Judging by the sheer amount of time I’ve spent playing it in my life, the Sonic the Hedgehog series may be my favorite games of all time. I dumped hundreds of hours into Sonics 1-3 on my Sega Genesis as a kid — something about the environments, the attitude, and of course the speed pulled me in like no other game. They were endlessly replayable, and always managed to offer something new.
Of course, time has not been kind to Sonic the Hedgehog. While his arch rival, Mario, ushered in the 3D era by defining what 3D platforming games should be, Sonic languished in the transition. Sonic Adventure was years late and completely missed the point of what it means to be a Sonic game. There have been many games in the franchise since then, some actually pretty good (the Game Boy Advance/DS games, Sonic Generations), some even worse (Sonic ’06). None came close to the pinnacle of platforming that the Sega Genesis games were though, so many fans, including this one, just grudgingly accepted the new reality for the Fastest Thing Alive.
In 2010, Sega apparently recognized this yearning for an old-style Sonic game and commissioned Dimps, a Japanese development studio, to produce the elusive Sonic the Hedgehog 4 — the game every Sonic fan had been waiting for since the 90s. Unfortunately, the game did not live up to the 15 years of hype its title saddled it with, featuring bizarre physics, a frustrating episodic release schedule and again, a seemingly fundamental misunderstanding of what made the Genesis games so fun.
Enter: Sonic Mania. In 2015, Christian "Taxman" Whitehead, a Sonic mega-fan who had gained notoriety for creating his own "Retro Engine" that Sega eventually supported (after originally ordering a cease and desist) to port Sonic 1, Sonic 2 and Sonic CD to various platforms, presented a prototype to Sega called, at the time, "Sonic Discovery." It was an original Sonic game, and Sega liked it so much they greenlit the project under the Mania name. Fans were beyond excited for this game to come out, counting down the days to its release.
That day has finally come. Sonic Mania is here, and it’s everything we thought it would be and more. Sega changed the name from "Sonic Discovery" to "Sonic Mania" as a nod to the pure passion for the franchise the game was born out of — producer Takashi Iizuka is quoted as saying the game was "by the mania, for the mania." In other words, for Sonic fans, by Sonic fans. Seriously, this game was almost entirely built by people who are crazy about Sonic. Besides the aforementioned Whitehead, the development team includes Simon "Stealth" Thomley, who produced various Sonic fan games and ROM hacks, and Tee Lopes of PagodaWest Games, developer of the much anticipated but eventually canned HD remaster of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Lopes also composed the stellar 16 bit-style music. Artwork for the game is provided by Tyson Hesse, artist on the original Sonic the Hedgehog Archie comics.
Forget all the other games in the series that have come since 1994: Sonic Mania is the true successor to Sonic the Hedgehog 3. It evokes several games from Sonic’s golden era. Sonic and Tails’ sprites most closely resemble those from Sonic 2. The power of the engine is meant to fall somewhere between Sega Genesis and Sega Saturn, meaning it mostly looks like a Genesis game, but can pull off some neat parlor tricks that the Genesis simply couldn’t do. As a result, Mania feels nearly identical to a Genesis Sonic game, with the addition of some 3D scaling effects and awesome animations. Seriously, Sonic, Tails and Knuckles look slick here. There are dozens of easter eggs in the game, referencing everything in the series’ history from Sonic 3 to Knuckles’ Chaotix. I’m pretty sure I even spotted goddamn Nack the Weasel from Sonic Triple Trouble!
Obviously, the clearest link to the older games is that half the game’s levels are remixes of classic zones. Sonic veterans will recognize Green Hill Zone, Lava Reef Zone, Flying Battery Zone and more. This was honestly disappointing at first — with all this new life breathed into the series, why do we have to rehash old ideas? But instead, the team manages to call upon these classic zones out of a celebration of the franchise rather than pure laziness. They may look and sound the same, but you quickly realize they are heavily remixed versions. For these classic zones, the first act is very familiar to anyone who played the originals, with a few new twists and turns added in once you’re acclimated. The second act is a completely new take on the zones’ themes. It’s a joy to experience what kinds of new ideas the team has for classic levels, and it flips your expectation on its head.
Maybe the most impressive part of this is that they managed to take levels I typically dread when replaying Sonic games, zones I hated as a kid, and make them incredibly fun. I had a good time playing Oil Ocean Zone today. Oil Ocean! It’s almost as if they took it as a challenge to take these forgotten zones and make them into something memorable (for reasons other than frustration). It’s admirable, even if it is a little frustrating. I would have loved to see their take on beloved zones like Ice Cap or Angel Island. A couple of the zones that are unique to Mania were actually prototype zones from other games, such as Mirage Saloon, which began its life as Desert Dazzle Zone, a scrapped level from Sonic CD, which in and of itself may have been spun off from Dust Hill Zone, a level originally planned for Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
This is a classic Sonic game through and through, but there is one area where they buck the trend: boss battles. They are actually fun! Rather than the standard "avoid attack, bop boss on head, rinse and repeat" formula of most games, many bosses in Sonic Mania require a bit more outside-the-box thinking. You may need to use a boss’s own minions against him, or use your momentum to crash him into a wall of spikes. Every act ends with a boss, too, so it’s a good thing they are so fun.
I could go on and on, but really, if you enjoyed the Sega Genesis era of Sonic the Hedgehog and have lamented Sonic’s treatment in the years since, buy this game right now. It’s 20 bucks, and will instantly transport you back to 1994. This is the true successor to Sonic 3, and it was worth every excruciating day of the 23 year wait. Sonic the Hedgehog is finally back in proper form, and the best part is, this is only the beginning of a new golden era for the series.
Sonic Mania is available now for PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch for $19.99. It will be available on Windows PC August 29. You can also purchase the collector’s edition, which includes a Sega Genesis-style collector’s box and cartridge cast, a 12″ Sonic statue, and a metallic collector’s card.