When Sonic Mania was announced, I must admit that I approached it with a fair amount of skepticism. I did not want to fall into what has been dubbed "the Sonic cycle." However, I am extremely pleased to tell you that this is not the case. Sonic Mania is an incredibly well designed and a serious breath of fresh air for fans of the original series.
For those unfamiliar with classic Sonic games, or those of you much younger than I am, Sonic Mania is a sprite-based side-scrolling platform game in the style of the early Sonic games released for the Sega Genesis. Players select one of three playable characters, each with their own unique abilities and run through levels that double as platforming and speed based challenges. The gameplay is centered on momentum, gaining speed, and dealing with environmental and enemy hazards.
Scattered around acts are golden rings, which serve as a form of health; players survive hits as long as they have at least one ring, but their rings will scatter and disappear after a short period of time. These rings function as your saving grace and are a key part of the speed based gameplay. You can take a hit and keep going without fear of imminent death. Monitors containing groups of rings, elemental shields, or power-ups such as invincibility and faster running speed are scattered throughout each level.
There are three playable characters. Sonic is the fastest, jumps the highest, can perform a "drop dash" which sends him rolling in a dash after a jump, and can use the elemental powers associated with item pick ups. Tails is the slowest, but he can fly and swim which makes the levels much easier, if not very exciting. Finally, Knuckles can glide and climb walls. Players can either play as Sonic and Tails simultaneously, or allow Tails to be independently controlled by a second player. Each character also has their own paths throughout the levels. Knuckles and Tails have places the others cannot reach, and Knuckles even has an Act and Zone boss of his own to contend with.
Speaking of Zones and Acts, let's discuss how the levels are arranged. Sonic Mania takes place over twelve levels, called Zones; each made up of two Acts, for a total of 24 overall stages. Eight Zones feature "remixed" levels from past games, such as Green Hill from the original Sonic the Hedgehog or Chemical Plant from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Each Zone oozes charm and pure love of the series and it comes through in the wonderful design. The replay value is phenomenal as each Zone has varied pathways and different lanes to take.
Only four brand new original Zones are present. I will admit that when I first heard this news it seriously bummed me out. I am happy to report that this was an unfortunate pre-judgment on my part. The first Act of these remixed Zones is almost identical to their original counterparts while the second Acts are heavily altered versions of older stages that introduce new gameplay concepts and stay fresh while staying true to the original theme of the Zones. For example, in Chemical Plant Zone you interact with giant vats of chemicals and goo to create high jump or low friction gels (think Portal 2 here). The creativity shown in these remixed Zones is absolutely no less, and in some cases even more, than the four all new original Zones. The levels are large, expansive, and offer may various paths which really helps replay value.
At the end of each Zone you face a boss. The boss battles in this game are a true highlight. Without spoiling things I can honestly say I haven't had this much fun and been so surprised by bosses in the Sonic series. You'll fight bosses in new ways that reference old spin off games and in ways that reverse the typical roles.
Giant rings are hidden in each act, a feature of the original games, that lead to pseudo-3D special stages similar to those in Sonic CD. In the stages, players dodge obstacles and collect colored spheres to increase their speed, allowing them to pursue a UFO carrying a Chaos Emerald; collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds allows players to use their character's super transformation. Players' ring counters slowly decrease during special stages and must be continually replenished; if the player runs out of rings before they catch the UFO, the special stage ends. These are quite challenging but also extremely fun. I have never derived so much enjoyment from a Sonic Special Stage in the past.
Beyond the Special Stages there are also Bonus Stages as well. The "Blue Sphere" bonus stages from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 return, accessed by entering a portal that appears when the player passes a checkpoint while carrying 25 or more rings. Completing bonus stages earns the player a silver or gold medal depending on their performance; collecting medals unlocks fun new features, game play modes, and secrets. I don't want to spoil them for you but these are great! Fortunately these are totally optional and those who can't stand them do not ever have to play them.
New for Mania is the time attack mode where players must complete levels as quickly as possible, with the best times included on an online leaderboard; players can instantly reload a level to restart a stage and try again at any time. I imagine this will be much loved by speedrunners. Finally, after many many years, the split-screen competitive multiplayer mode allows two players to race to the end of a level, similar to those of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Your mileage may vary on this. I personally enjoyed it, as did my friend I played with (we are both old school Sonic fans) but it does feel like a bit of a relic. The aspect ratio on the split screen is painful, but we still had a blast with it. I have a feeling that younger players will never touch it though.
The graphics and sound are better than they have ever been. Every frame of this game is filled to the brim with nostalgic references. This extends to the gameplay as well. In every frame of the game you can see the love for the franchise being poured in.
Alas, no game is perfect, and Sonic Mania is no exception. The hit detection is a little strange and you can find yourself being crushed to death in places that seem unfair or do not make sense. Sometimes you can die on spikes that feel a little bit cheap. But for the most part everything here is flawless, especially if you are a fan of the classic series.
Now let's talk about the elephant in room. When the game was released it required an internet connection in order to play. The hatred and outrage were definitely felt by the developers and they have since patched this out. You only need to download the game and play once while connected to the internet. After that it works just as well when playing offline. So really, in my opinion, this isn't a big deal.
While no game is perfect, this is as close as it gets in my opinion for fans of old-school gaming.