The recently announced Sonic Mania is a throwback of the Sonic games from the early 1990s. However, it is also going back to the series at its very best. Fan-modder turned lead developer, Christian “Taxman” Whitehead has recreated the old physics, graphics, and style of the Genesis titles. For once, the Sonic the Hedgehog fanbase that has been languishing for a return to form is excited for a new Sonic game. Even the gaming media, who have (rightfully) mocked the series for its many unfortunate decisions and disastrous games are actually excited for this return to Sonic’s golden age.
What is Sonic Mania’s main inspiration? Well, if you notice the giant rings leading to special stages and the roster of playable characters, the game in question is obvious. It is 1994’s Sonic 3 & Knuckles, still one of the best 2D platformers ever made all these many years later. It was the game that ended Sonic’s best days on a beautiful climax.
About Sonic 3 & Knuckles
In the age of Grunge Rock and fanny packs, the Blue Blur starred in new games every year, each one greater and better than the last. Sega fans looked to the speedy gameplay and elaborate levels of Sonic games as prime examples of the superiority of their chosen console. Games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 were the very best of Sega doing “what Nintendon’t.” But Sonic 3 & Knuckles was able to surpass them both in scale and complexity. It made for an epic title that would cement Sonic’s place as one of the greatest platformer heroes of all time. Yuji Naga’s Sonic Team at Sega were at top gear with this title. It would become their masterpiece.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles was originally released as two separate games: Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. Sonic Team had intended them to be a single game. However, due to time restraints and limits of cartridge technology they had to split their intended Sonic 3 in half. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles could be played as independent games. They each come with their own final levels and final bosses. But thanks to the gimmick of “lock-on technology,” stacking the games on top of each other in a kind of mighty tower of Sonic-dom, the games could be combined into the full experience: Sonic 3 & Knuckles.
With six stages in Sonic 3 and seven stages in Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic 3 & Knuckles would have thirteen stages in total, along with a final challenge for those who gathered all seven Chaos Emeralds. This makes Sonic 3 & Knuckles still one of the longest 2D Sonic games. However, players can finish the game in just two to three hours. This is all lean, fast platformer content. It has none of the extra fat (like fishing minigames) that would glut up the franchise come the new millennium.
The full experience of Sonic 3 & Knuckles pushed the possibilities of 2D Sonic to its highest level. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 introduced new mechanics like the spin-dash. So Sonic 3 & Knuckles threw in new shields that gave Sonic a bounce jump, a double-jump, and a mid-air dash. Sonic 2 brought in Sonic’s little buddy Tails as a second playable character. So Sonic 3 & Knuckles took it up to three playable characters with Sonic’s first rival, Knuckles the Echidna. Knuckles came with his own separate tracks in the levels, meaning a whole second campaign for extra value.
Sonic 2 created a Super Saiyan-like form called “Super Sonic” when you collected all Chaos Emeralds. Sonic 3 & Knuckles created the more advanced Hyper Sonic, and added a second set of Emeralds called the “Super Emeralds.” For some reason, Hyper Sonic has not returned to a Sonic game since 1994. So in this case at least, Sonic 3 & Knuckles feels like the ultimate Sonic game with the ultimate Sonic power up.
But most importantly, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 added a save feature. Game Overs in Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 are game enders. The Sonic & Knuckles cartridge did not have a save slot, but the combined Sonic 3 & Knuckles tower does. Being able to save your game is almost mandatory when hunting for the Chaos Emeralds and the Super Emeralds.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles even had a vague attempt at a story between its levels. Previous Sonic games on the Genesis were just a series of levels with bosses. But in this title, Sonic’s nemesis, the Scientist Formally Known as “Dr. Robotnik” crashes his Death Star-esque Death Egg onto Angel Island. The future Doctor Eggman now wishes to steal the magical Chaos Emeralds to repower his ship. He tricks the guardian of the Emeralds, Knuckles, into fighting Sonic and Tails. The storyline is hardly a deep character-driven emotional tale on the level of The Last of Us. But it is told efficiently and entirely without dialog, thus avoiding the tumorous books of dialog that would plague the Sonic series once it reached the 3D era.
The levels of Sonic 3 & Knuckles were made to be as fast and as elaborate as the Genesis could handle. Every Act came with its own boss fight, meaning two bosses per Zone. Sonic moved faster and went through more complicated set pieces than before. Levels featured not just the occasional loop, but roller coasters of action backwards and forwards through corkscrews and barrel rolls. Some of these moments were wholly scripted. Others required the player to decipher odd pieces of the level architecture to find where they needed to go. Tails, Knuckles, and Sonic didn’t merely move from left to right. Levels spiraled outward in every direction, flipping the player this way and that way until crashing to an end.
Stage types run from the typical desert worlds, fire worlds, ocean worlds, and the less typical neon nighttime casino worlds. Every stage has unique obstacles. Carnival Night Zone contains a series of tricks and confusing elements that knock you backwards. But Flying Battery Zone is a gauntlet of enemies and projectiles. And IceCap Zone is a lot of free running – but watch out for the endless scrolling puzzles. Even with so many levels, there is not a bad level in the entire game. The level of polish and care put into the design of Sonic 3 & Knuckles is astounding.
The level design and story of Sonic 3 & Knuckles pounds forward until the mighty conclusion. There is a long multi-stage boss fight against Dr. Robotnik in the Death Egg, but the most impressive moment is the last level. The Doomsday Zone was the prototype of all Sonic Final Bosses for decades to come. Instead of a typical platformer level, Doomsday Zone is a more of a side-scrolling shooter. Hyper Sonic races through an asteroid field chasing Robotnik’s giant ship. It was a hypercharged visual moment of gaming spectacle. Sonic the Hedgehog’s climax was right here, in this moment.
The Legacy of Sonic 3 & Knuckles
While Sonic 3 & Knuckles clearly ended with a bang, back in 1994 is wasn’t immediately obvious was that Sonic the Hedgehog’s golden age had ended with it. By the late ’90s Sonic would have to face his greatest adversary yet: the third dimension. Sonic mostly sat out the Sega Saturn era while his rival, Mario, defined 3D platformers forever with Super Mario 64.
By the time the Sonic Adventure era began, the cracks in the series began to show. Storylines became obtrusive and absurd. Sonic’s growing cast of animal friends weren’t as likeable as Knuckles and Tails. Their game sections were diversions from the platforming core of the series. Sega and Sonic Team simply lost track of what made Sonic fun. The series has been sputtering in misfortune and failed experiments for 20 years now.
No wonder that in Sega’s newest attempt to restore faith in the series, they have rewound the clock by twenty-two years. Sonic Mania can give fans who loved the speed and the honest joy of Sonic 3 & Knuckles the sequel they always deserved.