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Sonic Mania is a celebration, a digitized block party of blistering speeds and bright worlds. Sega's decision to hand their famous mascot over to fan creators and artists has paid massive dividends, creating a game that is not just a welcome return to form but a raucous, delightful experience.
Sonic the Hedgehog has struggled to find a clear identity in the era of modern games. As consoles entered the third dimension, games like 1998's Sonic Adventure tried to balance high speeds with open world exploration with mixed success. Eager to reinvigorate the franchise, new titles offered a slew of gimmicks: 2008's Sonic Unleashed peppered the experience with clumsy melee brawls while the infamous Sonic the Hedgehog '06 doubled down on an overly complicated narrative at the expense of its gameplay. As Sonic ran further and further into the next generation, the series slowed down. Now, Sonic Mania offers some of the best level design in the series' history, along with new ways to explore the world and exciting boss fights.
The story is minimal. The dastardly Doctor Robotnik is once again in search of the powerful Chaos Emeralds in order to power a new doomsday device. Sonic and his friends Knuckles and Tails seek to stymie this villainous plot as the Emeralds' energy displaces them in time, sending them through reshuffled versions of levels from previous games as well as new locations. Befitting of the game's pedigree, Sonic Mania often feels like a devious ROM hack, using elements from older games to create its worlds.
Much of Sonic Mania's success is owed to the many fans turned designers attached the project. In seeking to produce the best retro remix possible, Sega recruited well-known modders and hackers. Christian Whitehead, known for porting Sonic games like Sonic CD to new platforms and Simon Thomley, a modder who worked on the topsy-turvy ROM hack Sonic Megamix, worked on the project, and their enthusiasm is clear. Lead designer Jared Kasl's work is arguably the most noteworthy. There is extreme care built into every loop, spring pad, and corkscrew.
The disparate pieces all mesh into remarkable experiences. A remake of Sonic 3 and Knuckles' Lava Reef zone gleefully takes the original level and stitches it together with enemies from both Sonic 2's Hilltop Zone and Mystic Cave Zone while adding the dangerous traps of Sonic the Hedgehog's Marble Zone. Long-time fans will undoubtedly be pleased with these mixes, while newcomers will enjoy some of the best elements from the series' highest moments. All of this is further boosted by a bouncy soundtrack that takes famous tunes and adds bolder basslines and powerful percussive embellishments.
Sonic the Hedgehog has always walked a fine line between dazzling speed and tricky platforming. It's hard to remember the last time Sonic felt so fast, but this momentum occasionally comes at the expense of player control. The game automatically guides Sonic through winding tunnels and roller coaster turns. The sacrifice in control is arguably necessary; in the times when players are in full control, the levels' twisting paths shift and change so much that players might find themselves accidentally skidding to a stop as they round a turn pushing the wrong direction from where Sonic is suddenly facing. These problems have been endemic to Sonic's design from the series' inception, and while Mania often outruns them, they still occasionally pop up to interrupt the fun.
Levels have navigational flourishes that bring distinct character to each stage. A remix of Sonic 3's Hydrocity Zone has players navigating underwater segments while encased in an ever-rising bubble, adding interesting vertical options. A late game stage allows players to leap from the foreground to the background, effectively doubling the possible pathways they can use to travel through the level. Some of these gimmicks can be annoying: one endgame level features enemy placements that slam progress to an uncharacteristic halt. Another is dotted with portals that loop players to earlier locations should they fail to progress down specific pathways. These failed experiments are thankfully in the minority.
Far more successful are the boss fights, which create new complications throughout the game. Mania drops Sonic 2's final boss at the end of the first level. There is also a remixed version of Sonic CD's chase sequence against Metal Sonic, a battle against a horde of miniaturized versions of Robotnik's previous inventions, and an extended boss fight in which players must defeat the Doctor in a match of Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine. These fights are exciting and consistently enjoyable, often surpassing the game's levels in sheer mischief.
Sonic Mania is a short game, only lasting around three to four hours. To make up for the short playtime, the game includes a time attack and multiplayer versus mode. Additionally, players can seek seven Chaos Emeralds during their playthrough by completing special 3-D racing stages if they're looking for some extra challenge. The ability to play as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles also changes the experience, with the later campaign offering distinct level variations built around Knuckles' ability to glide and climb. All of these features are welcome but sometimes feel perfunctory.
Sonic's early days stressed his supposedly edgy attitude and speed, traits meant to differentiate him from the slower, more deliberate Mario. But it was never really about attitude or speed. Sonic Mania clearly articulates Sonic's true appeal: Sonic is pure joy, a spinning ball of fun blazing a trail towards the next adventure.