No other home console dealt so prolifically in the massive efforts of the Genesis to keep its technology relevant. That Included the 32X and Sega CD as chief expansion devices that, when added, created an unwieldy hunk of black plastic that did little to up graphics, especially compared to the whopping $360 dollar combined price tag.
For my money, the Sega CD offered way more content that I played regularly, which made 32X the little brother of a fairly massive failure. That’s a rough slope to climb for the handful of games released exclusively for said peripheral. However, some slight goodness did find a way from the fire in the form of Knuckles Chaotix and the weird twists it brought to the Sonic formula.
That makes Knuckles Chaotix the weird second-cousin on a little brother peripheral to a failure big brother to a patriarch trying desperately to stay relevant years after the technology had sailed on. Just for those keeping track of the family tree.
While the Sonic DNA is certainly present, there were clearly other, unnamed branches in said tree. Knuckles is stuck in a theme park where Metal Sonic, and Robotnik by extension, are after chaos
emeralds rings and the wildlife. The immediate difference is that no level can be taken alone. You must take 2 of the 7 titular Chaotix (including Knuckles) through one of 5 environments with a magical sparkle-tether bounding you to one another.
The Chaotix were brand-spanking new at this point with the comic book adaptation of this very game coming out at the same time to fill in the personalities. In that simple time, such a strategy worked like a German train station. Replaying it now, it becomes more difficult to separate yourself from who is clearly the best team: Espio and Knuckles. Each of the group has a light special ability that…well, basically boils down to everyone can do stuff on walls. Vector can climb walls, Mighty can wall jump, Espio can wall run and stick, et cetera and so forth. Espio’s ability to run on ceilings and Knuckles’ ability to do a controlled climb are the tops, undeniably, when paired.
Other than those are Charmy the Bee, Heavy the Robot, and Bomb – just Bomb. Charmy couldn’t carry a grocery bag without feeling too weighted, and both Heavy and Bomb are absolute wastes of time and energy. Heavy can’t run so you’d have to literally carry him anywhere to little benefit while Bomb can become a screen-tearing kamikaze if you give him an accidental fling. They’re slices to your Achilles tendon in a game that already plays slower than any other Sonic game, ever. Even Sonic Fighters.
The dual-character approach feeds into the use of that sparkle-band between your characters, which is really the gameplay aspect Knuckles Chaotix can thank for its personality. Physics are tied to the band attached to two rings to allow one character to anchor to build tension for a speed boost, or a fling to an upper ledge. There’s also that carry mechanic that, despite my moaning, is useful beyond avoiding AI hiccups for launching your partner with accuracy.
Speed is certainly harder to gain by design, so having another, more angular aspect to gameplay feels useful and fun for the first few levels. Partner commands are actually intuitive with single button holds commanding them to stay in place and their AI pretty generous about your proximity.
The unfortunate spirit breaker for me is that Knuckles Chaotix gains a repetitive yellow card pretty soon, despite some randomized elements artificially extending that goodwill. You cannot select your stage throughout the game. Hitting a star bumper will stop a randomized spotlight on one of five areas that you will go through 5 times each. Taken with the fact that the zones rearrange between acts very, very lightly, repetition murders the charm of each zone. Acts 1 and 5 are the only ones with any excitement as you’re exploring their quirks for the first time and taking on a boss. That’s the level of excitement you can expect with your shins hitting that low bar.
Zones themselves aren’t necessarily bad, to be fair. It’s the dosage that does them in alongside the faux 3D Sega was playing with here. The entire game looks vibrant but ultimately dead when all the processing power seems to have been devoted to the character models and the foreground only. Take the final boss, which is this massive version of Metal Sonic that’s thematically ominous and impressive. His red, robotic carapace is detailed with silver and grey trimmings, his glowing chest radiates danger and vulnerability, and his play area is a series of yellow, holding platforms. Behind him though? Vague colors and shadows, inside what might be a dome if you squint.
The Knuckles Chaotix conundrum is that what it does new, it doesn’t do new enough and what it does old blows in comparison to the source material. Boss fights, special stages, and music all suffer as muted, uninteresting tangents of all-time greats. An example boss fight is a Mode-7 version of the Metropolis City Zone boss in Sonic 2 (and elsewhere, but that’s the original version) that uses geometric triangles as protection as Robotnik slowlyyyyyy wanders the screen. The technology gets in the way of creativity at nearly every turn, making this a show pony no one asked to see in the race.
Through that literal ton of negatives, I still manage to have some fun with Knuckles Chaotix at the bookends because of a few ideas. I never realized as a kid how little effort there seems to be in the actual gameplay, but I suppose most everything is just eye candy first in those days. Today, with my nostalgia glasses good and clean, I see a game aching to shave some horsepower to spend in gameplay and execution instead.
Knuckles Chaotix Score: