Welcome to part 14 of a brand new mega list for CelJaded’s Top 100 Best Video Games. This seventeenth post features entry #6 – Sonic & Knuckles.
Be sure to read the introduction that I put together beforehand too as it gives a more detailed introduction on what I’m trying to achieve here as well as a few other random musings that you may find insightful.
If you’re looking for another post in this same series then consider visiting the associated index which includes a readout of all published entries and the posts in which they appear.
#6 – Sonic & Knuckles
Principal Platforms: Mega Drive | Developer: Sonic Team | Publisher: Sega | Genre: Platformer | Year: 1994
Sonic & Knuckles is the fourth and final game in the core Sonic the Hedgehog series for Sega’s 16-bit Mega Drive console.
Featuring perfected graphics, refined gameplay and a unique “lock-on” cartridge that expands the game’s content, there’s no doubt that Sonic & Knuckles is one of Sega’s most innovative and fondly loved titles from the generation.
This is a special game for a number of reasons, but it’s crucial to stress exactly how important this cartridge is as it relates to Sega’s overall fortunes during the early Nineties.
Sonic & Knuckles was released in late 1994 at the tail end of Sega’s boom period and it now represents one of the company’s last resounding successes before their lacklustre console add-ons; the Mega-CD and the (then) upcoming 32X, would tarnish their reputation and creative output for years to come.
Due to Sega’s subsequent bumbling, the Sonic franchise would actually remain in traction for the whole 32-bit era and would be treated quite harshly when the transition was finally made to a 3D design in 1998.
Nowadays the Sonic series is a source of derision as the horrendous modern offerings that are Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric (among others) have all done severe damage to the image of this once cutting edge franchise.
To put it simply: Sonic & Knuckles is one of the last truly great Sonic the Hedgehog games ever made and it’s a game that Sega loyalists rightly cling to and cherish to this very day.
If nostalgia was more of a factor here, Sonic & Knuckles would be an easy pick for my #1 as it does rekindle some of my happiest times spent in the company of video games.
Even without those memories clouding my judgment though, I find Sonic & Knuckles to be an easy recommendation for those who enjoy quality 16-bit platformers.
Following the medley of Sonic titles that appeared in part 7 of this list, I’ve been asked what happened to 1994’s other major release: Sonic 3. Although it’s not strictly accurate to say as much, I have always considered Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic 3 to be the same game.
Both Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were originally intended to be a single release, but the massive size of that game would have necessitated a switch to a larger and more expensive cartridge.
Sega’s marketing division came up with an innovative plan however; the two games would be split in half with Sonic & Knuckles becoming a “lock-on” cartridge that would unite the two games together.
As it is, most everyone considers this combined game: Sonic 3 & Knuckles (as it is officially known) to be the true experience and it’s what I’ll be covering specifically.
Indeed, it’s hard to properly explain how big this sequel really is for a 16-bit release. Sonic Team spared no expense in designing a vast and elegantly constructed world that looks fantastic with its quality sprite work and tremendously catchy soundtrack.
There are over 30 individual stages with various bonus levels and 2-player scenarios adding to the mix as well. This of course doesn’t even cover the multiple routes available in each stage and the remixed areas and boss enemies that are encountered if playing as Knuckles instead of Sonic.
Collecting the seven chaos emeralds, which are awarded after completing hidden 3D bonus levels, unlocks new features including a powered-up form for Sonic (“Super Sonic”), a new final level and a new end credits sequence.
One of the areas that Sonic & Knuckles improves on with regards to its predecessors is the story. Although straightforward and clearly inspired by other sources, Sonic & Knuckles presents a narrative befitting of its 16-bit design.
There are no video sequences, speech bubbles, or descriptive text used in-game, instead the story is something more organic that you come to understand and appreciate as you play.
More often than not with titles from this era, a game’s plot would be a few descriptive lines confined to the pages of a software manual. Sonic & Knuckles feels so different in this regard, with miniature scenes and level transitions that give the player a clear feeling that they’re on an epic journey.
The Sonic 3 cartridge itself is also notable for its portion of on-board memory which allows players to save their progress and current collection of emeralds; a feature that’s extremely welcome when you consider the tremendous hike in scope that comes with using the lock-on feature.
The gameplay in Sonic & Knuckles retains that fast-paced platforming action of previous titles, but mixes up the formula by adding new power-ups and deceptively intricate level design. Each stage featured here presents an excellent backdrop for Sonic’s raw speed as well as a showcase for Knuckles’ unique gliding and climbing abilities.
Sonic & Knuckles features many two-stage levels that blend concise set pieces and turbulent gameplay to quickly drop players into new and unexpected situations.
Take the Sandopolis Zone; which starts with players abseiling down the side of ancient sand-covered temples before entering one seeped in darkness and haunted by malevolent spirits.
Whilst inside this temple it becomes paramount to keep the background torches lit (by pulling switches) lest the feisty ghosts in the foreground begin to attack in overwhelming swarms.
This highlights another strength of Sonic & Knuckles that doesn’t get enough recognition; the sharp distinction between the background and foreground graphics. Whether it’s a perilous adventure atop the mechanical Flying Battery fortress, or a woodland romp through the palette-changing Mushroom Hill Zone, each level feels distinct with its own unique rhythm and design.
The game doesn’t feel samey and despite the incredible number of levels present in the game’s code, each one has sort of twist to keep things interesting.
For instance, the Death Egg Zone toys with gravity (often forcing you to play upside down); the Lava Reef Zone coats the ground with dangerous lava; and the Launch Pad Zone features motion detectors that call in robotic attack birds should you walk through them. Like any good platformer, there’s always another twist here to keep you on your toes.
It stands to reason that the playable characters themselves have even more frames of animation this time around, with unique poses for activities such as shimmying, rappelling, flying, bouncing, and even snowboarding.
But if there’s any negative aspect of the experience then it would have to be that awful cardboard box that the cartridge came in. I know the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge was too large for standard clamshell cases, but how many kids like me accidentally tore that thing up on Christmas morning? Not a clever move, I must say.
The 2-player mode featured in Sonic 3 sucks pretty bad too. Essentially a way of padding out that trimmed down cartridge, I’m tempted to call the Competition mode an even lighter rendition of the Sonic 2 multiplayer offering; a miniature split-screen racing affair featuring small scale levels for players to compete in.
The competition mode is a bit of train wreck because the graphics are too minute to appreciate, the physics feel completely off, and even the music lacks the rest of the soundtrack’s instantly noticeable charm.
There’s also the criticism of the game being too easy and whilst this might be true to some extent, I think the difficulty curve is perfectly balanced when considering the age bracket that the publisher was targeting at the time of release.
Sonic & Knuckles gets a top nod for its lock-on technology. A rarely copied innovation; the lock-on design of the cartridge offers unique connectivity with the whole back catalogue of Sonic games, and not only unlocks the full Sonic 3 & Knuckles experience, but also features the ability to play as Knuckles in Sonic 2 as well as offering exclusive 3D bonus levels when connected with the original Sonic the Hedgehog.
Features like this show how seriously Sega were treating this franchise back in 1994 and it speaks volumes about how determined they were to make this the biggest 16-bit sequel they possibly could at the time.
And now, more than twenty years later, Sonic & Knuckles is still not showing signs of slowing down. If the numerous fan-made mods, ROM hacks and soundtrack remixes are anything to go by, then you can bet this game’s appeal will continue to grow for a very long time.
This is vintage Sega; an awe-inspiring and superbly fun experiment in everything you can do to make a 2D platformer as spectacular as humanly possible. Sonic & Knuckles is the hedgehog’s finest hour and the end to a golden age of quality 16-bit gaming.
To be this good really does take AGES.