Sonic Mania manages an elusive balancing act. It's made with the zealous passion that only true fans can provide, but gleams with the polish of a full-fledged release. SEGA's latest is a delicious sampler plate of classic 2D Sonic, new ideas and familiar locations refined to near perfection, and it sports the best presentation the franchise has ever seen.
In short: Holy shit. They got it right.
Picking up where Sonic 3 and Knuckles left off, Mania's stages are lush, sprawling networks of branching paths, packed to bursting with secrets and challenges. It's easy to get lost in the flow and wander off looking for goodies. On my most recent playthrough, I did just that, exploring until my time ran out, and I still feel like I've barely scratched the surface—some routes can only be accessed with Tails' flight or Knuckles' wallclimb, and a single fork in the road can lead to two completely different levels.
On the other hand, carving out a clean path to the end has never felt better. Mania hits all the high points of the Genesis originals here, with smart level design that demands precision if you want to keep moving. The new Drop Dash is a perfectly-tuned addition, letting you chain together quick jumps without ever breaking stride, and the widescreen aspect ratio gives you plenty of time to see what's ahead. I'd be spending hours in Time Attack, searching for the perfect line, but leaderboards have been broken on PS4 since release. (This is the kind of thing you fix with a Day 1 patch, guys. Still waiting.)
Mania spends a lot of time in familiar-looking places, but never feels like a retread—the original stages are rendered almost unrecognizable at times, their original layouts buried by countless alternate paths and new mechanics, plus a beautiful fresh coat of paint. The amount of new stuff in the retro remixes is almost overwhelming, not the least of which is two new bosses for every zone.
Despite that, the handful of all-new stages are definitely Mania's high points. Composer Tee Lopes does his best work here, going wild with punchy brass and stylish solos that feel like a modern Sonic CD, and the gorgeous pixel work is on full display, with colorful flourishes and smooth animation everywhere you look. They feel instantly timeless, tantalizing tastes of the Mania team's unrestrained potential.
That team is a first for SEGA, ditching Sonic 4 developer Dimps for a crack team of devoted fans. Taxman and Stealth have a long history reverse-engineering the Genesis games, Tee Lopes has a portfolio full of Sonic arrangements, and PagodaWest Games features a duo from the cancelled Sonic 2 HD. With SEGA's blessing (and their budget), the Mania team has gone all out, flawlessly recreating the feel of the Genesis games in a powerful modern engine. The result feels like a lost sequel for the Saturn, right down to the adorable low-poly models in the Special Stages.
In fact, Mania's few flaws come from sticking a little too close to the classics. Hair-trigger crush deaths are major hazards in some stages, Sonic 3's Blue Sphere grinds the game to a screeching halt at each signpost, and some set pieces are a little too self-indulgent for their own good. They're hardly low points, though, and for every brief moment of "who ordered this?", there are plenty of smart bosses and clever gimmicks, sneaking in little nods to long-time fans.
But Mania isn't just for fans—and it's like a breath of fresh air to say that, after years and years of SEGA's rocky releases, propped up by desperate fanatics. Mania is for everyone wanting to fly through a lush, colorful world without skipping a beat. It's for everyone who's waiting to be dazzled by crisp, beautiful pixel art and masterful compositions. It's for everyone who wants to experience the best 2D platforming has to offer—then do it again to see what they missed.
Sonic Mania is for everyone who loves video games.
VERDICT: FUCKING REAL
Update: PC release
The port is solid—good performance, low latency, and about as many graphics options as you could expect for a 2D game. Leaderboards were blown open almost instantly, making them effectively useless, and unfortunately there's been no effort to fix it.
The PC release came with Denuvo without any warning on the Steam page, and the 2-week delay prior to release (plus some shenanigans with the Sonic 1 compensation gift) prevented a lot of people from refunding it in response. In addition, the game launched with an always-online requirement, which was quickly removed after half-assedly pinning the blame on the Mania team—according to SEGA, it was a bug, which you may or may not believe.
There are plenty of valid complaints about DRM of all flavors, and while Denuvo isn't the system-destroying SecuROM sequel that the Steam forums would have you believe, delaying the release to sneak it in is some shady behavior.
Yes, I bought it on PS4; The PC release has been delayed for 2 weeks. I don't generally fuck with consoles, but this time I couldn't resist getting in ahead of the spoilers. When the PC version releases, I'll amend this with any relevant info. ↩︎
If you liked Blue Sphere the first time around, this probably isn't going to bother you. I fucking hate Blue Sphere, and the game locks a handful of extras and secrets behind it. This is my #1 personal gripe with the game. (All things considered? Pretty tame.) ↩︎