Sonic the Hedgehog is a special character. He changed the gaming landscape forever back in the early 90s, spearheading SEGA’s movement to make gaming mainstream for more than just children. Sonic was cool like no character before, bashing robots and dashing through danger with a determined expression. He was rebellious and fun, challenging players to rethink the way they viewed gaming and the world.
Once 3D gaming became the standard, the iconic hedgehog lost his way. Instead of being cool, Sonic merely tried to be. Just as his iconic persona vanished, so too did the quality of his games. After the disastrous Sonic ’06, it seemed safe to assume that the hedgehog many grew up adoring would never return.
11 years after hitting rock bottom, however, he finally has. Sonic Mania is the return to form that Sonic fans have dreamed of for decades, springing energy into a franchise on life-support. It captures the personality fans love, offers a compelling platforming experience, and treats its source material with reverence while building on those old concepts.
Many fans of Sonic’s early 2D adventures lost interest in the character when he made the shift to 3D not just because of gameplay quality, but because of the character’s new personality. While the Sonic of the 90s exuded quiet confidence, 3D Sonic acted like a caricature. Lines like “Aww yeah! This is happenin’!” and “Hey look! It’s a giant talking egg!” took away from the character’s aura, making him feel inauthentic and cheesy.
While more recent 3D entries took small steps towards restoring Sonic’s former personality, Sonic Mania resolves this decades long identity crisis within its first 10 seconds. Sonic springs into the picture with a huge smile, spinning around and wagging his finger confidently. A gorgeous intro animation follows, and, although it doesn’t have the same edge that Sonic CD’s did, it puts Sonic back in his element: running fast and toying with badniks.
Sonic retains that charm throughout the game as well. There are a few occasions where the development team lets the hedgehog “talk” to the player through gestures and facial expressions. These moments feel just like retelling an old story with long lost friends, inciting powerful emotions for fans who’ve waited for years to be reunited with the Sonic they once knew. In Sonic Mania, Sonic doesn’t try to be cool. He just is.
While Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles steal the show, Dr. Robotnik and his robot army have charm and character as well. Robotnik and the colorful Hard-Boiled Heavies feel threatening throughout, a welcome respite from the more comedic foes from recent 3D games.
Given that Sonic Mania was developed by passionate classic Sonic fans, it comes as no surprise that the team nailed the world’s personality. More impressive, however, is their ability to capture the exact gameplay mechanics from those beloved classics.
More than any 2D entry before it, Sonic Mania emphasizes speed. Every level is packed with speed boosters, massive slopes, and tunnels that force Sonic to break the sound barrier. The ensuing visual spectacles, with Sonic sprinting through a series of obstacles so quickly it’s impossible to comprehend what’s going on in the periphery, get the player’s adrenaline pumping just as they used to.
3D Sonic games, especially those that utilize the boost mechanic, may offer similarly speedy moments, but they falter when it comes to traditional platforming. Boost to win gameplay may look flashy, but Mania restores the solid platforming that never gets overlooked by Genesis fans. The game rarely slows down, but in-between those high speed spectacles Sonic must cautiously navigate tight obstacles. Clearing those hurdles usually leads to more downhill fun, making speed a reward rather than a default mechanic. As such, every stage feels satisfying to master and even more enjoyable to speed-run.
High-pressure Special Stages have been absent from Sonic games for a long time, but both Sonic 2’s halfpipe and Sonic 3 & Knuckles’ Blue Sphere Chaos Emerald challenges still remain fan favorites. On this too, Sonic Mania delivers by combining elements from each classic Sonic special stage (with shades of Sonic Heroes as well!) and the result is one of the funnest special stages yet. Gamers have always argued over which of Sonic’s 2D outings truly is best (it’s Sonic CD), and Mania manages to cater to fans of each by pulling ideas from every game and effortlessly blending them together.
The actual zones are no different, building upon ideas born on the Genesis in a way that feels entirely new and fresh. Remade zones feature a few areas that are near copies of their source material in order to reintroduce old concepts before taking those ideas and reapplying them in ways that make for a dramatically different gameplay experience. Ideas from zones that don’t appear in Mania are seamlessly worked into throwback stages as well. Genesis fans will recognize these nods up right away, making it impossible not to smile.
Still, the four new zones shine as some of the best in the game. They offer an entirely new experience to those who’ve endlessly replayed 1994’s Sonic 3 & Knuckles to scratch their Sonic itch, and show that Sonic doesn’t need to survive on nostalgia alone. The level design is master class, something even ardent Sonic haters can appreciate.
Ultimately, Sonic fans are fans of platforming games, and seeing both old and new concepts mixed together makes the game feel like a worthy sequel. It even takes ideas from other successful platformers from both today and yesteryear. Stardust Speedway and another zone that shall go unspoiled feature mechanics native to the Donkey Kong Country games and tailors them to fit Sonic like a glove.
Mania even shines where Sonic games traditionally struggle: boss battle. The Hard-Boiled Heavies and Dr. Robotnik try to take down Sonic in creative new ways that are challenging but fair. Some battles go completely off the beaten path, and the game is better for it.
Most importantly, however, Sonic Mania expresses a high level of respect for the franchise that has been absent for so long. The game is packed with Easter eggs from the past, referencing old ad campaigns, spin-off games, and characters long forgotten purely to bring a smile to the player’s face. The development team’s motto “By the Mania, For the Mania” permeates from every pixel. The Sonic Mania team clearly loves the series, creating a genuine connection with players who share that same passion.
Sonic Mania is the perfect love letter to Sonic fans who have suffered so many disappointments over the past 20 years. Its new ideas propel the series forward while keeping it true to its roots, seamlessly capturing the magic of the 90s games. Still, Sonic Mania is so much more than just a love letter. Lost in the sea of fan’s nostalgic cheers is one critical fact: Sonic Mania is one of the best platforming games ever made.
At the end of the day, that’s what fans have been waiting for.
This post was originally written by Tyler Kelbaugh.