Graveyard: Sonic the Hedgehog 3

Out back of the Hardcore Gamer office you’ll find our Graveyard, where countless long-dead classics lie. We come here to pay our respects, to reminisce, and to wonder aloud what a passing mad doctor might be able do with all these corpses and some high-definition lightning.

Sonic Mania is an incredible platformer that put Sonic back on a pedestal for the genre. Seeing Sonic in such a well-reviewed game brought back memories of his heyday in the ’90s and reminded us of how great Sonic 3 was. One benefit to SM using legacy stages is it can remind you of games you haven’t played for a while, and in this instance, it gave us an excuse to go back and enjoy one of the franchise’s best entries. Sonic 3 kept the formula from Sonic 2 alive, but did a lot of little things different to evolve the core gameplay.

Elemental shields were added to the mix with fire shields making you immune to flames while also giving you a powerful mid-air dashing attack. The water shield allowed you to breathe underwater while also adding immunity to some attacks and let you bounce around to either bonk enemies at a higher distance or just have a bit more fun going from Point A to B and the electrical shield drew rings towards you and gave you a double jump. This shield was great for tougher platforming segments and also made it easier to farm for extra lives. Sonic 3 was a huge game in its day, but one that never quite became gaming comfort food for me until Sonic Mania.

Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 on the Genesis are classics, and being able to play those on any mobile device does make them a bit more accessible now. They’re easy games to play for half an hour and just have some fun with, but for whatever reason, Sonic 3 didn’t quite reach that level. It’s an outstanding game, so not playing it all the time in quick bursts wasn’t an indictment of its quality, but it just never stuck out as something I had to keep in my regular rotation. Replaying it after Mania reminded me of how much fun I had in Angel Island Zone when the mid-act break would see flames sear the entire screen. The stage design also goes for more flair than prior games, with some disappearing block puzzles to work with and a faster pace than most first acts.

The second zone is an all-time great, with Hydrocity Zone offering up not only underwater action, but doing so at a much faster rate of speed than usual. Sonic 2’s Chemical Plant Zone is a series favorite, but one that has been criticized for throwing you into the deep end challenge-wise while also offering up a lot of slower underwater sections. Hydrocity is underwater, but maintains a fast pace thanks to things like rushing water sections that have you carefully move Sonic, Tails or Knuckles around to avoid spikes.

Sonic 3 is really underrated when it comes to its zone structure since every area really does feel different. Even the opening area stands out from the usual Green Hill template thanks to all the changes. Marble Garden is one of the toughest zones in the entire game, full of deformation of the in-game world thanks to Robotnik, while also introducing pulleys into the mix to send you around the stage. These force you to use your regular platforming skills, but do so at odd angles. Spinning tops allow you to partake in not only the satisfying feeling of crashing through walls – but also allow you to go through spike traps if you’re careful.

Carnival Night zone combines a bit of the spectacle of Casino Night from Sonic 2 with a higher level of graphical polish and some of the best dimly-lit platforming you’ll ever find. Unlike a lot of games now that give you very little light to work with, you never have trouble navigating through the darkened areas here when the power goes out thanks to effective use of color allowing you to still see where you need to go. Carnival Night also showcases some of the game’s tougher puzzles, where you need to press down on an actuator to send it down before then pressing up and repeating this process to make progress int he area. It’s a challenge, but adds some logic puzzles to Sonic’s formula and it works out well to make you not only feel smarter – but also try new things for the series.

The Ice Cap Zone is one of the most action-packed in the franchise, and offers up an exciting snowboard sequence to start things off fast. These continue throughout and ensure that you’re on your toes. Similar sections would be seen in later games, with Sonic Adventure 2 starting off with a streetboarding area, but nothing quite matched the sheer intensity offered up here. Beyond snowboarding, you also have an intense ice-riding section that requires fast reflexes and also a bit of puzzle solving as you need to figure out exactly when to move in order to keep going with the stage. Failing to do so just puts you into an endless loop.

Knuckles being added was probably the only time where adding another animal character to the playable cast truly worked. He gave you a good mix of Sonic’s speed while also standing out with his glide ability. The 3D games gave him better combat thanks to punching, but Sonic 3 feels like the truest version of the character – where playing as him changes the entire feel of a stage. Being able to glide and climb walls makes some stages easier, but also adds a bit more danger since you never truly know what you’re in for high in the air. Enemies could be lurking nearby, or you could have a stray projectile hit you.

Sonic 3’s most enduring legacy may be its Blue Sphere bonus stages that saw you traverse spherical stages to get blue spheres and progress. These were the primary means of getting chaos emeralds, with another gumball machine and pinball hybrid getting you lives and power-ups. These were a lot of fun in the game itself and were later expanded via the Blue Sphere mini-game when you locked Sonic and Knuckles onto a non-Sonic 2 or 3 game. These were remade in Sonic Mania, with much sharper-looking textures and less stakes.

From an AV perspective, Sonic 3’s soundtrack isn’t quite as memorable or catchy as Sonic 1 or 2’s. It is, however, more complex and some songs — like Carnival Night’s main song — are on-par with the best stuff in the first two games. Graphically, this is a huge step up from the other Genesis Sonic games, with redone sprites that have a surprisingly high amount of facial expressions and animation. Backgrounds are gorgeous too and the whole world is full of life. Small things like each stage transitioning from one to the next helps make the world seem complete instead of a hodge-podge of set pieces.

Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is an incredible game and one that I was glad to replay for the first time in far too long. Anyone who hasn’t enjoyed it by now should get it either on Steam via a Genesis collection or on the Xbox 360. It’s a shame it isn’t backwards compatible on the Xbox One yet. Taxman, who crafted excellent remakes of Sonic 1, 2 and CD, wants to make a version of Sonic 3 for mobile — and if that happens, then the game will be able to reach an entirely new generation and be a never-ending source of income for Sega thanks to Sega Forever. Hopefully that happens, but if it doesn’t, at least the game is playable on a wide variety of compilations to be enjoyed by anyone. It’s one of Sonic’s finest 2D platforming experiences.