By Aaron Morales
August 14, 2017 at 11:25 AM EDT
Credit: SEGA

When Sonic the Hedgehog burst onto the video game scene in 1991, he quickly raced to the top of the charts and started an epic console war with Nintendo’s Mario. Though he helped Sega’s Genesis stay neck and neck with the Super Nintendo, Sonic started to stumble when the industry transitioned to 3D. While Mario fully embraced it with the genre-defining Super Mario 64, Sonic never quite figured out how to translate the blisteringly fast side-scrolling gameplay to the third dimension and has seen his star fall considerably since the ’90s. Sega has continued cranking out game after game over the years, but they’ve never really managed to recapture that magic — until now. Longtime Sega fans can finally breathe a sigh of relief: Sonic Mania is the game you’ve been waiting for.

You can’t blame them for being skeptical; Sega has a long history of promising every game will be a return to form, and instead we got Sonic turning into a werewolf (werehog?) or falling in love with a human princess in shoddy 3D games. But Sonic Mania goes back to basics with remixed versions of classic 16-bit levels and brand-new zones with original bosses. Each zone is comprised of two acts, with the first usually being a more straightforward take on a classic Sonic level before letting completely loose on the second and culminating in a frantic boss battle. The game continually delights, playing on 26 years of expectations and then subverting them with thrilling new mechanics. It’s loaded with Easter eggs and callbacks to the Genesis era (no spoilers, but one genre switch early in the game left this longtime Sonic fan squealing with joy), but it’s more than just a blast from the past, and it thrusts Sonic bravely into the (retro) future.

That said, for those who never took to the hedgehog’s core mechanics of running so fast that the screen can barely keep up, Sonic Mania probably isn’t going to change their minds, even though it does a better job of avoiding cheap deaths. The levels seem considerably larger, with more alternate routes to discover, which helps replayability considerably. There are two types of bonus stages: blue sphere and UFO chase. The blue sphere stage appears at checkpoints if you have collected enough rings, but unfortunately, it’s no more enjoyable than it was when it debuted in Sonic 3, and it pops up way too often. UFO chase is new and much better; it feels like a long-lost Sega CD concept that was finally unearthed.

Sonic Mania presents an alternate history where Sega never struggled with the transition to 3D and instead created the greatest Sega Saturn game of 1996. Lead programmer Christian Whitehead came to fame years ago by porting Sonic games to iPhone, and Sega was wise to partner with him (along with Headcannon and PagodaWest Games) for Sonic Mania, because their love for the franchise is evident every blindingly fast step of the way. It’s been a long time coming, but by going back to the future, Sega has finally recaptured the blue blur’s glory days. Sonic Mania is more than just a nostalgic treat for fans, it’s a reminder of why the 16-bit generation left such an indelible mark on players that continues to resonate to this day.

Sonic the Hedgehog

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