#47: Sonic & Knuckles
Designed for: Sega Genesis
Developed by: Sonic Team
Published by: Sega
I feel like you’re either the type of person who can get into a Sonic game or you’re not. You play your Marios and your whatnots and maybe you look at Sonic and you just don’t get it, and that’s understandable. If you like roaming around stages and exploring or finding hidden keys and alternate paths, Sonic might not be for you. He controls weirdly at slow speeds and the stages are made such that careful exploration usually yields death by traps or enemies that are more easily handled at speed. But that is, of course, designed that way on purpose.
I love Mario (as will be proven (much) later in this list), and I do like taking a stage at my own pace and investigating all the little nooks (when rewarded for it), but I find that rather than disliking Sonic for his deviation from this, I rather appreciate the different experience he offers. Turns out you can enjoy both, despite what the marketing teams waging the 16-bit console war would’ve had me believe.
When you play Sonic you end up developing an interesting kind of relationship with the designers. Sonic’s speed is, of course, his thing, and when you start busting through loop-de-loops, the blue guy can really get goin’–sometimes even the screen loses track of him. At these kinds of speeds, it quickly becomes impossible to see, process, and avoid certain obstacles effectively, so two things end up happening. First, you learn to trust the level. At some point you realize, ok, the guy who made this isn’t just actively trying to fuck me over, so I’m probably not going to run straight into some spikes right when I get going. This trust is rarely betrayed. Secondly, and as a result of that trust, an avid player will start to get into the heads of the designers a little bit and start running and jumping on instinct, predicting where things are going to be without seeing them. It takes a while to get to this point, but it feels quite gratifying when you do. And it’s not memorization either—I can honestly say that I do not have any Sonic levels committed to memory, but I can play them almost as if I do because I can read a few digital yards ahead based on what I’ve learned of how the game works. Achieve this level of understanding with the designers and get a good run going with Sonic at his top speed and it’s great; like you’re just a hair from losing control but somehow acing the stage. I like to think that’s what they had in mind when they made these games.
And it’s that kind of feeling that I loved when I played these games as a wee lad. Sonic’s famous ‘tude didn’t really grab me because, let’s face it, it’s almost non-existent in the games themselves. Yeah, he’d look a little impatient if you let him stand there, but all of the rest of it was marketing bullshit, and I didn’t really care much. No, I was into Sonic because of the speed, the high-flying antics and colorful stages and bosses.
I always loved how, despite doing their best to relegate you to certain tracks and discourage you from snooping around too much, Sonic stages always seemed impossibly vast. For the most part, Mario levels took you along a straight path with a little verticality here and there, generally in a pretty grounded (although thoroughly stylized) environment. Contrariwise, you play pretty much any stage from Sonic 2 on and shit is all over the place. Three words: Chemical. Plant. Zone. That was such a game changer in Sonic 2. The single area that preceeded it was a nice call back to the starting level of the original game, set against the serene, checkered landscapes we all knew and loved, but after that, shit got REAL in a HURRY. Alternate paths flyin’ all over the place, pits full of chemical death, springs, launch tubes and an aggressively industrial look let you know that you weren’t in Green Hills anymore, Toto. Even the soundtrack started stepping it up.
And the games were just so immaculately made. I mentioned some shaky controls at times, but that is quite literally the only facet of the game’s production that’s really open to criticism. The graphics are huge and colorful, the music was pretty much the best on the Genesis, and the level design was constantly innovative and exciting especially after the first game. I was a platforming nut in my 16-bit days—from B.O.B. to Bubsy, I’d played it. Sonic was the only series that could ever threaten Mario, and because I only played Nintendo consoles at friends’ houses, the spiky little hedgehog was my main man.
I enjoy all of the first four Sonic games to pretty much the same degree, but while making this Top 50 List, I figured that I shouldn’t let a whole series of games occupy one spot nor pad the list with a ton of interchangeable sequels, so here it is—Sonic & Knuckles reppin’ for the whole thing.
If you’re a Sonic fan like I am, the choice for which of the first four games is the best is almost all personal preference. Each game ups the ante more and more, but the core gameplay is always identical, and you could skip one entirely and not see a huge gap in the progression. Basically, it comes down to which stages, music and characters you like the best, as well as how much time you spent playing it back in the day. In all of these categories, Sonic & Knuckles is my game.
Originally, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were the same game, which is a little staggering to think about, given that each of them seems about as long and fully-formed as your average 16-bit platformer. That said, it’s easy to see how such an epic game would run over budget and time, and the resulting two games don’t seem to have suffered much for the split. Curiously, though, they do feel a like pretty different games, but in small ways that your average player probably wouldn’t care about.
I think the music in Knuckles is much better, owing mostly to the fact that Michael Jackson wasn’t involved. I know it’s a great story and everything, but I must say that I find Jackson’s work on Sonic 3 pretty uninspiring and frankly kind of out of place. This is surprising to me, given that King Michael was not only a huge series fanboy, but also (as you may know) could fucking jam better than any Sega composer. Oh well, maybe that’s why he took his name off of it. Not to harp on him, but one very disappointing aspect of Jackson’s involvement was the melancholy end credits theme he wrote which preempted the series-standard medley-of-stage-themes that had appeared in the first two games. Thankfully, though, they brought that back for Knuckles, which is a big tally in the win column right there.
MJ or no, the music in Sonic and Knuckles is pretty boss.
Again, it’s just the little things that make this one the best. Sonic Team smartly carried over the 3D-maze orb-collecting minigame from Sonic 3 which has easily been the series’ best way to gather those pesky Chaos Emeralds to date. And speaking of which, those ubiquitous gems were a little more important this time around. Besides being more central to the plot and to Knuckles as a character, they now allowed the player to transform Sonic (and friends) past the “Super Sonic” level to “Super Saiyan 2 Sonic”…er…I mean “Hyper Sonic”. This transformation actually grants the player some interesting new powers—Sonic has a legitimate double jump, Tails gets little birds that follow him around and attack enemies, and Knuckles can cause quakes that clear the screen baddies by bashing into walls with his fists. Whoa! In addition, beating the game in this form is the only way to access the real last boss and the best ending, which is a must. Finally, the Chaos Emeralds yield rewards equal to the daunting challenge of collecting them!
Although it was pretty gimmicky, even for the time, Sonic & Knuckles’ “lock-on” technology was still kind of cool. If nothing else, plugging it into its immediate predecessor created “Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles” which combined the two games into what we can assume was Sonic Team’s original vision. It actually works pretty well, and the ending of Sonic 3’s levels segue straight into the beginning of Knuckles’ creating a cool Pokemon Gold-type feeling of Holy Shit I Thought That Was The End But I Guess It’s Only Half Over. It also adds Knuckles to the other games, of course, so that’s nice, too.
Speaking of Knuckles, playing as the smooth echidna offers a new dimension to things as well. Gliding around (which he does…how again?) feels pretty good, and although climbing walls with spiked hands slows gameplay significantly, it allows access to some nifty hidden areas. And with that in mind, all of Sonic & Knuckles stages sport completely different layouts depending on which of the titular heroes you’re playing as, adding some replay value to a series generally low on it. Even his bosses are different sometimes.
It’s clear that they put a lot of time into the last two games for the Genesis, meaning it to be his grand farewell to the system. I think it holds up pretty damn well, although the second half edges out the first by a bit.
If the upcoming Sonic 4 plans on living up to its title (which I’ve always kind of thought of Sonic & Knuckles as) it’s got its work cut out for it.
IF THEY MADE THIS GAME TODAY: It’d be a multi-part DLC-only game that took most of its ideas and assets from previous games in the series and disappointed everyone. Oh, wait.