The biggest compliment we can give Sonic Mania is that it feels like it was developed by a team who understands and loves the series more than SEGA themselves. SEGA’s once proud mascot has lost his way over the years, and Sonic’s sizeable fan base has seemingly taken it upon themselves to get the blue blur back on track. It was the fans who stuck by Sonic through thick and thin, the fans who insisted Sonic could be brilliant once more, and the fans that suggested that SEGA take the ‘back to basics’ approach.
Sonic Mania is the work of one fan in particular – Christian Whitehead. The Australian programmer did such a good job at converting Sonic CD to mobiles, thanks to his proprietary Retro Engine, that SEGA not only made the port official but also released it on Xbox 360 and PS3. Two more Sonic mobile conversions later, Christian was tasked with making a brand new Sonic game, working alongside Headcannon and PagodaWest Games – two other indie studios.
Sonic Mania is a game both by and for the fans; a passion project that has clearly had countless hours lavished on it. This was the best possible move SEGA could have made, and it’s the greatest thing to happen to Sonic in a long time.
It’s a mixture of new and old, with classic reimagined levels alongside new. It starts off with a jaunt around good old Green Hill Zone, before propelling Sonic into Chemical Plant Zone a la Sonic 2. It’s here where the developers start to throw curve balls, with the constantly tight level design presenting dozens of unexpected moments. This trend continues to the very end – familiar stages with new set-pieces intended to catch even long-time Sonic fans off guard. The result is a game that has far more personality than 2D Sonic games prior, chock full of memorable moments.
While it’s arguable that the stage roster isn’t going to be everybody’s taste (we would have swapped Oil Ocean for Hill Top, Aquatic Ruins, or Ice Cap Zone) Mania still ticks all the right boxes, with lava, underwater, snow, airborne, and whirling mechanical stages all present. New stage Studiopolis fills the Casino Night slot, complete with obligatory gambling machines, while Sonic 3’s Hydrocity is the game’s water stage. Many of the later stages are colossal in size, right to the point where on a few occasions the 10-minute time limit started to become a concern.