When Sonic & Knuckles was released in late 1994 to critical acclaim, it seemed certain that Sonic the Hedgehog would continue to challenge Nintendo’s moustached plumber. Sonic Team had once again stunned the industry with its innovative lock-on technology and there seemed to be no limits to what the unquestionably talented studio might do next with the blue insectivore. Surely Sonic Team would impress us all again with the inevitable new Sonic game for the upcoming Saturn console, we thought. Sonic Team did indeed impress with the excellent NiGHTS into Dreams and the slightly over-ambitious Burning Rangers. However, what we never saw coming was that the Sonic series had already peaked. Sonic’s various 3D outings since that time have been patchy at best, with enjoyable entries such as Sonic Colours overshadowed by mediocre titles featuring werehogs, reaching a new low with the truly atrocious Sonic the Hedgehog released in 2006. The 2D entries fared a bit better with the Sonic Advance and Rush series, but were never able to capture exactly what made the 16-bit Sonic games such a joy to play. It has taken Christian Whitehead and his team to deliver what Sonic Team themselves could not, and it is brilliant.
Sonic Mania is an example of nostalgia done well. It is difficult to pinpoint what ‘nostalgia’ actually consists of, but it is best described as being the way we remember things rather than the way they actually were. In other words, even the most nostalgic of games must build upon their roots if they are to satisfy our fond memories of their predecessors. This rings true for Christian Whitehead’s approach to Sonic Mania which has made a point of preserving the various idiosyncrasies of the original Mega Drive releases yet also going beyond these. The small 512 colour pallet and 240p resolution gave Mega Drive games a distinct look which often contrasted with the more colourful yet less gritty look of those released for the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo. This Mega Drive-style look has been perfectly recreated here. Christian Whitehead has understood that rose-tinted specs means we often remember games as looking better than they really did, so Sonic Mania features a plethora of new visual effects which would never have actually been possible on the Mega Drive yet still keeps within the realms of what we remember might have been possible on the hardware.
The colour pallet is indeed expanded upon, yet it still looks distinctly like a Mega Drive release. Additional layers of parallax scrolling in both the background and foreground give the stages new depth and the game never seems to be quiet, right down to spinning signs in the background and the petals that fly about when you run through the flowers. This is a similar to how Yacht Club Games approached Shovel Knight which was inspired by NES visuals yet refused to be limited by them, and it works just as well here. This extends to the music, which is a fantastic score created by Tee Lopes. This title contains a mixture of both classic and entirely original themes, both of which have been given a lift by featuring far more instruments and channels than what would have been possible on the base Mega Drive hardware, yet they still manage to feel suited to the game in the way that the redbook CD audio of Sonic CD perhaps did not. The game looks and sounds like a turbocharged Mega Drive release.
What actually is this all about? In essence, Sonic Mania feels like a mash-up of Sonic 2, Sonic 3 and Sonic CD featuring key elements from all three. It features classic zones from the old games. These are presented similar to Sonic Pocket Adventure on the Neo Geo Pocket Color in that the first act of each zone is a classic act which is paired with an entirely original act as the second. The existence of classic stages might seem like a cop out, but it soon becomes clear why they are here as they demonstrate the advantages of the new possibilities that the Retro Engine offers. The classic stages have been greatly expanded upon with both new graphical and visual elements. It feels almost like a let-down to play Oil Ocean Zone yet again… until you realise your new fire shield from Sonic 3 sets the oil on fire. It’s this kind of new twist on established elements of Sonic that makes Sonic Mania such a joy to play. The second act is an entirely new reimagining of the stage, often spinning the concept of the stage completely on its head.
These are coupled with a handful of entirely original zones. People are well served regardless of what their favourite classic Sonic game is. All of these stages are logically crafted with well-thought-out ideas, avoiding the issue that plagues many fan games such as Sonic Megamix and even official entries such as Sonic CD and Chaotix with messy, often illogically-designed stages with undercooked ideas. These are combined with both bonus and special stages, much like in the originals. The former is based on the ‘blue spheres’ special stages from Sonic 3 featuring both classic and original stages, yet even this concept has been expanded upon. It’s clear from the latter stages that they’ve been approached from a different perspective, almost like a puzzle that needs solving. There may be a group of blue spheres which you can see yet with no clear way to reach them, or blue spheres awkwardly placed within groups of red spheres and springs which require real thought to consider how to reach them, often forcing players to memorise specific paths through each stage. The latter is an entirely new format of special stage somewhat resembling the special stages from Sonic CD. These feature polygonal characters which have been intentionally designed to look like they were developed for the Saturn, giving the overall feeling of being the Saturn sequel that never was. Everything has been presented as faithfully as possible, feeling just like the Mega Drive games yet featuring both audio-visual and gameplay elements that push this release beyond what we saw on their hardware.
There is a common misconception that Sonic was always purely about speed, and the implication that the series offers little beyond this. This is understandable given that the sheer pace of the Sonic games were intended to highlight the benefits of the Mega Drive’s faster CPU over the SFC/SNES, and Sega themselves emphasised the speed in their ‘blast processing’ marketing campaigns, resulting in the Mega Drive’s image often being based around this. However, the Sonic Advance and Rush games placed a heavy emphasis on high speed gameplay and yet they always felt underwhelming, like an important element of the gameplay was missing. The classic Sonic releases featured expansive stages that were huge yet memorable in the literal sense. They were less linear that the average Mario stage on all axis and encouraged a desire to explore every nook and cranny. Many gamers back in the early 1990s could likely map out their favourite Sonic stage from memory on the back of a napkin, which is something that could never really be said about the Sonic Advance or Rush games. The GBA and DS outings relegated the stages to mere background scenery for Sonic to run past, resulting in stages which were well designed yet largely unmemorable as players were discouraged from slowing down to take everything in.
By contrast, Sonic Mania is all too happy to stop players in their tracks to make sure they don’t miss the excellent level design, it feels like the developers are determined for you to see their hard work and imagination. This is very much like the classic games, as anybody who tells you they played the Mystic Cave Zone at 700mph needs to revisit the older Sonic releases. The game also avoids the crippling flaw found in Sega’s latter 2D efforts, Sonic 4 and the classic stages in Sonic Generations, both of which featured bizarre floaty jump physics which meant they never really felt like the Sonic that we all remembered. With Sonic Mania, the physics and the controls in general are a complete match for the original games.
What we have here is the perfect example of the classic 2D Sonic formula. It could be argued that Sega played it safe by not building more on the 16-bit games, and would hope that any potential sequel would have the self-confidence to move on from the Mega Drive aesthetic to something a little more modern and push the boat out a little bit more. A new 2D Sonic with HD visuals and a much richer colour pallet that lets go of the classic stages would be a fantastic experience and much closer resemble any hypothetical 2D Sonic release for the Saturn. As it is, we have a game which will please long-time fans of the series, and those who have never been sold on the series have the opportunity to experience Sonic at his finest.