Since Sonic Mania has three playable characters, we decided to do a collaborative review with three writers, each coming from a different direction. I, Kyle Movius, am an old-school 2D Sonic fan. Elisha Deogracias is a fan of the newer 3D Sonic games. Joe DeClara had never played through a Sonic game before Sonic Mania. Enjoy our discussion below.
Elisha: Okay, first of all, just wanted to say they nailed the Sonic Mania opening PERFECTLY. It invokes a feeling of nostalgia mixed with some pretty neat animation (from the guy that made the short-lived Sonic: Mega Drive Archie series) and music.
Anyways, it’s a weird thing to talk about nostalgia with the Sonic games, since I’m a bigger fan of the 3D era rather than the Genesis/CD one. (To have an unpopular opinion, I actually really enjoyed Sonic Boom: Fire and Ice.) However, Sonic Mania revitalizes that nostalgic itch quite perfectly, and some of these game’s zones were new to me since I haven’t played through the entirety of the 2D era.
Kyle: Well, even if you had played through the entirety of the 2D era, some of these zones would still be new to you. Having been obsessed with Sonic during the 2D era, I can tell you that they’re not all remixed old zones; some of them are 100% new. Studiopolis has never been seen before.
Press Garden, Mirage Saloon, and Titanic Monarch Zone are totally new as well. But the thing I love about Sonic Mania is that even the old zones are about 50% “Oh yeah, I remember this” and 50% “What the hell!? This is definitely new. Cool!” So the nostalgia value is there, but it’s also a strong, new game on its own merits. And the bosses are so cool! Almost all of those are brand-new with this game.
Joe: I’ll second Kyle’s sentiment on the bosses…well, most of the bosses. I’m still working through the early stages of the game, and the second Flying Battery Zone boss is still giving me too much trouble to allow for any endearing feelings from me. As a newcomer to the series (having grown up on the Super Mario series), I’m finding myself totally at odds with the game’s style of challenge. I’ve had to relearn my entire approach to 2D platformers just to get through each level. There’s so much trial and error involved with each new area, I’ve come close to bailing on the game multiple times; but I keep coming back, and I’m not sure if it’s for that challenge or just so I can get my fill on these sweet tunes! Man, is the music good!
Elisha: Hyper Potions (the duo that did all of the trailer music and opening), is amazing, and the in-game soundtrack is pretty great too! My friend also just told me that there may be a new generation of gamers with which Sonic Mania is their first 2D Sonic game. It’s so weird to think about how much time has passed since the last 2D Sonic! (To be fair, these are the same kids that tell me they don’t know what a Game Boy is, so eh.) As for the trial and error portion, I feel like that’s what makes games like Mega Man, and more recently Slime-San, so fun; they challenge you to memorize the layout, and eventually you’ll beat that learning curve.
Kyle: I’ll admit, Joe, I too have a certain boss that I hate: Metal Sonic from Sonic CD, the one 2D Sonic game that I never played as a kid. I have it on Steam now, and I hate Metal Sonic in his original game, too. You’re not the only one with unpopular opinions, Elisha. To me, the boss fight against Metal Sonic is the absolute worst thing in this entire game. It was a neat idea poorly implemented.
Sonic does use a different style of platforming from Mario, with several different paths that can be taken through each level. While it may be tempting to just keep running forward and maintain your momentum, you’re often better off if you press down while running to curl into a spiky ball, allowing you to crash straight through most enemies that may be in your path. This will gradually reduce your momentum and may eventually require you to spin-dash to get yourself started again, but you’ll be much safer. Memorizing when certain hazards come up, as Elisha mentioned, is also helpful, and it’s something that’ll happen naturally if you play a zone enough times.
Joe: Yeah, coming to that realization required many controller tosses, but it does come. At first, it seems like the most obvious design flaw—interrupting the player’s flow with unforeseeable enemies and spikes in the grass just comes off as rude upon first playing. But that’s part of the language; memorize the level, explore its many branching paths, and stick to the one that works best for you.
And holy cow—these levels are huge! One thing I’m definitely enjoying is the depth of each zone and the challenge in unpacking it. Accessing each branching path seems to require a certain skill or ability; executing a jump with the right amount of momentum, getting through a long line of enemies without losing your Thunder Shield, etc. I’ve mostly blundered my way through this game so far, but the one or two times I nailed a specific run unscathed—man, those feel good!
Elisha: Yeah, it certainly feels like these levels are some of the biggest I’ve seen in a 2D Sonic. Not sure if either of you played Freedom Planet, but that game had some big levels, which of course Sonic Mania has exceeded in size. I do agree that there are some parts in the design that could be improved, but for the most part, I died because I sucked, not because it was the game’s problem (unlike a lot of the recent Sonic games, where yeah, you’re going to die for no reason). A couple of things that I was annoyed with was the blue sphere special stages (never completed one in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, haven’t completed one in this one yet either), and the save system (which, for me, is more of an annoyance than a flaw). It’s only a 10-minute drawback when I lose all my lives, but it does sting a little.
Kyle: I actually haven’t played as Sonic yet. I started off with Knuckles, and now I’m playing with Tails. Their abilities to climb walls and fly for a short distance, respectively, allow for much easier exploration of levels. And if you have a second player for co-op with Sonic & Tails, you can have Tails carry Sonic while flying, enabling him to reach new heights more easily as well. I have actually played Freedom Planet and enjoyed it (haven’t finished it, though), and I agree. Not that the levels in Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 & Knuckles were small, of course, but these things are very large. In fact, I’m kind of surprised that they’ve stuck with the 10-minute time limit for each act—the same amount of time allowed for the older levels. The biggest, most tedious acts in old 2D Sonic (like friggin’ Carnival Night Zone Act 2) would take me 5–8 minutes to complete, but in Mania, almost all of the acts take me that long. I would’ve liked to see the time limit either disappear or expand. Ironically, for me, Sonic games have never really been about going fast as much as having the ability to explore and platform in large levels.
It may be just that they became second nature to me as a kid through constant practice, but I’m surprised that you have such difficulty with the blue sphere stages, Elisha. One thing not everybody seems to know: if you get the spheres around the outline of a formation, the entire formation will transform into rings instantly, including both the outer spheres that had turned red after you collected them as well as the internal ones you hadn’t collected yet. There are still a few blue sphere stages that I haven’t been successful on—I think about three or four—but the rest I’ve finished relatively easily. Some of them were ripped straight from Sonic 3 & Knuckles; I mastered those as a kid, and I still remember them very well as an adult.
Elisha: Ah! I see. (Okay, now I feel stupid, haha.) Well, I actually really liked the other special stages (where you have to chase the UFO to grab a Chaos Emerald), so that’s probably why I’m so harsh on the blue sphere stages. Speaking of special side quests, oh boy, that boss at Chemical Plant Zone Act 2 was hilariously amazing. Love what the devs did there.
Kyle: I like the UFO stages, too, but they’re way more difficult for me. They’re based on the special stages from Sonic CD, which…again, didn’t play that one as a kid, so I’m just now figuring out how it works. I actually laughed out loud the first time I got to the Chemical Plant Zone Act 2 boss. There were a few other fandom in-jokes I noticed as well. In Studiopolis Zone, there are lines of squares you can flip over to reveal letters. Two of those lines say “Genesis does,” referencing the old tagline “Genesis does what Nintendon’t,” which was hilariously ironic to see on my Switch screen.
Another thing that made me laugh was near the end of Lava Reef Zone Act 2 as Knuckles. In Sonic 3 & Knuckles, when Eggman (called Robotnik at the time) came to steal the Master Emerald from Hidden Palace Zone (essentially an extension of Lava Reef Act 2), Knuckles just jumped up and clung to the Emerald instead of trying to knock it out of the claw on Eggman’s machine; this ended with Eggman zapping him into unconsciousness and getting away. In Mania, when one of the Hard-Boiled Heavies tries to steal the Master Emerald, Knuckles thinks back on what he did last time and how that turned out, and he takes a different course of action this time.
Joe: Going back to something Elisha said—I’ve also had a frustrating time with the rings/lives system. I have finally learned how to approach each level and enjoy the learning process, but I wish the game wouldn’t force me back to the beginning of each zone every time I lose all of my lives. Unlike you, Elisha, I feel totally justified blaming the game for some of my deaths; dying to unexpected hazards is, after all, part of the process. I’m more than happy to roll with the punches while memorizing the layout of a certain path, but once I’ve finished a level and beaten its boss, I’d love to put it behind me and move on!
Nevertheless, I’m loving what I find in these levels. Each zone’s inventive gimmick feels new and exciting to wrap my head around. I especially like any elements that play with Sonic’s physics, like the wind and anti-gravity segments in the Flying Battery Zone or the bouncy conveyor belts in the New Garden Zone.
Elisha: Now that we’ve gotten that all underway, I guess we should probably end on our final thoughts of Sonic Mania so far. For me, Sonic Mania is basically a love letter to fans of the franchise, and a great starting point for those new to the series. As someone who appreciated the recent Sonic entries, I think this is basically the marriage of the two “eras”: Something old, something new, something borrowed, and erm… something blue? It meshes what we loved about the 90s, the glorious technology of today, reuses some elements but alters them slightly, and wraps it all up in a nostalgic bow. Simply put, I loved the attention to detail, and I can’t wait to see more of this in the future!
Kyle: I’ve barely touched anything of Sonic since the 2D era, so I don’t really know enough to like or dislike the 3D games. But Sonic Mania, I love. It’s the perfect mix of classic 2D Sonic gameplay with brand-new content. And I think it shows that Sega now understands something important: they essentially have two separate fanbases, and they can’t please both of them with any one game…so they’ve got separate teams to work on two at once. They’ve made Sonic Mania to appeal to the older fans, and Sonic Forces is on the way for the newer fans. I think Intelligent Systems, the company behind the Fire Emblem series, could definitely learn something from the success of Sonic Mania. Nintendo seems to understand the same truth about the Metroid series as well, as evidenced by next month’s classic-style 2D Metroid title and the future Metroid Prime 4.
Joe: On good days, I find myself enjoying the experiment that is Sonic Mania. I haven’t quite made my peace with the unforgiving lives system paired with routine surprise attacks from unexpected enemies and medieval lawn spikes (who put those there?!), but the inventive level design and flashy presentation has kept me coming back for more.
With excellent level design, smooth animations, impressive pixel art, and a bunch of brand-new twists on classic-style gameplay, Sonic Mania manages to feel both old and new at the same time in the best way possible. Whether you like the old Sonic games or the new ones, or even if you've never played one before, Sonic Mania holds plenty of fun for everyone.