While Sonic 2 was the first to introduce a multiplayer component to the series, it was kind of half-assed. Tails as player two was invincible, but his signature flying ability was little more than window dressing, an excuse for why he came out of nowhere to catch up with Sonic when he inevitably left him in the dust. With the sequel, Sega made a complete overhaul to Tails, making him a more distinct option rather than just a Sonic clone. Not only can you use his flight to reach new heights (including grabbing player one’s Sonic and giving him a boost), but he’s also more mobile underwater with the ability to swim. This opens the game wide for the normally grounded Sonic to exploit a myriad of hidden bonuses. Tails does eventually grow tired and drop like a rock, though, so he can’t get absolutely everywhere.
The “& Knuckles” inclusion of Knuckles the Echidna has no such limits, though. Not only can he glide at a slightly downward horizontal angle forever, he also sticks to almost all vertical surfaces allowing him to climb as high as possible. While most of S3&K’s stages are designed around this ability, the same can’t be said of Sonic 2. Using the lock-on technology of the Sonic & Knuckles cart, you can replay the previous game with an entirely new skill set. Knuckles breaks that game in such a wondrous fashion—it’s just a shame that his slightly lower jumping arc makes the final showdown with Dr. Robotnik such a chore to defeat.
Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles are presented as stand-alone halves to a single story. Locking the two games together adds a simple story bridge between them, replaces a few songs (allegedly because secret composer Michael Jackson hated them) and introduces a second set of seven new Super Emeralds to further power Super Sonic into Hyper Sonic. Knuckles is similarly powered-up at both seven Chaos and seven Super Emeralds, but Tails requires all 14 gems to unlock his powered-up form (complete with four bird buddies to help destroy the opposition). As usual, these Emeralds are the only way to unlock Sonic 3 & Knuckles’ true ending. Lock-on technology is the only way to unlock Tails (either solo or co-op) in Sonic & Knuckles, and conversely the only way to unlock Knuckles in Sonic 3.
Also new in Sonic 3 & Knuckles are a trio of elemental shields to bring Sonic a bit closer to his companions’ strength. The lightning shield endows Sonic with a double jump, as well as the ability to draw in any nearby rings (a real boon when paired with Super Sonic). The fire shield allows Sonic a quick forward dash (perhaps a less-broken predecessor to the lock-on ability in Sonic Adventure) as well as immunity to fire attacks. Rounding out the three is the bubble shield, far and away the most useful of the bunch. This shield allows a quick bouncing attack, but more importantly prevents Sonic from drowning underwater without having to repeatedly search for oxygen bubbles. Tails and Knuckles get the secondary abilities of the shields, but cannot use the double jump or attacks.
Unlike the previous games in the series where bosses only appeared every two or three zones, Sonic 3 & Knuckles includes a miniboss at the end of every minor act with a showdown with Robotnik (or a robot stand-in in Knuckles’ storyline) at the end of the zone. Each of these acts runs together into a single logical whole, with the miniboss encounters serving as logical stopping points. Most of the Robotnik fights are more involved this time around, including a fight mid-flight and a showdown with a screen-tall sarcophagus.
There are a few stumbling points with Sonic 3 & Knuckles, such as the infamously unintuitive Carnival Night barrier (which my brother and I actually managed to get through in an unintended way by alternating jumps as Sonic and Tails). Oh, and the all around terrible Sandopolis Zone with its block puzzles and errant ghosts. But the refinements to the solid foundation laid in Sonic 2 did more than enough to make up for these small issues.
Article by Scott Lowe
GameSpite Journal 12: Sonic 3 – Sonic & Knuckles