I’ve got two opinions here that you probably won’t believe go hand in hand. The first is that Sega probably doesn’t remember how to make a great Sonic game. The second is that Sonic Mania is the absolute best Sonic game ever made.
How does that work?
Well, let me start with the second statement since it’s easy. Sonic Mania is absolutely everything right with a Sonic game. The pace, energy, animation, control, aesthetic, and godlike level design are all clear and present here. It collides and melds to form one of the cleanest and most polished platformers of the year, possibly of the decade. I bought it at $20, but it was so good I would honestly buy it at $35 to $40. If you like platformers, you will almost definitely find something you like about Sonic Mania. And if you like Sonic, you’ve probably already bought it.
Do I have any complaints? Two.
The game owes a bit too much of its aesthetic greatness to the Genesis titles. And there are too many opportunities for bonus stages to trigger, which can slow the gameplay down. That’s it. Even my complaints about the game are rooted in things I enjoyed. When the worst parts of the game are still overall fantastic, that’s when you know you’ve found a real gem. I beat the game in a day, and I can’t wait to play it again and again.
Alright, are we good? Good. Let’s talk about that first statement.
Truth is, Sonic Mania wasn’t made by Sega. The project was helmed by Christian “Taxman” Whitehead of Australia, who teamed up with a few small studios to make the game under Sega’s endorsement. It’s unfortunate, but under Sega’s direct care, the franchise hasn’t produced more than a couple gems amidst a landscape of mediocre titles and a couple truly abhorrent atrocities (looking at you, 2006). As a whole, Sonic has taken the lead of quite a hefty sum of games, but I doubt I could give you even 10 that are actually great. I think it’s safe to say that after tons of trial and error, Sega has lost the ability to make a truly memorable Sonic title ...with Sonic Generations being their last resonant hurrah.
The fans, on the other hand, seem to know exactly what makes a good Sonic game. In terms of full scale “Sonic fan games”, Sonic Mania makes two for two. The first big success wasn’t actually a Sonic game, but much like Mania, it was heavily inspired by that Genesis architecture that still holds so well. It’s a game called Freedom Planet, and until two days ago I was telling people “this is basically the best Sonic game ever made”. Now I’m stuck with something of a tie. I think I’ll still hold Freedom Planet slightly higher, if only because it’s a little more distinct, original, and also more affordable. Still, Sonic Mania is a finely tuned beast and leaves a great impact in its wake. Don’t ask me to choose. I’d probably just say “both” and disappear for a couple days to go play them again.
I feel the need to detach Sonic Mania and Freedom Planet, two games I recommend with the highest praise, from the entity known as Sega. I will always respect the original team that brought us games like Sonic 2, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles, but this next generation of game developers clearly took away the spirit that made Sonic super.