-Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Steam (coming soon)
When I got home and popped it into my shiny new Genesis, I was mesmerized. Seeing that beautiful Emerald Hill Zone level was just like the first time I had seen the Green Hill Zone from Sonic 1, a few years earlier. Both times, I was blown away. The first Sonic game had turned the gaming world completely upside down, and the second, not only managed to recapture that same magic, but improve on it enough to stand on its own. But while the other great Sonic games from those Genesis days (Sonic 3, Sonic CD, and Sonic & Knuckles) were all more or less equally good, none of those games could really manage to pull off quite that same awe-inspiring first impression.
In the time since those 2-D glory days, many other Sonic games have come to many other consoles. Many have come in 3-D, some in 2, and some have even featured a mix of both; and while certain titles may have been arguably better than others, not one of them has even come close to reaching the lofty heights of the originals. None of them, that is, until now...
So, in light of the overwhelming majority of garbage that the Sonic franchise has become, Sonic Mania comes as quite a welcome shock. As has become the unfortunate norm, I went in expecting very little, only to receive the surprise of (what feels like) a lifetime. Upon being greeted by that oh-so-familiar "SEGA" logo, seeing the lovely title screen, and starting up the incredibly familiar, yet curiously new first level (Green Hill Zone, of course), I was instantly transported back to my youth. Like a retro defibrillator, Sonic Mania jolted the 16-bit love in my heart alive once again. For the third time in my life, I was blown away by a Sonic game.
You are probably wondering what could possibly separate this clear success from the countless failures that preceded it. Well, the devil, as they say, is in the details; or the lack of attention to it, as is so often the case. That's where Sonic Mania shines.
Thankfully, Sonic Mania got every single one of these elements right. Not only does it look and sound just like it's supposed to, but it plays that way too. Want to cautiously explore every nook and cranny of each level? Sure, go right ahead. Want to blaze right through and leave nothing but a trail of dust and shattered robots in your wake? For the first time in a long time, this game won't stand in your way. I'm also elated to report that there are no werehogs, hedgehog Uzis, unnatural human-hedgehog relationships or Big dumb cats to be found either. There is, technically, a new storyline, but it is all told through extremely brief in-game actions before and/or after certain levels. Thankfully, it never interferes with the flow of the game, and there are no CGI cutscenes or dialogue of any kind.
What also helps this game to succeed is that much of it is a retread over familiar ground. (Though even that hasn't helped Sonic games in the past.) As I said before, they nailed the classic feel in every respect, so this time around Green Hill Zone actually looks, sounds and plays like Green Hill Zone. Not some cheap twilight-zone-esque knock-off version of Green Hill Zone.
In addition, oodles of brand new touches have been added to the game to help keep things fresh. Everything from never-before-seen special effects, bosses, animations, and power-ups, to improved graphics, a new-ish special stage, updated versions of classic musical themes, as well as some great new tracks, all serve to make Sonic Mania the perfect marriage of old and new. As if that weren't enough, the game also includes some humorous Easter "eggs" and a couple of nods to non-platforming Sonic games (and even some non-Sonic games) as well. Keen-eyed Sega fans will surely get a kick out of these.
In terms of additional modes and features, the game offers a local 2-player Competition racing mode (returning from Sonics 2 & 3), a fitting time attack mode for true speedrunners (returning from Sonic CD), plus a few other unlockable extras. As in Sonic & Knuckles, you can choose to play as Sonic with Tails, just Sonic or Tails, or just Knuckles (and in case you're wondering, a second player can still control Tails while he's on-screen with Sonic). That being said, while it's great to get all of these options again, one does kind of wonder why they would just stop there. Why not take things a step further and offer us the option to play as Tails with Sonic, Knuckles with Tails, or even Knuckles with Sonic? It also would have been nice to get a true co-op option where Tails (or whoever the second player wants to control) could run off and do their own thing in the level, either via split-screen or over an online connection. Those are just minor nitpicks though and perhaps we will see them addressed further down the line with an eventual sequel.
Graphics, Audio, & Story
The graphics are excellent and look very accurate for the time, yet appear slightly better than the 16-bit originals. Probably more on-par with Knuckles' Chaotix from the Genesis 32X add-on. The audio is outstanding. Every sound effect is dead on, the returning stage music is redone in a compelling way and even the new tracks are a nice addition. A story is present, appropriate for the game, and never interferes with the gameplay.
Mechanics & Playability
The gameplay is everything you'd want it to be and more. By truly capturing the sense of speed and flow of the fantastic Genesis Sonic games, and only making changes and additions that further add to that experience and in no way detract from it, Sonic Mania overwhelmingly succeeds where an astonishing number of past games have failed. In addition, this is a game that flawlessly combines the old with the new, resulting in an instant classic that people will undoubtedly be enjoying for years and years to come.
Options, Extras, & Originality
While the 2-player Competition and time attack modes are certainly both welcome extras to have, it would have been nice to see a true 2-player local co-op, and/or online multiplayer option. Additionally, despite the fact that the game is brilliantly executed otherwise, and even includes lots of clever new changes and additions to mix things up, we can't completely overlook the fact that there is still an awful lot of recycled content here, or that this is the twentieth-something sequel to a franchise that has been running for over a quarter-century now.