I never actually played any Sonic games as a child; we were too poor to own a real console (the best we could get were GameBoys). Instead, I absorbed him by the collossal pile of merchandising that surrounded him — cartoons, branded clothing, all that nonsense.
So I don’t have any nostalgia about the games. Sonic 1 is, to me, a bit floppy, and Sonic 2 just feels like an embryonic version of the blue blur’s finest hour: Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles. The masterwork.
I bought the Sonic Mega Collection Plus a few years ago, as a grown man. I wasn’t rediscovering the past, I was discovering something new that I had never truly experienced before.
There is no “retro” here. There is only a bloody good game.
It always struck me as odd that Knuckles was willing to consign acres and acres of lush jungle to destruction by fire just to get Sonic on the run. I know he thinks Sonic’s a thief, but is slash and burn on an epic scale really the answer? It’s not like the fire has any real effect on the gameplay (unlike Lava Reef Zone much later on).
Luckily after all that heat you drop down into the cool Hydrocity Zone.
… And then out of one set of ruins, and into another!
I’ve always had a thing for ancient ruins, and that’s probably one of the reasons why I find S3&K so captivating — there are no less than five different kinds of ancient ruin. Hydrocity, Marble Garden, Sandopolis, Hidden Palace and Sky Sanctuary — for being a reasonably small, self-contained floating island it must have had an incredibly diverse population back in the day.
Or, like the Transformers, a consistent scale wasn’t necessarily in the design brief.
Okay, the game not perfect — while I am perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to the variety of ruins because I love ruins, I’m less willing to do so for a giant theme park. This is a high-tech thing amid ruins, so it can’t be anything left over from the previous inhabitants. Is it something Robotnik whipped up in the last few weeks since the Death Egg crashed, for his own amusement? Was Knuckles just crying out for a friend with whom to enjoy this giant self-built Vegas?
It wouldn’t be so bad if Carnival Night Zone wasn’t such a nightmare of a zone. Springs, anti-gravity panels, pinball bumpers, balloons, cannons, those bloody shotgun-clam-shell robots… The whole thing conspires to make you lose control. This is one zone I always try to speed through — the irony being that trying to go faster just results in more bouncing and less progress. So much pain!
I think Ice Cap Zone is one of the most beautiful in the game. While I’ve always had a thing for ruins, it was definitely Sonic that given me a thing for ice-scapes with this very zone. Angular ice crystals, misty valleys, fragments of glacier gently floating by… I want them all. It’s so pretty. And with that music. Augh!
Launch Base Zone always really did confuse the hell out of me. It makes perfect sense when you play Sonic 3 alone, but in combination with Sonic & Knuckles it somewhat loses its place. So the Death Egg crashes at the end of Sonic 2, then it launches, then it crashes again, then it launches again… Seems to me like the “crashing the Death Egg” plot hook was a little… over-egged.
The Flying Battery Zone is another top level. I love how you can see all the end-of-level animal prison capsules lined up in the background, like you’ve stumbled in on Robotnik mass-producing them for his evil ends. Of course it’s another point off for consistency — this area, of Robotnik’s manufacture, shares absolutely no design features with the Launch Base Zone, nor the Death Egg.
And that music. Have I told you before how much I love the soundtrack of S3&K? Surely. It’s non-stop slices of synth-pop excellence… Except possibly Carnival Night Zone.
So, Angel Island is jungly, deserty, icy, volcanic and has a giant theme park on it. We must have seen it all by now, right?
I think the moment when you arrive at the Sky Sanctuary and see the Death Egg rising out of the clouds is going to go down as one of my top video game Moments of all time. It’s got everything — epic scale, drama, tension…
Sky Sanctuary zone is also, thematically, about as good as it gets for me. I’ve always had a thing for ruins, but ever since I played the classic Unreal Tournament singleplayer mod Operation: Na Pali I’ve had a thing for floating islands too. To jump into a teleporter and end up on some floating ruins is mangnificent — and that music! Augh!
The final boss always gets my heart all a-flutter. That thunderous boss music starts, with the throaty bass and the cutting melody, Robotnik somehow manages to outrun the fastest thing alive to get into his giant robot, he tears his own battlestation apart by starting it up… And then you run away from the breaking ground, and hear the huge footsteps following…
And unless you’re a bloody pro, you have to do it with no safety net of rings — you have to do it without taking a single mis-step. That’s where the next part gets difficult. Avoiding the fire-snot is easy enough, but then you’ve got to jump and hit and not fall down the gap, then rinse and repeat to actually deal the damage — and if you don’t jump at precisely the correct time the Master Emerald Death Laser will end it all.
Of course, even though you’ve blown everything to shit just by throwing yourself at it, the real game ain’t over.
The Doomsday Zone remains one of my favourite game finales. “Crashing face-first through an asteroid field as an invincible super-hedgehog” should have been so stupid that it got laughed right off the drawing board.
But no. In actuality, it’s a dramatic, brutal, pulse-pounding conclusion. Somehow the game manages to take itself seriously enough that all this works, in the midst of the bizarre over-the-top enemies, and basically cartoon violence..
Then there is the credits sequence. The credits music is a mash-up of all the tunes from Sonic & Knuckles, which is disappointing because the credits theme from Sonic 3 alone is one of the best tunes of the entire edifice. Presumably quietly sidelined because of that whole Michael Jackson conspiracy thing.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a game that I can return to time and again and never be disappointed. Despite my familiarity with it, it still provides plenty of challenge and adrenaline rushes, and the levels that tend to be much less linear than they look can always throw up more surprises (a bit like Deus Ex, which always, always reveals something new with every play).
No matter how bad or good or mediocre Sonic games may be or have been, Sonic 3 & Knuckles will always be there.