Sonic the Hedgehog is a character we all know (and maybe don’t necessarily love). When Sega of Japan and America worked together to create the character in 1990, he was conceived as a mascot to rival Mario and move units of their newly released Genesis/Mega Drive console, which at the time was struggling to gain a foothold in America despite aggressive advertisement campaigns (“Genesis does what Nintendon’t!”). Needless to say, it worked, and Sonic quickly became more recognizable to children than Mickey Mouse. Nowadays the super fast blue hedgehog is more of a running joke to gamers than anything else, despite recent titles like Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations being generally well received by fans and critics, and it’s not hard to see why. Even the good 3D Sonic games simply aren’t made with the kind of craftsmanship you can see in your average Mario title. The venerable Sega of old pretty much died off for good when they exited the hardware business over a decade ago. As a result, I think there has been an unfair tendency among retro gamers to write off the old Sega consoles, and the Genesis and its library of games in particular. The idea that the Genesis somehow lacks the transcendent gaming experiences that you can have on the SNES is just plain wrong, and one of the first games I’d point out to prove my point is Sonic 3 & Knuckles.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a 2D platformer with a heavy emphasis on physics and speed, in the same vein as the previous Genesis Sonic games. Technically, it’s actually two games – Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles – but they’re meant to be played together. Sega was trying to rush the production of Sonic 3 for release in late 1993, but it ended up coming out in March ’94 with little fanfare, with the game’s “second half,” Sonic & Knuckles coming out just a little over six months later. Sonic & Knuckles‘s lock-on cartridge technology was somewhat revolutionary for the time. By locking on Sonic the Hedgehog 3 to the top of the Sonic & Knuckles cart you were able to play Sonic 3 & Knuckles, but interestingly enough, you could also now play as Knuckles in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 if you were to lock on that cartridge. Honestly, in this way it was beneficial to gamers that Sonic 3 & Knuckles was released in two halves – you’d have to wait until the era of emulators and ROM hacks to see Knuckles in Sonic 2 otherwise.
It was originally intended that you could play as Knuckles in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and that much is apparent since the Sonic 3 levels are littered with tons of Knuckles-exclusive pathways. The levels here are absolutely huge and it’s pretty remarkable how many secret areas and alternate pathways there are. Not only are there areas that only Tails and Knuckles can access (via their powers of climbing up walls or controlled flight), but there are plenty of different routes you can take through a level even if you’re playing as Sonic, who in this game is ironically the most undesirable character in the franchise named after him. There are 14 zones in the game, and just as in Sonic 2, each zone is broken up into two acts instead of three as in the original Sonic the Hedgehog. This time around though, greater steps have been taken to differentiate each act from one another. The musical theme changes slightly in the second act of each zone, with extra flourishes added here and there, and you will often see different scenery that fits the theme of the zone as well. Honestly though, the biggest strength of Sonic 3 & Knuckles is that the game saves automatically after each zone, so you don’t have to worry about having the stamina to play it all in one sitting. Nor do you have to worry about having to go back to the very beginning of the game, since although you still have limited continues you can always start off from your last save point if you get a game over.
It is absolutely worth it to play through the game at least once with each character. Certain levels play completely differently based on whether you are using Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, and the progression of the game even changes slightly as well. If you play as Sonic or Tails, Knuckles will repeatedly show up at the end of a zone to taunt you and you’ll eventually have to fight him later on. Playing as Knuckles, however, you miss out on these scenes, and the game ends after a boss battle with Metal Sonic in Sky Sanctuary Zone, rather than Death Egg Zone as is normal (or The Doomsday Zone if you manage to collect 7 chaos emeralds as Sonic). Some boss fights with Dr. Robotnik are noticeably easier or more difficult when playing with a certain character. In the case of Tails, the game is noticeably more easy in general – his ability to fly for an extended period of time completely trivializes many of the more tricky platforming sections that Sonic and Knuckles have to deal with.
When it comes to graphics and sound, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is easily among the best the Genesis has to offer. It has long been rumored that Michael Jackson composed the music for Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and while that may not be true, you can definitely tell that the music here was not composed by Masato Nakamura, who did the soundtracks to Sonic the Hedgehog and its sequel. While Nakamura’s work on those games was legendary, the soundtrack here might be even better, and that’s no small feat. The composers on Sonic 3 & Knuckles really knew how to take full advantage of the Genesis soundchip and it shows. The Genesis’s asinine 64 on-screen colors limit is often seen as the console’s crippling weakness, but the issues brought up by that limitation are certainly not present here. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is vibrant and detailed, and at times even rivals your average SNES game in that regard. Hydrocity Zone has some very impressive 3D-esque water effects and many layers of parallax scrolling, and Ice Cap Zone shows just how much can be done on the Genesis with different shades of blue, black, and white. It’s not completely consistent across the board – Launch Base Zone has some annoying music and graphically is garish and ugly – but for the most part everything looks and sounds beautiful.
If you haven’t yet played Sonic 3 & Knuckles or are doubtful of the greatness of the Genesis as a console, it’s an absolute must that you try it. The formula of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic 2 was refined to perfection here, and the addition of Knuckles and Tails as fully fledged playable characters just made it that much more interesting. This is one of the greatest platformers of the 16-bit era if not of all time, and it can easily hold its own against the likes of Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country, and Yoshi’s Island.