A classic in any medium hits specialized, reserved notes that resonate through time. Once that tuning fork is hit, you’re stuck with the vibrating melody and come to define other come-latelys by how close they sound to that unforgettable example. Sonic 3 and Knuckles, docked and jutting amazingly high from the Sega Genesis, was my first tuning fork.
Sonic was my door inside to video games. I played 2, then 1, then Sonic and Knuckles with the third entry coming much later than the rest. I was arrested by Sonic and Knuckles the most because of the busier environments and slightly sharper colors. Of course, this was the first and only game ever to feature “lock-on technology” that basically served as an instance of physically patching Knuckles into either Sonic 2 or 3. Locking Sonic 2 onto that husk of plastic didn’t do much but annoy me as Knuckles, once inserted into those levels, offered absolutely no boons.
It was while rearranging my room to fit a couch when my mother handed me the cardboard tube with Sonic The Hedgehog on the front holding up three fingers. Even though I didn’t show excitement well, I was broiling on the inside with anticipatory fixation.
While I’ll be glowing for the majority of this review, I do have to call out Sonic 3 and Knuckles slightly as a bookmark in unfriendly business practices. Despite the cute advertising spins, the official third game, as in the one that came inside that cardboard box and cartridge, was embarrassingly sparse compared to 2. Sonic and Knuckles saved the day, but only after shelling out $100+ in 1994 money.
Constraints on the hardware famously lead to this decision but that’s not a good enough reason. This was the Call of Duty for Sega of the day, so they felt they could release it in any way they wished and have their cake too. It was backbreaking for financially strapped families with annoying children like me, and a complete edition didn’t end up coming out until the Gamecube era – over 10 years later.
Modern versions and ports have thankfully knocked out those shenanigans and given you the full package, which is what I’m mostly reviewing here. Together, these two games stand taller than mountains with goofs like me praising it as the best Sonic experience ever made.
Yep, even over Sonic Mania. I love that one too and how it played well with its past and desire for new flourishes, but the level flow was simply at the peak of humanity’s potential in Sonic 3 and Knuckles. Sega found the holy grail and sold it off in increments!
Sorry, I’ll move on now. Sonic 3 feels like the weakest of the two halves because it was the one most rushed out the door. Levels feel less interactive with more focus placed on “cool” Sonic moments such as snowboarding or shooting out of a cannon. Adding on Knuckles gives a much better sense of speed and potentially lengthy runs of uninterrupted velocity thanks to how the levels are more layered and sprawling.
Combined, the package comes out as a Sonic-themed room in heaven. While 2 had some control stiffness that limits said velocity, this pair pushed you to find the angles of quickness and string them together at a much faster clip than Mario or any other platformer could at the time.
This was seriously Sega’s silver bullet. The Super Nintendo had deeper experiences that offered more time sinks thanks to a huge amount of RPGs, but Sonic drew life from the still-pulsating pool of the household arcades that consoles were originally pitched as. You didn’t need quarters to feel like you were running fast as hell and destroying Robotnik’s latest weird invention. This is a time-and-place strategy that completely worked on millions.
I’ll say it loud and proud, I’d take Sonic 3 and Knuckles over Super Mario World in everything but amount of content 10 out of 10 times. From cradle until the grave. With a smile on my face.
Even with Tails or Knuckles, both of whom you can play as besides Sonic, the momentum always feels like it’s moving forward at high speed. You can string together rev boosts with longer jumps into a special ring that moves you into the colorful blue ball stages for a chaos emerald. Then, you’re back out and moving across a crumbling bridge with careful jumps bounding you from a fire shield up into a goalpost. You never get that feeling in Super Mario World, not without some serious buffers between.
The gang are all ultimately after Doctor Robotnik (or Eggman if you’re nasty) and he brings his A-game to the fights. His later devices in Sonic 3 and then nearly all in Knuckles are different and challenging enough to figure out the first time. Basically any main boss from Act 2 of Lava Reef on could feature as a final fight with most outdoing the previous in creativity. This is also the first time I found a super secret boss fight that is thematically grand and rewards dedication.
Dipping back into the negative, I really do recommend playing without Tails by your side. His AI is that of the sidekick incarnate, a nagging shout of “I’m helping!” constantly getting you into trouble, especially with bosses. When Tails hits a boss, it gives them some invisibility frames that are usually just long enough for Sonic to partially pass through and then feel the sting. This is prevalent even if you have a second person as Tails, so it’s just best to go solo.
That sentiment includes the actual multiplayer component that is just odd and awkward. You can take on friends in split-screen to race or maim, but it just never feels fun. This is the one time where field-of-view really saps your experience in Sonic 3 and Knuckles because you can’t predict where these new levels are going next, which leads to a lot of revving engines slamming into walls or worse.
While I’m not much for the arguments of “dis is da best eva”, I do consider Sonic 3 and Knuckles one of the handful of games that I would take into a void with me and be fine to never return. The music, graphics, and unleashed controls all feel fluid and fittingly mobile, transporting me to a moment when Sega was on top of the world. I’ll always appreciate love letters like Sonic Mania penned to longtime fans, but my classic Sonic will likely always sound and feel exactly like this divine pair.
Sonic 3 and Knuckles Score: