Sonic Mania: Is It Worth Buying?

Tails is already bored by Eggman’s antics.

After the complete bust that was Sonic’s 25th anniversary, SEGA and the Sonic Team promised that 2017 would be different, and that the Blue Blur would be serving up a heaping helping of both new and nostalgic gameplay for gamers to enjoy. Headlining this effort would be two major releases: Sonic Forces, a new 2D/3D adventure co-starring the player’s very own OC, and Sonic Mania, an old-school love letter to the 2D titles that made Sonic a household name back in the 1990s.

Sonic Mania dropped several days ago at the astonishingly low price of $19.99, a nice surprise for consumers accustomed to $60 price tags. After a few days playing through the game, however, I’m doubly glad SEGA and company set the price so low, because honestly, that’s all this game is worth.

There are two major types of complaints that I’ve been hearing. The first is that the game itself is glitchy, to the point that the whole thing freezes up and has to be restarted. I haven’t run into any glitches yet during my own playthrough, but they’re definitely out there, and will hopefully be fixed in the near future.

The second type, however, are complaints about the gameplay itself, and these have been bad enough to actively destroy whatever fun I was having at the time. Here are my issues:

  • As someone who is used to the tight, responsive controls of the Mario series, the fast-and-loose controls of Sonic Mania are a real pain to get used to. For example, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been caught on a slope and just want Sonic Tails to come to a complete stop so I can spin dash, and it takes me several attempts to actually pull this maneuver off. It’s also a pain to quickly shift your direction to maintain momentum as your character gets pinballed around the stage  by springs and other speed boosters (but don’t shift your direction if your character walks up a wall and starts running in the opposite direction upside down, because you’ll fall off if you do). Throw in some occasional bizarre physics (the Studiopolis Zone boss fight was a nasty example of this), and you’ve got a recipe for a slew a teeth-gnashing deaths.
  • A lot of progression methods in the game feel very unintuitive and hard to spot. Breakable walls and other interactive environment items are often visually indistinguishable from the background, and while they might be callbacks to earlier mechanics from older games, that doesn’t help players with limited Sonic backgrounds like yours truly. Once again, the boss battles are a prime example of this: My first encounter with the Mirage Saloon boss, for example, consisted on me just running around avoiding the thing wondering “What the heck am I supposed to do here?!” Once again, coming off the masterful puzzle setups in games like Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, I expected better from Sonic Mania, and was disappointed that I didn’t get it.
  • On their own, the above issues might not be so bad: You spend a few lives failing and flailing until you come up with the right strategy, and then you move on. However, if you get a Game Over at any point in a zone, even at the ending boss fight, you have to restart at the very beginning of the zone and replay the whole freaking thing all over again. If you still haven’t figured out how to get past the obstacle, you’ll get shipped back to the beginning again (do not pass Go, do not collect $200). Worst-case scenario, you end up getting completely schooled by the Oil Ocean Zone final boss like I did, and have to replay the entire level FIVE FREAKING TIMES. Unlike a game like Miitopia, where replaying levels to take different paths was always interesting and exciting, going back through zones in Sonic Mania got really tedious really quickly, and despite discovering several secrets along the way, it was not enjoyable in the least. This game is just begging for an improved checkpoint system that at least lets you start at the beginning of the act you failed in instead of the zone.

In short, no other game in 2017—not Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, not Splatoon 2, nothinghas induced as much rage or made me as salty as Sonic Mania did. That’s not to say that there’s nothing redeemable here: Racing through levels at mach three is just as enjoyable as it was twenty-six years ago, some of the non-Sonic mechanics (for example, Tails’s limited flight) are kind of interesting, and the boss battle design (despite the confusing moments) is a huge step up from the older games. This game has quite a few things going for it, even if (in my view) they get overshadowed by its problems.

So let’s get back to the original question: Is this game worth buying? In the end, it comes down to the game’s surprising price point: Sonic Mania isn’t worth $60 by any stretch of the imagination, but $20 feels like a fair price, especially if you’re a huge Sonic fan hankering for a true sequel to the hedgehog’s original side-scrolling antics. I don’t see myself revisiting this one much after I beat it, however, and I’m hoping Sonic Forces turns out a bit more enjoyable than this game was.