After the runaway success of the first two Sonic games Sega knew they were onto something good. In 1993 their new mascot made his way to the ill-fated Mega CD with a new game often considered one of the best on the console, meanwhile Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball took the pinball concepts that were so popular in the first two games and built an all new spin-off around it while various ports of existing games began to spring up on other Sega consoles. With Sonic’s popularity exploding his next main outing needed to up the ante and be the best yet.
Sega had big plans for Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Too big in fact, the game they originally envisaged as one huge sidescrolling title for the hedgehog proved too large to fit on a single cartridge but instead of cutting the game short as they had done with Sonic 2 Sega decided to try something a little different. In February 1994 the Japanese company released essentially an unfinished game called Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (known only as Sonic 3 in Europe for some reason) which was noticeably shorter than its predecessor featuring only six zones but what zones! This felt like Sonic really coming into his own with level design that perfectly and consistently found the balance between exciting speedy action and challenging platforming, something neither previous game quite managed. The game introduced new concepts such as Sonic’s shield technique and finally gave players the chance to fly with Tails. It introduced a mysterious new character in the form of Knuckles the Echidna and the whole thing played out to a soundtrack reportedly written by none other than Michael Jackson. It was another outstanding game, the most enjoyable and balanced in the series to date but it was missing something. The final zone and boss, though both extremely cool, lacked the sense of climax Sonic 2 achieved almost as though the game had been rushed. The truth was that Sonic 3 was literally only half the story.
October of that same year saw the release of Sonic & Knuckles, essentially the second instalment of the same game in which Knuckles becomes playable and the action builds to a truly epic conclusion, one that completely blows all previous games out of the water. As a standalone game it was every bit as good as anything the series had yet produced in spite of the fact that Tails was not included but it had a unique feature that really made it stand out. On the top of the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge was a port into which you could plug another Mega Drive cartridge thereby linking the two games. By plugging in Sonic 3 you unlocked Sonic 3 & Knuckles a combination of everything in both titles rolled into a single massive game. This was how Sega had envisioned Sonic’s third outing and this was his finest moment, the best game on the Sega Mega Drive and one of the best platformers ever made.
The story picks up directly after the end of Sonic 2. Sonic and Tails fly the Tornado to Angel Island where Dr Robotnik has landed to repair his devastated Death Egg space station. Upon their arrival they meet Knuckled the red echidna guardian of Angel Island who Robotnik has managed to dupe into believing Sonic and Tails are the bad guys. Knuckled pinches the Chaos Emeralds from Sonic and runs off leaving the blue blur and his two-tailed chum to hunt the island’s many zones in search of both Robotnik’s base and the Emeralds.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles really made something of its setting. This game didn’t just feel like a succession of themed levels running on from one another. Instead the once airborne Angel Island feels like a believable world, a vast wilderness once home to ancient civilization hiding a powerful secret guarded by all manner of traps. The game actually shows how Sonic moves from one zone to the next giving his progression some proper context for the first time. Not only that but the levels are full of little scripted events and encounters that make the journey a lot more interesting and much is made of the transition from the first act in a given zone to the second. There are now act one bosses and each second act features remixed music but the most memorable changes are visual.
Take the Angel Island Zone. This begins as a tropical spin on the traditional green zone opening to a game but the mood soon changes when you happen upon a robot that promptly launches a devastating missile attack that sets the whole zone ablaze. As you progress you’ll notice objects in the foreground that are on fire while a veritable inferno blazes in the vivid background. And this is all before Robotnik launches a massive airstrike on you just before the zone’s boss. As opening zones go it’s a showstopper and a mark of things to come.
Your next challenge is the Hydrocity Zone, possibly the best water level of all time, one that conjures a beguiling image of a cavernous subterranean civilization as you speed round its corkscrewing labyrinthine world. You don’t even spend much time underwater, instead you’ll bomb down water slides and jet across the surface. Yes Sonic can run on water, has there ever been anything cooler?
The zones keep coming and are all brilliantly designed. Next is the picturesque but booby-trapped Marble Garden Zone followed by the colourful Carnival Night Zone and the frozen Ice Cap Zone which Sonic enters by jumping on a snowboard. Finally you arrive at the Launch Base Zone where Robotnik is preparing to relaunch his Death Egg. Here is where you will face off against the corpulent scientist in his Squeeze Tag Machine (if you’re playing the game as a standalone that is). As final bosses go it’s certainly cool as I said before but it doesn’t have the same sense of finality as the Death Egg Robot. Once you’ve beaten it the launch of the Death Egg will falter and the space station will plummet only to land in the crater of the Lava Reef Volcano elsewhere on Angel Island. This is where the story transfers to Sonic & Knuckles in which Robotnik aims to use the power of the volcano and of a hidden power of Angel Island to get his creation into space.
Sonic & Knuckles begins in the fantastic Mushroom Hill Zone, a place overrun by giant fungus to bounce on, one of the best, most appealing zones in the series. From there Sonic hitches a ride on Robotnik’s new airship, the Flying Battery Zone which boasts my favourite Sonic tune of all time. Having cleared this you are dropped into the Sandopolis Zone. Who can forget the stark contrast between the two acts of this zone? The first is a sandy desert full of undulating dunes and quicksand pits as you make your way towards a lost pyramid. Act two takes place inside the pyramid which is not only dark but haunted. As time passes the light in the pyramid will fade and ghosts start to appear. Let it get dark enough and they’ll multiply and swoop in to attack and it’s actually rather terrifying in the same way the game scares the hell out of you with its drowning countdown. Finding a switch to turn on the lights and dispel the ghosts is a big relief.
From there the action stays underground as you explore the brilliant Lava Reef Zone and its fiery caverns leading to the source of the volcano. Here is where you will find the Death Egg perched in the opening of the crater high above as you penetrate the crater from below – the sight of the massive space station looming above you in the background forms a memorable backdrop for a particularly epic boss encounter here. You then move onto the Hidden Palace Zone which houses the island’s big secret and the source of its floating power, the Emerald Chamber, home of the Chaos Emeralds and the Master Emerald. Here is where Robotnik shows his true colours by pinching the massive gem, something Knuckles doesn’t take too kindly to. Knuckles, who has spent most of the game antagonising Sonic and Tails in little scripted moments now team up with them and shows them to the Sky Sanctuary Zone where they witness the Death Egg launching above the clouds. After a quick blast through the crumbling Sky Sanctuary and a few encounters with Mecha Sonic, yet another metallic incarnation of the blue spiky one you make it to the Death Egg Zone itself.
As final zones go the Death Egg Zone of Sonic & Knuckles can’t be beaten. The brief visit you paid at the end of Sonic 2, which comprised of nothing but two bosses, feels like an anti-climax next to this. The superbly realised level conveys a massive sense of scale and hostility that makes you really feel like you’re in the lion’s den in a way the series never came close to before all while throwing in some excellent new platform challenges including some brain-twisting gravity reversal. At last you finally face off against the Death Egg Robot but this time it’s massive, way bigger than the screen and every bit as memorable as it was in Sonic 2. But the most extraordinary part is that if you managed to find all the Chaos Emeralds it wasn’t even the end of the game.
Sega again decided to change things up with the hunt for Chaos Emeralds in this game. The star posts still open up gateways into bonus stages but these are only good for grabbing some rings or power ups. Instead the giant rings of the original game are back but they’re not to be found at the end of acts any more. Instead they are hidden throughout the game, usually through secret passages that demand a lot of exploring and a keen eye to spot. Upon finding a ring you will be transported to a pseudo-3D planetoid which you will run automatically across only able to move along the chequerboard gridlines. Your goal is to run over every blue sphere located on the intersections of the gridlines while avoiding red ones which warp you back to the zone. Blue spheres turn red once you’ve passed over them but some will turn into rings instead if you trace the outline of a square arrangement of them. It’s challenge of timing and planning rather than skill as you’ll have to be quick to change direction at the right intersection whilst mentally planning routes which will test your spatial awareness. It’s the most satisfying of the Special Zone challenges in the Mega Drive games, challenging enough to provoke a genuine sense of achievement upon succeeding but the design is very fair.
Like before once you’ve grabbed all seven Chaos Emeralds in wither game you can turn into Super Sonic for some high speed invincible fun but in the combined game this challenge reaches another level. If you collect all seven of Sonic 3’s Chaos Emeralds your first giant ring in the Sonic & Knuckles zones will warp you to the Hidden Palace Zone’s Emerald Chamber where those Chaos Emeralds will stay meaning you lose the ability to turn into Super Sonic. Each time you find a ring you will come here and must jump on a Chaos Emerald to try a new blue sphere challenge at the end of which you will be rewarded with a Super Emerald. Find all seven Super Emeralds and you will unleash the power of Hyper Sonic, an even more powerful version of Super Sonic who flashes different colours and boasts a mid-air dash attach that makes the whole screen flash. This is the ultimate triumph for players of Sonic games, the most rewarding achievement in the series and it makes all your hard work tracking down the giant rings and besting the blue sphere challenges so worthwhile.
But the best part is that by finding all the Chaos Emeralds you unlock the secret best ending. After you’ve defeated his Death Egg Robot Dr Robotnik will try to escape. You will turn into Hyper Sonic (or if you’re just playing Sonic & Knuckles Super Sonic) and pursue Robotnik through space in The Doomsday Zone avoiding space rocks and missiles. You will have to gather rings as you go because like usual they will steadily deplete and when you hit zero you will turn back into regular blue Sonic and fall to your doom so the zone is well named. It’s an absolutely amazing way to end a fantastic game, massively exciting with a theme that really hits home that this is the final encounter. It’s also kind of exhausting, Dr Robotnik’s determination is such that even once you’ve caught him and smashed his ship he will continue to flee just in the original Death Egg Robot still holding the Master Emerald. It’s epic, and boy is it fun. With Robotnik beaten and the Master Emerald recovered Sonic and Tails deliver the massive green gem to Knuckles and watch as Angel Island rise up into the sky again. All in all, probably one of the best endings in video game history.
And that’s not even the end of the content on offer. Don’t forget you can play the whole thing as Tails or Knuckles too. You can even unlock Super Tails and Super Knuckles by bagging all the Chaos Emeralds. Super Tails is particularly fun as he is accompanied by three little birds that actually attack badniks. You can stand by in boss fights will the birds take turns to smash the boss. Plus his ability to fly (and also swim) comes in real handy when exploring the levels, plus with two players you can use this ability to airlift Sonic out of tight spots. Knuckles brings along his own move set, not only can he glide but also climb sheer surfaces which again is very useful to intrepid explorers. His journey through the game is quite different from that of Sonic and Tails, not to mention quite a bit harder, some of the bosses are different and although he doesn’t ever make it into the Death Egg he does get a pretty cool final battle with Super Mecha Sonic. More to the point Knuckles is just plain cool.
As you should expect every aspect of the presentation is top notch. The graphics are bright, clean and detailed, particularly the atmospheric backgrounds and the soundtrack is again stuffed with nothing but memorable tracks. There are a couple of minor faults with the otherwise outstanding design. The biggest is found in the Carnival Night Zone where at one point you will come to what seems like a dead end where you will find a rotating drum. What you have to do is stand on the drum and push up and down on the D-Pad in a rhythmic fashion. This will make the drum move up and down further and further as momentum builds until you are able to hop down into the next area. Neither anything in the game or the manual gives you any indication that you can interact with the drum in this way and you are never required to do this anywhere else. In a game that usually makes brilliant use of multiple pathways through its levels this route is unavoidable and absolutely everybody, myself included, got stuck here when they first played the game. Once you know how to get past it it’s not a problem but in pre-internet 1994 it was baffling and a noteworthy misstep in an otherwise beautifully designed game.
That’s really the biggest complaint I can come up with. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is an incredibly good game, massively fun, epic and dramatic, a match for the best work Mario had produced at the time. This was the pinnacle of Sonic’s career and, sadly, his last true classic. His games took a nosedive shortly after this with the onset of 3D and his fortunes have never been the same. However this cannot detract from the fact that his finest hour really was something special even if you had to buy two games to be able to enjoy it to the full.
Design – 10
Gameplay – 10
Graphics – 10
Sound – 10
Content – 8
Sonic 3 is a 9.5. Sonic & Knuckles is a 9.6. Sonic 3 & Knuckles takes the brilliance of both these games and creates something entirely greater, the perfect Sonic experience, a true 16-bit classic and one of the best games I’ve ever played.