Speed used to be the only thing that mattered to Sonic the Hedgehog. Then the blue mammal started hanging around the wrong group of friends, and it wasn’t long before Sonic was sharing levels with cooler buddies that could stop time, shoot guns, use telekinesis, and turn invisible. It was frustrating. It was maiming. And it began with Sonic & Knuckles.
After 20 years, Sonic & Knuckles still feels like what it is: a final act. Released in 1994 for the Sega Genesis, Sonic & Knuckles was originally designed as the second half of Sonic 3. In a way, it’s the final six-to-eight levels (depending on character and performance) of the final chapter in a Sonic the Hedgehog trilogy.
It also marks the beginning of Sonic’s slow decline into irrelevance within his own franchise. The introduction of the franchise’s third playable character, Knuckles the Echidna, made speed obsolete.
Sonic & Knuckles begins when a Death Star-esque space station falls from the sky and lands in a volcano. It belongs to Dr. Robotnik, who is attempting to hijack a giant magical gem called the Master Emerald to put the station back into orbit. The player is given two options: you can race to the Death Egg and stop the mad scientist as Sonic the Hedgehog, or try your luck as the exciting and new Knuckles the Echidna.
Narratively, Knuckles has the edge. The game is set on his home island, a sky-bound tropical rock that he is charged to protect. As such, the new character knows the shortcuts.
The advantage is much the same in terms of gameplay. Even though Sonic is supposedly the fastest thing alive, Knuckles can match his rival’s speed throughout the game. Knuckles can also climb, glide, and smash through walls that Sonic can’t break.
Those special abilities far outweigh what Sonic has to offer. Aside from running, Sonic can activate special, semi-useful jumps, but only when engulfed in one of three elemental shields (one of which has no practical use). In a world where Knuckles the Echidna was invented before Sonic the Hedgehog there would be no Knuckles and Sonic simply because the speedy hedgehog doesn’t have anything to add. It feels like Sonic was grandfathered in to someone else’s set of levels.
Meanwhile, Knuckles’ superiority gets retconned into the rest of the franchise thanks to the Lock-On Technology feature that allows older Sonic cartridges to be plugged into the S&K cartridge for additional content. Plug in Sonic 3 to experience the full game as it was intended and playing with Knuckles is once again the best choice, with Knuckles acting as the T-1000 to Sonic’s John Connor. Attach Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Knuckles outright replaces the title character, erasing Sonic in all but name.
Bring yourself to Lock-On Sonic the Hedgehog and, well, there is no Sonic the Hedgehog. You just get a bunch of 3D special stages presented without context or goal.
But Sonic the Hedgehog did exist. Choosing him from the Sonic & Knuckles title screen will have you racing through levels and fighting bosses made slightly easier than those presented to his more capable rival. Since the levels were designed for a character that has more freedom, Sonic is forced to operate elevators, bump into walls and take the stairs while fighting a 10-minute time limit.
To experience Sonic’s full adventure, you must search for the special stages that unlock the game’s final, secret level. It’s a quest that demands sacrificing speed for a thorough exploration of each level.
Success is rewarded with the essence of what the Sonic The Hedgehog used to represent: a one-on-one showdown for the Master Emerald where the only thing that matters is speed. The battle is a final feat of breakneck heroism before the franchise’s cast of supporting characters turns malignant.
If you fail to make these compromises, stubbornly valuing speed over thoroughness and losing out on the good ending, things turn anticlimactic. Sonic falls from a destroyed space station, lands on a biplane and flies away as credits roll. The final image: Dr. Robotnik laughing at you, standing next to the Master Emerald that you never had a chance to save. You won, but you failed. You played as Sonic in a world made for Knuckles.