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Sonic Jam - "Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles"

I've already talked about Yuji Naka's notorious perfectionism, and how it led to Sonic 2 being a rushed game, and how it ended up giving us two Sonic games before we got the next proper entry. Well, this is that proper entry. Except, not really. Because this "proper entry" was split between two games and tied to one of the most downright silly releases in video game history.

Get locked on, ladies and gentlemen.

Sonic The Hedgehog 3...

Sonic the Hedgehog 3 hit the market in early 1994, and needless to say, it was pretty much an instant smash. Sonic Spinball sold well enough, and Sonic CD did alright despite its limited market (not everyone had a Sega CD,) but this was the big one. This was the third main entry in what was, at the time, pretty much the hottest franchise on the market. Anyone who was everyone would be snagging this baby. 

On top of selling well, it was also a critical smash, and for good reason: Sonic 3, for lack of a better term, kicks serious ass. Despite my personal predisposition towards Sonic CD, I can take a step back to look at everything Sonic 3 accomplished and be blown away. It was the brightest, most colorful entry in the series, and squeezed the ever-loving fuck out of the Genesis' limited color palette. The gameplay was diverse and spectacular, letting players guide Sonic through massive set pieces with blazing speed and precise platforming. All of this was tied together with a soundtrack that had a zillion composers and is, honestly, one of the most downright gorgeous soundtracks of the 16-bit era.

But surprisingly, it's that very soundtrack that belies some of the biggest problems with Sonic 3. No, it's not the game itself (well, not entirely, but more on that in a sec.) See... as I've hinted at before, the production behind this game was kind of a mess. Constant delays. An entirely separate Sonic Team putting together a totally different game. Oh, and Michael Jackson.

Yes, that Michael Jackson.

Amy, are you okay? So, Amy, are you okay? Are you okay, Amy?
In a factoid that I'm still shocked more people don't know, the smooth criminal himself was brought in by Sega to oversee the music for Sonic 3, and the rest is a tale mired in one of gaming's longest conspiracy theories. Writer Todd Van Luling wrote about it better than I ever could earlier this year, and a good thing too: this was the hardest story to track down a definitive answer for the longest time. Sega claimed that Jackson's sex abuse allegations forced them to cut all ties with him. His collaborators said that Jackson was dissatisfied with the Genesis' sound chip, and requested his music to be dropped. The truth is somewhat of a compromise.

See, Jackson did indeed dislike how the Genesis sound chip butchered his music, but he didn't request that the music be dropped. Instead, he simply requested that his name be taken off the credits because he didn't want to be associated with 16-bit renderings of his music. But instead of insinuating that their sound chip was somehow inferior (remember, the Genesis was being sold on its supposed but non-existent technical advantage over the SNES,) the PR for Sega used the subsequent allegations against Jackson as the reason why he left. But that music he composed? It wasn't cut. The tracks he cut with Brad Buxer, Cirocco Jones and all other involved parties remained in the finished project. In fact, you can even hear some prototypes for what would later become full tracks on Jackson's next album.

Basically, Sega used criminal charges against Jackson to excuse their sound chip not being to his liking, then used his music anyway. Nice, huh?

Still a better love story than Twilight.
But the sordid, doomed romance between Michael Jackson and Sonic T. Hedgehog was just one part of Sonic 3's messy development. For starters, Yuji Naka originally anted to make the game an isometric, top-down adventure game, because why make another Sonic game when you can make an abomination instead? But after work into that, the idea was abandoned (and unfortunately used for a later game,) and development on Sonic 3 started.

It wasn't too far into development, however, that Sega ran into a big hurdle: the damn game was getting too big. Yuji Naka and his dev team were pushing the limits of the Genesis, and on top of that, they would need a huge cartridge (for the time) to fit the entire thing on. Now, if Sega were Nintendo, they'd just push out some sort of stupid peripheral to make the game (barely) work, but why do that when you can make more money? That simple question drives a release that's, to date, one of the most head-scratching in gaming history.

So, if you've played Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (which you really should,) you might notice that the game feels a little... short. There are only six zones, and while they're all actually amazing levels, there's no denying that one would expect more content from a game with such a protracted dev cycle. Not to mention the fact that the final confrontation between Sonic and Robotnik feels really anti-climactic, and the whole business with Knuckles (explained below) is left unresolved.

That's because there's a whole game's worth of content that was split off and sold later that year as a sequel. 

No, really.

... & Knuckles

Sonic & Knuckles, despite its standalone release, is not a full game at all, despite what Sega will try to convince you to this day. It's been sold as such time and time again. Modern Genesis compilations leave them as separate games. Only some archaic PC releases from the 90's and the version available on Steam (currently the best port, by the way, until Christian Whitehead gets to put one out) put Sonic 3 & Knuckles together.

Which is how both games should be, because Sonic & Knuckles is basically the second half of Sonic 3. That's why Knuckles randomly features Knuckles as a playable character. It's why the level set feels really randomly put together. It's why it continues the exact same narrative (Knuckles wants Chaos Emeralds, but he's actually not a bad guy, and Sonic has to work with him.) Oh, right, and it's why the Genesis cartridge has a slot on the top of it for Sonic 3 to go into. It's Sega's way of letting players experience the game the way that Naka and his team intended. Every bit of content that you get when you lock Sonic 3 onto Knuckles is the true Sonic the Hedgehog 3.

And once you're able to do that, how, exactly, is Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles? It's nothing short of a bloody fucking masterpiece.

Don't get me wrong. Sonic CD is and will most likely always be my favorite 2D Sonic game from the 90's. But Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a close second, and that's because it is the side-scrolling platformer equivalent of a sprawling epic. Each level is huge, and every act within each level continues seamlessly into the next one without a break. There's a myriad of secrets, totally different paths for players to get to the finish line, and some crazy set pieces that would go on to serve as inspiration for later titles. You know the badass ice cave/snowboarding level in Adventure


What about the carnival setting of Sonic Colors?

How about Angel Island, a recurring important place in the overall game and comic canon?

If Sonic CD set the stage for the tone and atmosphere in future entries, then Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles set all of the literal stages that Sonic Team would continue to utilize for years to come. And for good reason: it's a beautiful grabbag of stages, all of them with unique gimmicks, color palettes, and terrains. While some cynical souls might deride Sonic Team for a perceived lack of originality, I'd disagree with that sentiment. To me, it adds an overall sense of cohesion to the franchise. 

That stands for the entirety of the game, too. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is pretty much the encapsulation of everything it felt like Yuji Naka and other founders of Sonic Team were working towards from the first entry. While Sonic CD went in a weird, dark and distinctly 90's direction, Sonic 3 brings the overall arc of the initial trilogy of Sonic games to a close with definitive finesse and technical mastery. It's sublime platforming, and has a tonal similarity to its previous two games. For all of the misgivings I have with Sonic 2, there's practically nothing I dislike about this one. The extra development time was used to craft a benchmark for platformers that few meet, let alone surpass, and one that still holds by today's standards. That's how good it is. In the 20+ years since its release, few things have touched how sublime it truly is.

I mean, I still like Sonic CD better, but that's because I'm a goddamn hipster. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Knuckles was the last great Sonic game of the Genesis era, and the last good Sonic game for... oh, Christ, it was honestly the last good Sonic game until 1998. So what happened between this and that?

A series of oozing, puss-filled blisters that almost ran the franchise into the ground before the Dreamcast even hit. So, let's take out a needle and get to popping!


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