I am such a shameless Sonic the Hedgehog fan that I can’t really believe it sometimes. I collected the Archie comic books for the guy, practically owned a Sega Genesis as a Sonic-the-Hedgehog-Playing-Machine, and I would never miss a single episode of all of his corny cartoon shows. I even had a Sonic doll I used to throw around all the time. I never seemed to grow out of my love for Sonic as I grew up, and I found myself buying a Dreamcast exclusively to play Sonic Adventure (which was so the coolest game ever according to kid me). I was excited to play just about every Sonic game—even Sonic 2006, which was just so depressing. But nothing quite matched the excitement I got from playing Sonic 3 & Knuckles and experiencing the story it wanted to tell.
Although I did have less fun as the Sonic games continued until Sonic Generations, I still played them almost out of some masochistic tradition. However, I would always think back to the fonder days to help push me through to the completion of every Sonic game. You know, before Sonic was a knight, a rescuer of princesses, a demon genie thing, a werehog, and a time-hopper. I thought back to the original Genesis games and how simple they were. Sonic wants to save his tiny animal friends from the evil Dr. Robotnik because Dr. Robotnik is a gigantic bastard. That’s all the story we needed and wanted.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles got a little more complex though, and I’d say the story continued from Sonic 2 in a great way. Everything was so dynamic, so fun, and so… cool. This is why I always got excited for Sonic stories, because I saw what they did in this game with the limitations of they had. In fact, I think that they managed to tell a better story in Sonic 3 & Knuckles than the rest of the games in the series. And before anybody starts, I count these two games as the same game for the many reasons people have said before. If anyone has a problem with that, they can tell me so here.
Now Sonic 3 & Knuckles (S3&K) doesn’t have a particularly complicated story but on the Genesis, Sonic Team still told this story masterfully with what little they had. Without even looking at the game guide, you could understand what is going on in this story. It didn’t have little text boxes to tell you anything, nor did it have dialogue. The game just relied on what actions happened on the screen. Let’s take a trip through S3&K to show you exactly why this game’s story was wonderful.
The title screen (seen above) shows Tails’ plane flying around a giant floating island. When the game opens, Sonic is standing on Tails’ plane as it sails forward. They head towards an island and Sonic leaps off into the water and goes Super Sonic, flying over the water and towards the beach, then into the jungle before him. As he’s soaring past, all of a sudden Knuckles leaps up from the ground with such force that it knocks all of Sonic’s Chaos Emeralds out of him, making him revert into regular Sonic. Knuckles then takes all of the emeralds and laughs at Sonic before running away. And that’s the opening scene.
Let’s recap this a little bit so you can understand why this is such a great introduction. Imagine that we don’t know anything about Sonic other than he’s a blue hedgehog. First, we see Sonic riding on Tails’ plane. So that when Tails is following you around throughout the game, we don’t go “What the hell is this two-tailed freak of nature doing following me?” and instead come to the realization of “Hey! That freak is my friend! We’re hanging out!” And we remember that the plane was flying around a floating island before, so we’re clearly flying to that floating island!
Secondly, we see Sonic jump off of the plane and become Super Sonic. Now if you’re anything like any kid, you said, “This is the coolest thing ever! I can turn gold and look so awesome! I want to play as that!” We’re made aware that Sonic can turn into a much more powerful form. And if we played Sonic 2, we know that this form is the amazing Super Sonic mode already, and that Sonic got all of the Chaos Emeralds in the last game because of it. But if you don’t know that, Knuckles is around to show you because he knocks all of the Chaos Emeralds out of you and turns you back into regular Sonic. So now we know Super Sonic can only be achieved by getting the Chaos Emeralds.
Lastly, we know that Knuckles is a jerk. And he is smug. And he is strong enough to kick Super Sonic’s shiny gold ass. He beat us up and took our stuff! He’s nothing but a mean bully!
So our gameplay begins as such: we got beat up by Knuckles and we want to chase him to get our freaking Chaos Emeralds back. As we progress through the first level of the game, Angel Island Zone, we eventually get to a killer flame robot. And although we were previously in the gorgeous jungle world, the robot sets fire to the entire jungle! The whole jungle is on fire, and nothing is beautiful anymore, and my first level stage is ruined! This makes us mad! And then it makes us think. Could this killer flame robot possibly have been created by Dr. Robotnik? As we progress, we do end up getting revenge on the flame robot and defeat it.
Towards the end of the stage, a giant ship flies overhead and tries to bomb us. We come to realize that we know a guy from the previous Sonic titles that had giant ships. His name was Dr. Shipnik or something. But at this point, we are absolutely certain that yes, this is Dr. Robotnik trying to kill us. Because Dr. Robotnik is a bastard. And bastards do stuff like burn down forests and bomb you. No sooner after we come to this realization are we encountered by the doctor himself!
We beat up Dr. Robotnik like always and proceed to a bridge. We look up and spy Knuckles the jerk again! He laughs at us and jumps on a switch, making the bridge collapse and forcing us to fall down a chasm! Let’s pause here again. We beat up Dr. Robotnik and immediately after, Knuckles decides to screw with us. So we can draw the connection here that Dr. Robotnik and Knuckles are both working together. Another thing we notice is that Knuckles manages to press on a switch that destroys the bridge we were on, which means Knuckles clearly knows about this island we’re on! He must live here!
Now, I’m not going to go through every level and explain what happens in each one, but I’ll give you the quick summary for some of them. Sonic goes through the level and fights a mini boss before fighting Dr. Robotnik. At some point during the level, Knuckles is a gigantic jerk. One thing to point out is that we do get a more streamlined story experience because every zone transitions to the next one in an interesting way. The Angel Island Zone takes us to the Hydrocity Zone because we fell through a bridge; the Hydrocity Zone takes us to the Marble Garden Zone because a geyser hits us; the Marble Garden Zone takes us to the Carnival Night Zone because Tails flies us the whole way there until night comes up; etc. This was awesome and definitely added to the experience.
When we get to the final stage of Sonic 3, and we see something massive in the background. Soon, we realize it’s the Death Egg, Robotnik’s giant Death Star rip off, in the background. However, it’s so massive that you only get to see bits of it in the background. At the end of the level, we fight our standard Dr. Robotnik fight before we see Dr. Robotnik fly away again. And you know that awesome hover car that Robotnik always flies away in? One is just parked there for us to use! We jump in the car and then fly towards Dr. Robotnik, only for freaking Knuckles to be standing on a platform in our way, punching us away to impede our process. However, the Death Egg ship starts to take off, making Knuckles lose his balance and fall into the water below! From this, we can gather that Dr. Robotnik is, in fact, still a bastard and does not care at all for Knuckles. We also learn that the Death Egg is huge and would mean bad things if it takes off.
We beat the final Robotnik robot in the game and then we are treated to the final scene. Our platform we were on breaks and Dr. Robotnik’s giant Death Egg ship starts to fall to the ground. We stopped it from taking off and doing terrible things! That means we win, right?
Well, yeah. Until we connect it to Sonic & Knuckles and play the second half of the game.
So when we continue playing, we have much of the same formula we had before. Knuckles is a jerk to us still, Dr. Robotnik is the final boss of the stage, and we have a nice zone transition to lead us to the next area. However, we see something interesting when we get to the Lava Reef Zone. When it seems like we’re at the end of the level, Knuckles throws a ginormous boulder at us. We fall down a chasm and see the massive Death Egg in the background. The eyes of the Death Egg flash and then the entire area begins to break down from the explosion it caused. Now we know why Robotnik is still around even though we thought we destroyed his Death Egg. He wants to bring back his giant death ship, because it wasn’t completely wrecked. We also know he’s still controlling the ship, so he’s made some good progress between us laying the smackdown on him. And we have also realized that if the weakened Death Egg can make an explosion to ruin this area, it can do a lot more when it’s completely fixed and in the sky. Things just got a lot more urgent for us now.
The next zone is the Hidden Palace, and we can see that the Death Egg has started to rise into the air in the background. We go forward and finally get to fight Knuckles! In the background, we also see hieroglyphics of a giant human-like creature holding a big Chaos Emerald while Super Sonic comes after him. This foreshadows what we can expect to happen later on in the game! Very clever stuff. Anyway, we fight Knuckles and beat him. We hear commotion going on off-screen and follow after it. We then see the Master Emerald, the big Chaos Emerald foreshadowed in the hieroglyphics, is being taken away by a robotic crane! Dr. Robotnik is trying to take this, and we see Knuckles chasing after Robotnik and screaming at him. Knuckles goes all out and desperately tries to hang onto the Master Emerald as Robotnik takes it, only to get zapped and knocked out.
Because of this, we now know that Knuckles was working with Robotnik, but never knew the doctor’s intentions! Robotnik only came to the floating island so he could take the Master Emerald, and Knuckles was completely clueless the whole time. We see Knuckles was never really that bad of a guy because all he wants is to defend the Master Emerald! He shows us no more grief and helps us advance to the next stage. Now we see the Death Egg is flying up even higher into the sky, and we’re nowhere close to take it down!
We make it to the end and fight off a Mecha Sonic robot because Dr. Robotnik is obviously piloting the Death Egg right now and can’t bother with us. We make it up a spire and jump onto the ship! We go through the Death Egg (which looks so cool) until we fight off Dr. Robotnik’s giant robot. We win, obviously, and Robotnik tries to fly away again with the Master Emerald! We destroy his ship and the Master Emerald falls! However, an explosion goes off!
Next thing we know, we’re Super Sonic flying through space and chasing after Dr. Robotnik’s getaway ship, just like in the hieroglyphs! We destroy that ship and it falls towards the Earth… but then Dr. Robotnik’s next mech flies out of it with the Master Emerald in tow! We destroy that robot and take the Master Emerald back as Robotnik’s mech plummets to Earth.
Tails manages to catch us as we fall with the Master Emerald and we take the Master Emerald back to the floating island, which is no longer floating. We can assume this is because the floating island is powered by the Master Emerald. When we bring the Master Emerald back, it floats again! We see Knuckles run over to smile at us as we fly away, grateful that we helped him even though he was a jerk.
That’s the end of Sonic’s story, but Knuckles also has his own story. I won’t go into great depth since Knuckles’ very similar to Sonic’s and takes place after the events of Sonic’s story. But for Sonic’s end, they managed to tell a simple and compelling story that was very easy to understand without the use of dialogue or narration. For this reason, I consider Sonic 3 & Knuckles the pinnacle of 8-bit and 16-bit adventure game storytelling. I can’t think of a single game that makes a more interesting story out of an action game back in that era. I wish that Sega could take a hint at the style of the story they told in this game and consider it for future Sonic games; but that’s another rant for another day.