When Sonic 2 was being developed, the creative minds behind the blue blur had a lot of material they wanted to work into the game. Unfortunately due to time constraints, many of the levels they came up with had to be scrapped. The game was still longer than the first one, but it could have been quite a bit longer.
Not long after Sonic 2 was released, work began for a third game in the series. Sonic Team first toyed with the idea of creating a title with isometric gameplay (a concept that would eventually be utilized in Sonic 3D Blast), but in the end they decided to stick with the tried-and-true speedy 2D platforming–and this time, go all-out the way they wanted to with Sonic 2. In the end, Sonic 3 was to be a sprawling epic of fourteen zones (with two acts each), with some of the best graphics, music, and gameplay to ever be produced for the Genesis.
The game was going to be too damn big, the team realized. Creating a more powerful cartridge was considered, but Sega deemed the production costs too high, forcing the team to get creative. In the end, the game was split in half: the first half to be released as Sonic 3, and the second half to be released as Sonic and Knuckles–the game that would famously feature “lock-on technology” that could combine the two halves together (plus create additional content for Sonic 2 and Sonic 1, but more on that next time).
Does Sonic 3 on its own feel like half a game? As a kid, I had Sonic 3 on its own for at least a couple years before I got Sonic and Knuckles. But thanks to the large size of each level, Sonic 3 ends up a decent length for an old-school platformer–certainly longer than Sonic 1, and possibly even longer than Sonic 2 (which had some pretty short levels). But more importantly, Sonic 3 just felt incredibly polished. From start to finish, the game plays great. The level design is top-notch, with multiple paths to explore and roll down at breakneck speeds. Even today, after who knows how many times I’ve gone through this game, I sometimes surprise myself by ending up down a path I’m unfamiliar with. We may not earn “achievements” or “trophies” in these old-school games, but there’s still a sense of satisfaction to be had when you stumble upon a hidden spot with an extra life you never knew about before.
The controls are fine-tuned for Sonic 3 in a way that feels intuitive, managing to spice things up without hindering the core running and rolling gameplay. You can play as either Sonic or Tails (or both of them together), and this time they have some new abilities. Sonic has access to three different shields: an electric shield that allows him to double-jump (and make rings magnetically gravitate toward him), a bubble shield that allows him to bounce around (and let him breathe underwater), and a fire shield that lets him blast forward while in mid-air (and protects him from fire attacks). I found them all great fun. Meanwhile for Tails, the magical fox can now fly as the player commands. This sounds OP, but rest assured the same thought passed through the minds of Sonic Team–and so, Tails can only fly for a few seconds before growing tired and descending back down to the ground. Working in this ability makes co-op play a bit more enjoyable too, in that you and your friend can explore new areas by having Tails fly Sonic around to unseen ledges above.
Graphics don’t make the game, but Sonic 3 deserves recognition for its excellent sprite work. The characters themselves have been improved, and there is a nice variety to the many robot enemies you face throughout the game. The levels meanwhile have just the right level of detail, making for landscapes more lush and vibrant than the previous entries for the franchise (but not in a nauseating, overly-colorful Sonic CD fashion). The backgrounds and foregrounds mesh together nicely, and there’s even some variety to be found as you progress through the levels. For examples, at some point the Angel Island Zone catches on fire, in Carnival Night Zone* the neon lights get turned off (and eventually the power has to be turned back on), and in the Ice Cap Zone you have outdoor snow portions as well as icy cave segments. The variety is nice, and makes each level feel that much more engaging to play through.
*COOL TIP: Press up and down when you’re at those “barrels of doom” in Carnival Night Zone! It took me a while to figure that out myself, lol. This is an interesting thing about old-school gaming, actually. In this day and age we have to have tutorials explaining what the damn jump button is. And in the event that you do end up stuck somewhere, you’re ten seconds away from getting a quick and easy answer on your cell phone’s web browser. Different times…
One last thing I want to give special mention to: the music. Sonic 3 (and its Part Two, Sonic and Knuckles) has amazing music. The best of the entire Sonic franchise in my opinion, and it includes some of my favorite tracks from that entire era of gaming. Interestingly, at first it was none other than Michael Jackson that was involved in creating the music for this project–but eventually the King of Pop bailed. Reportedly he simply didn’t like how the music was turning out, but it was also around this time that he started getting some really bad publicity… In the end most of the music was composed without him, but there are some tracks that still seem to have that Michael Jackson feel to it. Check out some of these mash-ups, if you don’t believe me:
- Carnival Night Zone — Jam
- Launch Base Zone — Bad
- Ending Credits — Stranger in Moscow
- Bonus: Ice Cap Zone — Hard Times (The Jetzons) (Note: The keyboardist Brad Buxer was Michael Jackson’s music director)
This game is cool. Play it!