Sonic 3 & Knuckles - Sonic Team and STI - Sega Genesis - 1994
First comes invention, then refinement, and then finally perfection.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles represents Sega at its absolute peak, at a time when they defined cool. Sonic was largely responsible for that, wrestling half the videogame market away from Nintendo and spawning an unending stream of mascot games. And like any rock star, the time came for the big, epic statement; that definitive work that captures all the themes and summarizes its era, its Sgt. Pepper.
Perhaps it is unusual that I define Sonic in rock ‘n roll terms, but there’s no denying the pop appeal the character generated. Also, the first four Sonic titles – 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog, 1992’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2, 1993’s Sonic CD, and 1994's Sonic 3 & Knuckles – remind me of The Ramones’ first four albums, which for all intents and purposes defined punk rock. These four titles redefined games with its speed, invention, and sense of attitude.
The first Sonic the Hedgehog started at full bore but spend most of its time stuck in mid-tempo. Sonic 2 focused on the speed, but the worlds were still not large enough; it was all over too fast. Naka and his team were still working to find that ideal balance between barreling speed and intricate level design. In S3K, they finally found that perfect balance, without sacrificing either element. If anything, this Sonic seems even faster, if that were possible.
The enormous size of the game worlds allow for some truly amazing speed runs, torpedoing through loops, twists, turns. There are eruptions of water, deep, pummeling vertical drops, snowboarding down mountains, elevator cars run amok, runaway spinning tops. One of my favorite moments are the “racetrack timers” in the Death Egg Zone, which grab Sonic and hurl him in chaotic loops through open space. It’s completely gratuitous, of course, but a terrific rush (and clearly predicts NiGHTS).
This is the one videogame that I think captures the essence of a speed junkie’s highs and lows. When you’re high, you’re flying so fast so can’t catch breath. But when it’s time to slow down, the panic sets in. S3K features numerous moments of moving walls and collapsing ceilings, crumbling backdrops and closing walls. And the timer, almost completely useless in the first two Sonic games, looms over your head from start to finish; those large worlds guarantee you’ll often run out of time before reaching the exit or defeating the bosses. This tension is one of the game’s calling cards.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles is blessed with some of the finest and intricate level design, and this is the balance that truly makes the game great. There’s the obvious Mario influence in the way surprises and rooms are hidden away, but now they are plentiful enough to actually justify all that wandering. You are amply rewarded for your curiosity, with its secrets and multiple pathways, and that’s what keeps you coming back again and again. I suppose you could run through the various zones several times and still not take the same exact path twice.
The smartest move was to take the giant rings from the original Sonic, and tuck them away for you to discover. These rings whisk you away to the magnificent bonus rounds, which involve navigating through a spherical maze of red and blue spheres. It ranks among the best visual effects seen on the Genesis (or the Super Nintendo, for that), and it’s the best of the whole series; they’re fun and challenging enough to stand as a game of their own.
Yuji Naka was the creative mind behind this game, and just like Sonic 1 and 2, it’s his baby to the core. The enormous success of Sonic 2 gave him the leeway to start making demands, and he brought over a number of people from Japan to America for the third Sonic, including Takashi Yuda, the character designer responsible for Knuckles. Oddly enough, Sega didn’t have the rights to the signature theme, since the original songs were written by a member of the Japanese pop group Dreams Come True, so instead of paying hefty royalty fees, they had to compose new music for this venture; thankfully, it’s as vibrant and catchy as one could ask.
S3K is videogaming’s great double album. I say that because it is, in fact, two Genesis cartridges: Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, each half released eight months apart. When Sonic 3 was released in February of 1994, we were thrilled, but a bit puzzled as to why it seemed cut short. Then when Sonic & Knuckles appeared, that sense of burnout began to set in. That cynicism set in, that sinking feeling that we were merely being worked over for a few more bucks, just as Capcom had pulled with Street Fighter 2.
I remember being especially critical in my own fanzine at the time; the 16-bit market had become saturated with beat-em-ups, fighters, and mascot titles and we were, frankly, tired of it. Perhaps that resulted in a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach, which meant that we never gave late-era Genesis classics (like Gunstar Heroes, for instance) the attention they deserved.
It was only much later that I truly recognized S3K’s brilliance, understood how Sega’s politics influenced the release of the game in two halves. This was not only Sega’s peak, you see, but also the beginning of their downfall. Their corporate senses just, bafflingly, drifted away, leaving the company to make poor decision after poor decision, until they had to exit the console hardware business entirely. The hubris had taken over.
So we’re back to the rock star analogies again. It doesn’t matter. In the end, we remember the artists’ achievements: its zones that vary in tempo and style; its lush, beautiful environments and visual effects; its challenging bosses, both large and small; and that magnificent sense of speed, speed, speed. Sonic 3 & Knuckles belongs on any short list of the greatest videogames.
(Note: In late 2009, Sega revealed the identity of their secret composer for many of Sonic 3's music tracks: Michael Jackson.)