In certain circles of chatty online gamers, Sonic the Hedgehog is often a hot topic. SEGA and Sonic Team has taken its mascot on some wild rides over the past 20+ years, stepping into 3D 'modern' Sonic, attempting a return to 2D with Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and dividing opinion, and blurring the lines (with some success) in Sonic Generations. Nintendo gamers - home console version of Generations aside - have been able to play most of the Blue Blur's adventures, with a handful of exclusives to boot. They've ranged from very good to downright bad, but some fans have consistently argued that Sonic was at his best on the Mega Drive / Genesis and SEGA CD, through the 'classic' games that made his name.
Those games stand up today and have occasionally served as a reminder of the glory SEGA could once achieve with the series. It's somewhat ironic, then, that it wasn't SEGA or Sonic Team that rediscovered what makes a truly great game in the franchise, but devoted super-fans that also happen to be very talented developers. SEGA, to its immense credit, saw the best of fan projects online - with Christian Whitehead front and centre - and realised there was a gift to accept. Bring a group of Indie studios together, give them resources, handle the PR and bask in the goodwill. Be in no doubt, Sonic Mania is the best game in the IP for a long time, and sits proudly alongside the classics from the early '90s era. This is what many of us Sonic geeks have been dreaming of for over 20 years.
At its core Sonic Mania is partly a love-letter to the 'original' games, a remix but also a new experience. For a decent chunk of the game (particularly 'Act 1' in familiar zones) you're playing levels from the originals that have nevertheless been revamped with additional routes and fun new bosses and twists. These go right for the player's sense of nostalgia, but due to the excellence of the source material also serve as delicious 16-bit platforming to those that haven't played the originals. Mania isn't simply a greatest hits collection, nor should its appeal be limited to 30-something gamers that lack the speedy reflexes of the past.
The second Acts of each stage are buzzing with creativity, with the developers having fun spinning off and riffing upon the environments in smart ways. Over the dozen stages some are also entirely new, and even those that didn't get to play all the originals back in the day - this scribe never had Sonic CD, for example - will likely be able to tell which areas are brand new. Though remixed levels have a major visual enhancement over the source material, for example, all-new stages go further and truly utilise the wonders of modern hardware when applied to pixel art. Some levels do fantastic things with shadows, exploding glass and clever background effects.
All of that only matters because of one key area that this game absolutely nails down - gameplay. Since those 16-bit days SEGA has had mixed fortunes when it comes to how Sonic games feel and play, and Mania is a reminder of the blissful simplicity and polish that made those originals true toe-to-toe competitors with Super Mario. Controls are tight and responsive, the weighting of jumps and tempo is on the money, and it's immediately satisfying to play. A humorous 'Controls' section also pokes fun a little - you just run and jump, is the message - but worth note is that pressing X when in 'Options' brings up an easy-to-use and informative web-based manual, and the subtle complexities of the original Sonic formula come through.
You can spin dash immediately from a jump, or when you play with Sonic and Tails you can have your cute little fox buddy pick you up for a bit of flying help. When starting a save (there are 8 slots per profile) you can have the duo (with you controlling Sonic), or choose to have Sonic, Tails or Knuckles on their own. Tails can fly and swim at will but gets tired, while Knuckles has a neat glide and can climb walls. It's a pleasure tackling the campaign with each and utilising their strengths, but a feature we didn't even clock initially is that this game has the co-op we saw in the past. Take a Joy-Con each and one player can control Sonic and the other Tails, a great way to share the experience.
However you play, there's a treat in store. Clever stages, lovely visuals and tight controls combine for one of the most pleasurable gaming experiences of recent times, a reminder of why Sonic once battled for the ultimate supremacy among gaming mascots and how he made SEGA's name in the mainstream market. It's pure pixelated joy - speed and occasional chaos makes way for more delicate platforming and special stages, before swerving back to high speed hijinks.
Checkpoint special stages (you need 25 rings to activate them) come from Sonic 3, but there are lots of them as the end rewards are medals; these medals unlock goodies, but the stages to get them become particularly fiendish as you progress. Each run also has the more important challenge of collecting seven Chaos Emeralds - you can find a giant ring in each stage and play a special stage inspired by Sonic CD in which you 'chase' a UFO on a 3D track. These are tricky to find, and will have many going back for additional playthroughs.
Over the relatively lengthy campaign (for an old-school Sonic game) it all flows together into a rush of extravagant dashes, clever diversions - stages have plenty of alternate routes to find - and tricky areas. Like the great Sonic games on which it's based, Mania is about 80% fantastic, 15% very good and 5% angry "screw you Sonic" moments, at least for this reviewer. Such is the devotion of the developers to the classic Sonic formula that it keeps elements that were actually slightly annoying the first time around. A couple of stages fall off the 'challenging' category to 'a bit cheap', and we weren't particularly big fans of two auto-scrolling encounters that feel slightly messy to play. Even the worst parts are still rather good, but these brief segments feel like bad habits returned, briefly interrupting the blissful dash through the adventure.
The overall effect, though, is lovely, and there's more to enjoy beyond playing the core campaign multiple times. Time Attack is exactly as it sounds, dashing through stages you've unlocked to set 'fast' times and then look with bafflement at the top of the global leaderboards. Competition is also a fun return to split-screen local battles through stages. You can set the number of rounds, item types and stages, and the winner isn't just the fastest to the end (though you have limited time to finish after your rival). Coins and items collected also contribute to your score, and we had fun in sibling battles in both desktop mode with a Joy-Con each and on the TV with full controllers. These modes are welcome extras and perform well.
In terms of looks and performance on Nintendo Switch, the porting work of Tantalus - previous credits include The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD on Wii U - is on point. It looks great and runs at a solid 60fps in 1080p on TV or 720p on the portable, with the only exception in terms of a solid framerate being the first 3D Special Stage, oddly. You can also add a couple of CRT-style screen filters, too, which are nice to have.
It's excellent however you play, though the portability of the Switch is definitely a strength, with the visuals being right at home on the console's screen. The nature of Sonic means that it doesn't even matter that the left Joy-Con has no real D-Pad, though we did also like using the Pro Controller for docked play. Of note we had two cases where our HOME button was slow to respond, an issue that's done the rounds, but it was no major inconvenience. Overall, it's a great-looking game that runs beautifully.
A special nod must also go to the soundtrack, which is top-notch work by Tee Lopes. Some of the new tracks and remixes are downright funky, and play an important role in elevating the stylish and extravagant stages as you run and spin jump through them. It's one of the best soundtracks of recent times.
Sonic Mania is a true return to form for the mascot, in his 2D 'Classic' guise at least. It celebrates the glory days of the original games while also enhancing their qualities and taking on new ideas. From new areas, imaginative second acts and some delightful boss encounters, the development team has poured a lot of passion and talent into the project. The occasional bug and a couple of brief and cheap areas deprive it of Sonic-style perfection, but it's pretty darn close.
Is it the best Sonic game ever? It's in the conversation, though the classics it's honouring may stake a claim for slightly greater 'flow' in the campaigns. Frankly, it's better just to call it a dead heat and skip the argument - Sonic Mania belongs in the company of the games to which it pays tribute - the Blue Blur is back.