Electric Retrospective – Review: ‘Sonic Mania’ shows fans’ dedication

Sean Mullins 
Technology Columnist

Sonic runs through Studiopolis Zone, a new level based around a Hollywood premiere night.  Photo by Sega of America/TNS

Sonic the Hedgehog, with a little help from his lifelong fans, is back on his feet and going full speed ahead.

Sonic hasn’t been in the best situation lately. As SEGA’s mascot, he’s been a staple of gaming since he started running in the 90s, but he hit a rough spot in the mid-2000s. While he’s had excellent games like “Sonic Colors” since then, others like “Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric” muddled his track record. It seemed the Blue Blur’s life in the fast lane was over. However, Sonic won’t go down that easily, and “Sonic Mania” is the boost he needs.

“Sonic Mania” is a game in the vein of Sonic’s origins, a 2D platformer focused on speed. Building momentum is important to run through loops and up certain walls. Each level, or “zone” as the series calls them, is split into two acts played back to back, each with a boss battle.

Zones reward the player for getting past challenges with room to speed up, but reckless movement leads the player to hit enemies, which slows them down. Getting hit causes the player to drop rings, the series’ staple currency, with a short time to recollect them. If the player is hit without rings, it’s back to square one. This can be avoided by finding rings or elemental shields.

The game has three playable characters- the titular Sonic, his best friend, Tails the Fox, and Knuckles the Echidna, who’s rougher than the rest of them.

They all have the series’s famous Spin Dash, which allows the player to quickly charge up speed, plus abilities that impact how zones are traversed. Sonic can charge a midair Spin Dash and use elemental shields’ powers. Tails can fly and swim through liquid. Knuckles can glide and climb up walls.

Zones have numerous paths, and each character allows for new discoveries with each new runthrough.

Returning to the phrase, “in the vein of Sonic’s origins,” gameplay isn’t the only returning part of Sonic’s history. “Sonic Mania” focuses on the Classic era of the series, which is everything before “Sonic Adventure” in the late 90s. Most zones are from “Sonic 1,” “Sonic 2,” “Sonic 3 and Knuckles,” and “Sonic CD.”

However, no level is the same as its predecessor. The first act of each classic zone is similar, but Act 2 has a twist that breaks the formula in a good way. For example, Chemical Plant Zone, a fan favorite from “Sonic 2,” has pools of toxic liquid. In Act 2, some of the pools are transformed into bouncy gelatin.

There’s also new zones with fresh concepts, such as Mirage Saloon Zone, a desert stage filled with illusions. New bosses are fought in every level, classic or new.

Bonus stages return from “Sonic 3 and Knuckles” in which the player collects blue spheres, which give the player unlockables. In addition, there’s new special stages in which Sonic turns 3D. Completing these earns the player Chaos Emeralds. With all seven combined, all three characters can transform into Super forms, granting invincibility and more speed.

Even in his worst games, Sonic always has phenomenal music, and “Sonic Mania” is no different. Every classic level has excellent remixes, and new songs sound as though they were from the Classic Sonic era, despite using modern instruments.

Visuals are stellar as well, with zones having vibrant colors and detailed backgrounds. References are hidden in levels that Sonic fans will recognize, from robot debris to a Sonic popcorn machine -which actually exists.- However, references always blend in with the stage’s theme, so it isn’t distracting. Character animation is impressive, and though characters are based on their original sprites, their animation moves fluidly and expresses personality.

“Sonic Mania” isn’t perfect, however. Though most of the game is fair, certain moments spike the difficulty. Some bosses have weak points that are hard to find or reach, and there’s the occasional enemy that pops up out of nowhere. One zone has a hazardous cloud that, if not blown away, pollutes the screen and drains rings.

Aside from some difficult moments, “Sonic Mania” has a few glitches. In rare cases, certain bosses softlock the game, meaning the player is trapped and it’s no use doing anything but resetting the game. There’s issues in the Nintendo Switch version which, while minor, cause  delay between pressing the home button and entering the home menu while the game is open.

The developers announced a minor update is coming to fix glitches, though it’s unknown which glitches will be addressed. However, despite issues, it isn’t enough to bring down the experience. It usually takes a minute to get back on track.

The most vital part about “Sonic Mania,” however, isn’t the game itself. As great as the game is, what makes it fantastic is the team behind it. While “Sonic Mania” was produced and published by SEGA, its staff is currently developing “Sonic Forces,” set for a holiday release. Instead, the entire development team of “Sonic Mania” is made of members from the Sonic fanbase.

The project was spearheaded by Christian Whitehead, known for creating Sonic fangames and later helping SEGA port Classic era games to mobile devices. Whitehead, along with developer Simon Thomley, programmed “Sonic Mania.” Tee Lopes composed the game’s soundtrack and Hyper Potions worked on trailer and intro music, both being well-known for electronic remixes of classic game music. Even the animated cutscenes were directed by artist Tyson Hesse, who worked on the Sonic comics, as well as his own parody comic, “Sonic’s Big Fat Adventure.”

“Sonic Mania” is a passion project, and the effort put into it shows. The levels, visuals, and music take what was great about Classic Sonic and make it new. Though minor issues exist, it doesn’t matter. Nobody knows what makes Sonic great more than the fans, and “Sonic Mania” is a testament to their dedication. By looking to its past, “Sonic Mania” creates a good future for the series.

“Sonic Mania” is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, XBox One and PC for the price of $19.99. This review was done on the Nintendo Switch version.

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