Iteration Over Innovation in Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Sonic 3 & Knuckles added much to the original Sonic formula
Is it strange to say I don't care whether Michael Jackson worked on Sonic the Hedgehog 3? For a time, I took solace in the possibility he might have worked on the game. The fact that the king of cool (Sonic) earned a head nod from the king of pop (Jackson) validated the hedgehog in my eyes. As a life-long Sonic fan, the MJ co-sign only further justified my preference for The Blue Blur over Mario.
But in the years since the game was released in 1994, I grew increasingly less concerned with Jackson’s influence on the game. Sure, a handful of tracks are spot-on remixes of Jackson’s hits, and Launch Base Zone features what can only be some of his vocal samples. But whether Jackson’s creativity impressed upon Sonic 3 and its development is wholly unimportant.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is a stellar game. It raised the bar from its predecessors, both subtly and not so. Sonic and his trusty companion Tails were given enhanced movesets, levels were fleshed out to provide alternate pathways, and the visuals received a noticeable upgrade, both in terms of character detail as well as the use of pseudo-3D. Even if Sonic 3 was only half the game it was intended to be when it wasn’t played with Sonic & Knuckles, it outclassed its predecessors and would continue to foment the Sonic frenzy that would inspire the rest of his games in the 1990s, with or without Jackson’s help.
Sonic & Knuckles, on the other hand, was the perfect step towards upending the hedgehog’s relationship with his traditional game design. A continuation of Sonic 3, the level sizes blossomed - you can’t tell me you’ve never once timed out in Sandopolis Zone. All the while this game introduced new mechanics, like inverted gravity, which would become a staple of the series.
Jackson’s handprint was less noticeable in Sonic & Knuckles, and the game’s legacy improves because of it. Rather than having two halves of a game weighed down by his musical influence, Sonic 3 & Knuckles skirts past songs that prominently sound like Jackson, allowing the platformer to shine on its own merit. There's a lot to love about Sonic 3 & Knuckles and thankfully, the music is only part of it.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles sits in a strange developmental space. On one hand, it appears to have fallen victim to the time crunch that plagued its predecessor, with many ideas, such as including a 3D-rendering microprocessor in the cartridge, having been scrapped during development. On the other hand, the game largely feels grander than any of Sonic’s adventures to that point.
There are a couple of explanations for the latter point. In the alpha stages of development, Sega Technical Institute accepted the possibility that the full game may be shipped separately. This did come to fruition, as Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was released 8 months ahead of Sonic & Knuckles. Instead of one giant game, the two shorter adventures stood each on their own, though they were designed to be played together.
From a design standpoint, however, Sonic 3 & Knuckles works from a framework that built off the gameplay of the previous titles while feeling completely connected to them. So even though the game has its share of trashed concepts and reworked features, it feels like a logical advancement from its predecessors.
This is best realized in the game's attempt at storytelling. In the previous games, and without the aid of a manual, Sonic is dropped into the first level without any exposition. It's quickly apparent that you should start running to the right, but there's not really any explicit reason for you to do so.
The lack of narrative wasn't out of place with games of the time, at least for arcade-style titles. But for character-based games, like Donkey Kong Country, or Mega Man, the games usually implemented text boxes to even briefly deliver some story throughout the game.
Sonic CD broke from the series' preference for silence, with a fully animated FMV cutscene introducing the game. It wasn't much, but it clearly re-established Dr. Robotnik as the main villain, while other bits of in-game storytelling introduced Amy Rose and her affinity for Sonic, and Metal Sonic as a henchman of Robotnik.
Sonic 3 would take cues from Sonic CD, periodically using in-game cutscenes, some of which are playable, to elaborate on what Sonic's doing in Angel Island. Picking up from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and the assumption he collected all the Chaos Emeralds, Sonic is almost immediately intercepted by Knuckles, who steals the emeralds and prompts Sonic to give chase. Though the short of the story is that Robotnik tricked Knuckles to help him meet his nefarious deeds, the game plays out with periodic set pieces to give color to Sonic's 16-bit world.
In Angel Island Zone Act II for example, Robotnik's Flying Battery blimp is seen further setting fire to an already scorched landscape, as Sonic tries to put out its fury. From a gameplay standpoint, there's no real need for this interaction, though it does go to show Robotnik's desperation and willingness to cause chaos.
Later in Carnival Night Zone, Knuckles hits a switch that sends the area into darkness and forces Sonic and Tails to find an alternate path. These are simple additions, but ones that make the game feel a touch deeper than running to the right and jumping on badniks.
The improved storytelling is amplified by environmental design updates as well. While the breakable walls in Green Hill Zone or the bustable columns in Aquatic Ruin Zone felt like one-off points of interaction, Sonic 3 & Knuckles takes interactive terrain to new heights. Knuckles is designed around this feature, with him taking alternate routes made possible by breaking walls or gliding across gaps.
Exploration is further encouraged by Sonic 3 & Knuckles level design. Hidden paths to Super Rings, the new method of reaching special stages and collecting Chaos Emeralds, are often hidden by collapsible walls or moveable rocks. Some levels use one-time hazards, like Marble Garden’s spinning tops that allow players to reach shields, lives, and ring boxes.
Even aspects of Zones that would normally be used as background elements are included as platforming fodder. Mushroom Hill’s eponymous fungi are often usable as Zone-specific springs. Boulders in Angel Island Zone can be either cracked or pushed to reveal springs or item locations. These enhancements make Sonic and company feel less like spectators in their world and more like living parts of it. Reaching the end of a stage becomes much more compelling when there are multiple routes to do so, and Sonic 3 and Knuckles delivers on this front, which directly improves replayability.
Speaking of replayability, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 also introduced a fully formed two-player mode. Absent from Sonic the Hedgehog and somewhat sloppily tacked onto Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic 3 features five largely unique maps for competitive two-player gaming. Save for Balloon Park, which is mildly reminiscent of Carnival Night from the main game, each multiplayer level has its own visual and audio design, ranging from the mountainous ruins of Azure Lake, to the metallic cityscape of Chrome Gadget.
The competitive levels are short - a single lap generally takes fewer than 30 seconds regardless of the map - but they are an earnest attempt at differentiating the game’s two modes. And while Sonic & Knuckles would drop any multiplayer options and revert back to offering solely a character choice before having players begin the game, the inclusion of Knuckles in the Sonic 3 two-player stages provides a small bonus.
There is an iterative through line that runs from Sonic the Hedgehog all the way to Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Gameplay tweaks overpower full revisions. Instead of a basic shield, Sonic 3 introduced elemental shields, each of which protects from damage while adding a new move - a double jump, dash, or bounce - to Sonic’s arsenal. Or there’s the addition of special stages to the requisite Chaos Emerald stages, offering players another diversion from the core gameplay experience. But no matter what obstacle Sonic 3 & Knuckles throws at players, it’ll never elicit a response of shock or unfairness because the game feels exactly like the titles before it.
Lately, I’ve been revisiting this game through the Sonic Origins collection. Released in celebration of the 31st anniversary of the hedgehog, I’ve quickly been reminded why these games defined a genre and generation. Despite the negativity surrounding the rerelease - the lack of Michael Jackson’s compositions, various bugs in Tails’ AI, the controversy around the developers’ relationship with Sega and Sonic Team - the games themselves are as playable and enjoyable as they were the day they dropped in the 1990s.
The same sentiment goes for any of Sonic’s iterative adventures. Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Heroes were solid, streamlined, extensions of the Sonic Adventure formula. Likewise, Sonic Generations largely perfected qualms with the boost formula introduced in Sonic Unleashed and modified in Sonic Colors.
I can’t say I’m excited for Sonic’s future (Sonic Frontiers seems to be heading towards a train wreck) but if future games can find their favor iterating instead of total innovation, the hedgehog might find stable footing after all.
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