Sonic the Hedgehog 3likeTBC Developer SEGA Publisher SEGA Genre Action Platform SEGA Megadrive Release 24th February 1994 Retro Recall - Having now laid waste to the sea of utterly horrible Sonic games which have all but tarnished SEGA's once illustrious mascot's gaming career, it's time to look back on a more favourable time. For Sonic's 20th Birthday, let's have a gander at what is arguably the best Sonic the Hedgehog game made to date: Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Well, that's not technically accurate. I'm also playing the 1995 'sequel' to the game: "Sonic & Knuckles" as well as Sonic the Hedgehog 3, so this is the full 14 stages and how the game was meant to be played.

No Sonic game is complete without disembodied floating Sonic heads.
Let me explain. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was released in 1994 and consisted of 6 stages, each stage consisting of 2 acts and two playable characters; Sonic and Tails. This may seem short considering the original Sonic the Hedgehog game had 7 stages, each stage having 3 acts but that's nothing on Sonic the Hedgehog 2's 11 stages, each having 2 acts (except Metropolis Zone which had 3 for some reason). However what Sonic 3 lacks in quantity, the game makes up for in quality, don't you worry. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 wasn't always supposed to be like this, however. SEGA Technical Institute, the developers of the game, wanted Sonic the Hedgehog 3 to be the definitive Sonic game. They had planned the game to be 14 stages long with 3 playable characters; Sonic, Tails and the new character introduced in Sonic 3: Knuckles. Unfortunately, time constraints and memory concerns came-a-creepin'. Believe it or not, in 1994 it was horrendously expensive to produce 4 megabyte EEPROM chips (what old games used to be stored on), which is what the full Sonic 3 game would have required. So, instead the game was split into two. In 1995; Sonic & Knuckles was released as a stand-alone cartridge. It boasted "lock-on" capabilities, where-by if you placed Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in the top of the cartridge, you would get the full Sonic 3 experience, seamlessly adding 8 new stages to the game, these stages could be played without Sonic 3, however you couldn't play as Tails in the game and there was no save functionality. One down-side to all this was that fans had to cough up double for both Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles at retail.

Aw yeah, Sonic's all powered up and ready for a new adventure.
Sonic 3 is perhaps one of the greatest platforming games ever made, up there with Super Mario World. It took the best bits of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and polished them to a near mirror shine, as you may expect from a sequel. Stages in the game are extremely well constructed, with much thought and obviously much revision to create vibrant, interesting and sprawling stages which I still manage to find new routes through after all these years. Each character in the game shares a lot of mechanics while being very distinct in how they play, not only this but each character in the game has their own routes through stages leveraging Tails' flying ability and Knuckles' ability to smash through certain walls. Knuckles himself is the game's "hard mode", he has his own routes through stages which he's forced to take due to his shorter jump height but these routes better account for his gliding and wall-climbing abilities. Knuckles also has to endure slightly modified boss behaviours and unique bosses which only Knuckles will face in the game, making them significantly more difficult.

Tails taking advantage of a unique path for him.
While Tails is quite an over-looked feature in many Sonic games, he is actually worth playing in this game due to the fact that he could finally fly. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 saw Tails flying, but as a player, you couldn't make Tails fly. Tails' new-found player-controlled ability to fly opens up new routes through stages for both Tails and Sonic, so long as you're play with Tails following. An often over-looked feature of the game is to play with a friend and use Tails to carry Sonic, a mechanic which is used in a boss battle in which Tails carries Sonic to jump hit Eggman. This boss is also fought with Tails stand-alone where you have to fly into Eggman propeller-tails first to damage it, a risky maneuver since you can easily end up getting hit by the boss as much as you hit it, adding a whole new slant to the boss. Knuckles doesn't fight this boss and is one of the few bosses Knuckles has a whole new boss battle to face-off against showing just how much thought and effort went into Knuckles' implementation into the game.

Hey robot which in no-way looks like an evil doctor who tried to trick me...
It's not all sunshine and roses for Knuckles, there are times where it seems like his game was rushed, especially towards the tail-end of the Sonic 3 stages. Carnival Night Zone, for instance, has no act 2 boss and feels very rushed. Sonic's Hidden Palace Zone features a face-off between Knuckles and Sonic and/or Tails where as Knuckles' variation of the stage is an empty stage which ends with you jumping on a teleporter which takes you to Sky Sanctuary Zone, which again, was a whole stage for Sonic, but is merely two boss battles, one of them being the final boss, for Knuckles. Which, sort-of makes sense given that Knuckles' game takes place after Sonic and Tails' game and Sky Sanctuary was wrecked at the end of Sonic/Tails' game... Still, it means that Knuckles' game is cut short by at least 2 stages as he doesn't play the Death Egg Zone stage, again, mostly because at this point in the story the Death Egg is destroyed.

Electric Shield attracting rings.
So what about poor old Sonic? He's still the same, rather limited, Blue Hedgehog we know and love. He can't fly, glide or climb walls. But what he lacks there he makes up for in abilities gained from acquiring "elemental shields", a new mechanic in the game which allows Sonic to use one of three new shields found in item boxes. The Fire Shield which protects all characters from fire damage but also gives Sonic a boost of speed when you jump mid-air, destroying any enemies in its path. The Water Shield which protects all characters from drowning under water but gives Sonic the ability to do a "bounce" attack and gain a slightly higher jump. The Electric Shield protects all characters from electric damage (which is rare, mostly bosses use it), attract rings towards you and gives Sonic a double-jump to make him jump slightly higher when jumping in mid-air. All these shields protect any character from losing all their rings when hit by an enemy, however the shield is lost in the process. Shields also deflect small projectiles like those shot from enemies or smaller falling objects. Fire and Electric Shields are also lost if the player touches water at any point in a stage. Looking back, this idea was so simple, so effective and genius to implement. It's a shame that subsequent Sonic outings have neglected these shields. If they ever get around to properly fixing Sonic the Hedgehog 4, these shields should make a come back somewhere along the road.

And here's how encapsulation works. Run around blue spheres...
Stand-alone, Sonic 3 has 7 special stages which are entered by finding giant rings hidden with stages. Now, I know what you're thinking, I lambasted the Sonic Advance games for hiding their special stage entrances in strange and obscure places, well settle down. See, unlike Sonic Advance, these special stage entrances are plentiful. You'll naturally come across at least two per stage, three if you're really lucky. These can usually be found by sometimes obvious, sometimes not-so-obvious entrances hidden in innocuous-looking walls. Once in special stages, it's a matter of running around a pseudo-3D environment, doing as the game instructs; "collect blue spheres" while avoiding red spheres which, if touched, ends the special stage. Running over blue spheres turns them into red spheres. If you encapsulate blue spheres in red spheres, you can convert the blue spheres, including the ones transformed into red spheres into rings. Collect all the rings in the special stage to "Perfect" it and get a healthy bonus score as a result. Once there are no more blue spheres left, you are given a Chaos Emerald. Collect 7 of them, collect 50 rings and double-jump and you're Super Sonic or Super Knuckles. Tails is unfortunately left out of this 7-Chaos-Emerald club, although he can collect all of them.

And here's the Emerald. Only 6 more left.
With Sonic & Knuckles connected, there's an additional 7 special stages which are completely unforgiving. Once you decide to get these additional Chaos Emeralds, you forgo the ability to become Super Sonic or Super Knuckles until you've collected these new Chaos Emeralds and have the ability to become Hyper Sonic, Hyper Knuckles and Super Tails. These powered-up Super-forms enable Sonic to use a "Homing Jump"-like move by double-jumping, Knuckles has the ability to destroy enemies on-screen if he glides into a wall fast enough and Tails... Well, is just a normal super-state which requires twice the effort to get over Sonic and Knuckles' special states. And is a huge waste of time. But still, nice to see some reward for doing all those special stages. Knuckles has a pretty rough time with this, if you collected any Chaos Emeralds during the first 6 (Sonic 3) stages of the game, you'll be forced to hand them over once you reach Mushroom Hill Zone. Kind-of a kick in the balls, but you can get around this by just not collecting any Chaos Emeralds until you've completed the game and use your completed game data to choose which stages you want to play, skipping around Mushroom Hill if needed.

That bloody spinny thingy. Hate it.
Not all things are rosy with Sonic 3, though. There was always one part of the game which got me stumped every time I played the game, a section in Carnival Night Zone which forces you in a room with a spinning octagonal oblong which bounces up and down when jumped on. For the life of me I could never figure this part of the game out, I knew I had to get underneath the gimmick so I tried jumping up and down on the thing but to no avail. It wasn't until someone pointed out that I could press up and down on the control stick to control the vertical speed of the gimmick that I found how to get past it. Now, I'm not sure who thought that was a good idea. No part of this makes any sort of logical sense, how would standing on-top of something control it? Especailly when your character makes no movement what-so-ever while standing on-top of it. I suppose it's a hint that you're not actually controlling your character at this point, but if that was the case, why didn't the camera shift down to have the oblong as the central object on-screen to re-enforce this notion? I'll never understand, but once you get past that section, you're pretty much home free.

I'm not sure what black magic they use to make the stage wrap-around...
While it's nothing new to the series, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 comes complete with a competitive 2-player mode. While Sonic the Hedgehog 2 had a similar feature, where you ran through 3 courses from the game itself (Emerald Hill, Casino Night and Mystic Cavern Zones) and a versus Special Stage, Sonic 3, again, improved the idea. Instead of featuring full-length stages, the game includes purpose-built versus stages; Azure Lake, Balloon Park, Chrome Gadget, Endless Mine and Desert Palace. The object of the race is to complete 5 laps before the other player. You can leave traps or inflict traps upon yourself by collecting item orbs which appear around the track, items like Banana peels that can be dropped onto the stage and trip-up whoever runs over them, while items like cement shoes makes the player who collected the item move slowly. These stages can also be played alone in a "Time Trial" mode, as the name suggests, you race yourself to get the best time you can. Nothing much more to it than that. As previously mentioned the actual game itself has some cooperative multiplayer in-built if you play as Sonic and Tails, with the second player controlling Tails.

Knuckles in Sonic 2.
Outside of Sonic the Hedgehog 3, you could take your copy of Sonic & Knuckles and stick your copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 inside to play as Knuckles in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, gliding ability and horribly out-of-place art design on Knuckles intact. Sadly, elemental shields don't come along for the ride. But not only does Sonic 3 get a whole new lease of life from Sonic & Knuckles, so does Sonic 2. You could also stick any game cartridge into the top of the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge and play Special Stages with them. Only certain cartridges worked, some would simply say "NO WAY". There was no way to be certain what cartridges would work, so it was pure trial and error. Still, funky little extras the game gave you... Although I should hope so given you had top purchase the game twice. I'm pretty sure I could work out a joke around modern day DLC, but let's not go there.

Oh... This is going to hurt.
For it's time, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was a very graphically impressive game. While it may look similar to Nintendo's Donkey Kong Country, which was also released around the same time as Sonic 3; the game wasn't actually pre-rendered stills of 3D models, at least not for the most part, they were hand-drawn in a daring new style to give the perception of depth. It paid off, the game still looks visually striking and impressive to this day. The level of detail which went into the game is amazing, from it's multi-tiered scrolling backgrounds to it's detailed character and enemy animations. What is perhaps so great about Sonic 3 was how it conveyed it's story without so much as uttering a word. Simple actions such as Knuckles laughing at Sonic, showing rivalry, Knuckles being betrayed by Eggman as he steals the Master Emerald in Hidden Palace Zone... All easily convey the game's story and allows you to fill in the blanks.

Speed boosters. Yep. Only in this stage.
The game's soundtrack is perhaps one of the best examples of how the SEGA Megadrive soundchip could be used. The Megadrive was much berated back in the day for it's poor sound production capabilities in comparison to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), so much so that although the "King of Pop" himself; Michael Jackson, worked on parts of the game's soundtrack, he didn't want to be named in the credits because of how the songs turned out. But hey, we did get an amazing soundtrack out of the game complete with extremely iconic songs like stage music from Marble Garden, Ice Cap and Hydrocity Zones. Some of the soundtrack did fall flat on its face, however. Songs like Launch Base Zone just had no depth, felt very shallow in comparison to the rest of the soundtrack and overall seemed very unfinished. Then there were purely technical problems with the game, for instance Sky Sanctuary Zone kept being interrupted by sound effects using high-pitched notes. Still, Sonic 3 has a very memorable soundtrack and one a damn sight more adventurous and better produced than that of Sonic the Hedgehog 4, I can tell you that much.

I hate you, Knuckles.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is an amazing game. Was back in 1994, is today. And while we perhaps ended paying over-the-odds for it back in the day, I would gladly pay that all over again for another Sonic game as interesting, as fun, as brilliant. Games like Sonic Colours, Sonic Unleashed or Sonic the Hedgehog 4 didn't understand these games, but it's simply enough to explain: Sonic the Hedgehog 3 didn't do as these games did, focus on speed above all else, didn't try to shoe-horn in silly gimmicks like balancing on a ball or driving a minecart. It focused on fun courses with extreme replay value. I have extremely low expectations of the upcoming Sonic Generations as well, but I'll at least save my rage towards that game until I play it. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is, to me, the definitive Sonic game. It's where the series peaked, it had everything that a good platforming game needed and then some. It innovated, it drove home solidly built stages with multiple paths and even unique paths for specific characters and is a complete blast to replay. If you like new-age Sonic, but never played the originals, do yourself a favour, look up this game on one of the many Sonic game bundles it's been re-released on like Sonic Mega Collection available on Gamecube (playable on the Wii), Playstation 2 and Xbox (playable on the Xbox 360), PC or even look up Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles on Xbox Live Marketplace or Playstation Store. Trust me, you wont regret it. It's one of the best 2D side-scrolling games ever made. Happy 20th Anniversary, Sonic. Here's hoping the next 10 years wont be as bad as the last.
There's little story to be involved with, but what there is is conveyed in a nice, subtle way.
It is the definitive Sonic game. Everything about it seems just right, it controls well, very responsive, light on gimmicks which removes controls away from you. Just what we expect from a Sonic game.
It's bold 3D-like looks may seem a bit bland after 16 years, but it's undeniably one of the better examples of how to pull of this pseudo-3D effect.
It falters in a few places but overall, a very solid soundtrack with many memorable tunes and an effective complement of sound effects.
4 Hours
14 stages, 5 minutes per stage (2 acts), 3 characters... Yeah, I'd say about 4 hours. Not amazingly long, but gets the job done. That doesn't factor in special stages at all, either. Game's pretty long when you think about it.