Game of the Year 1994: Sonic 3 & Knuckles

Release Date
18 October, 1994
Sega Mega Drive (Genesis)
Single Player
Sega Technical Institute
Sonic Team

As 2014 draws to a close, the staff here at Power Up Gaming are currently considering which games of the past year are most worthy of their praise. It’s been a year of highs – but also of considerable lows, with some stellar titles being overshadowed by a few bug-riddled messes. As a result, we’ve decided to take a step back in time to a gaming era where things were, for the most part, much simpler.

Twenty years ago, titles including Super Metroid, Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Donkey Kong Country and Tekken were amongst the many contenders for game of the year 1994. For us, however, it was Sega’s last entry in its 2D Sonic the Hedgehog series that was most worthy of the accolade. Today, we fondly revisit a staple of many of our childhoods: Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles.

In the early 1990s, with Nintendo’s NES and SNES consoles both outselling the Mega Drive at a considerable rate, Sega tasked its designers with creating a likeable mascot to rival Mario, wrapped up in a technologically advanced game that would show off the full power of their struggling system. Original proposals included a rabbit, a dog, and an armadillo, but the company instead went with designer Naoto Ōshima’s vision of a streamlined hedgehog that could roll into a ball to attack.

Sonic the Hedgehog was released in June 1991 to widespread critical acclaim. Sonic was received as a cool character with tons of personality, and his quickness and nimbleness added a layer of speed and dexterity that hadn’t previously been seen in video games. The title went on to become a system seller, and was bundled in with the Mega Drive console, whose sales soon recovered and began to challenge those of the SNES.

The game’s sequel, Sonic 2, launched a year later to an even greater reception, building on the successful formula of the first game by adding new features, innovative gameplay mechanics, more imaginative levels and a sidekick for Sonic in the form of two-tailed flying fox, Miles “Tails” Prower. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 went on to sell over six million copies worldwide, making it the second best-selling Mega Drive title of all time. How could Sega improve upon such a masterpiece?

Series director Yuji Naka’s answer was to create a much larger and grander Sonic title than those that preceded it, though it soon became clear that the project was far too ambitious for one game. Consequently, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was split into two releases: Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, with the first half launching in early 1994 and the latter being released later in the year.

Like its predecessor, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles was developed at the Sega Technical Institute in the US, where series director Yuji Naka, impressed with the work ethic of Sega of Japan’s Sonic Team (with whom the STI collaborated), primarily recruited Japanese developers to work on the game. Wanting gamers to be able to experience the game as they had originally intended, the team came up with the idea of ‘locking on’ Sonic 3 to Sonic & Knuckles; thus, Sonic 3 & Knuckles was born.

Sonic 3 & Knuckles retained the series’ successful formulaic gameplay mechanics, with the early tropical zone, Angel Island, introducing gamers to Sonic’s simple yet intuitive gameplay, while subsequent zones become more and more difficult; docile enemies gave way to more fierce and challenging badniks, sub-bosses (a series first) and epic boss fights.

While remaining true to the series at its core, the game improved upon its predecessors in a number of areas. Perhaps most notably of all was the implementation of a save game feature for the first time in a cartridge-based Sonic game. In addition to more expansive, branching levels, the title received an artistic overhaul throughout; the vibrant Ice Cap and Lava Reef zones were particularly stunning.

Much like Sonic 2, players could select whether to play as either Sonic or Tails. Sonic 3 & Knuckles also introduced the titular sub-antagonist to the series for the first time, both as an adversary and a playable character. Tails had the ability to fly (and carry Sonic, in co-op runs), while Knuckles, that dastardly echidna, could both break through walls and glide – though these came at the expense of having a lower jump height than the other two characters.

A number of elemental shields were introduced to the series for the first time, which included lightning, water and fire. Each provided their own special perks, such as the ability to attract rings, provide immunity from corresponding attacks, and granting unlimited underwater breathing. Sonic 3 & Knuckles also introduced story-driven gameplay, with various mini-cutscenes and cohesive level transitions playing out throughout the ttle.

Sonic 3 & Knuckles also continued on the series’ Chaos Emeralds quest, with the introduction of more ambitious, 3D special stages than those seen previously. In these simple-yet-effective levels, players had to collect blue spheres and avoid the red ones in order to unlock the emeralds. S3&K also featured a number of bonus levels, which included a gumball machine and Sonic 2 Casino Night Zone-inspired slots. Rather than emeralds, these rounds rewarded players with more conventional extras, including rings, power-ups and extra lives.

Unlike Sonic 2, Sonic 3 & Knuckles’s multiplayer offering featured mode-exclusive levels, with players racing against one another by completing five laps of each stage; the winner being the player with the highest aggregate score of wins after all the levels had been completed. Ultimately, however, the mode lacked the depth and charm of the main game, and proved to be a rare misstep for Sonic Team; it was largely panned by critics and fans alike.

Of course, it would be remiss to discuss Sonic 3 & Knuckles without paying tribute to the music featured in the game. Composed by a team led by Brad Buxer (which included, as is now believed, Michael Jackson), the title’s soundtrack brought its zones to life in some considerable style, setting the pace for the action and creating an atmosphere right out of a fantasy epic.

Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a game that, even 20 years on, many of us here at Power Up Gaming continue to revisit time and time again – and not just for that familiar nostalgic buzz. Sonic the Hedgehog’s gameplay and graphics have proven themselves to be timeless innovations, and the original Mega Drive series remains the most highly regarded of all games released for the franchise.

In an age of HD remakes and remasters, a tech demo was recently unveiled on the game’s 20th anniversary by programmers Taxman and Stealth, who have previously recreated Sonic 1, 2 and CD in widescreen format for mobile devices. Unfortunately, Sega have yet to green-light the title, though a fan campaign is set to launch in January that will encourage the gaming giant to press on with production.

For now, the best way to enjoy Sonic 3 & Knuckles is with your favourite Mega Drive emulator and a copy of Sonic 3 Complete, a fan-made hack which restores the original level order to the title as well as numerous gameplay and balancing options.

Do you have any strong memories of Sonic 3 & Knuckles? Did that damned Carnival Night Zone barrel haunt your dreams, as it did ours? Let us know in the comments below.

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