Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Developer: Sonic Team
Article by Andrew Bentley | November 3, 2009
Having grown up in the 1990s, surrounded by the infamous “Sega does what Nintendon’t” marketing hype, I’m well aware of the emptiness of terms like Blast Processing: Marketing hokum drummed up in order to con the Genesis faithful into believing that the Super NES was a cheap bit of fluff compared to Sega’s black plastic beast. The lens of hindsight reveals the entire thing for the charade it was, of course, since the Super NES was constructed out of state-of-the-art tech considerably fresher than the Genesis’ aging hardware. Blast Processing was a load of nonsense that impressed no one over the age of twelve, a smoke-and-mirror explanation for why Sonic was so badass and so fast, and why the puny Super NES could never handle a Sonic game. But Sega's most egregious offense during these years had to be Lock-On Technology, Sega's magic bullet to sell Sonic 3.
Truth be told, the Lock-On Technology deal was a boondoggle of the kind rarely seen in gaming until the advent of downloadable content: The idea was to make players pay twice for full access to a game, all justified through the use of phrasing such as “bonus content” and “extra levels” and so on. Basically, Sega published Sonic 3 in a sort of half-finished state, and then released the rest of the game as a separate cart with the ability to connect physically to the first half and create the full release. It showed the true strength of Sega’s marketing arm as well, since the obviousness of it is rather transparent in hindsight, but for impressionable kids who loved their Sonic in much the way Super NES kids loved their Mario... well, when the man on TV tells you that you can play as Knuckles not only in Sonic 3 but throughout Sonic 2 as well, nothing could be more enticing.
And that’s probably why so many of us fell for the promise of Lock-On Technology. Gamers in the days before the Internet relied largely on trade magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro for information, and since a majority of the publications in print at the time were little more than hobbyist magazines, factors like journalistic standards weren’t really a concern. Hence, Nintendo and Sega fought it out in two-page-spread ads, trying to pressure the faithful into buying the latest and greatest with exclusive previews and pre-release screenshots. But any con man knows that in order to make a lie work, you have to keep 'em going by spinning new lies to keep your mark from thinking for himself lest the whole charade fall apart. And thus, Sonic 3 & Knuckles.
The con becomes readily apparent once you think about it a little, obviously enough. The original Sonic 3 cart had an absolute plethora of save spots, something new to the series altogether, and a spiffy menu to go with it, and it was just as long as the previous two Sonic adventures with the addition of a multiplayer mode to boot. The Sonic & Knuckles cart, on the other hand, had that goofy “Lock-On” dealie on top of it and had no save menu at all, and you could only choose between the title characters on the main screen with no extra menus and no multiplayer mode. Of course, if you were a kid like me, you probably just popped the Sonic 3 cart into the lock-on slot and had at it with the mind-blowing realization that Sonic 3 & Knuckles let you pick up at the start of the new material from a clear save from the first game.
To be fair to my much-younger self, even I thought that was a bit suspicious, but I was too busy having fun with the game, and the demands of puberty meant I was spending what other free time I had finding girls a lot more interesting than I had in the past. I was one of many perfect marks for this particular con, although I was less enticed by the “bonus content” that the Sonic & Knuckles cart promised than I was by the promise of more Sonic 3-quality content, and with a playable Knuckles to boot.
Because for all the unpleasantness surrounding this oily split release, Sonic 3 itself was really a fantastic game in its own right. Need proof? Consider this: I'm genuinely terrible at most platformers unless they have the best of controls, and the Genesis Sonic games remain the only platformers that I've bothered completing 100 percent. In the case of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, this means I played through with each possible character and obtained all of the Chaos Emeralds, including the Super Emeralds. The Special Stage layouts became second nature to me, and I worked out a few special tricks to make the game that much easier as the result of simply having played it so much.
The appeal of Sonic lay in the series' attempt to downplay the exploration aspects of the genre popularized by Mario and mimicked by a host of other NES platformers -- and that despite this fundamental change in focus, the Sonic games manage to be reasonably vast in terms in scope and content, yet maintain an incredibly speedy pace. Well, that was true for Sonic himself, anyway; both Tails and Knuckles played more to the exploratory end of the genre as the result of their special abilities. While Sonic’s speed revealed one aspect of his world, his companions had entirely different options for exploration. Disregarding the fact that you could literally see the hooks for Knuckles' routes in Sonic 3 -- in hindsight, an obvious revelation of Sega's shenanigans Sonic 3 on its own was simply about blazing fast speed and white-knuckle skill, a rapid momentum-based tour through cleverly-crafted levels that refined everything great about the first two games into a more polished, more ambitious adventure. And whatever sins Lock-On Technology may be guilty of, the ability to explore that same again as Knuckles shed a whole new light on Sonic 3.
Alas that the unfortunate truth from behind the scenes was a dire foreshadowing of the direction the series would eventually take. While Sonic 3’s “expansion” added a lot of content and a new playable character, the new content fit perhaps a little too seamlessly with the old… almost as if it had been designed at the same time, and -- more to the point -- as if this one seamless world was created with all of the characters in mind with paths for each character available! How this, and the twin disasters of Sonic Xtreme and Sonic 3D Blast led into the further decline and salting of the franchise’s earth I have no real clue, but there’s a connection there -- my gut tells me that much, and I think it has more to do with the endless console “wars” than anything directly related to the series itself.
Can a game be at once the pinnacle of a series and a sure sign of its impending decline? Sonic 3 suggests that it can.