Hands-on: Sonic Mania's special stages continue the nostalgia trip

Sonic Mania is almost here. The retro, 2D Sonic the Hedgehog title, constructed by fan developers and looking like some lost game from the mid-90s, will be out in just a few short weeks. It's the sort of game many Sonic fans had assumed we would never see again and, as we found in our interview with two of the heads of Sonic Team, it was a project that faced internal skepticism from the very beginning. But it's too late to stop it now, and all signs point to Sonic Mania being everything fans of classic Sonic have been hoping for since Sonic & Knuckles. 

This morning Sega revealed some additional details about the upcoming title, including information about the game's special and bonus stages, as well as the nature of the new speedrunner-friendly Time Attack mode. I had a chance to go hands-on with all the newly revealed content, and can confirm it's exactly the sort of authentic retro gameplay fans want, with just the right amount of modern polish. 

Bonus stages

Bonus stages in Sonic Mania take the form of the "Blue Sphere" gameplay mode fans will remember from Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. In an early version of the behind-the-back 3D running that would come to define later Sonic games, the camera watches over the shoulder of Sonic (or Tails, or Knuckles) as the player guides the character through collecting all the level's blue spheres. Touching a red sphere ends your run, yellow spheres launch you, and white spheres bounce you backwards. 

Playing these bonus stages immediately brought me back to my days playing Sonic 3, and muscle memory immediately kicked in. These stages are all about timing and properly judging when you need to turn or jump, which is a challenge given both the strange visual perspective of the stages and your gradually increasing speed (spend a lot of time picking up rings instead of spheres, and you'll make the stage much harder on yourself).

I wasn't able to successfully complete any of the stages in my short demo, but I'll go ahead and blame that (at least in part) on the Xbox controller I was using. The D-Pad just didn't feel quite right for the experience, and I'll be looking at picking up a USB Genesis controller post-launch, to play the game as the Sonic Gods intended. 

Sonic Mania's bonus stages are accessed by collecting 25 rings, reaching one of a level's checkpoints, then jumping into the swirling stars which appear over the checkpoint. This transports the player into a random bonus stage map that they haven't yet completed. Some of the maps are totally new for Mania, while others are adaptations of those from Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles

Completing a bonus stage with all spheres collected awards players a Silver Medallion, while collecting all spheres and all rings gives a perfect score and a Gold Medallion. It's not currently clear whether those Medallions are worth anything other than bragging rights, but they're likely to have Sonic completionists drooling regardless. 

Special stages

Properly beating a Sonic game has always involved collecting all the Chaos Emeralds, bonus items which have been unlocked through a variety of different special stages over the years. Sonic Mania is no different, and when players find and enter giant rotating rings hidden throughout the game's levels they'll reach a simulated 3D racetrack mode inspired by special stages in Sonic CD. 

These stages have Sonic (or whichever character you are playing as) chasing after a UFO which holds one of the Chaos Emeralds. Collecting blue spheres on the ground will increase your speed, while collecting rings will add valuable seconds to your clock. Go fast enough for long enough and you'll reach the UFO and collect the emerald, but you'll need to avoid running off the track or hitting obstacles in order to reach the necessary top speed. 

The faux 3D effects on display in these stages are charming while still being much easier to make sense of visually than the Sonic CD stages which inspired them, and which look pretty bad in retrospect. The developers also made a smart choice by not requiring the player to do anything special when they catch up to the UFO (you don't need to attack it or anything), because it's very easy to imagine the frustration of jumping and missing your target due to the stage's unusual 3D perspective. You'll have enough of a challenge just focusing on gaining speed as you circle the track in pursuit of the Emerald. 

Time Attack Mode

Sonic has always been a series focused on going fast, so it's also been a long-time favorite of the speedrunning community. Sonic Mania is ready to deliver for speedrun enthusiasts with its Time Attack mode, an experience separate from the main game which allows players to play single acts of the game's levels with no checkpoints, no bosses, and a built-in timer.

Completing an act logs and saves your time, and you can compare your record against your own personal best times, as well as uploading your time to an online leaderboard.

Even if you aren't interesting in speedrunning in a serious way, this Time Attack mode offers some extra replay value for Sonic Mania, and certain types of gamers will really enjoy perfecting their runs through each stage with each of the game's different characters. To reduce frustration and downtime, Time Attack mode allows a level to be restarted very quickly, by simply pressing and holding a single button, rather than requiring players to enter a pause menu. 

I played Time Attack Mode as Knuckles on Chemical Plant Zone Act 1, and found the experience to be more challenging than I expected. I died several times tying to complete the familiar portion of the level that tasks the player with jumping from one moving box to the next while purple water rises ever higher. I felt a little better when I was told that Knuckles is the most challenging of the three characters to play on this level, as his wall-climbing ability doesn't quite make up for his slightly lower max jump height. 

Just to make myself feel better, I tried the level again as Tails, and it was a breeze. His flying and swimming skills (accompanied by the familiar animation instantly recognizable to long-term series fans) make the deadly water much less of a threat, and I got the sense that Tails will often be the best choice for players who find Sonic Mania's challenges a bit too tough at first. 

Sonic Mania will release on August 15 for PC and all current-gen consoles.