Sonic 3 & Knuckles Retro Review

When Sonic the Hedgehog 3 released in early 1994 it was really just the first half of the game originally planned by Sonic Team. The third game in the Sega Genesis flagship series was not on schedule for completion by Sega’s planned date, leading Sonic Team to split the game into two parts, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and Sonic & Knuckles which released later the same year. The Sonic & Knuckles cartridge for the Genesis launched with the rather unique ability to “lock-on” to other cartridges. (The top of the cartridge could flip back allowing for another cartridge to be plugged in on top.) Depending on what cartridge was locked on players could use Knuckles in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (attaching Sonic 2), access extra special stages (attaching Sonic 1), and most importantly to combine Sonic 3 with Sonic & Knuckles to create Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the game Sonic 3 was meant to be.

My opinion of Sonic 3 & Knuckles is positively biased by nostalgia, because I absolutely loved it growing up and played through it many times. However, I will do my best to write a fair review based on replaying it recently with a friend. We blasted through the whole game in two sessions, playing Sonic and Tails together. It was a game he had never finished as a kid, so I felt he should see the entirety of the classic at least once.

Playing Sonic and Tails brings up an immediate complaint about cooperative play. For the sake of preventing frustrating, having Tails be unable to detract from the players life count or lose rings is a great design choice that lets a less experienced player be included without frustration. The fact that Tails cannot ever die permanently also makes the Tails player perfect for recklessly assaulting bosses, though this can take away the challenge and therefore possibly the fun of a boss fight. The big problem with Sonic and Tails cooperative play though, is how hard it is too keep tails in play with Sonic. Tails is able to leave the screen and get left behind, and this happens every few seconds in the hectic speedy parts of the game. After getting far enough off the screen Tails resets, and will come slowly flying back on screen with his two tails. This return is far to slow to keep a Tails player in play for much of the game however, and I think the cooperative aspect of the game could have been greatly improved if Tails had simply quickly jumped or run onto the screen and was immediately back in control.

The speed that leaves Tails behind so often is of course iconic for Sonic the Hedgehog. With loops, bumpers, jumps and a variety of power-ups players will rush through Sonic 3 & Knuckles at great speed. However the speed is tuned well enough that an attentive player can respond to a trap or enemy that comes into the screen before Sonic reaches it preventing frustration that often comes with fast games. Also, there is much of the game the game that cannot be played at full speed, such as dangerous platforming segments, and rooms that have some form of switch or control to be found before the exit opens. The parts that force the player to slow down provide a welcome change of pace and keep the parts that are fast from going stale. The level design can be complemented not only for it’s pacing, but for its multiple paths and lack of cheap death pits. Sonic 3 & Knuckles provides large platforming environments that often have two or three branching paths through them, and some paths are only accessible with Tails ability to fly, or Knuckles ability to climb and break through rock on contact. These various routes are laid out in such a way that the lowest route rarely has any gaps that would allow the player to fall out of the level and die. This means that in most circumstances if Sonic or another character misses a jump and falls, they land in a lower area of the level instead of dying. The exceptions to this are usually found in levels that are meant to be high in the sky, and the death pits are use to symbolize falling off of the level entirely. In the end rushing through levels is very satisfying but there are plenty of secrets and obstacles to discover and avoid at a slower more exploratory pace.

The game controls as all of the original Sonic games do, very simply and responsively. There is only one button, jump, which is also used to get a speed boost with a “spin-dash” if tapped while stationary and pressing down. If jump is pressed when Sonic is airborne a brief flash of lightning surrounds sonic protecting him from damage and slightly expanding his effective diameter which is very useful in attacking enemies. Tails can fly temporarily with his two tails if jump is pressed rapidly while he’s airborne, and Knuckles is sent into a gentle glide which allows knuckles to latch onto walls and climb. All three characters control with an excellent balance of momentum and control, allowing players to be agile without feeling like they are weightless.

The environments are colorful easy to look at, and while some textures are repetitive for a game made in the mid 90s there is as much detail as I would expect in any platformer. The character animations for Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles are fluid and vary greatly depending on the situation. Some rotating platforms will spin the characters displaying sprites from all angles, and the way the characters are animated through different running speeds and poses is quite smooth. The enemies are more simply animated, but are well done sprites nonetheless. Playing through recently I did encounter some sprite layering glitches where Tails was behind the background instead of in front which creates some pretty poor visibility issues, but this seemed to be a fairly uncommon glitch that only occurred in specific circumstances.

The portrait on the back wall is a prophetic hint at the optional final boss.

To people who grew up playing Sonic the Hedgehog games, the music is often considered memorable and high quality. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is no exception, and the music for most levels is catchy, fitting for the environment, and loops quite well. Fans of old video game music will probably appreciate the soundtrack. The sound effects of the game are simple and effective, also well matched to their causal action. Sadly, one of my biggest complaints about Sonic 3 & Knuckles relates to music and sound. The loop of music that plays when a character becomes invincible is too short for the games good. If Sonic opens an invincibility power-up, the excited musical loop plays for a bit, but the power-up does not last long enough for the repetition to become an issue. However, if a player is good enough to collect all of the chaos emeralds hidden in special bonus stages throughout the game, Sonic can turn into the golden colored extremely fast Super Sonic, which also triggers the invincibility music. When this happens, Sonic is invincible to most forms of damage but his rings (the common collectible in Sonic games that are dropped when Sonic takes damage) count down. When they reach zero Super Sonic reverts to normal blue Sonic. However, a good player can collect rings as they rush through a level, and stay in Super form for quite a long time. The music punishes these good players by forcing them to listen to the short loop of invincibility music the entire time, overriding the much more varied and tolerable music from the zone Sonic is in. This seems like a major oversight in sound design to me. [Anyone who already knows they like Sonic music, or people who are interested in it and like video game music, should check out Project Chaos which is an entire album of remixed music from Sonic 3 and Knuckles.]

Sonic 3 & Knuckles as a game is a solid piece of work. Environments are pretty, exciting,  and dotted with mini-game special stages to gain power-ups and rings, as well as special stages where Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles is controlled from behind while running on a giant sphere to collect blue orbs and unlock a chaos emerald. When players progress from the levels within the Sonic 3 cartridge to the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge new super emeralds unlock leading players to even greater power. The story is told through brief character interactions and level transitions. While still a simple story like most platform games of the 90s, the bits that are there help provide a sense of connection between the different levels, and display the plans of the evil Dr. Robotnik in a quick understandable way. Collecting rings and finding power-ups feels important for the sake of survival, but being without isn’t frustratingly deadly. The boss fights against Dr. Robotnik’s robots are extremely varied, but fair in difficulty. No one boss should stump a decent player for too long once they recognize the pattern. A final touch to make this game stand out, especially considering the time it was made, was that the game saves automatically, allowing players to start on the level they left off, it has multiple save files to provide for the variety of character choice and multiple players, and when a game is completed in a save file, players can then use that save file as a level selector to replay the game from any point with whatever chaos emeralds and extra lives they had collected.

The game begins with a brief cut scene in which Sonic loses all the chaos emeralds he collected in Sonic 2.

Replaying Sonic 3 & Knuckles let me realize just how well designed it was even by todays standards. Sure, games today are often much longer, and obviously the quality of graphics and sound has greatly increased over the years, but for it’s time Sonic 3 & Knuckles demonstrated the strength of good game design, and is one of the best examples of the platformer genre in the 90s.


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