So Sonic 1 and 2 were gigantic hits. Sonic CD was a critical success and a big seller for the Sega-CD. Then came the spin off games. Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, Sonic Spinball, Sonic 3D Blast, etc. Just a huge number of games were released with the Sonic name attached. Sonic had now officially become Sega's 'Mario' both in terms of quality in the main franchise and in terms of spin off's aping the 'Sonic' name. It was in the midst of the spin offs that Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles were released. Originally planned to be one game, both were released separately on the same year. Both have unique histories beyond this. For example, Michael Jackson and a few of his writers wrote the music for Sonic 3 (though Jackson pulled his name from the credits or it was pulled depending on which rumor you read). Sonic and Knuckles came with a built-in slot in the top of the cart that allowed Sonic 2 and 3 to be plugged in to it for varying effects. Sonic and Knuckles with Sonic 2 plugged in allowed for Knuckles to be playable in that game. Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles, with Sonic 3 plugged into the Sonic and Knuckles cart, could be played as one big Sonic game. Even Sonic 1, when plugged in to the Sonic and Knuckles cart, could allow for access to all of the Sonic and Knuckles special stage zones (after a code was entered).
These two games were handled in an odd way. Being released in the same year. The weird slot on the top of the Sonic and Knuckles cart. It was all very strange. Both games, like Sonic 1 and 2, did well critically and commercially. But these two seem to be the Sonic games, of the original 16-bit games, that have the most die-hard and lukewarm fans. These games tend to be either loved or just sort of liked...you know, kinda.
I was one of the lukewarm fans. I had bought everything Sonic before these two games came out. All of the Game Gear ports of the Master System Sonic games. The original Sonic games on Game Gear and the spin offs (like Tail's Adventure). The spin offs on the Genesis. Sonic CD. Kunckle's Chaotix. All of them. But for some reason, I wasn't particularly excited for either of these games. I don't really know what it was. Maybe I had just grown tired of Sonic games. But, for whatever reason, I never really 'loved' these games like I loved the first two as a child.
What About Now?
Sonic 3 was an odd game to play immediately after Sonic 2. Sonic 2 was a fast game. Sonic 1 was fast no doubt but Sonic 2 just took that speed to another level. Granted, it made some of the platforming sort of sketchy. But man was it fast. Sonic 3, however, may be the slowest Sonic game to date. Sonic feels heavy and fat. He's easier to control and the platforming is much more manageable but it also loses that sense of speed that the Sonic franchise was built on. That said, it is good that he's a little slower because this game has a lot of platforming. More then either of the first Sonic games. Tricky jumps, using environmental features to advance, all of the things you would see in a normal platformer were there. Sonic 1 and 2 were platformers but they were platformers with caveats. Besides the later levels, the platforming was fairly simple, easy and mindless. Sonic 3 changed that. I'm not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing. The levels are definitely longer and the gameplay is more methodical. But is it better? I don't know. It is certainly different though. There are also many more bosses to fight in this game. After every act there is a boss. The first act is associated with a mini-boss and the second act is Robotnik. I'm also torn on this new development as well. I mean, it's nice that they are adding challenge but a) the bosses are easy and b) I'm not sure I really like fighting bosses in Sonic games.
This is simply a beautiful game. Awesome parallaxing and vivid colors are seen through each level. And speaking of the levels, each act is associated with a change in how the stage looks. In previous Sonic games, every act of each stage looked the same. Sonic 3 changed that and it leads to a much more varied and interesting presentation. The music is really nice as well. Only one stage (the ice stage) really had a Michael Jackson sound BUT it does really sounds nice.
Sonic and Knuckles
This game is very similar to Sonic 3 but it improves on it in key areas. Sonic is much faster this time but the controls are still tight allowing for the platforming to be much more manageable. Speaking of platforming, holy hell is there a lot of it in this game. And the bosses. There's actually a boss rush in this game where the player fights one boss after another. Unlike Sonic 3, there are some really cool boss fights in this game. Some really memorable ones. They go even further with 'story-telling' in this game then Sonic 3. There's not a lot of it, but you could actually say there are cutscenes in this game. That's crazy for a Sonic game. The music sounds really nice and the game looks amazing. This is like Sonic 3 with a shot of Sonic 1 and 2 and steroids.
I'm torn on these games. I think Sonic 3 is a hell of a game but is far too easy and far too slow. The bosses were too easy and kind of boring to fight. Sonic and Knuckles, technically, is the best Sonic game of the 16-bit era. It has the speed, it has the tight controls, it has the great music, cool boss fights, amazing graphics, and technical and well crafted platforming. It is clearly the best Sonic game to have been made of the original games. But I don't know if it is my favorite. Sonic 1 was the originator. It is simple, has a rough difficulty curve, and easy bosses. But I really like it. Sonic 2 is just crazy. It is stupidly fast, has a rough difficulty curve, and the platforming at the end of the game is really imprecise. But I can't shake the nostalgia I have for those games. Especially Sonic 1. I have so many good feelings with those games that I would take them over Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles any day.
So, I guess the end result is this. If you've never played these games and you want to you should play them all. But the one that you should play first and will likely like the best is probably going to be Sonic and Knuckles. It is the best 16-bit Sonic game. But it isn't my favorite Sonic game.