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Double Take: Sonic 3 & Knuckles

Sonic The Hedgehog has by no means disappeared from the public eye. For a little over fifteen years he’s been starring in games and TV shows and has been a constant source of entertainment for at least some sort of group of viewers. While the media may exist, the people who may think the current state of things are the best are simply under-educated. One of the main reasons that retro gaming is a strong entity on the Internet is its ability to educate. For example to ensure that today’s young players can enjoy their Super Mario Galaxys, but also being to play Super Mario World with the same feeling. Thanks to consoles now featuring the classics, the education process is beginning.

Soon, a whole new generation should understand why the Sega Genesis held the better Sonic. Why a simple four game series can still rein supreme over what today constitutes for a Sonic title. Not that I’m saying that today’s games are totally unplayable (I still enjoy a little Sonic Adventure now and again), but overall they involve plenty of scenes where all you do is hit a certain point, then the computer starts playing. It doesn’t seem like much, but it took a lot of Sonic’s older fans out of the game quickly. It may look cool as the camera pans over a giant cityscape as Sonic flies around two giant loops and then sprints down a building, then lands on spring, collects two item boxes, then hits a baddie, then lands; all while having the controller places gently in your lap. But it’s become long ago less of what we once knew as Sonic.

At least the handhelds were able to recreate Sonic’s original gameplay. The Sonic Advance titles, and even the new Sonic Rush series do this to an extent, but it’s still not the same.

Back in the ‘90s.

We still pop in Sonic The Hedgehog once in awhile, even though by now we can beat pretty much the whole game in record times. Sonic 2 is seen as an improvement and a classic in its own right – a new character, a new ability, louder and more colorful stages, a more fantastic ending, a great game; not bad for a rush job. Then we had to wait a bit for Sonic 3. While Sonic Spinball tried to hold us over, we wanted a real Sonic game! To make deadlines, among other reason, Sonic 3 was released in March 1994, and the world rejoiced. As they played, we got even MORE characters, even MORE levels, and an even more fantastic ending! Sega had created an awesome game, which simply looked down at the first two games and laughed! But wait, Sega Visions has a surprise for us:

SONIC & KNUCKLES, COMING THIS FALL!

Another game! Already! Awesome! Wait, it’s not just its own game! Lock-on technology would now bring us not only a brand new adventure, but add-on to what we already loved! We were getting an epic game coming in the Fall of 1994. We just knew it!

The Longest Summer

Sega in 1994 did not disappoint during the seven to eight month wait between titles. Still, it was quite the wait! Sega Visions was keeping us informed and wanting more, and the other gaming rags of the day had their fair share of info and pictures. BUT WE WANTED TO PLAY! The wait was soon over though. Soon the commercials started on TVs across the world! Sega has gone all out this time! Not just an expansion pack, but Sonic & Knuckles was its own game. And, we already knew of its ability to combine with Sonic 3, but we soon learned of Sonic 2 and Knuckles, which would become its own game, but nothing as huge as what would soon take place in a few months.

The day came. Everyone that could went and bought this new game! The advertising was awesome, but barely needed. All they had to do was say “Hey, it’s a new Sonic game” during Perfect Strangers reruns and it would have been a hit. But it didn’t matter where or how you had heard of it. It was finally in your hand. The cardboard box didn’t even bother you (yet). You quickly open the game and plugged it in. The Death Egg lands as Knuckles glides down in a grand 3D spectacle. Sonic is already waiting for him as we start to play. Yes, you can choose Knuckles! He can glide! He can stick to walls! He can climb! He can smash through walls! You’re already excited! But now it’s time to do what you really wanted to do. You turn off the Genesis, and pop in Sonic 3.

Why You Bought Your Genesis

Bam! The game starts off pretty much like it did before, but now you wonder what the hell an echidna is. Sonic 3’s save feature is still evident, although oddly missing from standalone Sonic & Knuckles. Starting off, you know this is why you stuck through with your Sega Genesis over the last few years. That one epic game would not leave the cartridge slot for a good month or three. Everyone beat it, then beat it again, then got all the Chaos Emeralds, then got all the Super Chaos Emeralds, THEN got the Master Emerald, AND THEN they started to play as Hyper Sonic, Hyper Knuckles, and Tails flashing around while birds flew around his head. Oh well, it’s awesome anyway. Eventually though, things changed. We saw the 32X come and go, and no real Sonic 4 ever came. Sega Saturn came along, and went. The Dreamcast then started Sonic out again, but it wasn’t the same.

Sonic 4 would never come to be. Maybe that’s for the better.

Fast Forward Fourteen Years

I still remember that year. Renting Sonic 3 the day it came out, then soon renting both that and Sonic & Knuckles in the fall and pretty much realizing how great the game was. I wasn’t the best at the time, so I could never really get the full experience and beat every level and really take it to Robotnik. As years passed I made friends who were able to buy both games and really put some time into it. As I would watch them play, and consequentially get to play these new levels for really the first time, the feeling never left.

Recently, I was messing around with the debug mode in Sonic 3 & Knuckles. As I turned into Hyper Sonic again in Ice Cap zone, I started to realize something. This game was seen as pretty much the reason to own a Genesis, yet I never really sat down and tried to beat it, start to finish. Sure, I’ve used the level select that came with the game, since I bought it used, and I pretty much beaten as much as was possible. I forced myself to go to the “no save” mode and started out with simply Sonic. No Tails following me, no Tails at all flying around missing half the level. No Knuckles gliding around and blasting through all the baddies. Sonic, just like Sega intended!

Yep, Still Awesome

I love this game! Sonic 2 is still my sentimental favorite, but you can’t go wrong here! I start off with Sonic flying down the screen, being all Super Sonic and such. Then Knuckles came out of the ground out of nowhere and stole my emeralds! I knew it would happen, as he does this each time we meet. But today though things seemed different. As he laughed at Sonic and ran away, it didn’t just mean the start of Sonic’s quest. It meant something different, Knuckles was challenging me! He knew I had no save to fall back on! No level select, no debug, no emeralds, just me and three little Sonic heads in the corner called “lives.” I had all day, and I had an island to save.

I zoomed through for the most part, seeing as how I’ve done pretty much each level by itself enough times I knew what to expect. Carnival Night Zone was easier without Tails screwing up the damn peppermint spinners. Marble Garden Zone felt like a chore, like always. Launch Base Zone had that epic feel that pretty much had you knowing the end was near. It took some time, but I had eventually gotten through Sonic 3! Half was done! I didn’t bother much with emeralds, as I decided around the third one I’d make this a simple play through, not an emerald quest. Now I had defeated the temptation to just become Hyper Sonic and make my goal feel empty, even though I knew I would be missing the epic final boss battle.

As Robotnik flew away again, I waited for the game transition. Soon, the giant battlefield that hung from the bottom of the rocket disconnected and Sonic fell. And fell and fell. He soon landed in Mushroom Hill, which meant things were getting interesting, still! The Death Egg has supposedly fallen, and Knuckles was swimming around a blast zone. There must be something else coming! I felt actually excitement, despite the fact that I knew exactly what was coming up.

This game felt a bit different as I went through. The levels seemed to have a bit more life at times, and I knew that even though this was still Sonic & Knuckles, I knew that things were different. Soon things got challenging though, and I thought I had reached the end of the journey. Lava Reef claimed more lives that I’m willing to admit, and I was ready to just restart and use the level select to help complete the ¾ leg of the journey. But I squeaked through, and made Robotnik throw mines at himself, just like old times. Soon Lava Reef had cooled over, and I went on to the next level.

Hidden Palace Zone now has the notoriety of being Sonic 2’s king of the cut levels, but at this moment it was a grand looking level that held something huge. I remember my friends years ago wondering if this was indeed the end of the game. As I ran through, I collected the rings and use the transporters. I was soon stopped on my quest as an old friend stood across from me. Knuckles? I thought you were underwater! I’ll send him back. As Knuckles and I clashed, I remembered how it felt years before being able to actually fight another “living” being for once, instead of just another robot. The feeling came back for a bit until Knuckles tried to glide over. I quickly spin-dashed under him and jumped right into Knuckles’ face. He fell and the palace started getting bombed! What? Knuckles gets up and suddenly Robotnik returns!

Things go on from there. Sonic & Knuckles team up but Robotnik wins and takes the Master Emerald. I then find the Sky Sanctuary and I know that the fourth leg is now starting. The Death Egg has risen! What to do? Knuckles is badly hurt, but manages to help me get started. He may have laughed before, but now he wants me to go on! He wants me to KICK DR. MACHINO’S BUTT!

Sorry.

Anyway, I go on and eventually go on to Mecha Sonic, who brings me a nice surprise as he pulls out bosses from Sonic 1 and 2! I oddly enough had forgotten about that! I deftly dodge the big ball and beat him once. Then I go one and pop all of Mecha Sonic’s clone balloons and win again! Soon, Mecha Sonic was beaten again and again until he gave up and blows up. But he decides to take the whole Sanctuary with him! Hope Knuckles wakes up! Anyway, Sonic runs up the collapsing staircase and jumps onto the Death Egg.

Time for this epic game to come to a close. I’ll try to shorten things up a bit here. Death Egg zone is annoying, hard, and fun as all hell at the same exact time! Maybe it’s because I knew what was coming so I knew that I could probably take the final boss (I only had about 5 emeralds total). Soon I had made it to the top of the giant Not-Death-Star and Robotnik was ready to take care of that pesky hedgehog, hopefully for the last time!

It didn’t take long, but soon I was falling out of the sky. Robotnik’s final bosses were oddly enough some of the easier in the game, perhaps a little present from Sega to everyone that that worked so hard to get so far. Tails flies in and saves Sonic with the Tornado, and flies around Floating Island. The credits fly up the screen as the end music plays. I’m now spent. Maybe I should have tried for every emerald, but it would have just been extra frustration.

And Now a Final Thought

I look back and wonder now. Is this one of the best games on the system? Yes. One of the best of the ‘90s? Yes. On a greatest of all time sort of list, where would it stand? That’s one that’s hard answer right away. I mean, it’s an epic story and game that has you feeling experienced at the end of the day, but has it aged all that well? Compared to Sonic titles them selves, yes! Compared to the grand scheme of games? I’d say so! Put this game on a DS today and I would still be seen as a great title! The graphics were some of the best without being distracting, the music is, of course, very memorable, and overall the game play is nearly flawless.

I can’t really put it into words, but someone else already has before, and I’ll quote him here:

“Once you’ve played these (two games), everything else just seems uninspired. That, more than anything else, is the mark of a masterpiece.”

-Nick Gibson

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