Genre: Platform Game
Original Release: August 15, 2017
Developers: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, PagodaWest Games, SEGA of America
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Played on: Nintendo Switch
Growing up in the 90s, I was on the tail end of the Nintendo/SEGA console war. I honestly don’t remember exactly when it fizzled out, but I remember that my family was very much in the Nintendo camp. My brother had a Super Nintendo that he would trade with a friend every so often for their SEGA Genesis (with the CD attachment) and vice-versa. I never really had a chance to try the Genesis myself until acquiring one of my own recently, so I never played a Sonic game until they released the Sonic Mega Collection on the Gamecube. And honestly? They were neat and I loved the sound quality, but they never really grabbed me the same way that Mario did…except for Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine for whatever reason.
Anyway, fast-forward to a couple of years ago at this point and I had just bought my own Switch. I decided to get a couple of games with it, including Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove (which I’ve written about previously) and Sonic Mania. I absolutely adore Shovel Knight, and I’d been hearing amazing things about Sonic Mania, so odds are I’d love it, right?
Well…no. Not really. And honestly, it pains me to say that.
Sonic Mania is both its own game as well as an homage to the classic Sonic games of the Genesis (perhaps more, I only ever went as far as Sonic 3 & Knuckles in the aforementioned Mega Collection) and so it borrows a lot from the original games. The Green Hill and Chemical Plant zones from Sonic 1 & 2 respectively make a return, each retaining their familiar aesthetics and music, but with both acts of the zones being much larger and having multiple paths to take, ultimately converging on a boss fight at the end. The first act of each zone naturally transitions into the second, and the familiar theme is remixed into a new tune that still does the original version justice.
All of this sounds really good so far, right? So what don’t I like about it? This is at its core a classic Sonic game, so what about it do I dislike?
And that’s the thing. I can’t really put my finger on why, but Sonic has never resonated with me nearly as much as Mario, so playing through Sonic Mania felt kind of like a chore after a little while. And it’s a pretty big game with its true ending hidden behind the classic “gather all of the chaos emeralds” wall. Mercifully, the devs let you choose which zone to play once you’ve cleared the game (possibly as soon as you’ve unlocked more than one zone, I don’t remember checking) and the chaos emeralds themselves aren’t tied to a specific bonus stage, so if you wanted a quick run to one of the giant rings, you could do like I do and run Green Hill Zone Act 1, grab the emerald, and then exit since it saves as soon as you collect one, then do it again until you have all seven, but that gets tedious real fast.
Fortunately, each of the 24 stages (if I counted correctly) has a bonus ring, so if you fail to catch the UFO in any one of them, you can try again once you find another ring hidden in one of the other stages. That’s not the only bonus game either. If you hit a checkpoint with a minimum of 25 rings on hand, a blue sparkling ring will appear above the checkpoint and Sonic will be able to collect the blue spheres from Sonic 3 in an attempt to attain a medal that unlocks bonus content in the extras menu: silver for collecting all of the spheres, and gold for collecting all of the rings and spheres.
Naturally, I got frustrated with this very easily since I’m a perfectionist (as much as I might deny it) and kept making dumb mistakes like reflexively turning left during these segments and either walking or backing straight into a red sphere as a result, immediately ending the attempt. And despite having two or three attempts at these levels each stage, I never did manage to get all of the medals, gold or silver.
Maybe that’s what I don’t like about classic Sonic games: they’ve got a lot of charm to them, but they’re also incredibly unforgiving if you make a mistake. Run into one enemy right before a checkpoint and not only have you lost most or all of your rings, but you’ve also lost a chance to grab another bonus medal. And in the chaos emerald stages, if you run out of rings or fall out of the course, you’re immediately booted out. It’s not a one-and-done scenario where you need to play the game perfectly the first time to get the true ending, but for me it tends to hurt replayability if one small mistake like running into an enemy just offscreen (in a game where the main character is associated with going fast) can rob you of so much all at once. I ended up taking most of the levels fairly slowly because of that and ended up timing out on boss of the second to last stage. Did you know that Sonic Mania has a hard ten-minute time limit on stages? Because I didn’t until then. It does start you at the most recent checkpoint, and your clock does get set back to 0, but I felt like I had just gotten slapped in the face when I died inexplicably before the “time up” text appeared.
I know I’ve done a lot of complaining in this post, and I’m sure it’s a bit of a turn-off for people who’ve been looking to try it out, but the game’s definitely got a lot of love and effort put into it and it does shine through. I’d argue that my dislike for the game comes from a mix of my lack of nostalgia for classic Sonic and my own perfectionist tendencies. People who either grew up with Sonic or had a lot more exposure to it probably had a much better experience than me, but I can’t speak for them.
I can say one thing I absolutely love though: one of the Act 2 bosses is a 1-round match of Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, and guess what you unlock with those bonus medals?
That’s right, you get a replayable version of that fight with five different difficulties and a best-of-three setup. I cleared all of them somehow and I absolutely loved it. I just wish there were more to it, but with Sonic Mania being such a large game already, I understand why they left it there. It was a neat little diversion and made up for some of the frustrations I experienced.
So all in all, I like some of the things about Sonic Mania, but not enough to justify a recommendation here. The game itself is fine, but classic Sonic isn’t really my cup of tea and unfortunately my experience with it might have been tarnished as a result. If you’re curious, go check out some gameplay videos by the youtuber of your choice or check out the trailer on your preferred platform. I’m gonna go look for a copy of Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and get my Puyo Puyo fix.