In 2008 Capcom did something that was an uncommon stroke of genius: They made a new Mega Man game in the style of the original NES classics. To the untrained eye, you would have been left to believe they simply took the same engine and made new levels. It was that faithful, and it was a critical and commercial success as a retro-styled downloadable title. They would inevitably follow it up with Mega Man 10 two years later.
I was impressed with the situation Capcom found themselves in at the time. I wasn’t sure how a game that aped the retro game design (and gameplay style) would be received by the current gaming scene and was pleasantly surprised to see it find success. I’m sure I was not alone when I say I immediately started wondering what other iconic gaming franchises would follow Capcom in their pursuit of re-marketing retro. The truth? Not as many as I would have liked. Sure, Nintendo was still making 2D(ish) Mario side-scrollers as often as they could, but they never returned to the Super Mario Brothers aesthetic until much later with Super Mario Maker. It seemed like the more common approach to revisiting classic game franchises was to build a brand new game with the best visuals and try to meet the original game’s game play style as close as possible while doing it. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. There are many great games that did exactly this.
Unfortunately for me, this was the case for the one gaming franchise I wanted to get a Mega Man 9 style approach was the franchise that basically solidified me as a gamer: Sonic the Hedgehog. I was dying for Sega to take the genesis titles and simply make some new levels, package it digitally for my console, and release. Instead, they went the more common route mentioned above, and gave us Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episodes I and II. These games were not very well received for a myriad of reasons, including sparse content and bugs. In my eyes, it was an average release, but it suffered from a shocking problem: Sega didn’t seem to know how to make them feel like the classics. They were able to make a 2.5D game look great, but somehow botched the physics and momentum that made those classics so fun. The games simply didn’t feel right. Swing and a miss.
The tepid response to Sonic 4 basically pushed back any hopes of more games like this. 2011 saw Sonic Generations, a celebration of Sonic’s 20th anniversary, bring back classic stages in a gorgeous modern aesthetic, featuring a 2D style game play reminiscent of the Sega Genesis and a 3D style game play matching the more modern take on Sonic. This game was excellent, and while it wasn’t a true 2D remake I was longing for, they were able to pull of the proper physics to please Sonic fans old and new alike. The game was a hit, and I was sure we were going to get more games like this as a result. It didn’t happen during the gap between 2011 and 2016, which instead saw a handful of mediocre to downright bad games, but during the 2016 celebration of the franchise’s 25th anniversary, we got some amazing news: Sega was going to try the retro-remake again with a game called Sonic Mania. This time, a group of popular fan-game creators who were famous for understanding the Genesis classics were hired to pull it off. And boy… did they pull it off.
WARNING. THERE WILL BE SONIC MANIA SPOILERS FROM HERE ON DOWN.
Sonic Mania is the Mega Man 9 copy I wanted from the start. The game might as well have come on a Genesis cartridge, due to the level of love and care Christian Whitehead and team have put into it’s creation. A mixture of new and remixed classic stages coupled with gorgeous sprites and incredible music took me back to the 90s when I was playing these games every day after school. Many other reviewers will gush over this truth, so I’ll move on to a more technical look at the game, but just know that if the dreams I had of this game for 20 years were somehow magically able to be translated into a game, it would have come out looking a whole lot like Sonic Mania.
The visuals of the game are essentially 16-Bit graphics updated to HD but, oddly enough, designed to look 32-Bit. For those who don’t know, Sonic never got a proper entry on Sega’s ill-fated 32-bit console, the Sega Saturn. It had some spin-offs that played around in the 3D space, but nothing that would qualify as a follow-up to Sonic 3. This game was designed to look like what may have happened had Sega produced that missing game. Genesis-era 16 bit visuals have a layer of polish that a 32-Bit console would have pulled off, and the supplementary content that dabbles in 3D looks like polished versions of 3D Saturn games. The popular Sonic music remixer Tee Lopes was brought in to do the music and his understanding of Sonic tracks coupled with a modern mixing platform was able to pull of some of the most memorable music in the history of a franchise already well-known for its killer soundtracks. From the visuals to the music, the entire game actually feels more like a remaster of a 32-Bit Saturn title that never actually existed. That’s pretty rad.
In terms of game play, the developers clearly understood what was missing from Sonic 4. The game’s physics are so accurate to the classics that a layman could easily have assumed Sega had taken Sonic 3 and just made new stages. That’s not the case here, as the development team built everything from scratch, but it really does feel like the originals. It’s comfortable. Anyone with a history in this franchise will be able to not only pick up and play, but master the thing quite quickly.
That’s not to say it’s not challenging, because there are plenty of tough spots I wasn’t prepared for. Most of the game takes traditional Sonic challenges and injects new ideas to help it feel fresh and challenging. Additionally, some modern game design sensibilities solve a few of the more memorable rough spots from the originals. Having the game in a widescreen format instead of the classic letterbox allows the level to telegraph itself a little more. You won’t find yourself speeding into a trap or enemy that was off-screen (at least, not as often) thanks to being able to see these hazards coming. A few new abilities are added to Sonic’s arsenal to help keep the sense of speed at a maximum, and the parts of the game where you have to slow down to accomplish some platforming are now enjoyable breaks in the action.
There are also save slots, something introduced in Sonic 3 but missing from the original two games, so you can return to where you left off if you can’t finish the game in a single session. Given the myriad of bonus and special stages that have collectibles needed to unlock the best ending (as well as other game modes), having the ability to save is a good thing. There are still some issues with difficulty spikes with some obstacles and boss battles, but nothing a little trial and error can’t help you work through. There’s also some light multiplayer returning from Sonic 2 that some fans will enjoy, as well as time attack modes that will reward those who couple speed running with memorization.
But there’s so much more to this game than just revisiting the stuff fans have liked since 1991. There are so many Easter Eggs, game call backs, Sega lore, and more layered into the artwork and story elements that I’d never be able to list them all here without making it a separate post. I think I’ll touch on two things that really made me smile like a big goofy kid when I first saw them.
First are the bonus stages that return from Sonic 3, often referred to as “Blue Spheres”. These make a comeback and provide ways of unlocking new modes and cheats for Mania, and play a bit like a mix between mazes and time trials. Essentially, you have to collect a number of blue spheres scattered among a maze of red spheres, rings, and bumper pads. Collect them all and you win a silver medal that goes toward unlocking extra content. If you collect all the blue spheres AND rings, you’ll get a gold medal. Hitting a red sphere and you’ll lose. The big catch is that the longer you are playing these stages, the faster you’ll move, dramatically increasing the difficulty.
I love these stages, and loved them back in the Sonic 3 era. In fact, there was a hidden version of these stages that could be unlocked if you attached the original Sonic game (Sonic 1) to the lock-on enabled Sonic & Knuckles. These stages were all procedurally generated, believe it or not, and there are a total of 134,217,728 possible stages to play, instead of the 14 you can play in Sonic 3 proper. In Mania you can unlock the mini-game in the extras menu after getting some medals in the campaign. Mania has two versions, the original with all it’s variants mentioned above, as well as a new spin on the game which introduces more sphere colors to vary up the challenge. I’m very, very happy to see blue spheres make a comeback in Mania.
The final callback I’ll mention was a huge surprise when I found it, and I screamed at my TV when I did. Some of you may be familiar with a Sega puzzle game called Puyo-Puyo, which has seen many releases over the years on a variety of platforms, but most of them were in Japan. The first release of it in America and Europe was on the Genesis and Game Gear, but it was re-branded as a Sonic spin-off called “Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine.” My guess was that the Japanese title was deemed too foreign for non-Asian markets, but also wanted to capitalize on the huge popularity of Sonic at the time to sell units. It worked for me, at least. I received the game because of the Sonic-relation and enjoyed it immensely. It’s a great puzzle game.
I was astounded to see the game show up in Sonic Mania, but the way Sega incorporated it was a stroke of genius. The second stage’s boss battle was, in fact, a round of Mean Bean Machine. Remixed Music and everything.
I was so amazed and excited during my first play-through that I exited the game and restarted the level so I could play it again and again before continuing with the story. Lucky for me, a full version of Mean Bean Machine is also unlock-able in the extras menu once you earn enough gold medals in the campaign. There’s plenty of ways to play Puyo-Puyo these days, but this may be my favorite. It’s just great fan-service, as well as a really good re-creation of the game in its own right. Sega needs to make sure their programmers get paid more. They earned it.
Sonic Mania is a stellar video game, that while not perfect, accomplished everything it was designed to accomplish by a mile. If left me wanting more. More Levels. More Easter Eggs. More music. The whole package is a must-own for anyone who enjoyed the originals, or just appreciates the concept of re-visiting what made iconic games iconic. The game retails at $20, which I’d argue is too low for the amount of content included here. It’s the perfect price point to attract those who became fans of Sonic after the Genesis era and may not have been that familiar with it, as well as gamers who may have no history with Sega at all. It’s an easy sell on the Nintendo Switch, although I found the Xbox version to play a little better due to the better hardware (I’d assume the same for the PlayStation) and considerably more traditional D-Pad compared to the Joycon 4 button arrow setup. Still, I had fun on both platforms I played it on.
I hope this game gets a follow up from Sega. I have a feeling that the strong positive reception to it is a pretty good sign they have found a winning formula. I also hope other companies see what Sega and Capcom accomplished with this style of remake, and follow suit. I’d love to see more stuff like this. As a Sonic Fan, I really couldn’t be much happier than I was with Sonic Mania.