When I was younger, video game turf wars typically broke down into two sides: Nintendo vs Sega. While I had loved the NES—like pretty much everybody else in the world—when technology moved into the 16-bit era, I was Sega all the way. For me, it was Streets of Rage over Final Fight, Landstalker over The Legend of Zelda, and most definitely Sonic over Mario.
Unfortunately, over time, Sega’s beloved hedgehog has really lost his way. In the Sega Saturn era, he was a mascot desperately trying to find his place in the world (not to mention him gameplay identity), and when things went fully 3D on the Dreamcast, some of that charm and wonderment I had fell in love with in the first place was stripped away. There’s been a number of franchises that just weren’t the same after making the jump from 2D for me, and Sonic has been right up there near the very top of the list.
When Sonic Mania was first announced, it seemed too good to be true. Sega had tried a few attempts at “classic Sonic” over the years with Sonic 4 and Sonic Generations, but neither came close to recapturing Sonic’s glory days. Sonic Mania, however, is as if the series had continued on as it was in its original 16-bit run—just with the boost to its graphics, sound, and gameplay that the Saturn would have provided.
One of the main brains behind Sonic Mania is Christian Whitehead, a long-time Sonic fan whose custom engine helped bring some of those early Sonic games back better than they even had been in the first place. The love and care Whitehead and the other members of the team have for Sonic was evident in every stage of the game that I played, and that’s part of what makes Sonic Mania so special. This is a love letter to what many fans consider to be the “true” Sonic, and all throughout there’s evidence that this is as far away from a cheap nostalgia cash-in as you could get.
Nowhere is that more noticeable than in the stages themselves. No matter if you’re checking out the updates that have been done to classic levels or racing through the all-new worlds crafted specifically for Sonic Mania, there’s just so much to see and do everywhere you go. Many of us have run Green Hill Zone hundreds of times at this point, for example, but now its stages are deeper, taller, and more complex than you’ve ever seen. What I especially loved in my all-too-brief time with the game is that every stage seemed to have something unique or special to it, making me want to explore to see what other little elements of personality had been added. One knock I’ll make against classic Sonic games is that it was often easy to just blast through levels without feeling the need to stop and look around—but that’s definitely not the case here. As much fun as it was to experience the various areas and special gimmicks that I discovered, I have to imagine they were equally as fun for the development team to come up with.
It’s not surprising that a game which takes me back to my favorite era of Sonic would be appealing to me, but it is surprising just how fantastic this undertaking is turning out to be. Sonic Mania is shaping up to be the best new Sonic games we’ve gotten in years and years, and it’s reminded me of why I became a fan of the blue hedgehog all those years ago all over again.