Platform: Sega 32X
Release Date: April 1995
Genre: Platform, action
It’s early 1994. You’re Sega and you’re about to release a fourth Sonic game in four years for your blockbuster 16-bit Genesis system. However, shit’s getting tired. The public feels it. The press feels it. Sega knows, but damn it, there’s a brand new Genesis add-on coming out later this year and it NEEDS a marketable and recognizable name to help push along sales. So what do you do? Release yet another G-D Sonic game, of course. You know you can’t just toss out another run of the mill, same ‘ole gameplay and mechanics Sonic game, or can you? Sonic 3 was a smash and Sonic & Knuckles has enough gimmicks to make it seem like you’re still innovating. This new 32X Sonic game needs to continue down the innovative path, giving gamers something new, something never before seen in the series.
While this head scratching, what to do with the 32X dilemma was being discussed within the Sega executive team, in-house developers were already playing around with options for a new Sonic game for the Genesis/Mega Drive. What they had been testing out was a tethering gimmick that forced you to always play as two characters simultaneously, not unlike what had been done with Sonic & Tails. Instead of allowing Tails to fall way behind, as he was oft to do, the tethering technique forced two players to not only stay on screen simultaneously, but also work together to get through levels and defeat Dr. Robotnik. Brilliant! Developers were eager to show this new mechanic off in a demo called Sonic Crackers and get the feedback needed to proceed.
This demo, Sonic Crackers, appealed to the Sega powers that be and they scrapped plans to turn it into a full fledged Sonic game for the 16-bit Mega Drive/Genesis and instead earmarked it for the fledgling 32X. Knuckles the Echidna would replace Sonic as the game’s main protagonist, a recurring character already familiar to gamers. The game would now be called Knuckles’ Chaotix (notice the possessive apostrophe at the end of his name, implying that the Chaotix are his, which is false). But here’s the thing, Knuckles’ name is in the title and on the cover, but he isn’t necessarily the main character if you don’t want him to be. He is simply one of many characters you can choose to play the game with. To make this point even clearer, the game is only called Chaotix in Japan, implying that Sega of America only chose to throw Knuckles’ name on the cover as a way to ensure there was no confusion that this was a “Sonic” spin-off in every way.
Besides Knuckles, who can climb walls and glide, there’s Mighty the Armadillo (wall jump), Espio the Chameleon (run along walls and ceilings), Vector the Crocodile (spin boost and wall climb), and Charmy Bee (fly and hover in the air). As well as your “primary” character, i.e. the one that leads the tethered duo, you must choose the second character using a claw game aka the Combi Catcher, during the elaborate menu screen displayed after each stage. All of the main characters are available to be your partner, as well as two additional characters, Heavy the Robot and Bomb. The idea is that these characters aren’t as useful as the others, but neither are so detrimental that you can’t use them to your advantage. You can obtain a Combi Catacher power-up from any of the bonus stages, which are only achievable if you find their location and have at least 20 rings in your possession, allowing you to select your character directly. Otherwise, the Combi Catcher requires a bit of luck to actually grab the character you want to use. Overall, the secondary character selection gimmick is not terribly executed or annoying, but it makes it unnecessarily more difficult than it needs to be.
After selecting your characters, you are then taken to a screen to select which level and act you will play. Knuckles’ Chaotix has 5 total levels (or attractions), each containing 5 acts that must be completed to finish the level. The levels all have specific themes (Botanic Base, Speed Slider, Amazing Arena, Marina Madness, Techno Tower) and each act is just a variation of those themes, which means there’s a feeling of redundancy with each act that makes it less appealing than your typical Sonic game. Instead of playing through each level in a linear fashion, the game will randomly pick which one you will play through. Once an act is completed, the game will auto save (if this option is chosen in the menu), so you won’t need to replay it next time. Like the character-choosing mechanics, this random level selection thing isn’t terribly annoying either, it’s just a design choice Sega made; you might feel strongly about it or simply shrug like me.
Once you reach act 5 from a particular level, you will fight that level’s end boss. If you defeat the boss, the level is considered complete and it will no longer show up in the random level option menu. Like previous Sonic games, your main goal is to grab Chaos Rings (not Chaos Emeralds this time) in order to achieve the good ending. You can get these by ensuring that you have at least 50 rings in your possession by the time you reach the end of the stage AND grabbing all of the required blue spheres (not rings, don’t know why) in these special post-act stages. These blue sphere stages are played in 3D, with the camera behind your character, similar to the way they were played in previous Sonic games. If you fail to grab all the blue spheres before falling off the plane or before time runs out, you cannot achieve the aforementioned “good ending”. This is a bummer because these special stages don’t allow much room for error. You have one chance to get it right, and you probably won’t.
So far I’ve mentioned both new and familiar aspects introduced with Knuckles’ Chaotix, but there’s still the BIG one I haven’t touched on much yet: the tethering mechanics. This is what really sets the game apart, sometimes for better but often for worse. It certainly makes the game distinctive, which is more than I can say for many other later Sonic games. With that said, the developers must have known this was going to be a difficult concept to grasp because they give you a tutorial stage to introduce the tethering mechanics before you can even start playing the game. This is not only a good idea, but a requirement if your plan is to have anyone actually enjoy the game.
Let me try to explain how the tethering mechanic works. Your main character is the one pulling the secondary character along by a “rubber band” like collection of rings. When you’re both running together, you stay a certain distance apart and move at approximately the same speed. It ends up feeling like you’re pulling a weight behind you when you run, especially when you’re trying to use either the spin dash or super spin. Maybe you can get some momentum and speed at first, but sooner than later the ‘weight’ will slow you down to a crawl. In essence, you have to unlearn everything that the first several Sonic games taught you in order to “go fast”. In Knuckles’ Chaotix, the “go fast” approach is accomplished by forcing your secondary character to stay in one place by holding the B button. Then you move your primary character in whatever direction you want to go and once the link that binds you is stretched to the maximum or charged, let go of the D-pad and off you go! Once you get this momentum from the link release, the two of you can zip through loops and reach heights you couldn’t normally achieve. This is the move you must learn first in order to succeed.
As well as this basic move, you can also use the tethering technique to throw your secondary character above you onto platforms, using the link as a bungee cord of sorts to pull yourself up to the same level. This is called the snap up move; another technique you must master to advance through the game. There’s yet another basic move called the reverse snap that the demo level wants you to learn. It’s basically the same as the forward snap but the charge is in the other direction and you’re supposed to release the B button when your primary character passes the secondary character. I couldn’t get the timing of it right and therefore never used it in actual gameplay.
That’s what makes Knuckles’ Chaotix so difficult, but arguably the game’s biggest flaw is that it becomes too easy once the tethering link technique is mastered. For starters, this game has way less enemies than your typical Sonic game. The first 2-3 acts from each level are relatively enemy free. You can easily zip through them without needing to dispatch of a single mechanized Robotnik baddie. You don’t start regularly running into unavoidable enemies until about the 4th act of each level, which just sort of feels weird to me. It’s like you’re racing against time, zipping around a sterile obstacle course, trying to figure out the best path. Your biggest and most difficult enemy for the most part is yourself, especially in the beginning when you’re still figuring out the controls. I can see why developers made this choice to not incorporate many enemies, but it’s a bit jarring.
There are more gameplay options that make Knuckles’ Chaotix that much easier. When you first take damage after losing all of your rings, your secondary character is lost for only a short period. If you take damage with no rings while your secondary character is not with you, the game is over. This may sound like a more difficult situation than in previous Sonic games where you had multiple lives, but considering you can save your progress after you clear every act, it’s a much easier pill to swallow. There is also the introduction of the Combine Ring power-up. Power-ups can be found during acts the same way as in other Sonic games, hidden inside monitors that you jump on to activate the power-ups. The Combine Ring power-up takes all of your collected rings and combines them into one single ring. This allows you to regain all your lost rings having taken damage, provided you can grab a single ring before it disappears. Of course, the primary benefit of having this is making it infinitely easier to ensure you have 50 rings once you complete an act — yet another way for developers to hold our hands through Knuckles’ Chaotix.
All the characters play about the same way to me, but using Charmy Bee and his hovering/flying ability makes it a bit easier to maneuver around acts. This really comes in handy during boss fights, especially during the final battle with Metal Sonic & Dr. Robotnik, where you can avoid attacks by simply hovering at the top of the screen. When I finally beat the game, I used Charmy Bee as my primary character and simply used my secondary character to swing him around and hit the bosses. Similar to a wrecking ball, which was also cool.
This may be a surprise to many who have played the game, but I would go with Amazing Arena. This level does something different by forcing you to find a switch that turns the act’s lights on before you can complete it. Sure, you can make it all the way through the act without turning on the lights only to be told you weren’t successful, which can be frustrating, but I do enjoy the slight change in gameplay.