Sonic Mania is a game that understands the appeal of the Sonic series better than almost every game that it has produced in the last twenty years. What Sega seems to have missed is that Sonic was never really about platforming, or about the grating, two-dimensional furry-bait characters – those early Megadrive classics were more like moving pinball machines, at their best in the moments where you were almost in control of a rapidly moving object.
The level design in Sonic Mania nails this feeling, and is by far the game’s greatest strength. Each stage is full of clever contraptions that launch Sonic around at high speed – my personal favourite being the enormous moving gun that Sonic loads himself into like a bullet in the Mirage Saloon Zone.
Act 2 of each stage cleverly subverts the mechanics introduced in act 1: in the Oil Ocean Zone, for example, act 1 introduces pools of oozing oil that you can jump into and use as ladders, while act 2 grants you the fireball powerup, causing every pool of oil you jump in to burst into an enormous sea of spectacular pixellated flames, which slowly drain your rings.
On top of that, the multiple pathways of each stage interweave in some very clever ways, and are full of hidden secrets that reward exploration. At their best, Sonic Mania’s levels feel like a series of tightly wound contraptions intended to get you from A to B as fast as possible, while at the same time being littered with distractions that tempt you to slow things down.
Visually, the game looks a treat – the colourful presentation and high FPS all contribute to the sensory overload which classic Sonic depends on, as does the fantastic music. The developers have captured the look and feel of these games to a tee, but bring enough of their own ideas to stop it being a pure nostalgia trip.
But there are some aspects of Sonic Mania which hew too closely to the design of the original games. Things which are in fact so fucking frustrating they make me question whether I see the original three games with rose-tinted glasses.
First of all is the bosses. The bosses in Sonic Mania fluctuate wildly in difficulty, from insultingly easy (the Eggman sub in Hydrocity Zone) to stupidly difficult (the robot spider in Studiopolis zone). Often I felt that it wasn’t at all clear what I was supposed to actually do in these fights, and even when it was I still felt that the slow, floaty imprecision of Sonic’s jump was not at all suited to combat in a game of this pace.
My second problem is with rings. Rings are a bullshit system for health. The random angles at which they fly away from you after getting hit was a source of endless frustration for me while playing through Sonic Mania. If you get hit at any point while standing beside a wall or other impassable object, there is a high chance that all your rings will clip out of bounds, and be impossible to recover.
In several difficult boss fights which force you into one corner of the screen, I just felt plain cheated when I lost all the rings I had accrued throughout the stage in this way. And in almost every case, boss fights descended into a crude game of ‘get hit, scramble for the one ring I can keep hold of, and use the very lenient period of invincibility to damage you’.
After one particularly difficult boss fight caused me two or three game overs for the reasons described above, I decided to change tack. I replayed act 1 and 2 of the stage, carefully collecting 100 rings until I acquired a couple of extra lives, to give me a bit of a cushion. I was just approaching the boss, feeling prepared and ready to go, when – bang. I died to the timer, which apparently kills you if you spend any longer than ten minutes in one stage.
I turned the game off right then and there. Fuck that. I felt like I was being punished for not playing the game fast, but if Sonic Mania is a game meant to be played recklessly, then why the equally punishing and difficult boss fights?
It felt indicative of a contradiction at the heart of Sonic Mania, and one that might be at the heart of the Sonic franchise as a whole. These are games that revel in the thrill of moving at a speed beyond control, but their difficulty and structure often ask for a level of precision completely at odds with that. Ultimately, the many ways in which Sonic Mania successfully revitalizes the series only serve to highlight these frustrating inconsistencies.