Poll Winner: SONIC & KNUCKLES
Sonic & Knuckles tied with Comix Zone in our reader poll. The fact that not including a Sonic game as one of my three reviews would feel criminal helped me decide to overlook Comix Zone for now. I am a huge fan of the Genesis series of Sonic platformers, with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 being not only my favorite Genesis game, but also one of my 10 favorite games of all time.
Sonic & Knuckles was the last 2D Sonic the Hedgehog platformer for the Genesis and the fourth entry in the well reviewed and popular series. Sonic & Knuckles came out in 1994, only three years after the original Sonic the Hedgehog released. It and Sonic the Hedgehog 3 were actually planned to be two large halves of the same game, but due to memory constraints of the cartridge it was split into two separate titles. Sonic & Knuckles picks up directly where 3 left off, with Sonic tracking down Dr. Robotnik to defeat him, after already destroying Robotnik’s airship/WMD at the end of 3. The player plays through the first half of the game as Sonic, with plot interaction with Knuckles from time to time. After completion of the game the player starts over as Knuckles and plays through similar levels, seeing things from Knuckle’s point of view and defeating a couple bosses Sonic didn’t face. It also was the first Sonic game that uses “lock on technology”, meaning the game cart is open at the top and has a place where you can input another Sonic game into it. Inserting older Sonic games unlocks extra content like letting you play Knuckles in them or access to a plethora of special bonus stages.
The artwork of the game cover and box art is pretty simplistic, just a pretty cool logo design showing both Sonic’s and Knuckles’ face outlines. Visually the game isn’t too different from any previous Sonic games. To my knowledge they all ran on the same engine and no major adjustments or improvements were made between the four entries in the 2D platforming series. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad thing necessarily. It kind of falls into the old moniker “if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it” because all of those games have great visuals and sound for their era. The soundtracks of any Sonic game for the Genesis are known for being unique and top notch. In fact I’d go as far as to say that they’re without a doubt my favorite soundtracks of any games period. There are random moments in everyday life when I find myself humming the themes to Green Hill Zone, Metropolis Zone, Mystic Cave Zone, Oil Ocean Zone or Casino Night Zone. Can’t really say that about any other franchise personally. As far as Sonic & Knuckles‘ tracks I would say overall its the weakest lineup of the games, but that Sky Sanctuary Zone’s individually is pretty stellar.
Gameplay wise I find Sonic & Knuckles is slightly inferior to the previous games as far as my tastes go. In my mind a great Sonic game needs three things: stellar soundtrack, speed and fluidity of level traversal and a plethora of short but unique zones. Let’s breakdown the last two things a bit. When I say speed and fluidity what I mean is that your motion of Sonic shouldn’t constantly be stopped by obstacles or enemies. It should require the occasional stoppage to keep things interesting and challenging, but there is definitely a such thing as overdoing it. Sonic & Knuckles overdoes it a bit. The reason the first two Sonic games were great is they have a great sense of fluidity to most of their levels, keeping them short and smooth, then adding the challenge in the boss fights. The rush of flying through a course at blinding speed, slowing down a hair here or there to kill an enemy or grab a power-up is what makes a Sonic game unique and fun. Sonic & Knuckles has you stopping too often, namely in a couple specific zones in the middle of the game.
You start to get a sense of speed and excitement for about 3 seconds and then hit an enemy placed dead in your path, in a manner to where it was nigh impossible to see it in time to jump over it. Or it gives you a few feet of track to cover long enough to gain almost top speed and then wants you to stop and start again in the opposite direction, a few times in a row. These instances mixed in here and there can be great for a Sonic game to add difficulty and contrast, but Sonic & Knuckles does it too often. As far as soundtrack and level uniqueness, its pretty solid for a Genesis game but is lacking when you compare it to its predecessors. It also has a couple zones that are just flat out not fun, namely Sandopolis. Sandopolis is probably the worst zone of any Sonic on Genesis. Its slow, difficult, lengthy and has a very annoying ghost enemy mechanic. That zone felt more like a Mario level than a Sonic leve. There was no sense of speed, it was all platforming.
Despite these gripes Sonic & Knuckles is still a Sonic game at its core. Its still thrilling to stumble into a boss battle with only a handful of rings on you, scrambling to regain “your precious” when you get hit. The lava and sky zones were great. I liked the large number of boxes, especially the ones introduced in 3 (Robotnik, Flame Shield, Water Shield and Lightning Shield). Playing through as Knuckles was a cool change of pace and enough to keep replays enjoyable. The lock on technology is also very cool and added replayability to the franchise as a whole.
All in all Sonic & Knuckles may be the worst 2D Sonic platformer for Genesis, but that’s not near as bad as it sounds. The previous three were just that spectacular in my opinion. Sonic & Knuckles is still a game worth playing and adding to your Genesis library.