There is no sound more terrifying, more nightmarish, than the countdown that signifies the final five seconds before Sonic the Hedgehog drowns. It has haunted gamers since 1991, when they first found themselves in the depths of the Labyrinth Zone; an underwater maze cleaved into the decaying ruins of an ancient civilisation, where glittering crystal stalactites hung from the ceiling and spears leapt from the stairs. Players loathed this level, still do to this day, which makes one wonder why Sega included such a level in every subsequent 2D Sonic game. The one in Sonic Mania is Hydrocity Zone, from Sonic 3, a better level set in a stone reservoir with an underground waterpark beneath it. But “better” is a relative term. That countdown hasn’t changed.
Since Sonic has become such a laughing stock, it can be difficult to believe that the blue hedgehog once rivalled Mario as the definitive video game mascot. This was in a gentler time, when video games were basically all 2D side-scrolling platformers, and the home console war was between Nintendo and Sega, and both companies only made games. But it was a time I grew up in. It was a time I adored. My childhood was 16-bit; Sonic’s games, as far as I was concerned, were masterpieces. Sonic Mania, then, is a game aimed directly at me, and at people like me, for whom the word “SEGA”, bellowed at a game’s start screen, had roughly the same impact as the words “I finished” might have to a twenty-something. Satisfaction. Pride. Bliss.