|woah... I just tried out Knuckles & Knuckles on No Save mode... apparently (some of?) the stages have a completely different layout when you play as Knuckles.|
Then I went on No Save with Sonic-only, with Debug Mode on, to try and find all the early special stage rings and practice doing the special stages... After a bit of practice I managed to beat all 7 special stages without much trouble... it's really just a matter of focusing on collecting rings first while you're still slow, while also taking whatever shortcuts you can, then once you have a healthy amount of time, collect orbs while continuing to take shortcuts and avoiding the obstacles.
I also got a few more gold medals in Blue Sphere stages...
Yeehaw! Mean Bean is now unlocked!
ah, so that's one of the unlockables in the Extras menu...