Last year, I was at ground zero of Sonic the Hedgehog - the Sonic 25th Anniversary party in San Diego. Yeah, the one with the awkward silences and broken livestream. It wasn't the disaster some made it out to be, and honestly, Crush 40 was pretty sick in concert. Still, there was a whole lot there I couldn't muster a single fuck about, and the communal chili dog station was kind of nasty, if we're being honest.
I digress. There were two major takeaways that night, for me. Firstly, the reveal of the game that would come to be known as Sonic Forces, during which an enthused fan punched me in the shoulder and almost prompted me to curbstomp him on the spot. Secondly, the debut of Sonic Mania, which happened while I was outside in a line that wrapped all the way around the building. Later on in the evening, I actually got my hands on it, and liked what I played. It felt like Sonic on the Genesis, straight-up. Sure, I questioned the necessity of making another game of that, but hey - the demand is certainly there. Still, I definitely had some anxiety that it would just be a greatest hits sort of situation, an easy victory lap tailor-made for people who insist that Sonic only works in 2D.
Boy, I was stupid. Sonic Mania is fantastic. It's as far from a retread as Silver is from being a good character. As far as I'm concerned, it's an improvement on almost all of the pre-Adventure Sonic titles, outside of Sonic CD. I think it's a tie with Sonic 3 & Knuckles, on my own personal scale, with both the original and sequel left in the dust.
But what makes Mania live up to those classics? I realize that it's a bit of a bold claim to say it's better than a series that redefined platformers. However, it's a claim I'll defend by pointing to one key factor - innovation. Rather than rest on the laurels assembled by previous developers, the team behind this game took the original tetralogy and used it as a blueprint. Those games were a starting point, a foundation for this group of devoted fans to build upon. 16-bit Sonic is the standard, and Mania is attempt to raise that standard. It's a concentrated effort to not simply emulate or compete, but to both differentiate and improve upon.
This design philosophy is what made Sonic relevant in the first place. He was intended as the antithesis to Mario. Sega took a familiar genre and subverted it. Instead of methodical jumps and general forward progression, there was blistering speed and bounding in every direction. Instead of a red-and-blue dude rescuing princesses, there was a blue-and-red animal saving nature. There was an edge to the cuteness present, a keg of gunpowder underneath the bright exterior. That first game was a riff on the formula Nintendo created.
But that was over twenty-five years now. Sonic and his approach to platforming became a rote standard with enough time. That gives Mania a unique challenge. How does it recapture the magic of the original titles without leaning too much on the past? On the same token, how does it innovate without losing the luster of the classics? The answer is to give players something old and something new. Something borrowed and something very blue. Which is to say, Headcannon and PagodaWest parrot the first four games for a few moments, in almost every zone, before smashing expectations to bits.
This starts in Green Hill Zone, which begins like the original stage before turning into a frantic subterreanean sprint in the latter half. It continues in Stardust Speedway, which sees Sonic sprinting through both past and future with no adherence to Sonic CD's time travel mechanic. It's sustained in Hydrocity Zone, where the initial revisiting of the water current-based platforming becomes a vital part to what is clearly one of the series' best boss battles. Both developers take what we know, give us a little, then turn it on its head while we're still basking in nostalgia. It's fun. It's refreshing. It's brilliant.
Yet we can't ignore the four entirely new zones, which are arguably the best part of the whole package. Dizzying, frantic dashes through a dilapidated newspaper factory and a high-stakes chase across the desert are some of the franchise's finest moments. They also introduce novel mechanics that add an element of constant surprise and wonderment, while simultaneously never feeling too modern or gimmicky. It feels like something Sega might have come up with for the Genesis or Saturn, had they not been focused on doing everything they could to poison their brand and sabotage the man who made them a household name.
I think that's what's most impressive to me about Sonic Mania. It doesn't feel like a throwback game - it actually feels like a proper sequel. Where Generations and Sonic 4 felt like attempts at recapturing former glories in many ways, Mania just picks up where Naka and Oshima left off before the Dreamcast. It feels like a natural sequel, not an anniversary title or an attempt to cash in on nostalgia. Considering that we live in a time where nostalgia seems to be the sole impetus behind making new games or movies, that's a feat.
Anyway. Sonic Mania is great. It has some beautiful visuals that never break the "I'm playing an old game" immersion. The music is up there with the best in the franchise, which is saying a lot considering the timeless jams we've gotten from past games. The gameplay's as rock solid as ever, while still feeling polished and improved upon when played next to the old titles. This game took two of my least favorite zones (Chemical Plant and Oil Ocean,) and turned them into pure gems. That's pure alchemy, I'd say.
If you're worried about Sonic Mania being repetitious or redundant, stop. It's neither. This is the freshest Sonic's felt since Colors, and a non-stop barrage of innovative surprises from start to finish. By year's end, it'll probably be one of the high points in an already great year. Do yourself a favor and check it out, especially if you're burned out on the franchise. You'll remember why you loved it, if you ever did.
Ah, and be sure to get the true ending. No spoilers, but it sets up some very interesting context for a certain game coming out later this year.