Sonic Mania isn’t your typical nostalgia trip. Yes, it borrows the look, feel, music, and even specific levels from Sonic The Hedgehog’s Genesis-era glory days, but there’s more to it than the cynical recycling of fondly remembered bits. Mania’s development team—an assemblage of developers from outside Sega who cut their teeth on Sonic fan games and remakes—seems to understand the appeal of Sonic’s 16-bit outings more than the in-house developers who’ve been shepherding the series for the last 23 years. They’ve whisked those games into the modern era with an injection of contemporary design and an overwhelming passion for the radical, ’90s-as-hell aesthetic of Sonic’s golden age. This is Sonic The Hedgehog as you remember it, rather than Sonic The Hedgehog as it actually was, and it’s so much better for it.
Mania’s most immediately striking feature is its art. At a glance, it could almost be mistaken for a Sega Genesis game, but once you see it in motion it’s clearly something new. The depth of the color, the detail in Sonic’s animations—it’s better looking and smoother moving than any Genesis game could ever be, but crucially, it feels like it belongs to that era. A lot of the authenticity and appeal comes down to a grasp of the original games’ fine details, all of them so deeply entrenched in distinctly ’90s graphic design. Each level’s visual identity is built from repeating geometric patterns, checkerboards and zig-zags, and color palettes as bright and evocative of the age as a pack of Trix Yogurt, like the brilliant blues, purples, and oranges of Studiopolis Zone or the green brick and pink kelp of Press Garden’s unsunken Atlantean printing factory. It’s basically porn for retro-game GIF junkies, with some of the most dazzlingly assembled pixel art you’ll see anywhere.
The sound of the game, especially the music, is nearly as important to replicating early ’90s Sonic as the look of it. Here, too, Mania’s creators find a way to play to familiar ears while bulking up the tunes themselves. The game’s soundtrack—some of it original, some of it revamped takes on classics—is awash in Genesis-styled New Jack Swing, all heavy bass, clapping snares, and splatting horns. There’s even a noticeable whiff of Michael Jackson-sounding pop, a fitting reference point, considering his long-rumored contributions to Sonic 3’s soundtrack. Just like with the game’s art, the older tracks have been remixed with a deft hand. They’re unmistakably a modern construction, sharper than anything a Genesis could pump out, but they’ve been reproduced note for note with all the funk and crunch that console’s divisive sound chip was known for. At least, that’s how it goes during each throwback zone’s first act. Get through it, and Sonic Mania unchains its designers’ imaginations, transforming familiar levels like Flying Battery and Hydrocity into shocking, new beasts for Act 2, all of which come with completely reimagined music.
That’s when Sonic Mania is at its best. The four original zones and the drastically overhauled second acts the team was allowed to cook up are dense with crisscrossing paths and delightful little toys that bounce Sonic around in novel ways. In Studiopolis alone, you’ll be zapped between satellite dishes, shot out of a popcorn maker, ride scissor-lifting director’s chairs, roll around on film reels, and be flung into a boss fight so clever that to explain it here would be to ruin a great surprise. There’s so much going on in each level, so many secrets and one-off novelties, that I didn’t mind getting game overs and having to start again. I wanted to replay them, to try different routes and see what was hiding just across the gaps I failed to clear the first time. This isn’t unique to Mania. It’s been Sonic’s central philosophy from the beginning: Build games that are short and relatively easy, but fill them with sprawling zones that invite curiosity and exploration. What we’re seeing here is a natural evolution of that concept, the first honest to god attempt to dig it out of the past and bolster it with lessons about engagement and surprise that game designers have learned since Sonic was cut off at the knees in 1994.
That understanding of Sonic’s best attributes and the game’s keen improvement on them is most evident in Mania’s classic levels. Some parts have been left nearly untouched, but putting them side by side reveals tweaks that greatly improve their pacing, making those stretches where Sonic is allowed to dash forward like an uncontrollable blur even more of a satisfying reward than they were before. It also helps that Mania Sonic moves the slightest bit faster than his former self, yet another subtle way the game plays off our exaggerated memories of the series, and that the ingenuity and variety of the original zones bleeds into the remakes, upending expectations and making every alternate path as intriguing as it was decades ago. You never know when you’re going to find some well-hidden amusement or power-up that has a surprising new effect on the world around you.
All of this is just a fancy way of saying Sonic Mania is probably the best Sonic ever made. It’s almost unfair to compare it to the early ’90s games from which it was inspired, a string of releases that only had a span of four years to grow and improve before Sega chucked them away. The people who made Sonic Mania were, first and foremost, fans who spent years tearing those classic games down and seeing the series in a way Sonic Team itself either failed to comprehend or was never allowed to explore. Given the opportunity to express that passion on a grander stage, they’ve made a game that finally realizes everything the Sonic of old could be. Hopefully, they get a chance to do it again and bring even more of their originality to the table.