It’s early 1994. You’re Sega and you’re about to release a fourth Sonic game (Sonic & Knuckles) 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 that you can’t just toss out another run of the mill, same ‘ole gameplay and mechanics Sonic game can you? I suppose you can. 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 seen before 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, this tethering technique forced the two players to not only stay on screen at the same time, 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 this into a full fledged Sonic game for the 16-bit Mega Drive/Genesis. Instead, they earmarked it for the fledgling 32X. Instead of Sonic, the main character would be his good pal, Knuckles the Echidna, a recurring character in the series that gamers already knew. 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” spinoff in every way.
“Do you love Sonic and his ‘gotta go fast’ approach to life? Wonderful! You will also love our new game for the 32X, Knuckles’ Chaotix! (Except for that pesky tethering mechanic which prevents you from going as fast as you want, whenever you want.)”
As I alluded to, Knuckles’ Chaotix actually features a number of characters that you can play the game with. 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). You have your choice of these characters to choose as the “primary” character, i.e. the one that leads the tethered duo, at the start of each game. From there, you must then 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 of them 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 achievable only if you find their location and have at least 20 rings in your possession. This allows you to select your character directly. Otherwise, the Combi Catcher requires a bit of luck to actually grab the character you want to use in play. Overall the secondary character selection gimmick is not terribly executed or annoying, but it unnecessarily makes it 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 isn’t as appealing as they are in the proper Sonic games. 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 you turn the game on. Like the character choosing mechanics, this random level selection thing isn’t terribly annoying either, it’s just a design choice Sega made and you might feel strongly about it or you might be like me and simply shrug.
Once you reach act 5 from a particular level, you will fight that level’s boss at the end. If you defeat the boss, the level is considered complete and it will no longer show up in the random level option menu. Like other Sonic games that came before it, the main goal of the game is grab Chaos Rings, not Chaos Emeralds this time, in order to achieve the good ending. You can get these by ensuring 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 do not grab all of the blue spheres before falling off the plane or time running out, you cannot achieve the aforementioned “good ending”. This is a bummer, because these special stages don’t allow much room for error. Miss once and that’s it. You get one chance to get it right….and you probably won’t.
So I’ve mentioned both some new and familiar aspects introduced in 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 and often for worse. It certainly makes the game distinctive, which is more than I can say for many of the 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 run together at approximately the same speed. What this ends up feeling like, especially when you’re trying to use either the spin dash or super spin, is like pulling a weight behind you when you run. Maybe you can get some momentum and speed at first, but sooner rather than later, this 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 achieve normally. This is the one 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 and then use the link as a bungee cord of sorts to pull yourself up to the same level. This is called the snap up move and it is another important move 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.
So I just described what makes Knuckles’ Chaotix difficult, but arguably the game’s biggest flaw is that it ends up being much too easy once you master the tethering link technique. 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 anyway, especially in the beginning when you’re still figuring out the controls. I can see why the developers made this choice to not incorporate many enemies, but it’s just a bit jarring.
A couple of other gameplay choices added to Knuckles’ Chaotix to make the game easier are that when you take damage the first time after losing all your rings, you only lose your secondary character for a short period of time. If you again 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, that makes it a much easier pill to swallow.
The next gameplay choice that makes the game easier in my opinion, is the introduction of the Combine Ring power-up. Power-ups can be found around the acts the same way they are 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 of your lost rings if you take damage if you can grab that 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. Just another way that the developers have chosen to hold our hands through Knuckles’ Chaotix.
On one hand, I really do think that the Sonic series needed a kick in the ass. The past/present/future aspect of Sonic CD and the inclusion of the new character, Knuckles, to liven up older Sonic games through Sonic & Knuckles cartridge, was a step in the right direction. I can’t really fault the development team behind Knuckles’ Chaotix for trying something a bit bonkers and revolutionary. The overall problem is that while it looks like a Sonic game, sounds like a Sonic game, and for the most part, plays like a Sonic game, the learning curve is a fairly steep one and some gamers don’t want that in their Sonic games. Couple that with easy level designs, few enemies and fairly repetitive acts, and you have a “Sonic” game that just feels a bit short on substance and long on frustration. I think Knuckles’ Chaotix is still one of the better games on the 32X, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of any Genesis/Mega Drive list of games or even near the top of any Sonic game list either.
Favorite Character: All of the characters play about the same way to me but using Charmy Bee and his hovering/flying ability makes the acts a bit easier to maneuver around in. This really comes in handy during boss fights, and especially in the final battle against Metal Sonic & Dr. Robotnik, where you can avoid attacks simply by 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 cool!
Favorite Level: This may be a surprise to many who have played the game, but I would go with Amazing Arena. This level does something different than other levels 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 up in gameplay that this level offers.