Even before I take control in Sega’s exhilarating new passion project Sonic Mania, I have a huge, stupid grin on my face. Perhaps it’s the fact that the game—a throwback to the 16-bit glory days of the Sega Genesis—starts right where it all began, at Green Hill Zone. Perhaps it’s the familiar-yet-refined pixel art, or the funky-fresh music, which sounds dangerously exotic on Nintendo hardware and draws me back to the bedroom of my childhood best friend (the lone Sega kid in a neighborhood full of Nintendorks.)
Or maybe it’s the fact that the game is running in widescreen.
That doesn’t seem like it should be a noteworthy feature in 2017, but for Sonic, it’s huge, because it handily solves what I’ve always considered the series’ biggest flaw: the hedgehog can’t see five feet in front of him. Now, rather than colliding with something sharp, plummeting off a cliff, or rushing headlong into some other form of instant death that appears too quickly for me to react, I’m free to focus on the uniquely exhilarating thrill of making Sonic run so fast. Across 12 zones, I loop loops, plow through walls, and launch Sonic and friends sky high with that thrilling sense of speed that only comes from playing a really good Sonic game. And Sonic Mania is the best of them all.
Sonic Mania’s stage design oscillates between fawningly traditional and defiantly freewheeling. Developed by a team of talented fans led by Christian Whitehead (whose work on an unofficial re-release of Sonic CD led Sega to hire him to develop mobile Sonic ports a few years ago), the game drips with passion for the days long before Sonic was a self-defeating meme generator. Across a pleasing mix of eight classic zones and four all-new ones, it empowers players to either run as fast as they dare, or take a more deliberate pace, seeking out hidden exits and collecting the Chaos Emeralds they’ll need to reach the “true ending.” Each zone drops players into either a familiar locale from the original Genesis trilogy or something that would have felt at home on that hardware; from there, it transitions seamlessly into remixed stages that enhance the themes of the originals with new challenges, physics-based gimmicks, and more robust music that will make you wonder at the magic they’ve coaxed out of your Sega Genesis (before, of course, you snap out of it and remember what year this is.) Green Hill Zone Act I starts out exactly as it always has, then quickly reveals additional routes that didn’t exist in 1991. Chemical Plant Zone Act II adds giant syringes that Sonic and friends can pounce on, injecting a green component into the stage’s ubiquitous vats of toxic blue liquid to create turquoise trampolines. The new Studiopolis Zone takes the glitz and glamour of Casino Night Zone and translates it into the world of television production, while Mirage Saloon Zone goes all Back to the Future III, sending players back to the wild west—fitting given Sonic Mania’s heavy narrative emphasis on time travel.
Some of the new stages, especially those that appear late in the game, place a bit too much emphasis on hazards, and it takes some of the joy out of the exploration. If you’re accustomed to the way things used to be, you’ll adapt quickly enough; if you’re anything less than a platforming expert, the magic will start to wear off after your 15th game over screen. Often, the Sonic Mania team exhibits an understanding of the series that goes far deeper than Sega’s own; occasionally, the new designs feel a little clunky next to the old ones. Mirage Saloon Zone aside, I’d take the Genesis-era stages (and their remixed versions) over the newer ones every time.
Sonic Mania is a true successor to the Sega Genesis Sonic games, but it’s also a fond celebration of the franchise as a whole. It’s stuffed to the brim with deep references to Sonic’s history, from an impromptu round of Mean Bean Machine (aka Puyo Puyo), to a boss character that pays homage to a famous fan hacker who passed away in late 2013. Even the (lovably) terrible polygonal models used in Sonic CD’s bonus stages are present and accounted for. This kind of care—finding joy in the series, warts and all—could only have been done by a team that really, truly loved Sonic the Hedgehog. After so many years of disappointing sequels, Sega has finally put the series in the hands of developers that know it best, and it’s paid off in spades. Sonic Mania is the best Sonic the Hedgehog game ever made, and if Sega’s serious about restoring its mascot to the megastar status he once enjoyed, it will do everything it can to ensure this team is there for the next go-around.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Sonic Mania is based on a Nintendo Switch download code provided to us by Sega. The game launched on Tuesday, August 15th, 2017. A month and a half-later, it’s still the best Sonic game ever made.