February 2nd, 1994. It was a week after my birthday and I was incredibly excited to get out of school and go to Toys’R’Us to pick up my belated birthday gift on what Sega had dubbed “Hedgehog Day.” And they haven’t forgotten about that either, if the video posted by Sonic the Hedgehog’s social media has anything to say about that. For most people, February 2nd is Groundhog Day; for me and others, it’s definitely the day Sonic 3 game out for the Sega Genesis. It remains one of my most played games ever, decades later.
The major takeaway for me was the fact that I could save. What?! I can save my progress?! Get. Out. That was huge back in the ’90s. Then, you kind of had to sit at your TV and pray the power didn’t go out or that you didn’t have to go anywhere. If you did, it was the tough decision of giving up all your progress, or hitting ‘pause’ on the off chance your game could survive a few hours of you being away.
I got my very own Genesis Christmas of 1993, so this was even more awesome. Prior to having my own, I shared my brother’s original Genesis until it had an untimely demise when a container of sea monkeys decided to go swimming in it… anyway. Having my very own Genesis made going out and buying a game that much more special for me. And so, right after school, the journey was made, and the game was purchased. Let’s dive back down memory lane and remember some highlights of the zones, shall we? And please note – every zone title is a link to the BGM on YouTube. We’ll get back to the music later in the post.
Angel Island Zone – got introduced to Knuckles and boy isn’t he a jerk? I loved the consistency of the original Sonic games, that every first level was always a grassy playground where you could run around and easily capture hundreds of rings, power ups, and extra lives. When the second act gets lit up on fire? Didn’t expect that! When Robotnik shows up on some large ship (Flying Battery!!!!) and keeps dropping bombs on you and poor, poor Tails who just can’t catch a break… Very awesome. And there were always all sorts of secret areas to find other special boxes and rings to access special stages.
Speaking of special stages – wow. Vast improvement to Sonic 2’s special stage were Tails just needed to do his job right for crying out loud. The special stages in Sonic 3 were fun at first, but as they sped up, your anxiety grew, and the next thing you knew, you had smacked into a red sphere and lost your shot at a chaos emerald. Well, at least you could say it was your own fault and not Tails’.
What was also different: special stages came in the form of hidden rings. As for the lampposts? Those brought you to the new bonus stage – the glorious bonus stage. Extra rings, extra lives, and a shield to take with you on the road. That was such a major help right before a boss fight.
Hydrocity Zone was fun – especially because of the extra help Tails provided. Tails was actually able to fly you around! That was insane! Either with a friend, or with the second controller also sitting on your lap, Tails could grab onto Sonic and fly him up to all sorts of areas in a zone that you never thought you could access. Hydrocity Zone is best played from above – meaning as far away from the water and those evil piranha-like fish as possible. The next amazing new feature of Sonic 3? Different shields. The bubble shield was perfect for when you inevitably messed up and fell back into the water … but no worries! You weren’t going to drown! Score!!
Marble Garden Zone, aka the place where Tails’ flight + the lightning shield = eternal rings. It was also the zone where you suddenly faced sudden death when the stages decided to cave in on itself??? That wasn’t cool at all. It gave me a could of feels back toward Sonic 2 for the Game Gear, and I really loved how vast each zone truly was with the assistance of Tails. I always would fly up to the second level of the game; it was much more fun, and there were way more special stage rings to be found up there. I learned not to trust spikes here – some of them you can jump on repeatedly because they were actually robots. Then there were the parts of the ceiling or floor that would smash down on you and kill you if you didn’t spin dash by it fast enough, that final boss where thankfully if you didn’t have a player two, Tails could figure it out himself… but this was just a prelude to my nightmare.
Carnival Night Zone … just hearing the music has my eyelid twitching already. This zone truly taught me the true essence of rage quitting. Who knew one red and white barrel could cause such stress? Time would tick away while you’d sit there handling two controllers thinking that Tails was the key to making the barrel move just enough so you could jump below and complete the stage. Then once you realized how easy it actually was, you felt like an idiot. I know I wasn’t alone in this. Then came Knuckles turning off the lights, those giant lit-up spirals that would throw you in the wrong direction if you jumped off at the wrong time, those balloons that popped loudly when you jumped on them…whew. Carnival Night was jam-packed with places to explore, things to jump onto, things to slam into, and tons of those forsaken barrels…
Ice Cap Zone, one of my favorite levels of this game. I loved how they made Sonic ski into the level, that was different! The lightning shield worked great here as well since there were rings to be had all over the place. You didn’t even have to waste time capturing them all one by one – they’d just come to you. Perfection. There was a lot to check out here, and it was a surprise to see water in another stage, but was it really? Following the footsteps of Sonic 1 and 2, where you had your standard water zone, but then it’d creep up on you again when you least expected it… How unfair.
Launch Base Zone. Easily my number one favorite level. From the music, to the different ways of maneuvering from one part of the zone to another, to the robots, to the bosses. This was so well thought out and put together, I never minded re-playing this level when I’d lose a life in game. There was always a certain way I’d have to run the zone in order to obtain as many rings and lives as I could, and most importantly to have either the lightning or fire shield for the final boss. That extra line of protection was so key, but so was keeping track of the time once you were on stage two. You could easily hit nine minutes before making it to the first part of the final boss. Geez.
Now let’s talk about that final boss. There were three parts. One easy one, one not so bad one, then one where timing was crucial. The sky got dark, the music got intense, and you probably had eight minutes and 46 seconds on the clock so time was money. I remember finding myself going back to that last lamppost checkpoint and redoing the whole fight all over again, over, and over, and over… until I finally came up with a strategy.
To this day, decades later, I remember the feeling of beating the game for the first time. I remember throwing the controller on the floor and screaming out “I beat the stupid game!!!!!” That was pride. That was hard work. That was a lot of soda and chicken nugget breaks, you guys.
While we’re talking Sonic 3, can I just say I always had severe hunches about Michael Jackson and this game’s soundtrack. Nothing was ever confirmed – until after his death. Launch Base is one level where I 100% feel it, and thanks to multiple interviews and articles, I sit here smugly knowing that two of my favorite things somehow, weirdly, magically?, came together to create one of my all time favorite games and all time favorite soundtracks.
…let’s not even get started on how Sonic and Knuckles is more of Sonic 3, because back in 1994, cartridges could not handle the magnitude of Sonic 3’s full game all at once. Let’s save Sonic and Knuckles for its own post later in the year.
Competitive mode changed a bit since Sonic 2. You had more options to choose from in how to play, including if you wanted power ups to be in the levels or not. That could make or break a race, especially if you got the slow-mo shoes. No one wanted the slow-mo shoes. And unlike Sonic 2 where they were mini versions of the regular levels, Sonic 3’s competitive modes were completely different levels for a new and broader experience.
Fast forward. It’s 2017 and I still play this game often – short form and “& Knuckles” form. On the Genesis, PS2, and on my 3DS as well. I can’t say that about a lot of games nowadays. I lose interest or never had enough interest to ever pick it up. But back then, Sega had the ball and were running with it. This post was 5820% inspired by super nostalgia and my good friend’s own Sonic 3 nostalgia-filled post that you should definitely read, here!
I won’t lie, I still have my original 1993 Christmas gift Genesis plugged in and ready to go, and I think I’ll spend the rest of the day doing just that … Happy Hedgehog Day, everyone! Gotta go fast.