Gaming has a rich history that spans multiple decades. To this end, The Last Word on Gaming Backlog is a series that looks back on titles across all generations. From the golden 8-bit era to the landscape-changing 64-bit scene and beyond, The LWOG Backlog’s aim is history. It was one of the most ingenious technical marvels of its time – let’s take a look at Sonic & Knuckles for Sega Genesis.
Sonic & Knuckles – An Overview
In 1994, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was released for the Sega Genesis. As we discussed this past September, while it was a solid entry in the larger Sonic series, it was only one part of a larger story. Due to such matters as time constraints, this project had to be broken up into two parts. The second of these parts was Sonic & Knuckles. Released later that year in October, once again developed by Sega Technical Institute and published by Sega, this fourth mainline Sonic game was released with a twist.
Enter the “Lock-On Technology” of Sonic & Knuckles. This game featured a special cartridge with a hatch on top. By opening the hatch, a separate port would be revealed. By connecting Sonic the Hedgehog 3 onto Sonic & Knuckles, the player would be treated to the complete experience: Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles. Effectively, the best of both worlds would come together as one. As a solo experience, how does Sonic & Knuckles hold up? Here’s what to know.
Sonic & Knuckles for Sega Genesis follows the adventures of the game’s two title characters. Following the conclusion of his last battle against Dr. Robotnik, Sonic finds himself on Floating Island. Now, with the Master Emerald in the nefarious doctor’s rights, “The Blue Blur” must beat his mustachioed rival to the punch. Meanwhile, as Floating Island’s guardian and the protector of the Emeralds, Knuckles is tasked with battling various threats, specifically Robotnik and his mechanical forces. The fate of Floating Island depends on our heroes.
Given that this title can be played as separate characters, there is a unique story to be had with both. Neither one is particularly deep, as each campaign amounts to simply making it to the end. Nonetheless, this is the first time that the player could take control of Knuckles, playing as him as a main protagonist as opposed to working against him as Sonic and Miles “Tails” Prower, the latter of whom is absent as a playable character this time around.
In simplest terms, from a gameplay perspective, Sonic & Knuckles for the Genesis is more of Sonic 3. One’s mileage may vary depending on how much they enjoyed the latter game, but rest assured that the gameplay is still as fast-paced as ever, tasking the player with reaching the end of each Act as quickly as possible. All the while, they must fight their way through various Badniks and strategize as to where to go next. The game’s lightning-fast pace challenges the player to think on their feet, and each time a life is lost, the player becomes more familiar with each Act’s layout.
Where the gameplay stands out from other Sonic titles, as one may imagine, is in the “Lock-On Technology” aspect of the Sega Genesis cartridge. As mentioned earlier, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 can be connected with Sonic & Knuckles for the complete experience. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles brings together the levels of both separate games into a complete package, including the save function and the ability to play as Tails of Sonic 3. Throw in other additions like new forms for the characters, once enough Emeralds are collected, and it’s easy to see that the best gameplay experience comes with some assembly required.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 can also be used in conjunction with Sonic & Knuckles. By connecting Sonic 2, the player unlocks Knuckles the Echidna in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, allowing the player to experience said game with Knuckles as opposed to Sonic and Tails. Attaching any other Genesis cartridge brings the player to a “No Way!” screen featuring Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Robotnik. Depending on the cartridge inserted, the player can play a random Blue Sphere level. While this may not entice anyone outside of the random player looking to sharpen their Blue Sphere skills, it showed that the developers truly thought outside of the box with this “Lock-On Technology.”
Presentation (Graphics and Sound)
If you enjoyed the visual presentation of Sonic the Hedgehog 3, you will feel right at home with Sonic & Knuckles. Colorful levels and detailed sprites filled with personality are aplenty with this title, making the most of the Sega Genesis hardware. The lush, green landscapes of Mushroom Hill Zone, the technical makeup of Flying Battery Zone, the grand atmosphere of Sky Sanctuary Zone – these are just a few areas that are brought to life in all their 16-bit glory.
In terms of composition, Sachio Owaga, Tatsuyuki Maeda, and current Crush 40 lead guitarist Jun Senoue returned from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 to work on Sonic & Knuckles for the Genesis. Working alongside them was Howard Drossin, who worked on other video game soundtracks including Comix Zone and Sonic Spinball. Sonic & Knuckles is in line with the rest of the series, boasting a selection of energizing tracks with some being particularly memorable. Flying Battery Zone and Sky Sanctuary Zone, in particular, are often regarded as this game’s fan-favorite tracks.
Considering Sonic & Knuckles’s various combinations – standalone, alongside Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic 2, or with any other Sega Genesis cartridge – the replayability factor is strong with this entry. On its own, especially in terms of a straight shot to the end, Sonic & Knuckles will only last a player about 4 and a half hours. However, when it comes to scouring each level for its secrets and collecting various Emeralds, gameplay can be greatly extended. This is especially true as bonus areas become progressively trickier. Suffice to say, Sonic & Knuckles for the Genesis didn’t fail to keep gamers occupied during the mid-1990s.
Sonic & Knuckles was the last of the mainline Sonic games on the Sega Genesis and it proved to be an excellent way to go out. It sold well over 1 million copies in the United States; counting Sonic The Hedgehog 3 sales, 4 million units were sold on a worldwide basis as well. Furthermore, Sonic & Knuckles pushed the Genesis to its technical capabilities, not to mention incorporated a unique hardware gimmick that hasn’t been utilized since. While one could argue this was due to the video game industry moving away from cartridges and toward compact discs in the years that followed, one couldn’t say Sonic & Knuckles wasn’t unique from a hardware standpoint.
Furthermore, while not seeing as many re-releases as earlier games in the series, Sonic & Knuckles wasn’t lost to time. From Xbox Live Arcade to the Wii Virtual Console to even a modern PC release via Steam, it can still be enjoyed to its fullest. Later this year, it will also be re-released on the Sonic Origins compilation, not only with its complete functionality but widescreen presentation as well. If you’ve been looking to revisit or experience Sonic & Knuckles for the first time on official hardware, you won’t need to wait much longer.