The 32X gets a lot of shit, and with good reason. The system stands as SEGA’s most abject failure, featuring the smallest library and shortest lifespan of any SEGA platform. It failed to live up to the promises SEGA made to its consumers and is a classic example of SEGA’s mid-90’s mismanagement.
An unfortunate side-effect of the 32X’s infamy is that the system’s better games are often ignored, or even worse, get the same shit that the 32X does. Knuckles’ Chaotix is a game that unfortunately suffers from both of these issues, and after having spent several days playing the game for 32X month, I’ve got to say that it’s a real shame. As far as I’m concerned, Knuckles’ Chaotix is a game every Sonic fan ought to play at least once, and here are five reasons why.
Unique, One of a Kind Mechanics
The Sonic franchise is no stranger to embracing new game mechanics with reckless abandon, but it’s rare for those mechanics to actually play off what makes a Sonic game so good. More often than not we’ve gotten hedgehogs with guns, or fishing cats, or overly long combat centric levels and enemy rooms. Knuckles’ Chaotix is that rare Sonic spin-off that actually tries to do something innovative and new with quintessential Sonic mechanics.
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably well aware of Chaotix’s bungee mechanic. You control two characters connected by an energy cord. One character is controlled directly while the other acts as a counter-weight, affecting your momentum through the stage. This mechanic is probably the most interesting twist on Sonic physics I’ve ever experienced! The second character has the ability to “hold”, which roots them to the ground. This move allows them to help the first character build momentum quickly by stretching and releasing the bungee cord, which can send both characters blasting through stages if used correctly.
The second character can also be picked up and thrown, which will then allow the second character to pull up the first character and help them access otherwise inaccessible or quickly move through a stage vertically. If used properly, the bungee mechanic can allow you to move through a Sonic stage in a way you never have been able to before or since. Unfortunately, if not properly used, these mechanics can lead to some frustration.
For a franchise that was designed to be played with a d-pad and a single button, Chaotix is incredibly complex. It requires some understanding of how Sonic physics work and even experienced Sonic fans will need take some time to master it. As a result, it should come as no surprise that Knuckles’ Chaotix holds the dubious distinction of being the first Sonic game to feature a tutorial. I think that this complexity is the primary reason why many who’ve played it don’t care for the game. As someone who tried to play it like a regular Sonic game for years, I found Chaotix’s level design to be confusing and its game play frustrating. Now that I’ve taken some time to get to know it on its terms though, it’s quickly become one of my favorite side scrolling Sonic games, period. Of course, even once mastered, Knuckles’ Chaotix can be a little crazy to play. Between the bungee mechanics, Sonic physics and springs, it can prove to be a truly chaotic experience. In fact, I think this may be where Chaotix got its name.
I was playing through one stage, with a pretty vanilla Espio/Mighty pairing. These two characters control about as close to standard Sonic characters as you can get in this game. Then after hitting a spring and using the bungee cord to send myself careening upwards through the stage, I hit a few boxes and suddenly found myself being followed by a miniature Knuckles. At first I didn’t think anything of it, but then I stopped playing for a minute, paused and realized that this game can…be a bit nuts. For an old school Sonic platformer, anyway.
Chaotix has some crazy power-ups. Some power-ups change your size, which also changes your physics and jumping height, and subsequently how you move through the stage. Another randomly switches out your partner character with someone else. Another causes you and your partner to switch places. These power-ups are one of the best things about Chaotix because it helps create a Sonic experience that can be downright…well, chaotic! You never know what exactly you might end up with, especially since many of the item boxes are randomized, leading to a game play experience that doesn’t get repetitive even after repeated playthroughs.
A diverse and original cast of characters
Until the last five years or so, having a variety of characters in a Sonic game wasn’t just typical, it was the standard. Sonic Team seemed to almost have an obsession over how many characters they could pack in to a single title, regardless of whether or not they fit. Chaotix is one of the first examples of this obsession, but it’s also one of the only examples of a diverse cast of characters in a Sonic game being done correctly. Each one of these characters, even the bee, feel like they belong in a Sonic game, and they each bring something unique to the table that we haven’t really seen in a Sonic game since.
Most of these characters are effectively a variation on Knuckles’ move set. Vector the Crocodile is capable of climbing walls and performing brief, mid-air boosts. Espio the Chameleon has no aerial capability, but one ups Vector’s climbing ability by literally being able to run up walls! Mighty the Armadillo can’t glide or climb, but does have a wall kicking ability that allows him to quickly jump up sheer walls. Charmy the Bee represents the biggest departure: he can just fly for as long as he likes to anywhere he likes, though this unlimited comes at the expense of control, since it can be very difficult to use him to kill enemies and he doesn’t use the bungee mechanics very effectively.
In addition to these characters there is also a pair of robots named Heavy and Bomb. These characters are supposedly defectors from Robotnik’s army, though in some versions of the manual it is hinted that they may in fact be trying to sabotage the Chaotix’s efforts. Indeed, they are effectively handicaps: Heavy is heavy, as the name implies, and can’t run particularly fast and attacks enemies by essentially just running into him. Bomb is small and light, but will explode when hit, which can damage the first character and cause them to lose rings. These characters aren’t technically playable outside of the hidden level select or the character switching power up.
There really isn’t another group of characters like this in any other Sonic game. Really, I can’t help but draw parallels between the Chaotix and the band of misfits in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, if only because both teams are comprised of mostly forgotten or throw-away characters. Vector the Crocodile was a member of Sonic’s band and was set to appear in Sonic 1’s soundtest screen, before the band was cut due to development time. Charmy the Bee debuted in the Japanese only Sonic manga. Mighty the Armadillo debuted in the incredibly obscure and rare SEGASonic Arcade, which was never officially released outside of Japan. Only Espio (as well as Heavy and Bomb) was actually designed for Knuckles’ Chaotix, with every other character actually predating the game’s star by several years. Knuckles himself debuted as a playable character only six months before the game’s release, making the fact that he was chosen to headline the game over Sonic a little more remarkable.
The cast of Chaotix is cool, colorful, unique and more than worth experiencing for any Sonic fan.
Its got a stellar soundtrack
There’s a very good reason why we’ve featured Knuckles’ Chaotix on Tuesday Tunes more than once: its got a great soundtrack. As I’ve been writing this I’ve had one of the world entrance tunes stuck in my head because it’s just so gosh dang catchy! The fact that the soundtrack is so good shouldn’t come as much of a surprise though: aside from the Sonic franchise’s solid track record with in-game music, Knuckles’ Chaotix’s soundtrack was among the first composed by Junko “Shirako” Shiratsu and Mariko Nanba, who would later go on to work on the soundtracks for games like Panzer Dragoon Zwei, Saga, Space Channel Five, Sonic Unleashed, and Sonic Rush.
It’s actually really fun to play
I mean, this is what it all comes down to, isn’t it? Once you understand the mechanics, Knuckles’ Chaotix can be a really fun game to play. It now stands as one of my favorite classic Sonic spin-offs, perhaps only bested by Triple Trouble. The level design is chaotic and can be a bit confusing for people trying to play it like a regular Sonic game, but once you embrace the game’s unique bungee mechanics, the level design usually feels downright natural. The game’s level design is very vertically oriented, with a focus on going up rather than to the right. It’s designed with constant bungeeing in mind. You need to use the cord and your partner character if you want to get around these stages the way you are meant to.
At the moment I am well on my way to beating this game and I must say I find myself left with very little to complain about. Indeed, the only real issue with this game is that chaos is the name of the game in almost every sense. Selecting your partner character and the stage you wish to play is a crapshoot, since both are selected via brief mini games. With enough skill it is possible to get exactly who and what you want, but it can be very easy to end up with Bomb as your partner and a stage you didn’t want to play. There are also moments of frustration when you need to get both of characters in an elevator and your partner character needs to be coaxed in.
It’s a crying shame that Knuckles’ Chaotix has yet to leave the 32X. Though it is nice to have a reason for people to play this peripheral after all these years, I would be interested in seeing how Chaotix might be received without the stigma of the 32X attached to it. I don’t understand why this game has yet to appear on any of Sonic’s numerous compilations or any of the digital services, but nevertheless I would encourage every hardcore Sonic fan to try this game at least once. Just be sure to give the game some time to grow on you, because as familiar as it might initially feel, it is a very different beast from what you’re used to and one more then worth experiencing.