It’s the 25th anniversary of Sonic & Knuckles! 1994 was the year of the Death Egg Saga, and on this day 25 years ago that saga ended with a rather innovative little cartridge. You might think of it as the second half of Sonic 3, but I think it deserves a more fitting title: the better half of Sonic 3! True, you can combine Sonic 3 & Knuckles to get the full experience, but today is Sonic & Knuckles’ birthday, not Sonic 3’s, and I say that if you look at them individually, you’ll find that Sonic & Knuckles has just a bit more to offer, and is the better game! Here are 7 reasons why this is the case.
Sometimes you just want to jump right in, and Sonic & Knuckles lets you get right to it! While Sonic 3’s level select is neat, it’s not especially useful unless you’re playing Sonic 3 & Knuckles together where it might take you more than a couple hours to complete. If you’re just playing Sonic & Knuckles, there’s no fumbling around the data select screen, and because it’s about as short as Sonic 1 (with better level design, let’s be honest), you don’t need a save feature anyway! It’s an hour-long campaign, not an all-day marathon.
Right as soon as you start up the game, you’re treated to an awesome “3D” title screen, and all you need to do from this point is pick either Blue Blur or Rad Red.
It can’t get any simpler.
Sonic and water are like oil and… water. Even at it’s best, water will eventually just slow you down. Sonic 3 has water everywhere, and Sonic & Knuckles has water nowhere! Much less stressful. If it were regulated to just Hydro City Zone, then that’d be fine, but man, it’s everywhere! With the exception of Marble Garden, there’s always a pool of water to contend with at one point or another in all of Sonic 3’s zones. Why does Ice Cap have water, anyway? Why does Carnival Night need a water section, for that matter!? Even with a Bubble Shield to help, it still bogs down the experience. Sonic & Knuckles spares us of that sluggish movement and drowning music.
Knuckles is better than Tails
Look, I love the cute little mutated fox boy just like everyone else, but let’s face it: he’s just an easier Sonic. Anything Sonic can do, Tails can do, plus fly. Very slowly, mind, but still. In fact, I’m struggling to think of many instances where the level design really takes advantage of Tails’ flying ability. He can go to some higher places Sonic can’t, sure, but you’re not really required to do that, so why bother? The only other time it makes a difference is in Marble Garden’s boss fight, and at that point you get a ridiculous difficulty spike where you need to aim your propeller tails beneath the boss, and that’s tedious and comes out of nowhere. If Tails had more interesting boss fights like that, that could make a difference; but since it’s only in Marble Garden, it’s just jarring.
Knuckles on the other hand offers a consistently dynamic and challenging experience! Besides having an actual story arc, he has more to offer in terms of gameplay. When you play as Knuckles, you have the same basic control scheme as the other two boys, except Knuckles has a shorter jump which forces him to take different paths at times: then you can see his other abilities in full focus: gliding, climbing and tearing through solid rock like it’s cotton candy. You can see new, exclusive places as Knuckles that you just can’t see as Sonic or Tails, and that’s cool! Plus, the contrast between Sonic’s fleet-footed speed and high jump and Knuckles’ brute strength and climbing is a delicious dichotomy that presents more varied gameplay options.
If the choice is either ‘easy mode’ or ‘interesting mode’, I’d pick the latter!
This one’s more of a numbers game, but it’s true: Sonic & Knuckles technically has more zones and levels to explore. Even if it isn’t significantly longer than Sonic 3, that’s more variety! When you break it down, Sonic 3 has 6 zones and 12 levels, but Sonic & Knuckles has a total of 8 Zones and 14 levels when you include Hidden Palace and Doomsday Zone!
Speaking of Doomsday Zone…
Cooler final bosses
You can’t argue with the facts here, whether you’re toppling a giant robot in outer space as Sonic or taking down a golden super-powered Mecha Sonic as Knuckles, you’re having an epic battle! The gauntlet in Launch Base ending with Big Arms in Sonic 3 is intimidating, absolutely, but it’s also more exhausting, and after you defeat it, it feels like an anti-climax.
…yes, it’s only the first half of the full story, but if we’re comparing which half is better, this is just how it is! Sonic & Knuckles simply had better finales!
Look, y’all. Sonic 3’s Genesis box-art is pretty weird stuff: Sonic is smirking at the camera holding up a three like he’s counting how many years old he is with Tails smiling goofily at him. Meanwhile, Dr. Robotnik is burning down the forest with Knuckles being a peeping tom in the bushes, or something. Stop posing and stop Robotnik, guys! The Mega Drive box art isn’t much better… what exactly is Sonic doing with his fingers here? I guess he’s counting to three on one hand, but pointing at something else? Well, whatever it is, Knuckles is pretty upset about it; it’s like he’s trying to give Sonic the bird, but doesn’t have the fingers to do it.
Sonic & Knuckles? Now that’s some modern minimalist box art that’s ahead of its time! All you have, and all you need, is a darn cool emblem with Sonic & Knuckles’ silhouetted faces on them in red and blue against a black backdrop. It’s like Skyrim, only 17 years earlier! It’s simple, elegant, and somehow edgy without being pompous.
Can you plug Sonic & Knuckles into Sonic 3? No, but you can plug Sonic 3 into Sonic & Knuckles! Sonic 3 needs Sonic & Knuckles, not the other way around, and Sonic & Knuckles isn’t totally dependent on Sonic 3 to feel complete anyway. Want to play as Knuckles in Sonic 2? Plug Sonic 2 in there. Want to play more Blue Sphere stages than you could ever play in your lifetime? Plug in any other Mega Drive game you like (Sonic 1 gives you all of them, though) and play literal millions of Special Stages for the rest of your life!
The point is you can do more with Sonic & Knuckles than you can with Sonic 3.
Sonic & Knuckles is a more enjoyable and exciting experience than Sonic 3 is, and that’s just how it is! What’s that, the music in Sonic 3 is better? Well, because of Michael Jackson’s musical input in that half of the game, we haven’t had the complete Sonic 3 & Knuckles re-released in years; it even had to miss an appearance on the Mega Drive Mini because of that! Competition mode? Alright, so when is the last time you’ve actually used that, anyway? Come on, now!
So let’s all celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of one of the best Sonic games of all time! Grab your Mega Drive (or one of many Mega Drive/Genesis Collections) and play through the better half of the Death Egg saga!