The year is 1997.
It has been twenty years since the original Star Wars graced the big screen for the first time. To celebrate its twentieth anniversary, George Lucas has decided to re-release the entire Star Wars trilogy in theaters. No, not just a re-release. A reimagining. Equipped with the technology (and the cash) unheard of twenty years ago, George Lucas is filling the original trilogy with brand new sequences, spruced up special effects, and more dewbacks than you can shake a gaffi stick at. To accomplish his dream, Mr. Lucas has enlisted the help of indie filmmaker Kevin Smith to add new dialogue and scenes while retaining the look and feel of the original movies. Knowing that the best Lucas film is a restrained Lucas film, George sits comfortably in his executive producer chair while he lets his biggest fan take the helm.
Take this dream scenario, replace Star Wars with Sonic The Hedgehog and you get Sonic Mania. Equal parts remaster and reimagining, Sonic Mania is a Sonic fan’s fever dream made real. Old levels with new mechanics and a fresh coat of paint. Brand new levels and bosses made by true Sonic fans. Add one cup of nostalgia, a pinch of old-school frustration, and the end result is a delicious Sonic souffle that, for better or worse, plays just as you remember it.
Old Levels, New Stuff
On paper, the idea of taking old Sonic levels and grafting on new gameplay mechanics sounds like game design via Dr. Frankenstein. However, developers Christian Whitehead, Headcannon and PagodaWest Games have done exactly that. A wordless plot hurls our trio of heroes Sonic, Tails and – if “swole” were an anthropomorphic echidna – Knuckles down avenues both new and old. The whole introduction practically screams REMIX from the get-go, using the Chaos Emeralds as a convenient excuse to hop around fan-favorite locales with the occasional new level detour.
To the developer’s credit, Sonic Mania feels less like Frankenstein’s monster and more like a new spin on an old track. Take Chemical Plant Zone, for example. While on the surface it looks exactly like its original counterpart, the second Act introduces the ability to alter the properties of different liquids. Some will change and allow Sonic to cling to walls. Other liquids become giant blobs of bouncy, gelatinous goo. In Stardust Speedway – another returning favorite – its once-decorative vines literally transform into an extraterrestrial platforming challenge.
None of these additions feel extraneous or gimmicky. A few times I had to actually Google the original level’s design just to make sure I was remembering things correctly. Every addition made in Sonic Mania feels like a natural extension of the franchise’s roots. This includes Sonic Mania’s brand new stages and bosses.
New Levels, Old Stuff
Studiopolis Zone is probably the best Sonic level I have ever played.
It is not the most challenging (not by a long shot; that comes later) but it is a pinnacle example of why so many people love classic Sonic. Whether it’s the way Sonic bursts out of a giant popcorn machine or how the springboards look and sound like a Hollywood clap board, the attention to detail is so earnest I thought for a moment it was an original Sonic level.
Another standout is Press Garden Zone, which begins in an overgrown, abandoned subway station and ends in a cherry blossom garden covered in snow. Beautiful is not a word I thought I would ever use to describe something related to Sonic The Hedgehog, but here we are.
The developers show a surprising amount of restraint throughout Sonic Mania. Even the game’s pixelated style shows a strict adherence to what could only have been possible on mid-to-late nineties hardware. If there is one indulgence, however, it would be in the game’s many humorous boss battles.
The Boss Battles Are Eggscellent
Not like a Sonic game would ever need a spoiler tag, but consider yourself warned: the boss fights are the highlight of Sonic Mania. As this is a game made by fans, for fans, it would stand to reason that the boss fights would serve as the ultimate shout-out to those who have kept the series kicking for over twenty years.
Dr. Robotnik takes a backseat this time around, letting his newly-minted Hard-Boiled Heavies do most of the heavy lifting (as their namesake would imply). Some are subtle, like the battle with a sword-wielding robo-samurai in the snow. Others are silly, like fighting a magician on stage in a bar saloon. The best ones, however, are the ones made just for the fans. In one instance, Dr. Robotnik appears controlling a deadly gacha machine, with each hit dispensing a classic tiny Robotnik to battle. I won’t spoil the best boss encounter (it’s sadly not the final battle) but I will say the tonal shift in gameplay had me laughing out loud.
Outside of these indulgences, the developers strictly adhere to the old-school principles that guided Sonic throughout the nineties. While this adherence may be a godsend to fans of classic Sonic The Hedgehog, the lack of modern gaming amenities means that Sonic Mania can be downright controller-hurling at times.
Yes, There Is a Water Level
Sonic Mania is old-school to a fault. Lose your lives and it’s back to the beginning of the Zone. Many of the game’s enemy layouts are seemingly designed for maximum frustration. Enemies seem to only launch their projectiles when you’re just about to land on the platform next to them. Just about every boss battle ended with my clinging to a single ring. Sure, the sense of accomplishment I felt after I watched the credits roll was like nothing I had experienced in the last ten years of gaming, but I still could not shake the feeling like the game had it out for me.
Like the Kevin Smith version of A New Hope I imagine almost daily, Sonic Mania is a game made by fans, for fans. And that’s not a bad thing. Newcomers may be turned off by the intermittent difficulty spikes, but others may finally understand why many childhoods were spent looking for a kid who had a Sega Genesis.
Matthew Utley is a contributing editor at GameRevolution. You can follow him on Twitter @mutleycomedy.
A PS4 copy of Sonic Mania was provided by the publisher. Sonic Mania is also available for the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PC.