up turning Sonic Mania into both a love letter and a corrective step forward for the series, which is such a difficult line to walk. When you start this game, if you've played the original Sonic the Hedgehog, you immediately know where you are – you're back in Green Hill Zone, the music's the same and you very clearly see chunks of that level just copied and pasted right out. But then the second part of the act is all new – the background has changed, the music is new, and it's Green Hill, but twisted and upgraded.
Which is how it works with all of the levels it revisits – the first act of the level recycles and reuses, the second twists and upgrades.
The level that REALLY shows this off best isn't Green Hill but Chemical Plant, the second level of Sonic 2. First part, it's Chemical Plant with those hard-ass FM riffs (ah how I miss that Genesis sound chip! As much as it tries the PS4 can't quite catch the chunky, grating sound of the Genesis) like you know and love. Second part introduces a cool idea of a series of liquids you can mix together to change the consistency of pools of other liquid, making them go from something that hurts you, into something you can jump on to gain more height.
Sprinkled through are also a bunch of original levels, with standouts like Studiopolis and Mirage Saloon breaking up the nostalgic reverie. These levels fit great with the rest of the ones on offer here – the look is good and the gimmicks they introduce are, for the most part, excellent. The look of Studiopolis is great and I loved being shot out of a gun in Mirage Saloon – I also loved weird references to forgotten characters like Bean the Dynamite thrown into the background.
And while I say that this game is definitely the best Sonic in years, it still runs into some of the bad problems that these have had for a long time. Long sections where you actually don't have to press a button, and it just sends you along. Gadgets in the levels that catch you and just take too long. Odd spots where you have to slow down and just platform, which has never been the series' biggest strength.
But they're part of the franchise's 21 year history, the weird evolutions it's gone to on the way to making the best decisions it's done in a long while – revisiting what made it work in the first place. Did original Sonic the Hedgehog have bad platforming? You betcha! But does that mean it should be back here? Oh, HELL no.
Still, I find myself thinking about this game all the time – there's unlockables and so many new routes. I don't know where all of the Chaos Emeralds are (though apparently Obama does?). It's just... really good. It feels great to play, and the small extra things they've added, such as the "jump into spin dash", just add more to the ability to create and maintain momentum on your way through each level.
I'll also add that the last couple of levels are sorta grating – did you know there's a time limit in Sonic games? If you go past 9:99:99 on the timer, you just die. And they REALLY GET RIGHT UP AGAINST IT. Sonic's also had a bad issue in the past where the final boss is just a little too convoluted and involved – and this one is about the same, too. The last stretch of the game is kind of a slog – but the rest of the game is so great, it's still worth it to get to.
Sonic Mania is a wonderful celebration of what's made Sonic so great in the past while also striving to push it forward. This isn't to say it's perfect – it has some of the problems of the previous games as well – but it's such a perfect encapsulation of old Sonic games, it's impressive. If you've ever been curious about what makes these old games special, or if you're just interested in revisiting the series you loved as a kid, this is the best way to do it. It's the old and the new wrapped together in a way that makes both shine. I hope this team goes on to do more, and eventually break themselves away from needing to remix old levels and just make their own.