After defeating Dr. Ivo Robotnik (once again) and sending his dreaded Death Egg falling back down to Angel Island Sonic is sent to “Mushroom Hill Zone” where the journey to stop his arch-enemy continues. As first levels go, this one isn’t really all that good. I don’t really know what it is about this stage but it’s just not appealing to me and doesn’t start things off in the best possible way, especially since we’re continuing on straight after the ambitious conclusion within “Launch Base Zone”.
I guess one of my biggest gripes with this level is the constant danger, with annoyingly placed Badniks all over the place which are just there to be massive pricks, stealing your rings as they inconveniently collide with you as your trying to speed your way through the stage as quickly as possible. That, and like with the majority of the levels in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, the music is crap (borderline irritating) and completely forgettable.
Luckily, things kick-off with the second stage, “Flying Battery Zone”, where you board another of Dr. Robotnik’s air-ships and battle your way through to find him (upon him fleeing from “Mushroom Hill Zone” after he’s defeated). The level is rather similar to “Wing Fortress Zone” but is a lot fairer, and fun to play. Also, the music is really catchy, acting as one of my FAVOURITE tracks to listen to from Sonic & Knuckles. The level is both fast-paced, as well as carefully structured to have a bunch of slower sections when you have to be more vigilante of your surroundings.
Your encounter with Dr. Robotnik showcases the heightened scope that Sonic Team wished to express, with you battling him TWICE, the first being a boss battle similar to “Wing Fortress Zone” in which you have to destroy his security system, only this time it’s piss-easy. Thank God it avoids the clear platforming issues that caused me IMMENSE frustration the first time round due to relying on the shitty spiked floating platforms which usually caused more harm than help.
Now you merely have to dodge the security system’s ray over and over (which is incredibly easy to do) until it causes itself to overload, thus causing a chain-reaction that brings the entire air-ship down. This results in a fun “race against time” segment as you make your make off the exploding air-ship, inevitably avoiding being crushed from the rising platform (which is bizarrely chasing you because why not?) as the ship randomly reshapes itself in the chaos, eventually taking you into the sky to face the second boss segment.
Again, this is fairly easy. This time you face Dr. Robotnik as he pathetically uses another of his gimmicky Egg-Mobiles to try and take you out, and it’s a simple question of manoeuvring around him as he moves from side to side, clinging onto the floating platform you stand upon with his spiked hooks. Simply avoid standing above him (as he will use his flame-thrower to try and singe your arse) and then proceed to hit him whenever he swings backwards and forwards over the platform (and hey-presto, fat-bastard goes down!)
The next stage within Sonic & Knuckles, “Sandopolis Zone”, is a mixed-bag for me as it’s clearly a fucking annoying spectacle, being a Sand-based level (which usually display the worst kind of design for gamers to face because the level in-question are ultimately quite stereotypical, bland, annoying, and clear joy-suckers). The first act throws a lot of these points into your face without much care and dubs itself “the SAND level” and it’s really fucking painful to play through because it’s just so boring and devoid of fun, combined with its visuals and painful soundtrack.
Surprisingly though the level picks up when the first boss appears, proving to be a neat little encounter when you receive the satisfaction of luring it over to the edge of the stage, ultimately leaping over you and committing suicide within quicksand, as you sit back and enjoy the show as it explodes in misery and humiliation.
Act 2 adds in a lot of fun elements that makes it the superior half, and the part I most look forward to playing. Sure the music is still pissing annoying, but the design is improved, now appearing as a claustrophobic, tension filled thrill ride as you are forced to make your way out of the cold looking tomb where Ghosts linger to kill you once the lights go out.
Seriously! Ghosts stalk you throughout the level and you are faced with a unique lighting system which you have to maintain, otherwise the Ghosts become more frequent and sinister, inevitably gaining the ability to attack you once there is no more illumination. It’s kind of clever how the tomb changes in terms of how safe it makes you feel through the colourisation, meaning you try desperately to cling onto the light source as you constantly search for switches on your tense journey through the maze-like level in order to keep yourself secure.
Also, the level is filled with switch activated doors which are on a timer, and you have vital seconds to reach your goal before the door seals you in and you are forced to try again. And there are sections were you’re reliant on sand, to which you have to break containers and fill the tomb up with the annoying substance as you constantly try and stay ahead of it (whilst at the same time using it to progress through the level) in order to prevent yourself from becoming trapped and crushed.
It’s certainly an interesting level in both its design and placement, but if you can stomach it then you should have a good-enough experience to maintain your stability, and also to move further into the game where things get really exciting.
“Lave Reef” is a great level as it feels really calming and mystical in the way it looks. Like “Mystic Caves Zone” it utilises caves perfectly. It’s hard to describe why I love this stage so much. Just the way it looks and feels makes me feel all fuzzy inside, making this a great turning point for me within the game, showcasing why I love Sonic & Knuckles so much. It’s not too challenging, the structure is well thought-out, the obstacles and enemies are neatly incorporated and well used, and it just has a warming tone that sucks me in.
Plus, the music is fantastic. I like how this is one of the BEST examples of how each Act can feel radically different through both the soundtrack and the look of the level. By a simple change in colourisation and focus, the tone can feel completely different despite still playing the same level. And the music within Act 2 is just utterly beautiful. It’s the same music as the first Act but it’s been altered just enough in its tempo and performance to make it feel like a brand-new track for you to enjoy. Damn! The soundtrack is SO much better in this half of The Death Egg saga compared to the first.
Although I will admit that this game has some of the MOST pathetic bosses within the franchise just because they are so poorly thought-out. Take Act 1‘s boss [from “Flying Battery Zone”] for instance. It’s a Mech disguised as a Capsule before revealing it’s an enemy, releasing two wrecking boulders as arms, to which all you have to do to kill it is stand on top of it and watch as it stupidly cracks its own head open over and over again (failing to realise [like most bosses] that it’s attempts to kill you is its means of defeat).
Dr. Robotnik’s battle [in Act 2 of “Lave Reef”] is no better (which is hilarious considering the build-up to his encounter [in which he fires missiles at you as you cruise through a precise, moving-camera platforming section] is harder and more frustrating than his actual arrival). He fires mines at you as he leaps out of the lava, as you carefully avoid both singeing your arse in the molten substance whilst also avoiding being blown-up, and eventually he will destroy himself. Call yourself a genius?
Also, I wish to point out that I completely forget to talk about the new POWER-UPS incorporated within this EPIC adventure in the previous review. Basically the Shield has been upgraded so that there are multiple versions to chose from, each giving you a different ability that will aid you in different situations. I really LOVED this approach as it added so many experimental approaches to completing the game, as well as making you feel safer around certain obstacles and threats when the right appliance was being used.
There’s The Lightning Shield which can obviously protect you from different kinds of electric hurdles, but it neatly attracts rings to you like a magnet, as well as gives you a boosted double-jump (oh yeah, you have a slight double-jump in these TWO games which is brilliant, and really helps in attacking enemies [both mooks and bosses] more safely and efficiently).
The Water Shield allows you to breath underwater, making water sections become stress-free as you’re no longer concerned with chasing after air-bubbles and just concentrate on the level itself. Also, it has a cool bouncing mechanic which you can build-up by jumping up and down, with each jump making you go higher to reach difficult to reach places.
And The Flame Shield is probably the MOST self-explanatory and becomes particularly useful during “Lava Reef Zone” which is predominately fire-based, making it easier to manoeuvre through the stage without worrying about all the flame-orientated obstacles standing in your way. You want to just rush your way through with ease by running across lava? Well you can do just that without any kind of consequence. Just bare in mind that these still work like normal Shields and if you’re hit by anything that the designated Shield’s don’t protect you from then you will lose them and become vulnerable again.
Another great aspect to this EPIC saga (which [again] I failed to talk about in my previous review) is the interconnecting nature of the levels throughout both games. This really adds to the epic-nature of this grander scoped adventure to stop Dr. Robotnik’s sinister schemes. Instead of the usual fade-out and location-jump from the previous two games you have Sonic simply continue his journey from where he ended the last Act or level, with some cuts showcasing Sonic’s movement to the next area. You really get the impression that this is a continuous adventure and Sonic is constantly moving forward to save the day.
Of course things begin to come together for the final stretch during “Hidden Palace Zone” where Sonic finally confronts Knuckles the Echidna. Knuckles had proven to be a nuisance from the very beginning of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 where he attacked Sonic and stole the Chaos Emeralds, following multiple occasions throughout the narrative where he deliberately obstructered the hero’s path or caused him delays in reaching Dr. Robotnik.
His appearance was cut-back within Sonic & Knuckles (mostly due to his own storyline [which, honestly, isn’t much different to Sonic’s – right down to the same levels – and doesn’t really add anything to the overall experience]) and he appeared rather wasted.
However, it was great to finally have the two characters come face to face and fight it out, making for an impactful moment within the explosive narrative, to which cemented the future foundation of the franchise. Knuckles quickly learns the truth about Dr. Robotnik tricking him into fighting Sonic in order to distract him whilst the evil scientist used the last Echidna to learn about the mystical Chaos Emeralds to further his schemes for world domination.
So it is rather disappointing to see Knuckles written out at such a key moment within the narrative. Considering the game is CALLED Sonic & Knuckles you’d expect this moment to matter, having the two characters come together to fight against Dr. Robotnik and begin their new friendship, but NO!, he is thrown away in the MOST pathetic way. After the fight with Sonic he attempts to stop Dr. Robotnik from stealing The Master Emerald but is deflected by the cunning doctor, presumably wounded by his animation of exhaustion, thus rendering his usefulness to simply aiding Sonic to the next area, opening a bridge, and then disappearing completely.
Sure, in his own storyline he goes on to fight his own FINAL boss but this makes little sense within the context of the greater story and just feels like a FORCED tag-on, or a “What If?” scenario to benefit Knuckles being a playable character without much thought or reasoning. At the very least “Sky Sanctuary Zone” is a terrific level and formulates as a fan-favourite (which is no wonder why it would go on to represent this narrative for Sonic’s 20th Anniversary story, Sonic Generations).
It’s just utterly brilliant in how its designed, feels epic, exciting, fun to play, stunningly put together, adding in all the right amount of tension as a penultimate level (especially with the level of threat and pressure on Sonic’s shoulders to reach the Death Egg and stop it once and for all), as well as having one of the BEST soundtracks within Sonic’s long gaming career.
Plus, there’s also the clever addition of newly upgraded Mecha Sonic, who appears as a reoccurring enemy throughout the level, using some of Dr. Robotnik’s more iconic Egg-Mobiles to prevent Sonic from reaching its creator, before finally attempting to stop the Blue Hedgehog itself (proving to be an improved, fairer, and more exciting version of the earlier Mecha Sonic boss-battle [also referred to as “Robo Sonic”]), concluding the penultimate level in the best way possible.
And then things come to a perfect wrap in “Death Egg Zone” [seriously, Sonic Team should really start to consider thinking carefully about their rehash of level naming because it’s getting rather confusing to differentiate them from one another] as Sonic storms the Death Egg in order to finally stop Dr. Robotnik. And the level is designed really well, feeling completely like a mechanical world filled with science and robots, an unearthly world that perfectly represents Dr. Robotnik’s cold, calculative, and robotic stature within Sonic’s world.
Also, it has to be noted that the means of travelling around the Death Egg is completely fucking baffling and makes no bloody sense (I mean, why the Hell did Dr. Robotnik think it was a good idea to get around his space-base by whizzing around in a nausea orientated thrill ride – I’d like to the see the Fat-Bastard use it and survive). I do, however, like the anti-gravity aspect, which adds in a lot of cool platforming segments.
The FINAL boss is really fun and brings this EPIC journey to a neat conclusion. Okay, the first segment within the final boss isn’t anything overly exciting but as soon as you chase Dr. Robotnik towards another GIANT robotic version of himself, then that’s when things get serious. Modelled after The Death Egg Robot, The Kyodai Eggman Robo is a massive monstrosity, who’s sole purpose is to crush you like an ant.
It first tries stomping you out within its massive metal hands and upon destroying its fingers it begins chasing you, meaning you have to constantly move forward to avoid the crumbling metal flooring, whilst also concentrating on hitting the damn thing and avoiding both its flame nostrils and mother-fucking laser beam within its mouth. And last, but certainly not least, you then chase after the fat-bastard as he attempts to escape with The Master Emerald, before finally bringing his grand-schemes to launch the Death Egg to a final end (unless you count the episodic downloadable game, Sonic the Hedgehog 4).
Overall, it’s a really satisfying end level which allows you to use everything you’ve learnt over the course of the journey, as well as brings everything together for a fun little send-off as all the anticipation, tension, and the epic-nature of your quest unfolds for this explosive last encounter, pulling out all the stops to make it a massive closing moment. Therefore (because of this and everything else I have said in this review) Sonic & Knuckles becomes my favourite 2D Sonic game because of the enjoyment, variety, and ambition it delivers each and every time I return to play it.