The Sonic Cycle is well documented and understood: Sega announce a new Sonic game, fans are hopeful it’ll be a return to form, as release day nears more and more terrible decisions have been made, and finally, it’s out and as bad as it ever was. How could a new 2D Sonic game, made by fans rather than Sega, possibly push a stick in the cycle’s spokes?
Fan made Sonic clones, rom hacks and mods have been around for a long time. Where Nintendo are quick to stomp on any such thing for their IP, Sega have been more relaxed with these existing. When Christian Whitehead – who made excellent ports of the original Sonic and Sonic CD to various platforms – was joined by two teams who have built some of the best fan made Sonic titles, there was a glimmer of hope that something good could happen.
Between them, this combined team know everything about 2D Sonic games. How they work, how they play, what makes them great and what fans want from them. They’re probably closer to the subject matter, and understand it better, than the original Sega development staff. But still, the Sonic Cycle has never been defeated.
Sonic Mania opens with a repeat of Sonic 3’s flight onto Angel Island. Instead of running into Knuckles as previously, Eggman’s henchmen are waiting. Using a Chaos Emerald, Sonic is transported to the original Sonic 1 Green Hill Zone Act 1. Only… things are a little different. Not far into the stage, changes become apparent: Items are gone or replaced, some routes have changed, there are bats from Marble Zone. Your layout knowledge will only get you so far.
And this is how much of the game goes. Zones from previous games appear. Some are mashed together (there are parts of Emerald Hill in Green Hill, Labyrinth permeates Hydrocity, Hill Top pops up in Lava Reef), some are new but are channeling old zones (Studiopolis is a little bit Carnival Night). Bosses are a mixture of old – but subverted – and new. There are so many nods to previous games it’s a wonder it doesn’t get a sore neck. A special mention must be made for the inspired Chemical Zone Act 2 boss. You’ll know when you get there.
Then there’s the music. Just like how the levels morph from their ancestors, so does the music. Tunes like the unmistakable Chemical Plant Zone music get remixed. Other tracks have snippets of similar zones weaved in, in the same way the levels do graphically. Everything sounds 16-bit, but meatier, bassier, thumpier. Again, just like the levels.
As with the original Sonic games, there’s the side mission of collecting all the Chaos Emeralds. Similar to Sonic 3, special stages are entered by discovering giant rings hidden (and hidden really well) throughout the zones. Each special stage is akin to the 3D Mode 7 style UFO catching stages from Sonic CD, but much better organised and implemented. The idea is to chase down a UFO as flies around a Mario Kart-like track. The time you have remaining is incremented by collecting rings, and your speed is increased by picking up blue balls. It’s hard. Very hard.
Back in the main stages, if you trigger any checkpoint lamppost with enough rings you’re taken to a bonus stage. Gone are the gumball and spinning spheres (although their ghosts haunt a level later), as they’re replaced with the Blue Sphere game. As before, you have to touch all the blue spheres to make them red, avoid the red spheres, and collect the rings. In Sonic Mania, if you get all the blue spheres you’re awarded a silver medal. Collect all the rings too, and it’s gold. As you rack up the medals, you unlock modes and features, such as a level select and Sonic’s “run on the spot” from Sonic CD. There’s also the from-the-internet “& Knuckles” mode, where you can play as Sonic & Knuckles, Tails & Knuckles, and ridiculously, Knuckles & Knuckles. Because of course you can.
All this sounds great, but the important thing is how Sonic Mania plays. After all, Sonic 4 (akin to swearing in some areas of Sonic fandom) initially looked the part, but see how that turned out. Incredibly, Sonic Mania makes that game look like a fan-led Game Maker project, irony abound considering how Sonic Mania came to be. Important lessons were learned from missteps in the past: The physics model is spot on. The level gimmicks work. It’s not “hold right to win”. No level outstays its welcome, and no level feels weirdly out of place. Sonic’s friends and foes are kept to a bare minimum.
It’s a little confused as to whether it’s a sequel or a remake, but the gameplay hits the mark exactly. As a bonus, the always stupid but fun two player mode from Sonic 2 returns, squashed screens and all. Nice, especially since with the Switch version you can play it wherever your mates are.
If there has to be a negative, it’s perhaps that the later zones are not as well designed as the earlier ones. The replacement for Scrap Brain/Death Egg is maybe not in the same league as those, for example. There are also a few bugs, mainly involving the fire shield or being squished where you shouldn’t be squished, but nothing to damage the experience.
It’s a greatest hits. A remix. A compilation. A remaster. Sonic Mania is new, it’s old, and feels just like Sonic should. After all these years of waiting, so many revolutions of the Sonic Cycle, it’s finally time to say: This is a good Sonic game. No, this is a bloody great Sonic game.
And all it took was for Sega to let someone else do it for them.
Sonic Mania is out now on the Switch, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 digital stores for £15.99. The PC version is due on the 29th August.