In what is sure to possibly or possibly not become a regular ‘thing’, because I’m not sure I want to go in for that whole ‘regular-thing-thing’ or not, I have decided to look back at something odd, gaming and retro which I remember from my childhood. ‘Sonic & Knuckles’ popped into my head the other day and has been rattling around there ever since. It was a big deal for me as a kid, being firmly in the SEGA camp, and was the last of the classic MegaDrive Sonic games. It was also a weird game, not so much for the content (which by this point SEGA had already set the formula for), but for the cartridge itself and how it fitted into the Sonic series at the time.
Setting the scene is impossible without mentioning ‘Sonic 3’ and much of the weirdness is tied to how inexorably linked these two titles are. ‘Sonic 3’ is a direct sequel to ‘Sonic 2’ literally picking up where the closing sequence of the previous game finishes. Tails had been established in ‘Sonic 2’ as the Mutley to Sonic’s Dick-Dastardly and Sonic 3 introduced Knuckles as an antagonist, working for Robotnik, who would late on in S&K become part of Team Sonic. S3 (as I’m now going to call it) was the first Sonic game to include a much needed save feature making emerald collecting much less frustrating and allowing players to free-play upon completion. In contrast, S&K didn’t include a save feature and the title screen only had an option to play as either Sonic or Knuckles; which sounds pretty weak when held up against its predecessor S3. Don’t let this initial blandness fool you, S&K was ‘special’, the cartridge featured ‘Lock-On’ Technology or, as the press of the time seemed to refer to it as, ‘Backward Compatibility’. The top of the cartridge had a plastic cover that could be opened revealing a cartridge port meaning that you could stack a second cartridge on to it whilst it was inserted in the MegaDrive; this is the only MegaDrive game I came across that did this, not including items like the ‘Action Replay’ or ‘Game Genie’ (Please let me know if there are others)…
… and this just seems to sum up the MegaDrive as a system: the SegaCD, the 32X, S&K, the Master System Converter – like no other console, the MegaDrive seemed to have an endless stream of possible ‘things’ to be shoved into it in some weird way… but I digress…
In truth, S&K was only ‘Backwardly compatible’ with two games: S3 and Sonic 2. Knuckles could be shoehorned into Sonic 2 by stacking it onto the S&K cartridge, but this only really added novelty value. The levels in Sonic 2 were not designed with a gliding echidna in mind and both the options screen (and hence the level select) and the 2-player mode were both absent. During development it had been intended that the original ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ would also be a included in this backward compatibility, however palette issues (See article on SonicWikia.com) due to Knuckles’ particular shade of scarlet, made this infeasible at the time so this idea was scrapped. Stacking ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ with S&K resulted in the ‘No Way!’ screen (indicating an incompatible game), however pressing A+B+C started the mini-game known as ‘Blue Sphere’ which is a collection of the sphere-collecting special stages featured in S&K/S3. The nauseating special stages were visually advanced for the time, however it would take someone with an exceptionally strong stomach to play ‘Blue Sphere’ for any prolonged period of time and as such only adds to the oddity that was S&K.
In its non-mutant, ‘unstacked’ form, S&K forms a fairly typical entry into the Sonic series in length and variety. The player can be either Sonic, facing off against Dr. Robotnik & Knuckles, or Knuckles, facing off against one of the Eggrobos. It featured some memorable levels such as the visually stunning ‘Sky Sanctuary’; a series of floating ruins which you must ascend, periodically facing Metal Sonic as he pilots some of Robotnik’s classic contraptions. The re-imagined ‘Death Egg’ zone ramps up the difficulty and features some excellent flipped gravity sections before leading you into the ‘Doomsday’ Zone (assuming you have the emeralds) for an epic conclusion. The inclusion of a zone called ‘Hidden Palace’ is also somewhat of a quirk of the game; ‘Hidden Palace’ was originally a zone in Sonic 2 that was featured heavily in the pre-release screenshots, but cut before release. The unplayable remnants of the zone were still accessible in Sonic 2 via an Action Replay code and, due to its stage-music remaining in the sound test, it acquired a slightly mythical reputation. The ‘Hidden Palace’ in S&K bore little resemblance to the Sonic 2 version, however it did maintain a mythical quality, displaying murals of the ‘Doomsday’ Zone foreshadowing the end of the game.
It was only once S3 is attached to S&K that the mist started to clear and the enigma made sense. This alliance spawned ‘Sonic 3 & Knuckles’ (S3&K) and even as a kid I realised that this is the whole point to that bizarre cartridge. S3&K was one complete game playable from ‘Angel Island’ to ‘Doomsday’ with any of our three protagonists and could be saved using the system from S3 bypassing the inadequacies of S&K. As a complete game it represented the peak of fast paced 2D platforming on the MegaDrive with a huge variety of levels, boss fights, enemies and special stages.
… but looking back on it now I can’t believe how accepting I was of this situation. I remember reading at the time about how revolutionary the cartridge was – as though SEGA hadn’t planned this from the beginning. It has now been well reported that S3&K was supposed to be a single game, but was split into two short Sonic games (and they were short, each comprising of only 6 full zones; much shorter than Sonic 2) to save the expense of a higher capacity cartridge and that the writeable memory would only be included in S3 … again due to cost. It could be likened to the present day episodic release model, except in this case each episode was the cost of a AAA title and you could only have the full functionality (all characters and saving) by purchasing both. The oddity of this game continued long after the weird cartridge disappeared, at least to the Sonic Collection on PS2, where S&K, S3 an S3&K would all be featured as individual titles.
S3&K remains one of the standout games on the MegaDrive and I don’t really have much of a point to writing this (It’s my usual rambling). There is no criticism I can level at it as a game and really can’t blame SEGA for the decision that they made to split it for time and economic reasons. S&K remains a weird oddity of gaming history; many obscure experiments of this console era exist, but most are just that; ‘obscure’. S3&K was a huge success and yet it involved jamming two cartridges together in order to make it a whole game.