Sonic & Knuckles – the retrospective
It was heady times for Sega going into 1994. They were rubbing shoulders with the greats and a true force in the video game world. The rise is attributed to a new franchise developed earlier in the decade. The popularity of new the mascot established during the first three titles cemented Sega’s place in video game history. With the release of Sonic & Knuckles (S&K) in October 1994, Sega concluded the Classic Sonic story and breathed new life into the series’ other entries.
Looking at the events of 1994, Mega Drive owners could be forgiven for thinking Sega were taking them for a ride releasing two titles for their flagship franchise in one year. However, there had been a flurry of Sonic titles released starting with November 1992’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2. In late 1993 Sonic Spinball was quickly followed by Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and Sonic 3 in early 1994. It could be argued there was an overload of Sonic titles being produced.
Sega were pushing their luck but had one more release that would bring together everything the series had offered so far. The developers within the Sega Technical Institute were under pressure to deliver a successful follow up to Sonic 3. The games were originally intended to be one cartridge but memory and time limitations made this impossible. The aim was to continue the story of Sonic’s battle with Robotnik while developing Knuckles’ character.
Sega expand the Classic Sonic story
S&K is set directly after the events of Sonic 3 where Sega’s speedy mascot stops the evil Dr Robotnik from launching the Death Egg into space. After escaping the exploding space station Sonic is airlifted by his trusty sidekick, “Tails”, back down to earth. They land in Mushroom Hill Zone and discover the adventure has only just begun as the Death Egg has crash landed on top of Angel Island’s volcano. Sonic must now travel back to face Dr Robotnik once more and finally destroy the Death Egg.
Knuckles discovers the truth
The other titular character, Knuckles had been introduced in Sonic 3 as an ally of Dr Robotnik. His role was unclear but the manual explains Robotnik has tricked Knuckles into believing Sonic and “Tails” are trying to steal the Chaos Emeralds. Being the last of the Echindas on Floating Island, it is down to him to stop the dynamic duo. Knuckles puts up obstacles throughout the levels of Sonic 3 in attempt to block the heroes’ paths. Knuckles is thrown into the sea during the final showdown and we do not know what happens to him.
We next see Knuckles at the start of S&K when he again blocks Sonic’s path. Later on, during Sonic’s play through, the two face off but he loses the battle before discovering Robotnik deceived him. It is during this cutscene that Sonic and Knuckles finally join forces and start working together to destroy Robotnik.
Knuckles’ story takes place after the events of Sonic’s adventure when one of Robotnik’s Egg Robos has survived and is causing havoc across the island. Knuckles, as protector of the Master Emerald, must do all he can stop this new threat. This new adventure is identical to Sonic’s but has different routes to take. It also ends earlier and the final boss is Mecha Sonic.
The Master Emerald
We also learn of the Master Emerald that gives the Floating Island its power to soar in the sky. Robotnik gets away with the Master Emerald and plans to use it to give the Death Egg infinite power.
Sega bring the Classic Sonic story to an end with S&K. Sonic finally destroys the Death Egg and Knuckles turns against Robotnik to reclaim the Master Emerald. The Floating Island rises back to the sky and all the Chaos Emeralds are safely hidden.
The Sonic story had always been thin in detail but now it had layers. Sega brought the characters to life in ways we had not seen since Sonic CD. Players could feel empathy for Knuckles and his struggles. Robotnik was shown to be more cunning than before and creates his most outlandish contraptions yet. Also, the world is brought to life through many set pieces and cutscenes involving the characters.
Zip through the Zones!
There are eight zones in S&K although two are short and are used for story development. Knuckles’ story only comprises the first six because the Death Egg has been destroyed during Sonic’s adventure. Each zone has a different theme ranging from grassy hills and sandy ruins to fiery caverns and space battles. Five of the zones have two acts while the other three have only one. There is a boss or sub-boss at the end of every act.
‘Fantastic mushrooms cover the lush hills deep in Floating Island’s interior. Many useful kinds of plants grow her. See how they can help you.’ S&K manual
Mushroom Hill is the typical first level seen since the start of the series. Lots of trees, plants and grass create the path and the enemies are based on woodland animals. What makes this zone special is how we move through the the seasons as the two acts unfold. There are huge loops and lots of springs that make this a very fun level to learn the game. It is possible to find all seven Chaos Emeralds in this first zone but it requires lots of exploring and skill.
The first act ends with a sub-boss battle against Hey Ho. This large badnik chops down a tree and launches the logs as projectiles. It is easily defeated if the player has a Flame Barrier. Robotnik makes his first appearance in Act 2 and his Jet Mobile will fly through the forest trying to escape. He has laid out spike traps that must be jumped over with good timing. If the player still has a Flame Barrier this boss is fairly easy.
Flying Battery Zone
‘Go flying on Robotnik’s warship. Watch where you step – sneaky raps are everywhere!’ – S&K manual
Flying Battery is a fast and frantic zone aboard one of Robotnik’s airships. It has similarities with Wing Fortress Zone in Sonic 2 with inside and outside areas. There are multiple routes to choose from and lots of traps. Some skillful platforming will be needed to uncover all its secrets. Make sure to grab a fire shield to avoid the fire jets.
The sub-boss for Act 1 is Gapsule. This modified animal Capsule throws huge spike balls at the player. It will take some figuring out how to defeat him as normal attacks have no effect. The second act sees the return of Robotnik and this time he has his Hang Mobile with him. The rolling theme of having a Flame Barrier will help you defeat this swinging foe.
‘No desert has shiftier sands than this treacherous terrain. Play the sands to your advantage. Time your attack on the Skorp just right!’ – S&K manual
Sandopolis can be a frustrating zone to get through. There are plenty of puzzles, traps and a race against the rising sand to contend with. The second act is set inside a murky, haunted pyramid. You must find the switches to the lamps that keep the ghosts at bay. Lots of experimentation is needed to uncover all this zones secrets. The enemies can be very tricky to overcome and it is wise to slow down.
The Act 1 sub-boss is Guardian. A rock-golem type creature who stands protects the entrance to the pyramid. Like Gapsule before, Guardian will take some figuring out because normal attacks will not harm it. Robotnik appears in his Egg Golem contraption at the end of Act 2. He is using a rock armour suit that protects him. Watch out for his spike hands, a Thunder Barrier will be hopefully here if playing as Sonic.
Lava Reef Zone
‘Enter the biggest, hottest Zone on Floating Island! Beware of the exploding rocks and Toxomisters that poison the air!’ – S&K manual
Lava Reef is a cavern set deep in the Floating Island’s volcano. The first act is filled with lava pools and has the appearance of a mine. At the beginning of Act 2 the lava cools to solid rock but there are now fire jets acting as flame throwers. This level has many secret areas and various routes to explore. It is important to keep a Flame Barrier throughout as this will keep you protected against the lava and fire. This is the last zone that allows access to the Special Stages through the Special Rings.
Act 1’s sub-boss is a giant robot hand called Heat Arms that we see again later in the game. The hand is supported by two tentacles that spit bullets but can be destroyed with a standard attack. Dr Robotnik appears as always at the end of Act 2 in his Hot Mobile. You cannot attack his armoured craft directly as he launches spiked bombs. Avoid these and Robotnik damages himself. A Flame Barrier is vital for this encounter as it is set in a lava pit. Knuckles does not fight this boss however and simply exits the zone through t a passage way.
Hidden Palace Zone
‘Some mysteries are solved! Robotnik makes his big play, and Knuckles finds out who the REAL bad guy is!’ – S&K manual
Hidden Palace is a single act zone that is used to develop Sonic’s story and as a quick pass through for Knuckles to reach his final foe. It has the same theme as Lava Reef Act 2 without the fire jets. This level is notable as the first time that Robonik and Knuckles are on the screen at the same time.
The stage is short for both characters but in Sonic’s playthrough he finally battles Knuckles, who acts as the level boss. We uncover the truth about Robotnik’s lies due to the lengthy cut scene at the end.
Sky Sanctuary Zone
‘Take to the clouds when Sonic fights Robotnik’s badniks on the floating ruins of an ancient time’ – S&K manual
Just like Hidden Palace, Sky Sanctuary is a single act Zone. The zone takes place on a huge floating building filled with towers and bouncing clouds. The level is used as a landing platform for the Death Egg and is split into three sections. During Sonic’s story he fights against two classic bosses from previous games before moving onto the next area.
Knuckles does not actually complete this level and appears in the stage straight into the boss area. It serves as the final boss battle for Knuckles where he fights Mecha Sonic in the last showdown. Sonic also fights Mecha Sonic but only diables him before making his way to the Death Egg.
Death Egg Zone
‘Face bald, belligerent Robotnik in his whirling Death Egg!’ – S&K manual
Death Egg has two acts that are only played as Sonic. It is a large Zone set inside Robotnik’s giant space station. There are various routes to take and several secret rooms. This zone requires quick reflexes and has obstacles, traps and enemies at every turn. There are lots of loops and Sonic runs upside down at times due to the lack of gravity in certain sections. It is useful obtaining a Lightning Barrier to protect yourself from the electricity and sparks scattered throughout.
Act 1 sub-boss, Red Eye, has two forms. It starts out throwing spikes from whirling balls that must be avoided. Once all the balls are destroyed Red Eye detaches from the mount and spins spike platforms around itself. This boss is much easier if you keep an Electric Barrier. The showdown with Robotnik in Act 2 is spread across four different boss section. Starting with his Death ball where Sonic must use the gravity to his advantage.
It is at this point we see the Giant Egg Robo and the return of Heat Arms from Lava Reef. After this Robotnik unleashes the power of the Master Emerald and the Giant Egg Robo chases Sonic who must act quickly to inflict damage. Once finally defeated, Robotnik escapes in a Egg Mobile carrying the Master Emerald and this time Sonic is chasing. If you have not collected all the Chaos Emeralds by this point the game ends.
#Sonic unleashes incredible Emerald forces in this final shattering showdown with Robotnik!’ – S&K manual
Doomsday is only accessible by Super Sonic after he has collected all seven Chaos Emeralds. This is the final showdown between Dr Robotnik and Sonic as they race through space. Sonic transforms back to his normal form and dies if he runs out of rings. Defeating this zone uncovers the true ending and brings the Classic Story to its conclusion.
Special and Bonus Stages
S&K has nine special areas made up of seven Special Stages and two Bonus Stages. You do not need to enter any of these ares to finish the game but to uncover the secret ending you will need to beat the seven Special Stages. These additional stages add some much needed extra gameplay to S&K. They also help break up the zones and require skill to complete. Experienced players will find these stages invaluable in completing the game to an expert standard.
Each Special stage is accessed by jumping through a Special Ring within an act. They are hidden away in secret areas and only seen up to Lava Reef Zone. You will collect one of the Chaos Emeralds if you collect all the blue spheres contained within the stage. The spheres turn red once touched and you leave the stage if you run into a red sphere.
The stages are semi-3D in look and the camera is set behind the player. If you collect all the rings in the Special Stage you will be granted a perfect. To do this you must run around the outside of any square block of blue spheres.
Both Bonus Stages are accessed by hitting a Starpost with more than 20 rings. The Starpost will send a teleporter made of stars up in the air. Jumping through this will send you to a Bonus Stage. The colour of the stars determines the stage you enter.
The first Bonus Stage is a giant slot machine. The slot machine itself was first seen in Sonic 2’s Casino Night Zone and sits in the centre. You control Sonic or Knuckles by bouncing off bumpers and springs that are plentiful. This stage plays very similar to the Special Stages seen in the original Sonic game. To exit the stage you fall into the exit signs around the edges.
The second stage is a colourful array of glowing spheres and flippers. There are power ups and rings to collect as you propel yourself upwards. The power ups increase in value as you get further up the stage. Falling to the bottom will mean you exit the stage.
Speed or exploration?
S&K is not a long game, any competent player should be able to finish it in about an hour or so. However, the acts are large and it is possible to spend a lot more time finding all the Chaos Emeralds and secrets. You can mix up traditional speedy gameplay with exploration during many of the stages. There is a balance about this Sonic title that brings an air of maturity to the series.
Critics would argue that the game is filled with gimmicks and loses the fluidity seen in previous entries. Some of the level design does feel laboured with sections that play slow or fiddly to traverse. It could be seen as the developers adding more variety and creating a more challenging experience. Either way, this title does offer something different and moves the series forward.
Visually, Sonic & Knuckles is a feast of pixel art. The bosses are made from huge sprites and the stages are filled with colours. The attention to detail of the multi-layered animations is up with the very best the Mega Drive has to offer. The development team, led by Sega legend Yuji Naka, have pushed the boundaries of the console and produced a beautiful game.
The soundtrack is a delight to experience with pumping beats and crisp effects. You may find yourself tapping a foot to the music as Sonic blasts through loops and bounces from springs. Each level has its own track and the story unfolds during brief cutscenes accompanied by dramatic music. Sound effects are decent and fit the games style. The pops and bumps from beating enemies are especially satisfying.
The graphics and sounds come together to create a high quality game that stands above much of its competitors. There may be some that find the techno-style beats a little much and the assault of colour garish. But it would be harsh to criticize the developers who set out to created a unique presentation style.
Lock-On for action!
On the face of it, Sonic & Knuckles appears to be a standard platforming game of high quality but linear gameplay. However, there is another feature that makes this title stand out and offer a unique mechanic not seen in cartridge based gaming before. The physical cartridge has a slot on the top that allows another Mega Drive game to Lock-On. This is not just another Sega gimmick either, the device breathes new life into your other Mega Drive games.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Connecting Sonic 3 directly to Sonic & Knuckles creates one epic adventure. With the two games combined you can play all the levels of both games together. It allows Knuckles to be used in Sonic 3 and “Tails” in Sonic & Knuckles. This opens up both games further with new areas and features to explore. The other benefit is Sonic & Knuckles takes advantage of Sonic 3’s save feature allowing you to replay individual levels once the game finishes.
It is obvious that Sega had every intention to do this, even during the development of Sonic 3. We now know that Sega felt cramming all the levels and gameplay onto one Sonic 3 cartridge would have made the game expensive. The decision was taken early to split the both games over two cartridges but also allow each to stand on their own.
Knuckles in Sonic 2
Plugging in a copy of Sonic 2 allows you to use Knuckles and all his abilities in this game. It is interesting playing through Sonic 2 as Knuckles due to the new areas you can reach using his climbing ability. But it does make some boss fights more difficult however, due to his slightly shorter jump.
The content doesn’t end there either. Connecting the original Sonic opens up a Blue Sphere game that is essentially thousands of Special Stages exactly the same as those found in Sonic & Knuckles. Finally, if that was not enough, plug in any other Mega Drive cartridge to unlock one Special Stage to play through.
End of the Classic
Sonic & Knuckles is one of the best Mega Drive titles and with its Lock-On ability there is plenty of content to play through. Any platforming fan will feel right at home bouncing and gliding around the levels and the presentation is excellent. The real criticism is in the games length, although there are multiple routes to uncover. Overall, Sega have finished the Classic Sonic story on a high that anyone can enjoy.