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Sega MegaDrive owners didnt have to wait long for the fourth Sonic release, a game that received even greater publicity than the previous, highly popular releases. Based on a very similar format to the third Sonic game, and using many of the exact same graphic engines and level designs, this was designed as a second half to that games storyline and events. As with all Sonic games, it was also very fun and very fast.
At the end of Sonic 2, Sonic the Hedgehog and Miles Tails Prower (miles per hour, do you see?) defeated the evil Doctor Robotnik inside his huge space station, the copyright-infringing Death Egg. Instead of plummeting to his death, Robotnik landed on the legendary Floating Island in the sky. Befriending the islands sole inhabitant, an echidna named Knuckles (surely you know what an echidna is, you idiot?) due to his mean fist-spikes, Robotnik informed him that the evil Sonic the Hedgehog was a powerful dictator who used the animals of the planet below to power his machines. What Robotnik was doing there was lying to Knuckles; I know that may have seemed obvious and pedantic to say, but these things have to be made clear.
Robotnik stole the islands Chaos Emeralds, the mysterious jewels that kept it afloat, and the Floating Island fell down to the sea of Mobius where it still floated, only on water instead of in the sky, if you see. At the start of Sonic 3, Sonic and Tails are messing around a little irresponsibly with their plane and come across a new landmass they had not seen before. It is the Floating Island, as you had obviously guessed. Throughout the six zones of that game, Sonic and Tails went after Robotnik and were continuously put off by Knuckles: they eventually destroyed the rebuilt Death Egg and were happy, assuming you completed it. It wasnt that hard.
Fortunately for Robotnik, his Death Egg landed right on top of a volcano where it could be easily repaired. Will Knuckles learn the truth about Robotnik when he attempts to steal the Master emerald? (Yes) Will he join forces with Sonic eventually? (Obviously) Can you play as either Sonic or Knuckles in this game? (Yes, but Sonics game is better) Can you play as Tails? (No, thankfully. He is rubbish)
THE SPECIAL CARTRIDGE
The most talked about feature of this game prior to its release was its revolutionary method of expanding gameplay: in the top of the game cartridge was a slot into which another game cartridge could be fitted. This was designed specifically to allow the previous three games in the Sonic series to be plugged in, but it was at least an innovative idea. An idea that never took off though. The introduction of Sonys PlayStation meant that Sega had to offer more to appeal to the average gamer than a fancy extra slot on a cartridge, although granted the Sega Saturn console wasnt much more impressive.
This cartridge slot was incredibly beneficial to the Sonic playing experience though, as Sonic 3 had been designed with this feature in mind. By combining these two games, players were able to play through every level of Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles in a 32-bit adventure, achieving greater bonuses throughout and also having the opportunity to save the game.
I still wish Sega had produced more of these top-slot cartridges though, especially if they could be continuously added until a flimsy five-metre tower powered the greatest game known to man. Its probably for the best though, as that idea is incredibly stupid and clearly not possible.
Sonic & Knuckles + Sonic 3 = Sonic 3 & Knuckles: the combination of all Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles levels that can be played through using any of the characters. Also has a save function.
Sonic & Knuckles + Sonic the Hedgehog 2 = Knuckles the Echidna in Sonic the Hedgehog 2: All the levels of Sonic 2, but with Knuckles as the character. Very fun for people bored with the original game, although its nothing too special as nothing new is added.
Sonic & Knuckles + Sonic the Hedgehog (1) = No Way: The characters from the games appear on the screen with the cheerful sign No Way! However, pressing the A,B and C buttons allow access to levels based on the Sonic 3 special stages, which can be played in order and are very hard. But no, Knuckles cannot be played in Sonic 1.
Sonic & Knuckles + any other MegaDrive game: This will either not work at all, bringing up a black screen, or it will give a No Way screen that leads to randomly generated bonus levels as mentioned above.
There are six further zones in this game, similar to those in Sonic 3 but a little more interesting. The game is again based on travelling in a generally right direction and features bosses at the end of each stage.
1. MUSHROOM HILL ZONE
Quite a pleasant countryside environment, littered with huge bouncy mushrooms and plenty of secret openings to ring portals. The first levels on Sonic games were always pleasant and grassy, and this is no exception.
2. FLYING BATTERY ZONE
Robotniks airship is the focus of this stage, although I still dont understand why hed fill the interior with so many useful passages to its main sections. Its almost as if he expected company.
3. SANDOPOLIS ZONE
A long-overdue Egyptian themed level. The first stage takes place outside in a nice looking desert environment, while the second occurs within the Sandopolis pyramid itself. Very interesting and aesthetically pleasing.
4. LAVA REEF ZONE
Inside the volcano on the way to Robotniks Death Egg, Sonics path through is much more complex than the easy routes offered to Knuckles. He is the islands guardian after all. A fire shield is pretty essential for most of this zone.
5. HIDDEN PALACE ZONE
Short and mainly a piece of storyline, this is where Sonic and Knuckles become allies. No enemies apart from some spikes.
6. SKY SANCTUARY ZONE
For Knuckles, this is the last level and involves fighting a robotic Sonic. For the blue hedgehog himself, this is a treacherous path upwards to the Death Egg in which several old bosses come back to haunt long-time Sonic players.
7. DEATH EGG ZONE
This level, set inside the huge Death Star sorry, Egg I mean and outside in space, is a fitting end to the game. It can only be played by Sonic (or Tails if youve been playing the Sonic 3 plug-in) and the final ensemble of bosses is the hardest part of the game.
8. THE DOOMSDAY ZONE
Only accessible if the player has found all the chaos emeralds or super emeralds, this sees Super Sonic or Hyper Sonic (depending on your emeralds) flying through space to catch up with Robotnik and save the Master Emerald to access the true ending of the game and get the Floating Island back to the sky.
GRAPHICS & SOUND
The graphics on this game are in the same style as Sonic 3 and are very detailed for a 16-bit game, a big step from those of the first Sonic game in 1991. Everything is discernible and looks nice, while the musical score is interesting, catchy and very memorable. Sound effects are clever and appropriate, but nothing special; there are still no voices or written dialogue on the game, as it is essentially a straightforward platformer.
I was a huge Sonic fan in the mid-90s: I collected the official comics by Fleetway, I bought the adventure game books and I even had the MegaDrive games. These were best though.
Sonic & Knuckles is basically Sonic 3 part II and this is prominent in every aspect of the game, but in some ways it is an improvement. The save feature made Sonic 3 far too easy to complete and this game does not have one, unless of course it is played in conjunction with Sonic 3. Sonic 3 & Knuckles was the Sonic game I played the most as it was, for once, a large-scale Sonic game that took a while to complete. Sonics game was the most interesting, however playing as Knuckles, with his glide ability and wall-climbing skills, was fun at first.
Sonic & Knuckles can be bought at low prices for the MegaDrive, if you still have one, however there are several good MegaDrive emulators that can be downloaded. Gens is the one I would recommend, and I recently downloaded a ROM of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. I still prefer to play it on the MegaDrive though: those were the days.