In a franchise where rings are the source of all life, it was inevitable that Sonic would eventually come full circle. Sonic Mania is a return to the speedy blue hero’s 2D roots, right down to the 16-bit look and floaty platforming controls, as well as a level design that encourages exploration – not just mindless sprinting for the sake of going fast. It also feels like a decent return to form for Sega’s mascot, something to possibly remind whippersnappers who have only been alive long enough to mostly just see the latest 3D disappointments why this sneaker-wearing hedgehog with attitude was once quite popular.
The demo at Sega’s booth emphasized the nostalgic aspects of this latest entry by dropping players back into the familiar rolling hills and blue skies of the Green Hill Zone (Act 2). Despite this stage having been redone for the thousandth time, the sight of it still produces fuzzy feelings of fondness. Thankfully, this time that good will isn’t soon squandered, and though dashing through the various vertical loops before bounding off a spring launcher will get you to the end right quick in true Sonic style, actual exploration of the level is encouraged as well, even if that requires (gasp!) a slower, more deliberate pace. Secrets and item boxes are scattered about, filled with extra rings and various other goodies that will make life easier. Scouring the stage looking for these doesn’t always feel very necessary, but most importantly it’s fun just running around and discovering all the nooks and crannies in the colorfully cheery pixelated world. Sonic controls just like he always did, which is to say not as precise and fluid as Mario, but perfectly able to pull off his various jumps, spins, and jump-spins with ease, and since I have no intention of ever being a master at speed-running through anything, it was nice to be able to play in my own style (even if that involved a lot of slow climbs back up the hill to get yet another running start).
Of course, there are also animals to be saved in Sonic Mania, as in past titles, and only a heartless fiend would pass by and allow those poor woodland creatures to be used to power whatever Doctor Eggman’s latest experiment turns out to be, which gave me even more of an excuse to linger. I made it a point to actively seek out every enemy I could find in the hopes of seeing Pocky and his other adorable friends (my memory doesn’t extend very far when it comes to Sonic lore) scamper away, free to pursue a life wrecking people’s lettuce gardens or stealing seeds out of bird feeders. While my gracious acts of kindness toward nature’s creatures surely showed off my sensitive side to an approving Sega rep, I have to admit that the pursuit was more driven by the simple obsessive pleasure of collecting stuff. Does that make me a bad person?
Regardless, my time concluded with a boss fight against the good doctor, who (surprise) piloted a giant robot with spiky drills for hands and a glass bubble for a head that was begging to be cracked. Only by sacrificing the fragile body of that little blue hedgehog and launching it into the dome could damage be dealt, and this was accomplished by either a well-timed jump to gain the necessary height, or using the mech’s own extendable arms against it by dodging an attack and using them as a ramp to the head. It was an engaging fight that I lost several times while the rep wasn’t looking, but thankfully, a last-second desperation jump before time ran out saw me victorious, and earned a congrats on my supreme skills. Of course, while I was paying more attention to the praise than the events on screen, I then proceeded to walk off a cliff before the robot had fully exploded (which would have signaled the official end), died, and received a game over for my efforts. It’s nice to make people laugh.
Anyway, while there weren’t too many surprises in my short time with Sonic Mania, that might be a good thing. The series could use a more sure-footed entry to contrast with the more ambitious (and still promising) 3D title also coming out this year. Though safe, this throwback to days of Sonic past might be just the way to steady the ship a bit, and possibly reset Sonic on another speedy path to players’ hearts. Sonic Mania releases on Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and PC on August 15th.