Few stars of the 16-bit era are as frequently maligned as Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega's speedy 2D platformer mascot struggled to adjust to the advent of 3D gaming, and a series of mediocre games interspersed with empty promises to take the series back to its roots has eroded the franchise's reputation over the past couple of decades.
However, this week's launch of Sonic Mania looks to reverse that trend. Mania is a new 2D Sonic game that includes remixed versions of classic levels from the original Genesis/Mega Drive-era Sonic games along with a host of new boss battles and some original stages to boot. That may not sound terribly ambitious, but the result is drawing raves from across the gaming press.
In IGN's 8.7 out of 10 review, Heidi Kamps calls it "a stellar example of a retro revival done right." Kotaku's Heather Alexander characterized it as "a celebration, a digitized block party of blistering speeds and bright worlds" that clearly articulates the mascot's true appeal.
GameSpot's Matt Espineli described Sonic Mania's presentation as "intoxicating" in his 9 out of 10 review, saying the revamped visuals and music "work together in Sonic Mania to build up an aesthetic that's evocative of earlier games, but in a pleasing style that feels contemporary all on its own."
He also praised the game's level design, with numerous routes through levels at high speeds, with no particular path ever feeling wrong. The game also benefits from the widescreen aspect ratio and solid framerate allowed by modern technology, he said, giving players a better sense of what's coming and greater ability to avoid it than they had in the original Sonic games.
"The best Sonic game ever made"
"Sonic Mania methodically uses its sentimental appeal to great effect, but in the process, it heals the wounds inflicted by its most disappointing predecessors and surpasses the series' best with its smart and interpretive design," Espineli said. "An excellent 2D platformer, Sonic Mania goes beyond expectations, managing to be not only a proper evolution of the series' iconic formula, but the best Sonic game ever made."
USgamer gave Sonic Mania four out of five stars, with Caty McCarthy noting in her review how intelligently the game uses its history without relying on it.
"You remember Green Hill Zone. You remember Chemical Plant Zone. All these levels are familiar, not note by note necessarily, but the feeling of them. Even the levels that are entirely new to the franchise," McCarthy said. "Luckily, despite all the fuzzy-warm-feelings Sonic Mania is almost jamming down your throat, the game manages to be more than a basic nostalgia ploy even in the face of all the reiterated zones. Instead, Sonic Mania is a boisterous, confident celebration of all things Sonic: its one-off characters, random low-poly bonus and special stages, energetic music, silly bosses, and odd spin-off games. You'll find a little bit of everything in Sonic Mania."
Eurogamer's Edwin Evans-Thirlwell gave Sonic Mania the site's highest award, an "Essential" rating, saying, "It's representative of a project that doesn't merely restore the past with the care of a museum curator touching up a faded classic, but also twists and expands it, to create an experience that is equal parts nostalgia pang and giddy excitement."
Like his peers, Evans-Thirlwell delighted in the game's exhilarating speed, but noted it has a downside as well.
"For every second you'll spend plunging through the infrastructure you'll spend another jumping frantically to scoop up dropped rings, following a head-on collision with a malevolent drone," he said. "It's certainly an acquired taste, next to the stately unfolding of the average Mario game."
"If more of what Sonic is what you want, then this is very much that, but more, and bigger, and faster"
Of course, an "acquired taste" is one that not everyone shares. Polygon's Arthur Gies gave Sonic Mania a 7 out of 10--one of the lower scores from a major review site--saying it, "feels slavishly, almost fetishistically devoted to the old-school branch of Sonic gameplay and design."
He added, "When it's working, this speed is exhilarating, and remarkably, no other game has ever managed to capture the same lightning in a bottle that Sonic did. Sonic Mania, more than any Sega-led project of the last 20 years, feels exactly the way I remember the original trilogy."
That said, Gies remembers the original trilogy of Sonic games as significantly flawed, with sluggish movement as the characters work their way up to speed and an abundance of attacks from off-screen enemies and nigh-unavoidable obstacles.
"The sound of every ring you've collected exploding out of you when colliding with a hazard is a singularly enraging audio cue," Gies said, "and it's all the more infuriating because frequently, it just doesn't feel fair."
That said, Gies largely agreed with other reviewers who gave more positive assessments; the biggest difference seemed to be how they feel about the idea of playing more Sonic games cut from the same cloth as the originals.
"The mileage you get out of it will depend significantly on what you want it to be," Gies said. "As a synthesis and expression of a specific era of Sonic, Sonic Mania is devout toward its inspiration, for devout fans of Sega's beleaguered mascot. If more of what Sonic is what you want, then this is very much that, but more, and bigger, and faster. But for me, as someone with fond memories but key criticisms, Sonic Mania seems content to paint over some of the series' problems rather than fix them, making for a game that falls a little short of what might have been."