Following Sonic the Hedgehog's meteoric rise to prominence in the early '90s, Sega tarnished the franchise's once sterling reputation with a long string of mostly disappointing entries. With Sonic Mania, Sega wants to wipe away the last couple of decades and give fans a true successor to the beloved Genesis titles. The effort largely succeeds. Sonic Mania is a beautifully made love letter to the classic days of the franchise, and it's also the best entry in more than two decades.

Sonic Mania preserves the pleasure and thrill of speeding through a stage, grabbing every ring you can while bashing enemies along the way and discovering new routes. The team of independent developers behind the game paid attention to so many facets that fans of the original games remember. Critical elements like the way Sonic builds momentum and smaller details like how the camera lags slightly behind when he reaches full-speed are handled with care and precision.

The moves accessible to Sonic, Knuckles, and Tails feel true to the early games. Sonic has a new drop dash ability that lets him stop on a dime and transition from a jump straight into a spin dash. Though it took me a while to stop using this ability accidentally, once I retrained my muscle memory, I used it regularly to escape tight spaces in boss battles.

You'd be forgiven for thinking Sonic Mania is a Genesis game at first glance; the sprites, stage elements, and backdrops all look authentic to those early titles. The developers remade numerous classic levels. However, though you may recognize Green Hill Zone from Sonic 1 or Hydrocity Zone from Sonic 3, myriad changes breathe new life into these familiar settings. For example, in Chemical Plant Zone, the second act introduces new gels that let you bounce higher and stick to walls, as well as ways to transform hazardous gels to helpful ones. Changes like these are exciting intersections of nostalgia and discovery as you witness these stages in new ways.

Though it's a blast to see which classic stage Sonic Mania resurrects and reworks next, I wish Sega placed a heavier emphasis on all-new zones. The new zones each successfully capture the spirit of what made the early Sonic stages so great during the franchise's glory days, and they seamlessly join the collection of retro zones.

Time Attack and Multiplayer
Outside of the traditional single-player mode, Sonic Mania features Time Attack and Competition multiplayer. Time attack is an easy way to jump to a stage and see how fast you can get to the goal without having to worry about boss battles impeding your progress, while Competition lets you race a friend in a competitive splitscreen experience. Though I like the idea of Competition, even as a nod to the splitscreen in Sonic 3, the stretched graphics are an eyesore and the stages are best experienced in the main mode, making the Competition mode little more than an adequate diversion.

With so many fun branching paths to speed through as three distinct characters, each with their own special abilities, it's possible to approach the stages differently each time over the course of multiple playthroughs. For example, in Chemical Plant Zone, I stuck to the simplest route as Sonic, following the helix-shaped paths that lead straight into the infamous rising purple liquid from Sonic 2. When I played through as Knuckles, I wanted to minimize the amount of time spent underwater, so I glided to a wall Sonic had difficulty reaching, then used Knuckles' climb ability to ascend to a separate path that kept Knuckles dry for longer.

At the end of each act, you face off against a boss character. Whether you're taking on Sonic's mustachioed nemesis, one of the themed Hard-Boiled Heavy robots, or a modified version of a classic boss-robot battle, these encounters are creative, challenging, and often intense. I don't want to spoil any of the surprises, but many of them feature cameos you don't expect, as well as fun nods to both Sonic and Sega's past.

Bonus stages were a major part of the early Sonic games, and Sonic Mania includes two distinct versions. The first bonus stage is a faithful recreation of the blue-sphere stages from Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. Though the concept and gameplay for these stages have aged over the past 20 years, it's nice to be able to play through 32 new blue-sphere stages.

Though I have great affection and fond memories of the blue-sphere stages, I prefer the UFO chase bonus stages where you race for a Chaos Emerald in a polygonal 3D environment. Rather than the sharp 90-degree turns of the blue-sphere stages, your character controls more like a vehicle in a cart-racing game as you avoid obstacles, collect rings, and rack up as many spheres as you can to prolong the timer and increase your velocity enough to catch the UFO.

A return to the series' roots in every sense, Sonic Mania is a joyful reminder why the franchise became such a hit in the first place. Though it's content with reliving past glories, it does so exceptionally well. Exciting level design, a stellar soundtrack, and cool expansions on the original formula work in one accord to deliver the Sonic game fans have been waiting for.