How do you define a favorite video game? Is it the one that filled you with the most inspiration? If that’s the case, then the clear winner would be Skies of Arcadia, a JRPG for the Dreamcast that presented a bright world full of wonder and possibility. Even now, when I take a step back from my writing and look at it critically, I see the influence that game has had on me.
Or, is your favorite game the one that had the greatest emotional connection to you? If that’s the case, then the clear winner is Persona 4. Kanji’s struggle with his sexuality mirrored my own in a number of ways, and years later, I can recall specific plot points from the game with clarity. It’s stuck with me for years, and will continue to do so.
Or, is your favorite game the one that always brings a smile to your face? The one that you boot up when you’re feeling down, the one that was a constant companion for more years than you care to admit? The one that you swear you could play with your eyes closed? If that’s the case, and I believe it is, then my favorite video game is Sonic 3 and Knuckles.
Yes, I know I’m cheating a little bit here because that’s technically two games combined together. But the experience they create feels so singular, so united, that I very rarely played them separate from each other. And they were originally designed to be one game, so I’m gonna say that it counts. I’ll leave it to the commenters to decide if they agree.
Sonic 3 and Knuckles uses the admittedly-still-cool feature of cartridge locking. Basically, Sonic and Knuckles has a slot on top of the cartridge for you to put other games on top. When you put Sonic 3 on there, the two games combine together into an almost “mega-game.” The stories combine, more levels are added together, and everything fits perfectly into place. It’s like this was how the game was made to be played.
Funny how that works out.
The plot of the game is fairly simple, but complicated by platformer standards. Out in the ocean, Angel Island rests. Angel Island is home to the Master Emerald, a crystal with tons of power. Dr. Robotnik needs the Master Emerald for his world domination plans, but he finds that the Emerald is protected by a red echidna named Knuckles. Rather than roboticize Knuckles, Robotnik convinces him that Sonic and Tails (who recently arrived at the island), are out to steal the Emerald. Thus, the blue hedgehog finds himself with a new foe. And so the game begins.
Level design is at its most creative here. There are still loops and rings, and a clear focus on speed. But there is also a focus on exploration, as the special stages are accessed by finding Golden Rings in the levels. If you want the best ending, you need to seek out these stages. Levels are layered, with alternate paths branching off everywhere. While I have my preferred routes to travel, it does feel that every time I go through the game, I get to the end a different way. It’s fast, and it’s challenging at times, but it’s always fun. Even in the water levels.
Unlike past Sonic games, there is a boss at the end of every level. Often, there is even some interaction with the bosses before their actual encounter. The first level has a robot that burns the forest, for example. You start the game in a sunny green area, but about halfway through, the robot drops bombs every and burns it all down. The rest of the level is then on fire. It’s a little touch, but it goes a long way.
My favorite boss is that of Marble Garden zone. Sonic finds Dr. Robotnik with a drill on his ship, and it looks like a typical boss fight. That is, until Robotnik drills straight down, destroying the garden in one fell swoop! The first time I saw this, I gasped. How was I supposed to win that, with no ground? But Tails, who is normally regulated to “guy who gets in the way” saves the day here. He picks up Sonic in his arms, and together they are able stop Robotnik.
There is a strong focus here on the cinematic nature and the story. Whereas other Sonic games kept story light with a seemingly random set of levels strung together, here everything is connected. Act 2 of a world begins right where Act 1 ended, with no fade to black. There are little transitions from each level. They aren’t much, but seeing Sonic fire himself out of a cannon and then land in the next world goes a long way to making this game feel connected.
There are even some brief cutscenes, though they are usually kept playable. Towards the end of the game, Sonic and Knuckles have their fight. Dr. Robotnik, seeing the chance, steals the Master Emerald. Knuckles, of course, sees this, and tries to get it back. He grabs the emerald, but Robotnik has other plans. Bits of wire come out of his ship, and electrocute Knuckles, wounding him, and giving Robotnik time to escape. Knuckles, seeing this, uses the last of his strength to help Sonic pursue his foe. It’s not much, but for the time, this was really big. It stuck with me, you know? Even know, the once-bad-now-good trope is one of my favorites.
That’s ignoring the other details, like how the Death Egg can be seen in the background of some stages, how Knuckles goes through every level differently than Sonic and Tails, with some different bosses, the quality of the music, the dizzying special stages that require more skill than in the past, the bonus level you get when you complete all special stages, and so on and so on. There is so much content and memorable moments packed into what is basically a two hour game, that I cannot describe them all in this one blog post.
I can only recommend that you play the game if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed.