A brand new 2D platformer in the style of the Sega Genesis games, Sonic Mania is both an excellent game and a reminder of why so many people fell in love with that blue hedgehog in the first place.
Sonic returns in a time-traveling adventure
Sonic Mania comes from three indie developers: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games. Christian Whitehead developed the acclaimed 2012 Sonic CD remake, and the latter two groups have contributed to popular Sonic fan games. A major criticism of Sonic 4: Episode I was that the developer didn't understand the physics that made classic Sonic games so good. Sega wisely chose people who know the good Sonics inside and out for this project.
Mania begins in exactly the style of Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles (henceforth shortened to Sonic 3 & Knuckles), with a wordless in-game cinematic. Sonic and his friend Tails the fox are flying their biplane towards a strange energy reading.
Unfortunately, Eggman (a.k.a. Dr. Robotnik) and his new team of Egg-Robos, the Hard-Boiled Heavies, have reached it first. This strange gem possesses powers beyond those of the Chaos Emeralds, warping time and space. Eggman and his team are transported back to Green Hill Zone, with Sonic and Tails hot on their heels.
Thus begins a new adventure with occasionally surprising twists and turns, the story told entirely in classic 16-bit style. Well, other than the beautiful animated intro movie! That comes courtesy of three non-Japanese artists, but you'd never know it. The movie perfectly emulates the style of Sonic CD's animated bookends (other than the new music not being as catchy), and it is truly a case of Sega going above and beyond the call of duty to make Sonic cool again.
What's old is new again
Sonic Mania's opening level is Green Hill Zone, the beloved first level of the original Sonic the Hedgehog. The graphics are widescreen and the music is slightly remixed, but otherwise it is the Green Hill Zone we all know and love. Or is it? Every classic level that appears in Sonic Mania is actually redesigned with all-new paths and items, greatly increasing its scope.
While the first act of classic zones draws upon the original level design, the second act is always brand new. And that's to say nothing of the totally new zones like Studiopolis, a movie and TV-themed level with huge screens, film projectors, and even popcorn machines that toss Sonic around. This balance of both revamped and original levels will thrill anyone with the slightest memories of 2D Sonics.
Each act ends with either an all-new boss or a returning one that behaves completely differently. Some of these encounters are quite spectacular – keep an eye out for references to Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine and Star Wars! You might even notice some 3D effects in the backgrounds of later fights, but they're done in the style of the Sega 32X and Saturn – perfectly in line with what you'd expect from a proper Sonic game of that era.
New moves for Sonic and Tails
Mania's gameplay mostly feels close to the 16-bit Sonics, with only the D-Pad or stick and one action buttons used to move and perform Sonic's jump, spin attack, and spin dash. Still, Sonic and friends also have new powers that increase their mobility and offensive options. For starters, Sonic gets a drop dash that lets him instantly perform a spin attack when landing from a jump. A cool move in theory, but it's too easy to perform by mistake, sending Sonic rolling into danger.
Tails (who follows Sonic everywhere as in Sonic 2) can now fly while carrying Sonic short distances. This is useful for reaching high areas and secrets. But it's annoyingly hard to pull off. You have to jump, press up, and tap jump again when Tails is at the right height in the air. If he successfully grabs Sonic, tapping jump repeatedly will cause Tails to fly. But you're just as likely to grab nothing, perform a drop dash, or activate an elemental shield's ability instead. Ignoring Tails' flight is almost more fun than using it, thanks to the terrible clumsiness of initiating the maneuver.
Special stages are a highlight of many Sonic games, and they return in Sonic Mania. This one has two distinct varieties of bonus levels. The first, special stages are accessible by finding the gigantic ring hidden in every act. I've never cared for the hidden nature of the special stages, as it's easy to miss the right path in a Sonic game's gigantic and fast-moving levels. Still, you only need to complete seven special stages to get all of the Chaos Emeralds, and there are far more than seven acts in which to look for them.
Mania's special stages play a lot like those of Sonic CD, although Sonic himself and some elements are now polygonal instead of 2D sprites. The goal in these 3D levels is to chase and catch a single evasive UFO. This target moves much faster than Sonic initially, but collecting enough orbs will increase your speed in stages.
Catch the UFO and you get a Chaos Emerald; fail and you'll have to find a new giant ring in the next act. Even if you die and restart from a checkpoint, the failed ring will still be unusable – kind of a mean touch on the developers' part. See our special stages guide for tips.
While the special stages are fun, I can't say the same for the bonus stages. You access these by touching a star post checkpoint while carrying 25 or more rings, which creates a bonus portal. That's easy enough, but the bonus stages are anything but.
They play exactly like the bonus stages of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, complete with the same great music. Sonic must navigate around a 3D sphere, collecting rings and touching all of the blue orbs in the stage. Touching a red orb instantly kicks you out of the bonus level. That's way too easy to do, especially since the bonus stage moves faster the longer it lasts.
Sonic Mania offers a ton of these orb hunting bonus stages, but the majority are punishingly hard. One slip and you fail, unable to try that bonus stage again. The next time you reach a bonus level, it'll be a new, even harder one in the rotation. If you could retry these at will I wouldn't mind, but as-is they're a recipe for frustration. Thankfully, they're only tied to unlocking bonus content in the Extras menu, so you can skip them without missing out on much. See our bonus stages guide for tips.
Modes and multiplayer
In addition to the primary Mania Mode (which supports Sonic 2-style same-screen local co-op), Sonic Mania has a couple of extra modes that unlock after you beat a zone or two. The first, Time Attack, allows players to revisit any completed level and compete for the fastest leaderboard score.
The second unlockable mode, Competition, marks the triumphant return of Sonic 2's two-player split-screen competitive mode. The goal is to reach the end of the level before your opponent. Competition's split-screens still look squished as in Sonic 2, but the competitive options have increased dramatically. You can adjust the items, number of rounds, and most importantly, play any unlocked level from the main game.
The last two critically acclaimed Sonic games, Sonic Generations and Sonic CD, came out in 2011 and 2012. Those were also the last new Xbox Sonics, as the series went to Nintendo exclusive and markedly dropped in quality for a while. Sonic Mania brings the blue blur back to other platforms at last, and it's really good!
Mania looks and feels just like a long-lost sequel to Sonic 3 & Knuckles, with lots of huge and varied levels to explore, multiple playable characters with unique abilities, and spectacular boss battles. If not for the clumsiness of the new moves and the hair-pullingly hard bonus stages, it would be a perfect game. But Sonic Mania is still a long, wonderful return to form for the series that fans and newcomers alike should enjoy. Hopefully the upcoming Sonic Forces can maintain this level of quality, like Sonic deserves.
Sonic Mania costs $19.99 and will be available starting August 15 on Xbox One, Steam, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch. The Steam version arrives slightly behind the others on August 29.
- Sonic is back on Xbox after five years!
- Plenty of excellent and creative levels to race through or explore.
- Brilliant graphics mimic the original 16-bit games with tasteful enhancements.
- It's too hard to make Tails fly with Sonic.
- Sonic 3-style bonus stages are terribly tough.
- Many gameplay features would benefit from a tutorial or help feature.
Xbox One review copy provided by the publisher.