In an attempt to avoid doing what would be expected from a retrospective Sonic review, I thought I would start things off by actually praising Sega’s beleaguered mascot rather than cynically pulverising the poor thing into a bloody pulp. Indeed, while it is difficult to ignore the copious amounts of tripe Sonic Team have developed over the recent years, there was once a time when the spiky blue hedgehog reigned supreme by offering a speedy alternative to those who were bored of Mario’s arguably pedestrian gameplay.
What really wowed the public was the game’s sense of speed – there were death defying loops, springs, speed ramps, corkscrews and special stages galore all of which made up for an electrifying experience. It was the character’s unprecedented sense of speed which really appealed to the more mature gamer, effectively making Sega a significant contender by the time Sonic 2 was released.
However, while the sequel is generally considered the pinnacle of the series, many people seem to forget that its criminally underrated successor, Sonic 3, actually perfected the art of 2D platforming, boasting a plethora of new features, high production values and a terrific multiplayer mode to boot. In fact, what sets this title apart from its predecessors is its stronger focus on story and character development, luring gamers into a universe that feels more involving and believable.
Throughout the game, the levels have a jarring tendency to change without any indication, throwing new gameplay elements into the mix and keeping things fresh. It’s unpredictable, thrilling and surprisingly open-ended in this sense, allowing players to explore each stage by rewarding them with alternate routes and hidden secrets.
Each stage is simply brimming with ideas; the game feels more complete than previous incarnations, featuring lengthier, more fleshed out level designs that require a certain degree of thought to complete. While it could be argued that the original Sonic game focused mainly on going from point A to point B in the fastest possible time limit, Sonic 3 relentlessly throws obstacles and puzzles in your path, essentially making for a more diverse gaming experience.
Carnival Night Zone, for example, forces gamers to utilise the idea of gravity strategically, ensuring that precision is key when trying to overcome spinning platforms, wheels, cannonballs and large numbers of awkwardly positioned springs. This pretty much makes Sonic 3 a more taxing endeavour when compared to the sheer velocity of Sonic 2, but in hindsight the game actually feels more adventure oriented in this respect, paving the way for the infamous Sonic Adventure series.
There are a fair number of set pieces too, which helps legitimise the game’s epic feel – Hydrocity Zone sees Sonic being chased by a giant moving wall (believe me, it’s more exciting than it sounds) and Ice Cap Zone starts off with our spiky friend careening down a snow-capped mountain at a break neck speed. On skis, might I add.
It’s these little touches that make the game feel more like a movie blockbuster than a typical Genesis game and really showcases the system’s capabilities both visually and aurally. The game’s presentation is vibrant, albeit a little garish at times, and incredibly imaginative – there is also a pseudo 3D effect in the background that looks particularly impressive in Ice Cap Zone: Act 2.
The audio is also particularly impressive, despite Yuji Naka’s reluctance to admit who was exactly responsible for many of the game’s compositions. There is incredibly strong speculation suggesting that the late Michael Jackson was involved in the writing process for Sonic 3; according to numerous resources, he collaborated with long time Sega composer Brad Buxer, creating a large number of remixes and new material alike.
However, there are two reasons as to why Jackson discredited himself from the project – the first being the ever-controversial scandal that was imposed on the King of Pop, effectively destroying his credibility and reputation. The second is that Jackson was unhappy with the sound quality of the pieces recorded, stating that he ”did not want to be associated with a product that devalued his music.”
Either way, he was removed from the credits, although his presence still remains intact throughout the entire game. Carnival Night Zone includes a small interlude that bears a strong resemblance to the 1991 hit ‘Jam’ – the ending credits also sounds incredibly similar to Stranger in Moscow, despite its different approach and arrangement. Facts and conjecture aside, this is an inspired soundtrack that is instantly recognisable and brilliantly catchy.
There is just so much more to talk about – Sonic 3 is a project that is intricate in its design and fully realised in its vision. The bonus stages are brilliantly conceived, sporting a scrolling 3D effect that is surprisingly effective – your goal is to touch all the blue spheres while avoiding the red ones, however each stage gets progressively more difficult and fast paced. This is the only way to obtain all the chaos emeralds; by doing this will grant you the ability to transform into Super Sonic. Believe me, it kicks ass.
Then there’s the multiplayer mode which, instead of serving as a minor distraction, is actually great fun to play and strangely addicting. There are three modes – Grand Prix, Match Race and Time Attack, all of which can be played without a human competitor. Each of the levels are short and sweet and are ideal for players who love trying to top their best score. With an additional player, it can become incredibly intense as there are power ups and obstacles that prevent you from winning; this could be seen as a case of trial and error but it makes for a more exciting match.
It was a shame that Sonic 3 wasn’t as universally acclaimed – the main gripe players had with the game was that, in contradiction to what I stated previously, it didn’t actually feel finished. The reason? There were many areas that were deemed unreachable and effectively frustrated completionists in the process. This was because gamers needed to purchase the then-innovative expansion pack Sonic and Knuckles in order to access certain areas.
Personally, I thought this was a genius move and extended the longevity of an already masterful game – there was so much gameplay on offer, albeit the latter six stages featured in Sonic and Knuckles are questionably less exhilarating than the levels found in Sonic 3.
I could go on forever about how Sonic 3 is simply the best game in the series – the boss battles, the brilliantly conceived save system, and the unpredictable nature of each level. It all comes together seamlessly, overcoming the hardware limitations of the Genesis and creating something that is a tour de force for Sega’s flagship console. Sonic the Hedgehog would never be the same after this, although we live in hope that the much anticipated Sonic The Hedgehog 4 will still recapture the magic from the days of old. Please Sonic Team, just scrap the juvenile voice acting, obnoxious sidekicks and follow in Capcom’s footsteps.
We live in hope.