Why We Love Sonic 3 & Knuckles
The Sonic series has endured more twists, turns, false starts, and drop-offs than one of the blue hedgehog’s own levels. When discussing the best game in the series, many longtime fans ignore the post-Dreamcast stuff and stick to the Genesis era. There are several wonderful 16-bit Sonic games, but we’re here to share the many reasons Why We Love Sonic 3 & Knuckles.
Two Halves United
Several years ago, Sonic creator Yuji Naka revealed that Sonic 3 was originally meant to be twice as long and include Knuckles as a playable character. Due to deadline issues, Sonic Team had to polish up the finished half and put it on the market as Sonic 3. Later in the same year, Sega released the other half as Sonic & Knuckles, complete with a docking port. The pieces originally meant to be one huge Sonic saga were joined, resulting in the deepest 2D game in the series to date.
The docking port on top of Sonic & Knuckles didn’t just allow it to combine with Sonic 3 to deliver a complete experience; it was practically from the future. In an era before DLC and widely accessible Internet connectivity, the concept of playing through Sonic 3 as Knuckles was utterly mind-blowing. It felt more like a CyberDyne product than a Sega one. Unlocking Knuckles allowed players to use the echidna’s spiky fists and gliding ability to open up new areas to explore in Sonic 3. Curious gamers were treated to an even bigger surprise with…
Sonic 2 & Knuckles
The fact that Sonic 3 had hidden nooks just for Knuckles made sense considering Sonic Team originally meant for him to be in the game. However, plugging a game from 1992 on top of a game from 1994 to access a new character still boggles my mind. Such was the case with Sonic 2, which, when combined with Sonic & Knuckles, let gamers use Knuckles’ wall-climb and gliding abilities to reach previously inaccessible power-ups.
The credit for memory-backed save files goes to Sonic 3, but the feature didn’t truly come in handy until Sonic & Knuckles came along to make it an even better game. Having multiple save slots meant you could simultaneously have separate quests with Sonic, Tails, Sonic & Tails, and Knuckles. Better yet, when Sonic 3 & Knuckles was conquered you could select among any of the game’s 13 stages on the fly. The save slots also allowed completionists to show off all their collected Chaos Emeralds.
Double The Chaos
Speaking of Chaos Emeralds, combining the two games unlocked a second set of even more powerful gems. As soon as you acquire the standard seven Chaos Emeralds, Sonic can transform into Super Sonic and blaze through stages while Tails struggles to catch up. While this isn’t too different from Sonic 2, the real fun begins when Sonic arrives in Mushroom Hill Zone. After watching Knuckles sneak out of a secret area, Sonic enters and discovers a mystical room holding a gigantic stone called the Master Emerald. His Chaos Emeralds react with it and spawn seven Super Emeralds. After collecting all of the new gems, Sonic and his crew can transform into “hyper” versions of themselves. Sonic shimmers with white light, Tails gains powerful bird pals to protect him, and Knuckles’ fists make the world tremble.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles implemented three awesome elemental shields, offering players much more than one-hit immunity. Arguing one shield’s supremacy over the other is difficult, especially considering how useful each is in specific situations. The water shield creates a bouncy bubble around Sonic, which bestows infinite underwater breathing – a very useful item in Hydrocity Zone. The flame shield allows Sonic to become a short-ranged fireball and makes him invulnerable to fire damage. My favorite of the trio is the lightning shield, which magnetically draws rings towards Sonic and gives him an immensely useful double jump. The lightning shield also has an awesome shorting out effect when it makes contact with water. It’s too bad these gameplay innovations were lost as the Sonic franchise continued.
Sonic 2 allowed a second player to pick up a spare Genesis controller and help out as Tails, sans his flying ability. In Sonic 3 & Knuckles, players could make the two-tailed fox fly, and could even bring Sonic along for the ride. Having a friend lift you to high platforms or save you from a nasty fall was incredibly useful. It didn’t hurt that Tails is invincible, either. Sure, the slower sidekick could be left chewing on Sonic’s dust every so often, but beating on bosses without losing rings more than makes up for it. Now if only Sega could release a new cartridge that allowed Sonic and Knuckles to team up.
This game marks a sweet spot before the series became inundated with crappy characters. At its core, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is about Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Dr. Robotnik. It doesn’t get any more classic than that. Metal Sonic spices things up a bit in the final act, too. What makes it even better is that each character had unique move sets that allowed you to play the game in entirely different ways. The whole experience is balanced around Sonic, Tails can fly to high locations, and Knuckles can break down walls and glide across chasms. It’s easy to look back fondly on those glorious days free of voice-acting and Big the Cat.
Return of Metal Sonic
Sonic fans grew to fear and respect Metal Sonic after encountering him in a white-knuckle race in Sonic CD. The dastardly robot returns in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, and he’s after the Master Emerald. Sonic encounters the doppelganger in Sky Sanctuary Zone, and the battle starts out with a throwback. Metal Sonic hops into the iconic wrecking ball machine from the end of Green Hill Zone in the original Sonic the Hedgehog. That rematch is a total cakewalk, as is the Metropolis Zone clone-spawning boss encounter. Things get more interesting when Metal Sonic sheds Dr. Robotnik’s failed toys and goes mano a roboto with Sonic. Eventually Metal Sonic hops on top of the Master Emerald and absorbs its energy to become Hyper Metal Sonic. Not only does this sound like a genre of very fast, very angry music, it also proves to be a very challenging and memorable bout.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles has some of the catchiest tunes in the entire series. It doesn’t hurt that Michael Jackson has been mentioned by Sega in connection with the game, even though he was never credited. Whether the King of Pop’s lack of official contribution was due to the Genesis sound chip failing to impress him or the scandals surrounding him at the time, we’re left with some convincing evidence. Listen to the "End Credits Theme" above, then listen to Michael Jackson's "Stranger in Moscow" below:
"Stranger in Moscow"
I’ve cherry-picked a few of my favorite songs from the two games. You might want to open the next page of this feature in a new window so you can keep these playing in the background as you continue reading.
Angel Island Zone - Act 1
Ice Cap Zone - Act 1
Sonic 3 Music: Launch Base Zone - Act 1
Flying Battery Zone – Act 1
Sonic & Knuckles Music: Sandopolis Zone Act 2
Death Egg Zone – Act 2
Sonic vs. Knuckles
Sonic 3 starts off with Knuckles stealing Sonic’s Chaos Emeralds and laughing at him. Sonic spends a big chunk of the adventure chasing down the red echidna with a lust for revenge. He finally gets it in the Hidden Palace Zone. With a huge colorful tapestry hanging in the background, the rivals finally face off. Only it turns out Knuckles is a total chump. He crumples after just a few jump attacks. Nice try, Knuckles.
Near the end of Sonic 3, Dr. Robotnik is trounced so thoroughly by Sonic that he plummets into the ocean without a chance to make his usual getaway. Seeing an opportunity, Sonic leaps into the mad doctor’s egg-o-matic vessel and flies towards the Death Egg. He encounters Knuckles standing on a tall pedestal, crossing his arms and glaring like a punk. At this point in the game the two are still rivals. Sonic lays on the accelerator to bust through Knuckles, but the Echidna simply chuckles and punches the ship backwards. Right as things are about to get interesting, the Death Egg begins to rumble. Knuckles falls off his shaking platform as the huge spaceship takes off, and Sonic continues towards a pivotal confrontation with Dr. Robotnik.
Locking together Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles doesn’t just stack the levels on top of one another; it transitions smoothly from one experience to the other. At the conclusion of Sonic 3, Sonic chases Dr. Robotnik to a platform on the outside of the Death Star-like Death Egg. Naturally, a frenzied final boss battle ensues. If you’re playing Sonic 3 by itself, Dr. Robotnik hops into a deadly spiked machine after his easier first form is defeated. Once he’s defeated, the platform detaches and Sonic plummets downwards while watching the Death Egg crash in the background. End credits roll. When Sonic & Knuckles is incorporated, the hedgehog falls directly into the fungus-laden Mushroom Hill Zone. If you begin playing Sonic & Knuckles by itself, the player begins the game by simply falling into Mushroom Hill Zone. This always confused me until I combined the games, saw the smooth transition, and had a big “ah ha!” moment.
When combined, these two Genesis games result in a masterpiece of perfectly-balanced level types. The tropical greenery of Angel Island Zone and the looping vines of Mushroom Hill Zone deliver two stages on par with the classic Green Hill Zone. On top of these, almost every other essential platforming level is represented: water, ice, fire, sand, sky, industrial, etc. Each nonlinear level is packed with secret rings, power-ups, and alternate paths to add variety and discovery to each playthrough. These carts are the untainted distillation of what a Sonic game should be: an entertaining mix of speedy runs through flashy acrobatic segments and solid platforming.
Unlike most mad scientists, Dr. Robotnik is man enough to personally test his evil machines on Sonic. He returns undeterred at the end of each zone with a new rig more deadly than the last. My favorite boss battles involve Robotnik creating tsunamis, bringing down a mountain, evading Sonic through spiked hurdles, driving a pyramid-tank, and controlling a volcano. There are several awesome minibosses as well. Some notable encounters involve getting faked out by one of those critter-filled capsules that turns into a spiky-armed enemy, knocking a stone golem into quicksand, and battling a robotic snowman.
The Secret Ending
Gamers of any age can enjoy a huge Sonic experience spanning two complete games. However, it takes skill and dedication to unlock all 14 emeralds. Unfortunately, I was awful at the bonus stages in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, so for years I missed out on collecting all 14 emeralds. When I did get them all, I was treated to much more than Hyper Sonic. Beating the game normally gets you an okay ending with Sonic and the recovered Master Emerald floating back down to the island while Robotnik goes down in flames. Beating the egg-shaped man with all the emeralds scores you a high-speed chase through space as Hyper Sonic. Witnessing the true ending after seeing the standard conclusion dozens of times was one of my childhood’s most shocking moments.