It still amazes us that SEGA would entrust its most famous creation to a group of fans. Should a team of enthusiasts really meddle with one of gaming’s greatest icons? It seems preposterous that anybody but the publisher itself should be allowed to develop the next Sonic the Hedgehog title. However, in this case, it makes perfect sense: Christian Whitehead and the rest of the team responsible for Sonic Mania have proven their abilities before, and their combined knowledge of the classic games probably rivals that of Sonic Team.
And, as it turns out, it was the best decision SEGA could’ve made. Sonic Mania is born from a love of the games that made him so popular, and you can feel it bursting from every facet. From the beautifully animated intro to the innumerable fan-pleasing Easter eggs, this oozes personality, positivity, and confidence in a way that the last few titles haven't. By all accounts, this is far and away the best Sonic game in recent years.
The main reason why is down to Whitehead’s Retro engine, which was purpose-built to recreate Sonic’s momentum based gameplay, and it does it perfectly. Playing Sonic Mania is like slipping on an old pair of running shoes, with Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles all controlling exactly as you’d expect.
But this isn't just a re-tread: Sonic’s brand new manoeuvre, the drop dash, is a brilliant addition to the hedgehog’s modest moveset. Essentially a mid-air version of the spin dash, it makes getting around even easier. You can very quickly change direction, for example, or execute it while running along for an extra burst of speed. It also further removes Sonic from his pals who, while unable to perform the drop dash, have their own navigational perks. It’s such a simple feature that it’s mind-boggling it hasn’t been thought of before.
You’ll be making good use of it throughout the game, too, as the levels are large and meandering, akin to the structure found in Sonic 3 & Knuckles. There are many paths through each level, and it’ll take you a good few runs to discover everything. Items, special stage rings, and more are frequently teased in seemingly inaccessible places, and it’s fun seeking them out. The classic levels, which make up two thirds of the game, are vastly overhauled – especially the stages returning from Sonic 1 and 2 – and feature many brand new elements, such as Green Hill Zone’s zip-lines, helping to keep things fresh despite familiar backdrops. The original zones, meanwhile, slot in nicely alongside the classic ones and are nicely varied in their aesthetic and their unique challenges. If any criticism can be lobbied at the level design, it’s that off-screen hazards and sinisterly placed badniks and springs do occasionally crop up, although it’s never quite as frequent as seen in the classic games.
The new UFO-chasing special stages are possibly the best ones, with an easy to grasp set of rules and fun courses to race through in your quest for emeralds. But while they're not as difficult as the blue sphere stages (they return as bonus levels, should you want the challenge), the controls during these segments are fairly loose. Turning isn’t as tight as you’d expect, and jumps can be difficult to judge, both of which can lead to some frustrating failures.
Time Attack mode is a welcome addition that's perfectly equipped for speed runs. Holding triangle restarts the level if you mess up, and it can be quite addictive searching for the optimal route. Leaderboards are included, but it doesn’t appear that you can compare times with your friends list, which would’ve added to this mode’s appeal. It’s also a shame there’s no online multiplayer; Competitive mode, which apes Sonic 2’s split-screen races, is offline only. It works perfectly well, however, and the squashed display isn’t as much of a hindrance as you may think.
There’s so much about the game we’d like to tell you about, but a lot of what makes Sonic Mania special is in its myriad little surprises: the in-game cutscenes that evoke Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the delightful and occasionally ingenious boss fights, and the countless references, all mixed in with level design that’s as good as it’s ever been and a superlative soundtrack to boot – if you’re a fan of the 2D classics, you’ll love Sonic Mania.
Sonic Mania is the best Sonic game in years, and stands proudly alongside its ancestors as a great 2D platformer. The levels, both remixed classics and brand new stages, are broad and a lot of fun to speed through, while more cautious exploration is also rewarding and just as viable. The feeling of playing an old-school Sonic title is spot on and it’s filled to bursting with secrets, Easter eggs, and surprises that will delight fans. If you’ve never enjoyed Sonic games, this certainly won’t change your mind, but anyone with an affinity for the Blue Blur’s seminal Mega Drive series can rest assured that this is more than worth your time.