The year of 1997 seems to be a recurring one as of late.
This time it’s the second half of Sonic 3; Sonic & Knuckles.
When Sonic Team were in early development with Sonic 3, they realised that their scope of the much anticipated sequel was far too big to be contained into one game. So they decided to split the game in two. But with the cloud and saves on a console non-existent at the time, they came up with an innovative plan that is still looked back on today with great fondness.
Looking into the marketing for the game at the time in October of ’94, ‘GamesMaster’ did a feature of the game on its show, which can be seen here.
It’s an amusing sight to see, and I only remember the promotion of toys that came with a McDonalds Happy Meal for the game. By this point, Sonic was iconic, with a mascot essentially carrying Sega on a profit while they were releasing ill-fated devices for the Mega Drive such as the 32X which would fail miserably.
With Sonic & Knuckles, it’s the concluding part to Sonic 3, and I remember renting it repeatedly, but finally in August of 1997, the game was mine.
I remember going to ‘Meadowhall’ in Sheffield, a shopping centre that has nearly anything you could want. Before GAME, there was Electronics Boutique, and after renting it for so long and reaching the same point every time, I finally had my own copy.
The story picks up right after Sonic 3 from Launch Base when the ‘Death Egg’ crashes into another part of the Island, which can be seen from the title screen. This covers the remaining half of ‘Angel Island’, which is now floating above the ocean rather than in the skies, as Robotnik has now stolen the ‘Master’ Emerald.
For this second part, there are 6 levels for Knuckles, and 7 for Sonic. They are:
- Mushroom Hill Zone
- Flying Battery Zone
- Sandopolis Zone
- Lava Reef Zone
- Hidden Palace Zone
- Sky Sanctuary Zone
- Death Egg. Sonic Only.
When all the Emeralds were collected, a ‘secret‘ stage would be accessible for Sonic, allowing the player to see the best ending of the game, a method which is still in place for the series today.
Each one has their own mini-boss and Robotnik boss at the end of Act 1 and 2 just as in Sonic 3. The most innovative was Mushroom Hill. In Act 2, the colour would slowly dissipate as you ran further to the end of the stage, eventually turning into an empty grey colour. Only when a machine is destroyed that the colour returns to the zone, and Robotnik appears.
As the title implies, the game is about Knuckles as much as it is about Sonic. You can now control the echidna, with his own moves and story. Double jumping will allow the player to glide across the stage, while also climbing up any wall that allows, and smashing through any walls that Sonic and Tails are unable to, which allows for a different route with Knuckles on many stages, especially when Sonic 3 is joined up.
It’s interesting as you can now play Sonic 3 from a different point of view, slightly alike to Back to the Future Part II when Marty and Doc go back to the events of the first film. You go through different routes of many stages, finding yourself fighting against an egg robot instead of Robotnik.
The music returns in full form once again, but without the help of Michael Jackson this time. When this would be connected with Sonic 3, some other tracks would be replaced to widen the relation to him even more, with familiar tunes to ‘Jam’ with Knuckles’ theme being replaced. This seemed to be a detriment to me, as this seemed like a worse choice, but its understandable to replace it rather than be faced with a lawsuit by Michael Jackson’s estate for royalties. But other tracks such as ‘Sky Sanctuary’ and ‘Lava Reef’ really show how music can be done in games. For me, the first three Sonic and Tomb Raider games exemplify how good music can be in a game.
When I mentioned of the story that Michael Jackson helped create the soundtrack in Sonic 3, with this second part, some of the music was replaced by others, some which were better, while some weren’t. Knuckles’ theme for example. But you could tell that they didn’t have the beat and tempo of Sonic 3, this was slightly different, but still on a great level of quality that all the Mega Drive games of Sonic had.
The Special Stages returned, with a greater challenge than the ones before in Sonic 3, as ‘spring spheres’ in orange would be spread across the stages, jumping you far over to another section, collecting the blue spheres as best you could.
There were also two new Bonus Stages, one being a jackpot level similar to Casino Night, and the other in a surreal electric machine, avoiding a vortex while you swing your way upwards. Instead of collecting 50 rings, it was dependant on collecting 30 or 50, while Sonic 3 and Knuckles did 30 rings for the jackpot stage, 40 for the vortex, and 50 for the gum ball stage. Each was fun in their own way, and added more variety to whatever rings you had collected so far.
Of course, with this being the second part of Sonic 3, a solution was devised to fully complete the game. This was known as ‘Lock-On.’
The box art above shows the back of itself just because of ‘Lock-On’, as it explains how it is used best in a great way.
Lock-On allowed a Sonic 2 or 3 cartridge to be placed on top of the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge, and they would essentially have the full game of what Sonic 3 was envisioned as, while Sonic 2 allowed the player to control Knuckles. Unfortunately they ran out of time having Knuckles playable in Sonic 1, but instead a mini game of the ‘Special Stages’ could be accessed, allowing the player to go through many stages to try and see how far they could get up to.
After collecting the ’Chaos’ and ‘Super’ Emeralds in all 14 of the Special Stages, would then enable an ascension of the ‘Super’ forms, with Hyper’ Sonic or Knuckles being accessible. This would give the player another attack to double jump or smash against a wall to destroy any ‘badniks’ that appeared on the stage, with a different look for each. Even Tails had his time to shine with his own take on a ‘Super’ form after collecting them all.
Sonic 3 was now a complete game, with alternate routes, ‘Super Emeralds’, more stages and a playable Knuckles.
It was incredibly innovative for its time. This was before ‘expansion packs’ and ‘DLC’ was known as the normal method to expand or complete a game as its was originally envisioned, but to even add a character to a game previous like Sonic 2 was a great feature. Unfortunately Sonic 1 didn’t get this ability, but the remastered game for iOS and Android alleviated this.
I remember spending the whole summer playing through the game and eventually, everything was unlocked. It was unique in going back to a game I previously completed, but with a slightly fresh perspective on levels I’d completed many times over already since that Christmas of 1994.
I also remember about reaching a certain point every time I used to rent the game as i mentioned earlier. When you were on a downward slide in ‘Sandopolis Zone’ you would constantly be going down, and if you took the right slide, you’d progress further in the level. If not, you’d simply keep going down, or reach another point with badniks and ghosts, ready to stop you in your tracks. For some reason I could never reach the right slide, and only when I owned the game, I finally found the right slide, which has a moving platform in the middle, and I finally had gotten further than I ever did before.
The save select screen was improved, with continues now being saved as well as lives, emeralds collected and the last stage reached as before.
The game is still fondly remembered by many, and when it came to levels being remade for ‘Sonic Generations’, Sky Sanctuary had the privilege, giving it a fresh look and new ways to play in full 3D, which proved to be just as fun as the original stage.
Overall to me, Sonic 3 and Knuckles exemplifies what a perfect game is. It has an incredible amount of levels, great music, alternate paths, along with special abilities to collect and even a story which needed no FMV, speech bubbles, or text. You simply knew what was going on by just playing the game, and that can only be the best way to put a story across to the player. It’s a game you can easily pick up and play at any time, and come back to it when you want. It never gets old and the masterful level design always wants you to keep coming back, 20 years after it was released.
There are rumours that there will be a remaster of the game on mobile devices, as to how Sonic 1 and 2 received in the past 18 months. Hopefully an announcement won’t be too long now. But in the meantime, if you have access to the many ports of the game available from Steam, Vita, and Xbox Live Arcade, then treat yourself to a copy and see how the series fared at its absolute peak in 1994.