I have long considered Sonic the Hedgehog’s heyday to be the early-to-mid 1990s, when many of his Genesis games were solid. Such was the case for Sonic the Hedgehog 3, released in 1994 on Groundhog Day (or as Sega called it at the time, Hedgehog Day). Of all of the side scrolling platform games on the Genesis that Sonic starred in, this is the weakest one, primarily because the game was shipped when it was only halfway finished. It was meant to be a much longer game, and only when Sonic and Knuckles was released later that year could players get the complete story of Sonic’s adventures on the Floating Island. Nevertheless, Sonic 3 remains a great, if rushed, classic and one of the hedgehog’s shining moments.
Robotnik’s space station, the Death Egg, was not destroyed at the end of Sonic 2 after all. Instead, it crashed landed on the Floating Island, which is called that because it is a large piece of land that floats in the air. It turns out that the power of the seven Chaos Emeralds is used to keep the island from falling into the ocean. Soon after landing on the island, Robotnik meets Knuckles the Echidna, the guardian of the island. Knowing that Sonic and Tails will surely be out to foil his plans, the evil doctor tricks Knuckles into thinking that they are thieves who are out to steal the emeralds. Now, not only must Sonic and Tails try to find the emeralds and defeat Robotnik yet again, they must also deal with the misled echidna, who plans to do whatever it takes to stop them. This is a stronger plot than usual, giving our heroes more trouble than usual and leaving players to hope that Knuckles will discover that Robotnik had lied to him.
Many of the usual features in Sonic games show up here: as usual, Sonic must race through every stage, destroying any robot that gets in his way. He can protect himself by collecting rings, which will scatter if he is hit. It Sonic does not have any rings with him if he gets hit, he loses a life. Our hero can also get an extra life for grabbing 100 or 200 rings. Lives and rings can also be found in monitors that can be smashed open, along with other useful items. Shoes can be used to make Sonic run faster for a few seconds, while an invincibility power up grants Sonic invulnerability for a short time. New to the game are special shields that protect Sonic in a variety of ways. Fire shields protect our hero from flames, bubble shields enable him to breathe underwater, and lightning shields attract rings. Lastly, Sonic must watch out for monitors with Robotnik’s face on them, as breaking them open will cause him to lose a ring or a life.
This game marked the first appearance of Knuckles the Echidna, who was initially Sonic’s enemy on account that he had been deceived by Robotnik. In cut scenes that take place at different points throughout each zone, Knuckles will set off all sorts of traps designed to slow down Sonic and Tails. Knuckles himself is a pretty cool character who is more misunderstood than evil, and he would go on to become a fan favorite and one of the series’ recurring stars. Sadly, he does not learn the error of his ways here…that would have to wait until Sonic and Knuckles. In many games after that, however, Knuckles would often team up with Sonic to foil Robotnik’s plans.
In addition to normal stages, there are bonus stages where Sonic can earn extra items and, more importantly, the elusive Chaos Emeralds. By hitting a lamppost (which once again acts as a checkpoint) with at least fifty rings and jumping into the sparkly ring that appears, you will be transported to a gum ball machine. Here, you can collect gum balls that will give you extra rings, lives, and shields. Another type of bonus stage is accessed by finding large rings hidden in each stage. Here, you must collect every blue sphere without touching the red ones. Doing so will net you a Chaos Emerald. Both types of bonus levels are quite fun, and the blue sphere bonus stages would later inspire an unlockable bonus game in Sonic and Knuckles.
A few other features made their debut in this game. Whereas our heroes would find themselves in the next zone without explanation in most cases, here there would be cut scenes that showed exactly how they would reach their next destination. For the first time in any Sonic game, one’s progress could be saved and resumed later, so that he or she would not have to play the entire game in one sitting. If one were to play as Tails alone, he or she could have him fly or swim underwater (players could also choose to play as Sonic and Tails together or just Sonic like in Sonic 2). Also, there was a boss at the end of every stage: a fight against one of Robotnik’s robots at the end of every first act, and a battle against Robotnik himself at the end of every second act. Many of these features would show up in later games, so one could say that it was games such as this that served as the blueprints for future Sonic games.
While the high speed action remains fun, and the classic Sonic feel is very much intact, the game has one major flaw: it is simply too short. There are only six zones with two acts each, for a total of twelve stages, which is eight less than in Sonic 2. As mentioned, the reason for this is because this was meant to be a much bigger game with even more zones, but Sega could not finish them in time, though their background music remains intact in the unlockable sound test. Consequently, we were left with only half a game, which can still be feasibly completed in one sitting despite the inclusion of a save feature. Sega would make amends with Sonic and Knuckles, which not only finished the story begun in Sonic 3, but which enabled players to combine the two games using lock-on technology and play Sonic 3 the way it was meant to be played, with all of the levels that were taken out of the original version.
Even though the game is essentially the first part of a longer story, it is still a lot of fun while it lasts, and Sega did a good job in creating some pretty neat stages. From the Hydrocity Zone to the Icecap Zone, these levels are memorable and as fun the 50th time as they were the first time. Additionally, the graphics have greatly improved, with Sonic having more animations than ever and each level providing a lot of visual charm. The soundtrack is filled with a lot of great tunes, and this time, each zone has two remixes of a single song, which is another feature that would show up often in later games. Add the classic Sonic sound effects and the first appearance of the famous “stage clear” music, and you have a game which is a work of art as far as music and sound goes.
Sonic 3 is a solid game despite being released in an incomplete state. It would become even better when combined with its sequel, but that is for another article. As a stand alone game, however, it benefits from some excellent levels, great bonus stages, cool secrets, and the debut of Knuckles. As with other Sonic games, it has been included in numerous compilations as well as on the Wii Shop Channel, so people have alternatives for finding the game if they do not want to try and find a copy of the original Genesis version. It may not have become the bigger game that Sega wanted it to be, at least not yet, but Sonic fans are sure to enjoy Sonic 3 just the way it is.