Sonic 3 & Knuckles (S3&K) is the largest and most daring game of the series on the Sega Genesis that sometimes trips over its own scope and ambition.
Stuttering Craig of the former Screw Attack once brought up that Sonic the Hedgehog games at their core aren’t about speed, but good platforming. Speed is the player’s reward for understanding level mechanics and being proficient in controlling the characters. S3&K amplifies this with dizzying loops and ramps in its massive levels.
Levels can take on average anywhere from 2 to 6 minutes, assuming you know what you’re doing. The levels' expansiveness is mostly due to an increased emphasis on verticality. The first two games usually presented a top, middle, and bottom route to get from A to B. S3&K’s level designs are more akin to a hedgemaze within a whirlwind. With 14 emeralds to collect, loads of secrets, 3 unique characters, and solid game mechanics, there is a ton of replayability.
The emphasis on large levels and exploration happens to be the game’s main detriment – levels are often times too large. More complex levels such as Carnival Night and Sandopolis go on seemingly endlessly, to the point that many inexperienced players will likely die by hitting the 10 minute time limit. Thankfully the time resets to zero and you respawn at a goal post, but level gimmicks and puzzles often overstay their welcome, slowing the pace down further. It’s difficult to feel as though you’ve mastered the level – often times, you’ve simply survived and clawed your way through.
S3&K is one of the best 2D Sonic games on the Sega Genesis, and definitely the largest. While the level design sometimes conflicts with the game’s core mechanics, it’s worth (re)visiting 26 years later and stands out as an all time classic platformer.
Images captured from the Wii Virtual Console Version on an original Wii