I won't belabor the point that Sonic has had a checkered past: A few beloved early games followed by 20 years of hits and misses—with more misses than hits, in recent years—and a whole industry that hasn't been exactly charitable to the blue hedgehog's young fans.
But Sonic Mania, the new game from Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and PagodaWest Games, is fantastic. It leverages nostalgia—the game's graphics, music, sound design and even some early level designs, harken directly back to the original Sonic and its sequel—and then consistently delivers with fun, inspired level design.
Sonic Mania bears a favorable comparison with Donkey Kong Country Returns: A game that knows what was fun about its 90s inspirations, and brings that to the table alongside strong platforming fundamentals. Good Sonic games offered sprawling spaces that could be covered in blazing fast speed, or pored over for secrets, especially once characters with different traversal abilities, like Tails and Knuckles, entered the mix. There were fun minigames that broke up the action, and boss fights that leveraged the inane-but-kind-of-great story, such as it was.
Sonic Mania knows all that, and also knows what caused the Sonic Bloat that got in the way of many of the speedy hedgehogs later adventures. Mania offers level design that consistently evolves, offers new challenges and new surprises, and elevates what you thought was the core fun of a Sonic game.
Sonic Mania deliberately starts off just like the earlier games, literally bringing you back to the series' starting point in Green Hill Zone. It starts of with a familiar structure before subtly introducing new changes, and then, finally announcing loudly this is a new game, baby!
There are now boss battles after every stage, with some wacky variation of Eggman doing his worst. There are more secrets packed into every layer of every stage. And best of all, the first time you really see the "new" stuff, the art starts to look new. Old-new, as if it were drawn in 1991, but never used until now. It fits perfectly.
This is even more dramatic in Chemical Plant Zone, which also starts out similarly, then takes dramatic shifts and begins to offer brand-new mechanics, like a weird chemical that needs to be "charged" before you can bounce off of it. Or different twisting pipes that you use to blast your character through the level at warp speed. And sticky platforms that Sonic can latch onto and use to make those wild jumps.
It's so much fun to encounter these new features, and see how seamlessly integrated they are with the old school style. This really does feel like an older Sonic game that's been given proper consideration, with thoughtful level design that encourages wild leaps of faith, and characteristic speed. And then many happy returns, with different characters, to plumb away at the game's secrets.
Boss encounters are similarly creative and thoughtful, ranging from weirdo timed missile encounters to my favorite, a few rounds with Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine. That game absolutely rules, and it was genuinely funny—and fun—to see it make a brief comeback here. I wouldn't be mad if more boss encounters in more games were just slices of really good action-puzzle games like this. I'm just saying.
I'm only a couple of hours in, but I'm very much looking forward to spending more time in Sonic Mania. The game is out tomorrow on Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC.