February 2nd, dubbed Hedgehog Day, marked the 18th anniversary of the American release of Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Damn, does that make me feel old. Sonic 3 marked a very important point in the Sonic franchise. At the time of release, Sonic mania was in full force. The franchise had multiple TV shows airing, comic books, fast food promotions and even had a float in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. In early 1994 it was near impossible to avoid Sonic, and the release of Sonic 3 only made the franchise even more of a hot commodity. It’s no question that SEGA had a lot riding on the success of the game. Of course, 18 years later we’re still talking about it, so clearly SEGA was successful. In this week’s weekly five, we’ll take a walk down memory lane and look back on just why we love Sonic 3 so much.
The Mysterious Knuckles
If you were active in the Sonic scene pre-1994, you are probably 100% with me on this memory. Think waaaay back to late 1993. Sonic 3 was being teased in magazines, the Archie comics began to talk about Sonic’s next big game and the name “Knuckles” began cropping up. Newer Sonic fans may find this hard to believe, but back in Sonic’s early years the announcement of a mysterious new character was an exciting thing. We actually looked forward to potentially new playable characters. However, early impressions of Knuckles lead fans to think that he would be a proper villain. Knuckles didn’t seem to appear to be playable, and once the game released it was discovered that he wasn’t!
Of course, eight months later with the release of Sonic and Knuckles, Sonic’s newest enemy became playable and by the end of the game he turned friend. But for a brief 8 months in Sonic’s history, Knuckles was an unplayable baddie and we loved to hate him. The most apt comparison I can think of is that brief, but fun, two year period in which Shadow was thought of as dead. That isn’t to say that I dislike Knuckles post-Sonic and Knuckles, but it’s fun to think back to a time when he was seen in a very different light.
What is it about snow stages that make fans love them so much? Ice Cap itself is an awesome stage, filled with fun gimmicks and great music. But I think theres something happening at a deeper level that makes us love Ice Cap so much. Going outside Sonic 3, and even video games, there are numerous examples of snowy scenes being popular moments in fictional franchises. The battle of Hoth in Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back, the Sunday winter themed comics of Calvin and Hobbes, the moment in The Simpsons Movie in which Homer is trudging through the snow. The last example was actually touched upon in the commentary track for The Simpsons Movie, and I think it applies well to Sonic 3’s Ice Cap Zone. Placing a popular character in a stark, white, snowy environment allows for almost all attention to be placed on the character itself. Essentially, a snowy environment is a lack of environment. Unlike, say, Green Hill Zone in which there is a lot to see, in Ice Cap the absence of environment allows for Sonic himself to take center stage. I recall that it wasn’t until this stage that I really got to appreciate the upgrades and additions to Sonic’s sprite set. Okay, enough visual theory, next up…
Happy Meal Toys!
1994 saw the release of not one, but TWO lines of Happy Meal toys featuring Sonic the Hedgehog. The first was the popular Sonic 3 line, seen above, which featured the four main characters of the game. For many fans, this was the first time they were able to own a physical figure of Sonic and friends. Robotnik and Knuckles especially were early examples of products based on these characters. Interestingly enough, the Robotnik toy was based on his American cartoon design rather than his in-game design. It was only in Japan that the Eggman design was seen in the line of toys. Nowadays McDonald’s gets a lot of flack, some deserved, but I do miss the days in which being a Happy Meal toy was a status symbol. Sort of like a pop culture Academy Award. You hadn’t truly made it until you we’re a Happy Meal, and in 1994 Sonic made it.
Mastering the Elements
Without the elemental shields, Sonic 3 would not have been as great as it was. While players didn’t have to put as much thought into the shield’s special powers as they would in a game like Sonic Colors, knowing which shield protected against which attacks added a whole new way to play a Sonic game. The shields were perhaps the best example of new elements working in perfect harmony with the established formula. The fact that certain shields repelled badnik projectiles caused the shields to dictate the badnik designs. The result were badniks which shot fire and hazards which gave off electric sparks. The whole game really has a “rock, paper, scissors” sort of element to it which makes for a lot of experimentation and fun surprises to be had. It’s just a shame that elemental shields never appeared beyond Sonic and Knuckles, aside from their cameo in Generations. Hopefully Sonic 4 Episode 2, or 3, bring them back.
Not only did the Sonic franchise borrow the concept of the Death Star for the Death Egg, but they also took inspiration from The Empire Strikes Back and left players on a cliffhanger. I’m so glad that I didn’t get around to completing Sonic 3 before Sonic and Knuckles released, because I can only imagine how frustrating it may have been to complete Sonic 3 in February, 1994 only to have to wait until October for the conclusion. Did Knuckles survive? Was he to be good or bad? What came of the Death Egg?
Mystery is perhaps the biggest theme of Sonic 3; The mystery of who was Knuckles, the slow reveal of the full potential of the elemental shields and the unresolved conclusion. We know all these answers now, but back in 1994 who knew where things would go.Ad: