Sonic Jam - "Knuckles Chaotix"

Remember that 2005 show with Britney Spears and Kevin Federline? Britney and Kevin: Chaotic? It was pretty awful, right? A star whose relevance was growing more and more questionable by the day, teaming up with an entirely irrelevant joke of a person, for a thoroughly depressing experience on a TV station that nobody watched. It was a bad time, and one of many signals that Brit's reign as a pop star was in a fiery tailspin.

Knuckles Chaotix, a similarly-titled entry in the Sonic series that came out exactly one decade prior, is pretty much the same thing. Except instead of Kevin Federline and UPN, it's "garbage animal sidekicks" and the Sega 32X.

The 32X...

The 32X, like UPN, was a once-promising item that gradually dicked itself into irrelevance with inferior quality to its competitors and a laughably small library of titles. It was yet another add-on to throw onto the growing trashpile of peripherals getting slapped onto the Genesis. The Sega CD. The Sonic and Knuckles cartridge. The 32X. The shit was starting to pile up, as Sega dumped them all onto the market in hopes of delaying the inevitable reality of having to release a new console. And because people, for the most part, aren't completely stupid, the consumer base was starting to move away from Sega and all of their frankly desperate gimmicks.

Oh, and the PlayStation was about to come out. So there's that. So you had a choice between this:

Or the new hotness:

Not to mention that the release of Sega's newest system was imminent. So, in retrospect, what seemed like a neat add-on at the time actually looks like the beginning of a protracted series of death rattles from a company getting blindsided by the competition. And unlike the Sega CD, there wasn't even a library of underrated cult gems to the 32X's name. Because over the course of the add-on's miserable, wretched existence, there were only forty games released for it. Most of them were bad ports, sports games, FMV movies, and edgy shock value games for edgy tweens.

Only one of them, in my opinion, is worth playing. It's a side-scrolling adventure game that stars an animal, and its title starts with a "K." I'm talking, of course, about Kolibri, an underrated ambient experiment from the geniuses behind Ecco the Dolphin. Go play that if you want to play an actual good 32X game.

Wait, what? You thought I was talking about that other animal-based side-scroller exclusive to the 32X that starts with the letter "K"? Knuckles Chaotix? Hate to burst your bubble, because not even a Sonic game could save the 32X. Why? Because Chaotix is one of the most unpleasant experiences you can have playing a video game.

Honestly, I feel like the reason this game isn't more universally reviled is because literally nobody owned a 32X. Whenever people talk about the worst games of all time, you have your Superman 64's, your Big Rigs, your E.T.'s. And don't get me wrong, those are pretty awful. No argument there. But in the same way I'm going to defend Sonic 2006, I want to defend Knuckles Chaotix. Not defend it being a good game, though. Don't be silly. No, I want to lead a noble crusade to raise awareness that Knuckles Chaotix is, in fact, one of the worst games ever made.

... & Knuckles

Because it is. Knuckles Chaotix, aka Chaotix Featuring Knuckles the Echidna Welcome to the Next Level in 32X World, is what happens when a bad prototype for a broken engine somehow gets released as a complete product. I kid you not, Chaotix feels like a proof-of-concept rather than an actual game. It's an unfinished idea slathered with layers of slick paint and an admittedly decent soundtrack, all to convince players that they've bought a finished title. In reality, they've bought themselves a future of broken controllers and feelings of deep betrayal.

That last one especially, too, because at the outset, Chaotix promises to be another fun side-scrolling romp with anthropomorphic animals. Those illusions fade away after a minute or two, when Knuckles takes a ring in his hand and is magically bonded to another animal buddy by some magic... sparkly... band... rope... thing.

Whatever the fuck this is.
It's from here on out that any hopes of this being a somewhat decent game all but vanish. Once you finish the opening level, you wind up selecting one of five animals/insects to play as, then get to play a roulette to pick a partner, then get to play a roulette to pick which level you'll be going into. That means a few things. Choice of partner? Fuck it. Sense of progression? Who needs it! You basically pick your character, then look at the game and say, "just fuck me up, fam." And hoo boy, does it ever.

In theory, Chaotix is a platformer. In execution, it's a game where players frantically scramble around a 2D plane in a more or less straight line, haphazardly slingshotting their partner into things, and sloppily standing on color-coordinated platforms. Maybe a platformer, but really just a sloppy mistake. There's not really even any platforming to speak of. You just kind of run places. You don't run fast, mind you.

That's because of that "slingshotting" aspect I mentioned. Your little animal dudes aren't just bonded to another little animal dude. Being connected to another character means that you can't just control the character you pick and rush through the game. No, you have to problem-solve for another physical presence holding you back via a glorified magical rubber band. Instead of running up a wall, you'll have to sling one character up, fall down, sling another, fall back down, try to spindash and slingshot up, get held back because the physics don't actually work, then give up and throw the cartridge in the garbage. Gone are the days of just running up a wall and calling it a day.

This mechanic, this central mechanic, spells disaster for the whole product. A game that has admittedly good production values and a jamming soundtrack is ruined by the fact that it's not even remotely fun to play. And to think, it was almost an actual Sonic game. No, really.

The long-lost sequel to Stuck On You.
There's a prototype called Sonic Crackers that's been heavily circulated for well over a decade at this point. Very few people, for the longest time, knew what it was even a prototype for. In fact, there still seems to be a bit of mystery related to it, as there's still a significant number of people who call it the prototype for a fourth Sonic game. There's even stuff in it that didn't make it into Chaotix, like a nifty overworld map to explore, so there's a little bit of credence to that claim. All traces of Sonic were erased in favor of disposable side-characters, though, and none of the embryonic map ideas made into the final product.

What do I think? I honestly am liable to believe that this was supposed to be a new main entry in the series. The 32X was hurting. It had no heavy hitters. It needed a new Sonic outing, just like the Sega CD needed Sonic CD. So this got made. Only they realized, a good way into the dev cycle, that this was a thoroughly awful game with a broken central mechanic, and decided to brand it as a spin-off as opposed to the fourth proper entry. This is all conjecture, sure, and I have no actual proof for it, but knowing that Sonic Crackers exists, and knowing that Knuckles Chaotix is the game that we got, there's a case that can be made for that being the case.

We'll never know, obviously. Sega's still notoriously tight-lipped about development of their games, and still won't publicly acknowledge things like Michael Jackson's music still being in Sonic 3. But, at the very least, we know one thing.

We know that, at this point, Knuckles was the Kevin Federline of the Sonic franchise. He was loosely associated by somebody we used to care about it, and we sort of cared about him by proxy, but he was just kind of a punk more than anything. Their names also start with "K," so there's that. We also know that Knuckles Chaotix is the video game equivalent to Britney and Kevin: Chaotic. An ugly exercise in futility on the UPN of gaming consoles that, in retrospect, is a painful reminder of the time period it came out in, and a bombastic, loud package that ultimately signified nothing.
And that last bit also describes where we're going next...


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