Sonic Mania, looking to mark a triumphant return to the series’ original side-scrolling style, has been teasing fans since its initial announcement that what made Sonic a standout on Sega hasn’t been entirely abandoned.The 2D era of the blue hedgehog hasn’t been successfully replicated in the same spirit of the originals since the Genesis, including Sonic 4 and Sonic Generations‘ misguided attempts. Thankfully, Sega of America followed the passion of mega fan Christian Whitehead, using his custom engine to develop a return to form of Sonic’s 16-bit era. Sonic Mania isn’t just a retread either, as classic levels like Green Hill Zone have been remixed to fit in with the brand new stages created by the new development team.
Recently, Sega allowed me to try out two bonus modes, the “Blue Spheres” mini game and the Special Stage UFO chase. Players will recognize “Blue Spheres” from previous Sonic titles, where they must navigate a 3D plane filled with red, blue, yellow, and white spheres. The goal is to run through the blue spheres to collect rings and avoid being pushed into the game-ending red spheres. The new mode, UFO chase, is unlocked through hidden giant rings in a stage, where the player has to collect rings and blue orbs to catch up to a fleeing UFO. It plays like a stretched out version of “Blue Spheres,” which is a great thing, as Sonic picks up speed with every collected blue orb to bring him closer and closer to the aliens. The character movement is snappy and responsive, getting more difficult but still manageable in control the more Sonic accelerates. Apart from the speed mechanic, the later UFO stages amp up the difficulty by creating edges that can be fallen off of, as well as pits throughout the road to send Sonic plummeting. Knowing a pit or sharp turn could keep me from reaching the UFO in time was thrilling and made me approach how often I would look to increase my speed. Overall, it feels like a nice departure from the standard play style of the stages, where inspecting different paths and collecting rings is the key.
Another brand new addition is the Time Attack mode on the stages, where the player can rush through a level as fast as possible to show off their time on an online leaderboard. The stages play exactly the same way as normal, but a handy reset switch is available, allowing players who know they took the wrong path a chance to just jump back to the start and try again. I was able to get through Green Hill Zone with Knuckles at a decent time, but a large reason I was slowed down was that I fell into a pit I wasn’t expecting. Knowing I could try again was not something I would normally care about, especially when thinking I would have to die or reach the end to attempt a new run would have been frustrating. However, the reset switch that is activated just by holding down a button got me addicted to jumping back to the beginning of the stage to search for the fastest and most direct path to the finish line.
One of the new and completely original stages created by Headcannon, PagodaWest Games, and the aforementioned Christian Whitehead, throws the player into a technicolor cityscape filled with incredible detail, where Sonic and the gang eventually take on a new flying mech. Changing up the formula slightly on bosses, the player never interacts directly with the machine; instead, they must run along a highway and knock blue-colored missiles out of their way, which end up turning into homing projectiles that damage the boss. Due to the character’s constant need to run, the entire battle feels fast-paced and exciting, which kept me constantly searching for the missile patterns and hoping I could create a clever jumping plan to hit the right projectile. It does feel slightly more frantic than most encounters in the 2D games, but it’s completely welcome because of how it utilizes Sonic’s speed, while also not abandoning the platforming aspect. This was just one small taste as well, meaning Sonic Mania in full could deliver an entire experience full of new ideas and approaches to the classic system.
Still, one of the most exciting aspects of Sonic Mania‘s existence is that it represents classic formulas can still work in the modern gaming world. Sonic jumped to 3D to feel more akin to other platforming franchises utilizing the best of the best concerning graphical capabilities, but the original 2D side-scrolling that started it all just can’t be beat. Hopefully, it will introduce a new generation to what made Sonic a standout, but with the currently known new features and attention to detail from the development team, it will definitely give old-school fans an all-in-one fresh and comforting dose of nostalgia as well.
Sonic Mania will release on Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and PC on August 15.