Sonic 3 > Sonic 1 > Sonic 2

Introduction

Sonic & Knuckles title screen
Sonic & Knuckles title screen

For many Sonic fans, the classic Mega Drive games remain the best in the franchise, and I readily count myself among these fans. That said, I have noted a tendency for Sonic 2 to rank above the others when fans are discussing their old favourites, a prospect which I found interesting, considering that, as much as I love that game myself, I have always placed it below Sonic 1 and Sonic 3 on my list. This realization beckoned me to launch an investigation into the reasons for my own preferences, and thus this wonderful little post was born.

Below is my ranking for the classic series entries Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. The latter two I have merged into a single entry, for I have always considered them to be a single game, and ever since the very first time I locked Sonic 3 onto my Sonic & Knuckles cartridge, I have yet to play either of them standalone again.

  1. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles
  2. Sonic the Hedgehog
  3. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
 
At first when I tried to puzzle out the reasons for this preference of mine, I tried to make a list of reasons for each game's placement. The fact is, I love each of these games dearly, from the music to the level design. Therefore, I thought it would be easier to break the bigger question into two smaller ones. Firstly, what is it that I love about Sonic 3 & Knuckles so much over the other games. Secondly, and perhaps more curiously, what makes me choose the original Sonic over Sonic 2?

Why do I love Sonic 3 & Knuckles so much?

 
This game, to my mind, is the ultimate evolution of the other two, and one of the main reasons for my frequent disappointment with later Sonic games is that they fail to extend upon Sonic 3&K the way it built on its predecessors.
 
First of all, something that many might take for granted is Tails's ability to fly. Even though this ability was demonstrated in Sonic 2 when the second player went too far off-screen, it only became available to the player in Sonic 3. The character was clearly designed with this behaviour in mind, so it seems only natural that this be implemented. Also, the ability to lift Sonic makes Tails a much greater asset when playing with a friend.
 
 Sonic wearing the water shield
 Sonic wearing the water shield
Another important factor that sets Sonic 3&K ahead of the others is the ingenuity that went into the shields; the flame shield, the water shield and the lightning shield. Perhaps I simply have a fondness for the classic elements, but I thought these were very well thought out. Every shield has a "passive" ability (the flame shield resists fire attacks, the water shield allows you to breathe under water, and the lightning shield resists lightning attacks and acts as a ring magnet) as well as an "active" ability (the flame shield propels you forward, the water shield lets you bounce and the lightning shield grants you a double jump). It is the attentive detail that went into these, such as the flame and lightning shields wearing off in water, that makes this feature astound and inspire. As a child, I used to always dream about wind shields and earth shields!
 
Perhaps one of the most obvious new features of Sonic 3&K is the facility to save your progress. This meant players no longer had to start over when they got tired, stumbled upon a bug or the power got interrupted. I was shocked to see this feature disappear in Sonic 3D Blast (which failed to even make this list for many reasons, but that's a different story altogether).
 
 Sonic 3 special stage
 Sonic 3 special stage
I'll be frank. I love Sonic 3's special stages. This is another example of a very clever and creative idea that sets this game apart from other entries into the series. The simple rules for turning blue spheres into red spheres and for changing a group of spheres into rings allowed players the option of either taking the easier route and simply going for the emerald, or putting their skills to the test in hunting for the way to gather the most rings from the formations presented them. It's pure logic, and boy do I love logic!

The addition of bonus stages (as opposed to special stages that rewarded the player with chaos emeralds) is another welcome innovation and added greatly to the fun factor of the game. My personal favourite is the Glowing Spheres stage, which is littered with goodies, and a special reward for those who make it to the top. The Gumball Machine stage was hard to score in, but you could always expect to walk away with at least a shield. The Slot Machine stage was a lot more risky, as one actually stood the chance to lose rings, so I used to only warp into these to grab a continue and be on my way.
 
 Knuckles in an in-game cinematic
 Knuckles in an in-game cinematic
Last but not least, the introduction of Knuckles as both an antagonist and later a playable character was a stroke of genius in and of itself. Not simply for the addition of an original character, which later sequels have demonstrated cannot redeem a game by itself (of course, in my opininion, character designs have become increasingly crappy of late, what with all the Sonic clones and such). No, as with most of Sonic 3's merits, Knuckles's strength lies in his design. In contrast to Robotnik, Knuckles is tailored to appear as if he is bound to the same constraints as Sonic and Tails, which makes him an ideal rival. Indeed, his showdown with Sonic in the Hidden Palace Zone is epic exactly because of this. Furthermore, as a playable character, Knuckles is denied the ability to fly with Tails, but with his own gliding and climbing skills, provides the player with a unique experience still.
 

What makes me choose the original Sonic over Sonic 2?

 
Verbalising the reasons I like Sonic 1 more than Sonic 2 is difficult, especially as I find that nostalgia plays a very prominent role here. I can safely say that the gap between Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 is not as large as the one between Sonic 1 and Sonic 3, and as I'll describe below, can be attributed mostly to trivialities.
 
 The memorable Green Hill Zone
 The memorable Green Hill Zone
First and foremost, let me address the nostalgia issue. Yes, this was the very first Sonic game, and one that set the standard for platform games to follow, including its own successors. It was the game that vivified the Mega Drive, and it was my very first game on this console. Therefore, I admit that I am biased in favour of this game. Nothing could ever take its place. However, I would expect the nostalgia to be present just as strongly in my fellow Sonic fans, many of whom appear to favour Sonic 2. Therefore, there must be other factors affecting my judgment.

 Sonic 2 special stage
 Sonic 2 special stage
Another reason might be the special stages. Disorientating as they may be, I found I prefer them to those of Sonic 2. The nature of Sonic 1's special stages allowed it more diversity than those in Sonic 2. In the latter game, the character runs down a speedway that is identical to every other in everything but colour, and with slight variations in bomb positioning. Not only did I find Sonic 2's special stages repetitive, but I also found them frustrating, as at times the runway would block the player's view, leaving them helpless. I remember purposely not warping from star posts because to me the game was more fun without them.

Not only that, but when I finally get all the Chaos Emeralds in Sonic 2, I am forced to play the game as Super Sonic whenever my rings reach 50. This makes some parts of the game easier and other parts more difficult, it's not very nice to Tails when you're having a second player, and worst of all, I have to listen to the same annoying tune all the time while I'm missing so much of the game's beautiful music. In Sonic 1, I can go for the emeralds without worrying about a stinking "reward" like this spoiling the game.
 

Conclusion

 
In retrospect, I think it's mostly the special stages that put me off Sonic 2. If it weren't for that and the nostalgia, I'd probably rank Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 together. Sonic 3, however, is simply such a vast improvement on its predecessors that I think it will be my favourite forever. So many ideas went into that game. In my opinion, throwing that away (like just about all the later games do) is like taking Sonic back to the Stone Age.
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