I wasn’t able to play video games as a kid. Up until about age 8, my parents forbade me from owning a console. They eventually acquiesced when a family friend asked if I would like to borrow their Sega Genesis for a while as they barely played it anymore. I was so excited to finally play video games and I played the one game he owned over and over; Sonic the Hedgehog. I absolutely loved Sonic and quickly jumped on board the band wagon. Soon I was watching the cartoon and wanting to buy all the toys and accessories. As I grew up, so did Sonic and I gladly played through his original jumps to 3D in Sonic Adventure 1&2. I 100% drank the cool aid.
Fast forward to 2017 and 9 console titles later (not to mention handheld), the Sonic series has hit an all-time low. 3D games became the primary titles on consoles leaving behind Sonic’s primary speed for slow, cumbersome platformers. Sega turned him into a werewolf and even had him date a human (the less said about that the better). They even tried to return him to 2D with lackluster results. Sega dug the Sonic series in a serious hole, at least critically. I’ve questioned my own interest in the series; was I crazy for thinking Sonic was ever actually good?
Thankfully Sonic Mania has disproved that theory. This new game made by PagodaWest Games and Headcannon has shown that a modern Sonic can in fact be very, very good. Not only does it feel like that old classic Sonic, it feels fresh. It takes those familiar tropes that fans remember about the original games and runs with them. I blasted through Green Hill zone and was surprised to find that this wasn’t the Sonic of my childhood, but a marked improvement over it. I was right back to the excitement of my 8-year-old self.
Sonic Mania is nostalgia done right. The game sets you up to expect a run through of Sonic’s greatest hits, but adds new elements to the basics. Levels are more expansive with even more branching paths and hidden elements to find. One minute I was zip lining down, the next I was being blown into the air by a giant popcorn popper. I noticed a lot of similarities between the levels at first, but the game quickly messed with my expectations. While the zones start out as templates of those original Genesis game zones (Green Hill for example) they quickly branch out from there (Sonic on an airship is a highlight).
Sonic Mania really differentiates itself though in the boss fights (as in they are actually fun!) While you’ll still be mostly trying to jump into the weak point of a Robotnik (sorry Eggman) machine, the arenas are more dynamic. Arenas will shift and change or will often have movement incorporated into the fight. One highlight comes early; as you finish the level you are dropped into a versus battle of Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine.
These changes don’t mean that Sonic Mania is more complex. You’ll still be trying to gain as much momentum as you can by pressing right and the only button you’ll have to remember is the jump button. This doesn’t mean Sonic Mania isn’t difficult. The levels are setup to punish players that just want to hold right, a lesson I learned repeatedly. The aforementioned boss fights also took me more than a couple tries to pin down. Above all, I found Sonic Mania to be plain fun. I would have never thought that I could be raving about a Sonic game in 2017. PagodaWest Games and Headcannon are known for their work in the Sonic fangame community and they have created what might possibly be the best Sonic game. Maybe Sonic can in fact be a top tier series again, if its creation stays out of Sega’s hands (stay tuned for Sonic Forces this fall).