Nostalgia is a double-edged sword. As a culture, we’ve been inundated with remakes, “re-imaginings”, and reboots since the consumable media has been around and that’s not necessarily a good thing. For every awesome new entry like Wolfenstein: The New Order, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, or Ninja Gaiden, there’s a Duke Nukem Forever, Mighty No. 9, or Shadow of the Beast. Nostalgia doesn’t just lead to remakes, just go and check the Steam new release list and see how many 8-bit looking games have the words “old school” and “throwback” in their descriptions. See how many shirts you can find in a Wal-Mart or Target with an NES controller, Atari logo, or 90’s videogame property emblazoned on it.
Nostalgia is what fuels the Sonic fandom. Nostalgia fuels my love for Sonic the Hedgehog. I still remember Christmas 1992, finding the biggest box under the tree and unwrapping a Sega Genesis that bundled with the original Sonic the Hedgehog, which also came with Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I remember waking up on Saturday mornings to watch both USA Network’s Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and NBC’s Sonic the Hedgehog. I remember plugging in Sonic 3 into Sonic & Knuckles to get whole new levels and a brand new ending. Sonic has been in my life longer than most of my friends and has informed so much of my videogame life in my childhood and teenage years that I’ve owned almost every Sega console and have owned multiple copies of various Sonic titles over the years.
Sonic’s catalog hasn’t always been great… or even average. Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic Boom, and those godawful Wii games just to name a few. I believed for years that Sonic Adventure was one of the good ones. When the Dreamcast and Sonic Adventure was announced, I carried the launch copy of the Official Dreamcast Magazine in my school backpack for months. I finished that game multiple times across various consoles and loved it. But I made a mistake and a few years ago I went back and played it and, well, it’s bad. Unnecessary open world hub levels, rough controls, and overly dramatic story took my rose colored glasses off my face and stepped on them. If my most played game in the Sonic series was bad, had it always been bad? Was my love of this blue hedgehog mired by childhood memories?
When Sonic Mania was announced last year, I was brimming with excitement. This could be a return to form! It had the look but what was most important was the gameplay. Previous attempts have been made at reviving the sidescrolling Sonic games but titles like Sonic the Hedgehog 4 aren’t even worth looking at. The only games in the series that have been worth revisiting in the past 15 years were the Sonic Rush and Sonic Advanced handheld series but even then, they didn’t have the same feel nor are as easy to attain or play on modern consoles.
A few days before I started Sonic Mania, I downloaded Sonic 3 and Knuckles to get a feel for the controls and remind myself of why, and if, I loved it. Thankfully it still felt good to play. I had fun zooming through levels, using power-ups, and figuring out the correct timing for boss fights. So when I started up Sonic Mania and it felt no different, I was excited and relieved— relieved that all my hype was for something and all my worries were for nothing.
The series is all about speed, precision and timing. It’s also about chasing a rotund scientist/inventor with tiny little stick legs, saving woodland creatures from their robotic prisons, and collecting golden rings (because hedgehogs love rings for some reason). While the game does focus on going fast, it’s never a problem to stop on a dime and change direction, and once you start to understand the timing, it becomes very easy to recognize patterns in levels and boss fights.
Sonic Mania is more than an HD re-release of the older games, and yes, it does use levels and music but adds new levels, music, and amazing remixes on top of them. The music is so good that it’s ruining my life. From the iconic Green Hill Zone music, to the amazing bass line behind Lava Reef Zone, I want to buy this soundtrack immediately.
Sonic Mania is like the videogame equivalent of reminiscing with an old friend while also catching up on what’s new. Sonic still has same speed and spin dash functions but in addition adds the drop dash, a midair spin that allows for a spin dash when you hit the ground, which finally gives Sonic his own speciality to compete with Tails’s flight and Knuckles’s glide.
I’ve completed the game once, started another playthrough, and plan on going back through my first file to collect all the Chaos Emeralds. But that’s not to say the game doesn’t have its frustrations. The game has some truly creative and fun boss fights, but few later acts and bosses are an exercise in absurd timing. Specifically Oil Ocean Zone, an Act that felt packed with fire, spikes, and bullet shooting enemies and is topped off with the boss fight from the original version that wasn’t fun then and isn’t fun now. But that’s my biggest complaint.
Though I found myself cursing at other points (the special stages for example), mostly I was just frustrated with myself for messing up the timing. The “Blue Sphere” levels make return from Sonic 3 and are just as sweaty palm inducing and heart pounding as ever but this time around, you’re tasked with chasing behind a UFO, holding one of the Emeralds while collecting rings and orbs to keep your time up and gain more speed. It feels like something out of Sonic R. In fact, the whole game feels like the Sega Saturn Sonic game that should’ve happened years ago. The enhanced sprites and 3D effects and lend itself to feeling fresh instead of just retread ground.
I truly enjoy this game and plan on going back to it; I played it on PlayStation 4 and am seriously debating getting it on the Switch just for the portability. Sega could’ve simply taken old assets, upped the resolution, and threw it out there but they didn’t. From the beautiful and lively opening animation to the start screen, it immediately felt both comforting and fresh like putting on a pair of brand new pajama pants. I’m glad they took a chance on getting developers who originally started work on Sonic ROM hacks because they really nailed the feeling. This is what nostalgia should feel like and hopefully this leads to more excellent reboots of Sega properties.
Sonic Mania was published by Sega. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One and Switch.
Terence Wiggins is the co-host of the podcast Whatever We Call It, the creator of the videogame online zine We <3 Video Games, the cookie wizard behind The Black Nerd’s Baked Goods, and the Internet’s best friend. He’s on Twitter @TheBlackNerd.