I could have split these into two separate entries, but as they were originally conceived and are best enjoyed as one game, I’ve combined them. In my eyes, Sonic 3 and Knuckles is the greatest Sonic game ever created, but I’ll admit it also divides opinion. Some see it as the point the focus shifted from pure horizontal speed to include more exploration-based gameplay, but for me it’s the most evocative, artistic and imaginative of Sonic’s outings.
One important factor in Sonic 3‘s appeal for me is the inroads it made into developing character, with Sonic and Tails enjoying new moves, from shields to swimming, and obviously the introduction of Knuckles was a huge step at the time. Even the animations moved the characters along – Sonic flexes his muscles while holding onto handles, Tails’s cheeks puff out as he holds his breath and Knuckles’s laugh is brimming with that cheeky menace we’ve come to expect from him. Sonic’s development from two-dimensional sprinter into inspirational hero took a great leap here.
The game’s art is the strongest of the 2D Sonics, brilliantly depicting the Floating Island’s decaying civilisation with a wonderful palette and eye for detail, from curling vines to tiny bubbles, with the glassy sheen and rich blue-and-white of Ice Cap a classic Sega level – even in thick snow, there are blue skies. An important life lesson, you could say.
One of the many small pleasures I get from Sonic 3 and Knuckles (S3&K) is the sense of coherence: the levels are all connected and you see Sonic move from one to another, instead of instantly appearing in a new Zone. It’s a minor thing in the context of a Sonic game, but it goes a great distance to making you feel you’re really covering some ground on the Floating Island, without any overhead map or suchlike. Likewise, the transition from Sonic 3‘s conclusion to the start of Sonic and Knuckles is brilliantly handled, and really does feel like you’re playing an extension of the game, particularly with the addition of Super Emeralds.
Overall, Sonic 3 and Knuckles is a beautifully presented and endlessly rich adventure, full of the series’ characteristic charm and speed (try to keep up whilst on Carnival Night Zone’s candy canes), and the crown jewel in an amazing run of Mega Drive games that ensured, no matter what followed, Sonic was a legend.