Sonic Mania is a sprite-based side-scrolling platformer presented in the same style of the Sonic games released for the Sega Genesis and its add-ons. Players control one of three playable characters: Sonic the Hedgehog, Miles “Tails” Prower, or Knuckles the Echidna. Each has unique abilities: Sonic can perform a “drop dash” which sends him rolling in a spin dash after a jump, Tails can fly and swim, and Knuckles can glide through the air and climb walls.
Sonic Mania takes place over several levels (each divided into several “acts”), in which the player must guide their character to defeat Dr. Eggman. The game features original levels alongside “remixed” levels from past games, such as Green Hill Zone from the original Sonic the Hedgehog. Scattered around acts are golden rings, which serve as a form of health: if a player has at least one ring in their possession and is hit by a hazard, they will survive, although their rings will scatter and blink before disappearing. Television monitors are also placed around acts, which can contain rings, elemental shields, or power-ups such as invincibility and speed. Hidden giant rings leading to special stages, first seen in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, can also be found around acts.