Almost a year after its initial release, Sonic Mania remains a delight. The blue hedgehog's retro PS4 outing is not only his best game in a long time, but it's clearly been made with the love and passion that the 16-bit games deserve. It's both modern and nostalgic, merging old and new in brilliant ways that make old-school Sonic fans giddy.
The retail release of Sonic Mania introduces a few new things that reinforce this idea. The headline addition is two new playable characters, Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel. They might sound like the usual low-rent Sonic pals many love to hate, but they both predate Knuckles with their appearance in SegaSonic the Hedgehog, a Japan-only arcade game. Of course, this doesn't mean they're free from criticism, and many will balk at the idea of characters other than the main three, but their inclusion is more than just another fan-pleaser.
They're very well implemented into the 2D Sonic mould, and as with the others, they each have unique qualities. Mighty's Hammer Drop move is a ground pound attack that can shatter certain terrain, and his shell protects him from spikes and projectiles while he's rolled up. Meanwhile, Ray can glide through the air to reach new paths or evade danger. It's a little tricky to get this right, as your momentum is taken into consideration. Flying up will slow you down, but you can dive back down to gain more speed and keep up the glide. Both characters are good fun to play, and offer new ways to move around Sonic Mania's large, layered levels.
Encore Mode does a great job of highlighting the differences between the five characters. This is a more challenging option for those who may have already played Mania Mode a few times that mixes things up in lots of ways. Instead of the traditional lives system, you'll constantly be swapping between characters as you earn them. Two characters are always present, and you can manually swap control by pressing Triangle, but you'll also be able to earn the rest of the cast as reserves for when you die. This forces you to change your approach, and all the levels have been subtly but noticeably tweaked to make the most of this.
The giant rings that lead to the special stages have been moved around, the layouts and visuals have been changed, and a brand new checkpoint mini-game has been introduced. Where you'd normally play the divisive Blue Spheres stages is now a pinball table where you can win rings, shields, and other characters. The physics are questionable, but it's arguably a better fit than Blue Spheres as it's easier to play, takes up less time, and benefits your main game.
Mania Mode is of course still an option if you'd prefer, and Mighty and Ray are both included, so you can take one of the new characters through the original story. In fact, you'll want to play this mode again regardless, because new level transitions and changes to certain boss battles mean it's even better than it was at launch. Elsewhere, Competition Mode now supports up to four players locally, while Time Attack has new leaderboards for Mighty and Ray, as well as for the Encore versions of each stage. You can now also toggle the level timer on and off for Mania Mode, which means you can explore the levels to your heart's content.
The Encore DLC adds a lot to Sonic Mania, in other words. Mighty and Ray are great additions, Encore Mode provides a totally fresh way to enjoy the game, and there are small changes across the board that make this fan-made adventure a more entertaining prospect than ever. If you've yet to play, or have exhausted the initial game's content, now's the time to jump back in.