I've been hurt before. I think everyone knows the feeling, the weight of disappointment crushing all your hopes and dreams. Like Captain Ahab pursued his white whale, I too pursued something I could never hope to have. A great Sonic game, something that hasn't been achieved since the Sega CD was actively a thing, seemed to be an impossibility. There had been glimmers of hope through the many years I suffered. Sonic Rush, Generations, and Colors were to an extent all fairly good games, but they never captured the magic of Sonic in it's heyday. Until I finally got my hands on it, I cast a skeptical eye towards Sonic Mania. It had the look, it had the sound, and it seemed to have the spirit of a classic Sonic game, but I wasn't willing to love again. I'd been burned by a similar pitch in the past going by the name Sonic 4 Episode 1, and that was only the latest in a series of bitter pills I and many other fans of the franchise swallowed. On Tuesday, August 15th in the year 2017 I proceeded to hit buy on the store page for Sonic Mania on Xbox Live. The word was spreading quickly across the internet that Sega had finally done it, they had made another great Sonic game. I was tentatively hopeful once again, despite telling myself "never again." I started a new game and hit the ground running, and it all seemed so familiar. Green Hill Zone, a level I knew like the back of my hand, almost untouched greeted me. By the end of Act 2 the realization hit me. Sonic Mania is fucking awesome.
Sonic Mania plays like a dream. The physics and momentum of the Sonic genesis games are fully employed here. The three playable characters all have their own unique gimmicks. Sonic is of course fast and has a new ability called drop dash. Tails can fly and swim, circumventing many difficult obstacles and making underwater levels a cinch. Finally Knuckles can glide and scale walls, and also gets some unique bosses and stages all his own. On top of this, a number of unlockable modifiers can change things up completely, giving characters different abilities lifted from past games. There are 2 special stages that play completely differently from the main game, and these aren't the best. One involves running through a grid of blue spheres while avoiding red spheres, and the other is a weird on foot chase to catch a UFO.They're tolerable at the best of times, and infuriating at their worst. Unfortunately a lot of the best unlockables are locked behind these stages, including the so called "true ending."
The level design is what really makes a Sonic game, and by god they nailed it. A good chunk of the game is made up of zones featured in Sonic 1 through CD, but always with a twist. Each of these classic Zones starts with an Act 1 that is very reminiscent of their classic counterparts. Act 2 of these zones are brand new, and always a treat. It's a great gimmick that really draws on Sonic nostalgia without feeling exploitative. There are a ton of unique modifiers in these levels that play on your expectations. Outside of these classic zones are a handful of brand new Zones, all of which I had a great time with.There's not a single zone I didn't like in Mania. I even had fun with the water level, and that still actively blows my mind. The music plays a huge part, featuring amazing remixes of classic tunes alongside new tracks that blend perfectly with the classics. I'm listening to it as I write this, I can't get it out of my head.
My only real gripe with Sonic Mania is it's difficulty. I've never been the best Sonic player. I was never able to beat Sonic 2 when I was a kid, only achieving it after playing an emulated version with save states on the 360. The stages of Sonic Mania are all pretty easy, but the bosses on the other hand can take a few tries to get down. My problem lies in the good old "lives" system. You start the game with three lives, and when you run out it's game over. Thankfully you don't have to start a new game when you lose, but you do have to start over at the beginning of the current zone. Each zone consists of 2 acts that have their own bosses at the end. To that end there were a handful of times I got stuck on an act 2 boss, and when I lost my paltry sum of lives I had to redo the first and second zones in their entirety to get another three shots at completing the zone. It's baffling to me that this is the system they went with. I understand that this game is emulating the classics, and they operated on the lives system. But in this day and age I really can't stand losing so much progress for a game over. Honestly if they patched the game to checkpoint you after each Act instead of Zone it would be damn near perfect. As it stands, I often left the game in a bad mood after these losses.
While my terribleness at Sonic did leave me fuming at points, I just couldn't quit Sonic Mania. It's the perfect love letter to Sonic's past. When I beat the game with all 7 chaos emeralds and achieved the true ending, it was a bittersweet moment. I wanted more, I wanted to stay in the nostalgic fever dream Sonic Mania had me reeling from. Then I remembered that Sonic Forces is a thing, and I wanted to die. I can only hope this game sells well enough to warrant a sequel, because there's no way in hell I'm going back to modern sonic after playing this masterpiece.