With the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (SEGA Technical Institute, 1994), gamers were introduced to Knuckles the Echidna. This mischievous, dreadlocked antagonist was created by Takashi Yuda and his debut was made all the more impressive by virtue of the fact that Sonic 3 was too big to fit on one cartridge, which meant that Knuckles was the first of Sonic’s supporting characters to co-star in a main series videogame when Sonic & Knuckles (ibid) was released on this very day in 1994.
Released: April 1995
Following the release of Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, SEGA looked to be unstoppable with their Sonic franchise; the latter title was a huge game for SEGA, backed by an impressive marketing campaign, and the franchise had sold over $1 billion in total revenue by 1994. With the Mega Drive nearing the end of its life cycle, and the videogame industry on the cusp of entering a new generation of 3D gaming, SEGA attempted to prolong the Mega Drive’s lifespan and appeal with a series of expensive add-ons like the Mega-CD and the Mega Drive 32X. Like the Mega-CD, however, the 32X was doomed to failure primarily because SEGA were planning on releasing an entirely new console, the SEGA Saturn, just a few months later and gamers just couldn’t afford the clunky peripheral.
With the benefit of hindsight, I truly believe that SEGA would have fared much better had they simply continued with the Mega-CD, producing a combination Mega Drive/CD console and releasing all 32X and Saturn games on this platform rather than wasting time, effort, and money on expensive add-ons. Regardless, one title that sticks out to me from the 32X library is Knuckles’ Chaotix; initially designed as Sonic Crackers, the game’s big mechanic was that players controlled two characters simultaneously and were joined by a special, elastic “Combi Ring”. The game, which was Knuckles’ one and only solo title, also saw the return and redesign of obscure Sonic character Mighty the Armadillo and Vector the Crocodile into fully playable characters. However, thanks primarily to the failure of the 32X, the title has largely been doomed to obscurity and SEGA’s continued refusal to port or re-release the game to modern consoles means that the only way to play the game is by using emulators or spending extortionate prices.
Doctor Eggman has discovered the existence of seven Chaos Rings on Carnival Island and, true to form, begun transforming the island and its inhabitants into robotic slaves with the aid of Metal Sonic. When Knuckles arrives to investigate, he finds Espio the Chameleon being held captive in Dr. Eggman’s Combi Confiner and, after freeing the chameleon, joins forces with Espio’s cohorts Mighty, Vector, and Charmy Bee (the titular Chaotix) to put a stop to Dr. Eggman’s schemes using the power of the Combi Ring.
As is to be expected of a classic Sonic the Hedgehog title, Knuckles’ Chaotix is a 2D, sidescrolling action/platformer that is heavily geared towards speed but, in a change of pace, actually has far more emphasis on vertical platforming and progression that any of its predecessors. The game takes place in Newtronic High Zone and is comprised of six stages referred to as “Attractions”; each Attraction is made up of five levels (called “Acts”) rather than the usual two or three, and each of these pushes you to run up loops and walls or jump to higher areas in order to reach the end goal. In another change of pace, the game immediately begins with a practice area, in which you play as Knuckles. After scaring away Dr. Eggman, Knuckles rescues Espio from the mad scientist and players can choose to play through a quick tutorial to familiarise themselves with Knuckles’ Chaotix’s new mechanics.
All of the basic controls of a classic Sonic remain intact and as you’d expect; players can run, jump, and perform a Spin Dash to speed ahead with all but three of the available characters, and you’ll find that each playable character has their own unique qualities. Knuckles, for example, can glide and climb walls as in his previous appearances; Espio spins like a top instead of Spin Dashing and can cling to walls but cannot climb them; Vector is the biggest character and so has a greater chance of hitting Badniks or taking damage but he can also perform a double jump or mid-air dash; Mighty is basically a thinly veiled stand-in for Sonic and can perform a wall jump; and Charmy is the smallest and fastest character and constantly flies about but at the cost of severely reduced visibility. Players can also be impeded by Heavy and Bomb, two Badniks who cannot Spin Dash or climb walls, explode on contact or severely weigh you down, and you’ll have to leave it up to a mixture of fate and luck as to which character you get as your partner as the main Scenario Quest forces you to pick one at random using the “Combi-Catcher”, a mechanical claw game like you see at seaside amusements. Of course, the unique selling point of Knuckles’ Chaotix is the frankly bizarre decision to tether two characters together using the Combi-Ring. This means that there are always two characters on screen at once, and you can choose to play either with a computer-controlled partner or with a human friend. Players can call their partner to them at any time with the A button or hold down B to “hold” their partner in place to activate switches; when they stand in place, you can also build up a head of steam to blast ahead, which is honestly more beneficial than the Spin Dash in this game. This also allows you to grab your partner and fling them at switches, Badniks, bosses, or up to higher areas; however, it can be extremely clunky trying to slingshot your way up to where your partner is, and more often than not you end up hanging in place or ricocheting about like a pinball just trying to progress upwards. Furthermore, calling your partner back costs you Golden Rings, the lifeforce of the series, and you can even drop the Ring counter into negative numbers as a result of this.
While each character is very visually interesting in their own right and the idea of working together to progress is an interesting one, tethering the characters together is extremely restrictive in practise; the majority of the time, your biggest struggle won’t be with the game’s Badniks or the tedious nature of the gameplay, it’ll be with trying to navigate the environment using this clunky, awkward mechanic and getting frustrated when you finally get where you need to be only to drop down a second later. Indeed, the level of difficulty in Knuckles’ Chaotix is extremely low compared to the games that came before it; the life system and checkpoints are now gone, there are no bottomless pits or bodies of water to worry about falling or drowning in, and you don’t even need to worry too much about being hit without any Rings as you’ll either lose your partner for a short time or be booted out to the main hub world to try again. Like Sonic 3, the game comes with a save system that allows you to have three saved games, though the only way you can replay the game’s Attractions is to play through the Training Mode. This mode also allows you to set your playable character and partner, which is more freedom than the main Scenario Quest offers, but the most tedious aspects of Knuckles’ Chaotix come from how unnecessarily long and annoying some of its gameplay elements are. While the Attractions are a visual eye fest there’s not much to distinguish each Act from the other within a set stage (I swear some of them have exactly the same layouts bar some very minor changes), there’s next to no hazards or Badniks to worry about, and you don’t even really need to worry all that much about the time limit.
Instead, the game is built around randomness; it’s pot luck that you’ll pick a decent partner (I recommend a Knuckles/Espio team, personally) and as to which Attraction you’ll play. Between each stage, you’re returned to the hub world and must hit a bumper to randomly select your next area, meaning that you’re literally bouncing all over the place and will most likely play the game’s Attractions out of order. This may go a long way to explaining the uniformity and ease of the game’s stages, however, as it wouldn’t be fair to be randomly dropped into a tough stage before you’re ready, but it does make playing through the Scenario Quest quite a long old slog. While the basics of the gameplay are very much familiar to anyone who’s played a Sonic game before, Knuckles’ Chaotix feels very slow and sluggish at times and you won’t really find much here you haven’t seen both. Sure, there’s a few more switches and a bit of variety in the likes of Marina Madness and Amazing Arena (you can hop on a rising/falling ship in the background in the former and must light up each Act to get a successful clear in the latter) but, for the most part, you’re just running up walls, hopping over spiked balls, bouncing off springs and bumpers, and scaling upwards (always upwards) on platforms and elevators. The Acts do eventually appear to become more dangerous as you progress, but by then it’s too little too late and I can’t help but feel that things would have been much better if there had just been three Acts per Attraction and then a final area to play through before battling the final boss.
Graphics and Sound:
If there’s one area where Knuckles’ Chaotix excels, it’s the presentation; the game is undeniably gorgeous to look at, and easily the most vibrant and colourful Sonic title of its era. Each of the playable characters (with the exception of Heavy and Bomb) has an idle animation unique to them (Knuckles twirls his Combi-Ring in boredom, Espio cycles through different colours, Vector jams to his music, Mighty impatiently taps his foot like Sonic, and Charmy looks at you incredulously) and are some of the finest sprite work in the series. It’s such a shame, then, that Charmy is so goddamn small; obviously, he’s a bee and is supposed to be tiny but half the time you can barely see him, which is almost as disappointing as Mighty being a simple sprite swap of Sonic. Still, Espio and Vector look fantastic; each has unique and quirky running and jumping animations, and Knuckles’ sprites have been completely overhauled to make him more detailed and expressive than ever.
Sadly, the game is let down by how bland and uninteresting its level design is. Knuckles’ Chaotix is very similar to Sonic the Hedgehog CD (SEGA, 1993) in a lot of ways but primarily in how confusing and clumsy its stages are laid out; when Badniks do appear, it seems completely at random, and the few hazards you come across are so oddly placed that it’s easy to run head-first into them. Stages are also extremely cluttered at times; there’s often too much colour, too much sensory overload, and it makes everything blend together or difficult to look at, which really doesn’t help when you’re trying to figure out where the hell you’re supposed to be going. The game’s Attractions play things extremely safe with the likes of Botanic Base being a lush forest, Speed Slider being an amusement park, and Techno Tower being Dr. Eggman’s industrial blemish on the natural environment, much like the classic Green Hill, Star Light, and Scrap Brain Zones. The aforementioned Marina Madness and Amazing Arena thus stand out even more thanks to the their unique gameplay mechanics and presentation, and the game does get extra points for featuring different colour palettes for each Act to indicate a different time of day (morning, noon, evening, and night), though this really doesn’t help to stave off the recycled nature of each Act.
Also like Sonic CD, Knuckles’ Chaotix makes an impact with one of the best of the classic Sonic’s soundtracks; there are so many jaunty, catchy tunes peppered throughout this game that it really helps to take your mind off how empty the stages are and how monotonous the gameplay can be. Since it’s running on 32-bit hardware, the game also features a great deal of isometric 3D graphics; Dr. Eggman shields himself being a polygonal diamond, some lifts and bosses are built out of the same graphics, and you’ll find the bonus and Special Stages also contain a fair bit of this technique (and suffer from jerkiness, slowdown, and perspective issues as a result). There’s also a big emphasis on sprite manipulation; characters can grow or shrink with monitors, and bosses, Badniks, and sprites will fill up or fly into the screen. Unlike Sonic CD, however, the game doesn’t feature any anime cutscenes; in fact, even sprite-based cutscenes are few and far between here, relegated to the opening and before the final boss, and although the bosses are proceeded by a short cutscene, the game prefers to just show a partially animated image of the main cast for the title screen and credits. This is a bit of a shame, really; I wasn’t expecting full blown animated sequences but both Sonic 3 and Sonic CD featured more sprite-based cutscenes than Knuckles’ Chaotix, so the game ends up feel quite rushed and a bit of a step back.
Enemies and Bosses:
Dr. Eggman hasn’t really tried to reinvent the wheel in Knuckles’ Chaotix and is still using his tried-and-tested robotic creations, the Badniks, to hinder your progress. Unlike in the majority of other 2D Sonic titles, destroying Badniks doesn’t free a cute little woodland critter; instead, an uncollectible Dark Ring will drop out and disappear soon after, meaning that the few times Badniks do appear you’re robbed of any sense of satisfaction from destroying them. These Badniks are some of the oddest in the classic series, resembling a mish-mash of insects, tanks, and other creatures and mostly just floating around here and there. The only real standouts for me were Burboom and Blitz; Burboom can catch your partner and hold them captive and Blitz target you with homing missiles that fly across the immediate area to hurt you. While in Amazing Arena, you’ll also have battle a sub-boss, which is a massive mechanical version of Dr. Eggman that stretches its fists at you. The only way to damage it is to toss your partner into the head, which routinely floats back and forth at the top of the screen; although you can simply wait it out and the boss will deactivate, you won’t get the benefit of the Ring Monitors defeating it bestows upon you.
Since you’ll play the game’s Attractions at random, the main five bosses can be fought in any order, and you’ll probably tackle them at different times each time you play through the game. It’s also worth noting that you must play each Attraction’s entire fifth Act to reach the boss, and if you fail you’ll be kicked back to the hub world and have to play through the whole Act all over again, which can make these battles very tedious. I fought the Botanic Base boss first; in this fight, Dr. Eggman holds your partner in a mechanical claw and shields his craft with electrical currents, meaning you’re left frantically trying to figure out how to bounce around using the bumper and ram into the craft. After that, I took on the Amazing Arena boss, which sees Dr. Eggman spawn in Badniks using a projector screen and protecting himself with a sphere. Simply fend off the Badniks, avoid his mace-like arms, and toss your partner up into him to take him out. I then fought the Marina Madness boss, which sees Dr. Eggman hide behind a polygonal shield and then protect his craft with slivers of it, not unlike the Metropolis Zone boss, forcing you to time your attacks to avoid damage. The Speed Slider boss is one of the trickiest in the game as Dr. Eggman essentially commands a huge, dangerous carousel; the floor constantly moves you towards the spiked cups that rotate around the main machine, so you have to fight against the inertia, avoid the spikes, and ram the blue spherical weak spot of his machine. Contrasting this is the Techno Tower boss, which is easily the game’s simplest boss by far; despite the lasers and the swinging arms of Dr. Eggman’s rotund mech, I was able to batter the red sphere that is its weak spot in no time at all thanks to simply taking advantage of invincibility frames.
Once you have defeated all five of the main bosses, you’re returned to the hub world, where Metal Sonic takes over the stage select machine. Just as you need to hit a bumper to select a stage, so to do you have to hit the bumper to try and deal damage to Metal Sonic; if the indicator lands on the X, one of the other numbered panels will be destroyed and the hub world will become more and more damaged. However, if you land on one of the numbered panels, you’ll have to dodge one of four different attacks as Metal Sonic tries to force you into spiked walls, rains missiles down on you, sends buzzsaws across the floor, and tries to hit you with bouncing tentacles. You’ll need to avoid these as you can only take two hits in this boss battle due to the lack of Rings; the first hit will cost you your partner, and you’ll need to wait for him to respawn or you’ll be kicked back to the hub world and have to start over. With Metal Sonic heavily damaged, Dr. Eggman repairs and powers it up with a huge Dark Ring, transforming it into the massive, monstrous “Metal Sonic Kai”. This is a three-stage boss battle in an enclosed, cyberspace-like arena, where you’re afforded ten Rings and must avoid its huge claw arm to strike its chest, then Spin Dash into its remaining arm while it hovers in the background, and then avoid its massive near-screen-filling chest beam to finish it off in a pretty simple, but surprisingly impressive, final battle.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Pretty much all of the classic Sonic power-ups are available to you in Knuckles Chaotix; while there are no Elemental Shields or extra life monitors, you can grab ten Rings, a speed up, a one-hit shield, and an invincibility from the different monitors you can find in each Act. There are some new power-ups here as well, though: you can briefly switch your playable character (or switch your partner to a different one depending on whose face is on the monitor when you smash it) and either grow to plough through the few enemies onscreen or shrink to find your jump and abilities painfully stunted for a short time. Perhaps the most useful item is the Combi-Ring Monitor, which stays with you until you’re hit; then, when you are hit, one large Ring is thrown from you rather than all of them scattering around and collecting that one Ring restores all of your Rings. Another interesting twist is that your partner can also collect and be affected by the monitors, meaning they could be invincible, big, small, or protected by a shield while you are not.
As you might expect, finishing any Act except the ones containing a boss while holding fifty Rings or more spawns a Big Ring. Entering it takes you (or your partner, if they enter or are thrown into it) to an isometric Special Stage where you continuously lap the environment until you have collected enough Blue Spheres to proceed. Collecting Rings will afford you more time to do this, and you must dodge buzzsaws and spiked balls and the myriad of gaps in the floor in order to reach your goal. While these aren’t necessarily the worst Special Stages I’ve ever played, they can be extremely difficult; it’s very hard to see what’s coming ahead of you or to anticipate which “lane” you need to be in to find a Blue Sphere, and all too easy to slip to failure. On the plus side, there are only six Special Stages; you’ll be awarded one of the six coloured Chaos Rings upon completion and will be treated to a slightly different end credits screen that adds Sonic and Miles “Tails” Prower to the cast and avoids Metal Sonic Kai wrecking havoc.
Unfortunately, there are no Super transformations or additional bonuses; however, if you enter a Special Stage after collecting all the Chaos Rings, you’ll simply challenge them again in an even more headache-inducing wireframe mode. If you’re holding twenty Rings or more, you may encounter Big Rings hidden within the Acts; these transport you to a bonus stage that sees you constantly falling and trying to hit blocks for points and Rings. However, your Rings are constantly being drained in this stage, making it more of a hinderance than a benefit. Outside of the regular game, you’ll find a sound select and “colour test” in the main menu; messing around with this allows you to activate a debug mode, have Amy Rose appear in the sound test, activate a stage and character select, and even play as a glitched version of Knuckles. Since the only way you can play Knuckles’ Chaotix is to emulate it, you can obviously also make liberal use of the save state features included in most emulators to make the game a bit less annoying to play through.
Knuckles’ Chaotix is such an oddity to me. The entire game feels like a barely finished proof of concept, with empty environments and clunky mechanics that all needed to be addressed before the game was completed, and yet it’s such a lush and stunningly well-presented package that I find it all the more disappointing how lacklustre the actual gameplay and content are. Rather than trying to emulate the size, scope, and variety of Sonic 3, Knuckles’ Chaotix takes a step backwards for a far more linear and mundane experience and hedges all its bets on the unique Combi-Ring mechanic and the random, amusement park-like structure of the main campaign. Sadly, neither are all that much fun to play; five Acts per stage would be a lot to get through even in a traditionally paced Sonic title but the lack of enemies and variety are a real issue, despite how pretty the game looks. It’s a shame as the character designs are really unique and it could have been a really good continuation of the classic Sonic series, but it’s just lacking in a lot of ways that make it inferior to Sonic 3. The bosses aren’t too bad, especially the final battle, but the Special Stages are extremely disorientating and I can’t imagine the game is very enjoyable in two-player. At the same time, though, I’d love to see this get a remaster or a port to modern consoles with a few quality-of-life fixes, and it boggles my mind that we haven’t seen it re-released in all this time, but I can decisively say that you’re really not missing out on much by skipping over this one.
Could Be Better
Have you ever played Knuckles’ Chaotix? If so, did you play it on the original hardware or, like me, did you discover it through emulation? What did you think to the Combi-Ring mechanic, and which combination of characters was your favourite? Were you a fan of the random aspects of the game and the five-Act structure? Did you ever collect all the Chaos Rings and what did you think to the Special Stages? How are you celebrating Knuckles’ big day today? Sign up to leave your thoughts on Knuckles’ Chaotix down below or drop a comment on my social media, and check back in for more Sonic content a little later in the year.