Following the success of his appearances in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, it’s no real surprise that Knuckles eventually received a starring role in his own game.
In 1995, SEGA released Knuckles’ Chaotix for the 32X. Poor Knuckles, then, that this would come at the mid-point of the life of one of SEGA’s most poorly-received systems.
If you’re wondering what a “32X” is, I’ll explain. Released in late 1994 in the U.S. and Japan and early 1995 in Europe, the 32X is a mushroom-shaped add-on that sits in the cartridge slot of the 16-bit SEGA Mega Drive (or Genesis, in North America). Acting as an expansion module, it allowed the Mega Drive to process “40 times faster” – or so according to SEGA. What this meant in theory is bigger games with more polygons and more colours. It wasn’t, despite its name, quite 32-bit, but served as sort-of transitional hardware before the release of the SEGA Saturn a couple of months later. Knuckles’ Chaotix was originally going to be a Saturn game before the budget ballooned and SEGA, realising it needed to just release something – anything – threw it into the loving embrace of the 32X.
After booting up the game, you could be forgiven for thinking this was designed solely as a demo of the 32X; you’re greeted to a title screen that features the words “WELCOME TO THE NEXT LEVEL IN 32X WORLD” above the less endearing but more pragmatic “PUSH START”. The plot begins with Dr Robotnik and Metal Sonic (returning from Sonic CD) hatching a plan to steal the Power Emerald hidden within Carnival Island, a sort-of large-scale amusement park. Robotnik has kidnapped a few of Knuckles’ friends, so it’s up to Knuckles to free them and protect the island. It’s initially a simple, colourful jaunt and if you’ve played other 2D Sonic games, you’ll know what to expect: run, jump and collect rings.
Unfortunately, this is the 32X, so things don’t stay simple for long. In Knuckles’ Chaotix, SEGA introduced a new gimmick whereby two characters are tethered together. It works as such: you pick your first character from a roster of five. Knuckles can glide and climb walls much like in Sonic & Knuckles; Mighty the Armadillo can perform a wall jump technique; Espio the Chameleon can run along walls and ceilings. Oh, look – Vector the Crocodile can climb walls, too, and has a mid-air boost. Last and absolutely least is Charmy Bee – that’s right, “Charmy Bee” – who can fly and almost breaks the game because of that. If you’re spotting a theme of vertical movement in these characters, you’d be right. I’ll be honest with you here: just be Knuckles. He’s fine. Sure, you might miss some of the secret areas but you’ll probably get sick of the game by then.
Once you’ve picked your main, you get to choose a second character from the same pool of five plus two extra characters: Heavy the Robot and Bomb. This secondary character selection is done using a claw-machine mini-game, presumably to add to the carnival atmosphere. Your two chosen friends are then tethered together through the power of the magic rings they’re each holding with one character effectively pulling the other much like an elastic band, meaning you need to gather momentum correctly to navigate through the levels. There’s even a practice mode to explain it. It’s as good as it sounds and it works so well that it was immediately dropped and never used in another Sonic game ever again.
See, there’s a nugget of a good idea here but in practice it hampers gameplay. Being physics-based and constantly linked to another character means that that second character will inevitably get stuck on the level design – and this will happen a lot. Playing as Knuckles with Vector as my second, time after time I found myself begging and pleading for that stupid crocodile to just move. Jumping is also affected, as large jumps can spin you out of control with no real say where you land. Because physics. Thanks for ruining jumping in a Sonic game.
To its credit, SEGA has clearly tried to mitigate some of the issues with the controls. Whereas in traditional Sonic you only really have a jump and a spin-dash, here the ‘C’ button takes care of those actions. The ‘A’ button serves as a ‘call’ command to teleport the second character to you, and although it doesn’t always work well and gets used far too much it does mean you’re never really soft-locked out of completing a level. The ‘B’ button tells the second character to ‘hold’ but can also be used to pick them up and throw them at switches or enemies. The hold mechanic can work quite well as it means you can use the physics to pull in the opposite direction and release for a speed boost, but it all feels like mechanics first, controls second; a plaster on a severed limb.
You’d better get used to it, however, as Knuckles’ Chaotix features five worlds each with five stages, and a final boss level. Worlds are ‘chosen’ through a roulette system (“32X World!”), and each world is fairly unique in design; from the greenhouse of “Botanic Base” to the futuristic “Techno Tower” to the bafflingly water-less “Marina Madness”. It isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but I suppose you could argue that about much of Sonic. You have to complete all 25 stages to get to the final boss, so it’s presumably possible to end up playing through five stages in the same world in a row before moving on.
That actually won’t matter since all the levels are pretty much identical in mechanics. It’s the same loops, the same climbs, the same platforms, the same springs and there’s also an increased amount of dead-ends from previous titles. If I didn’t know better (and to be fair, I don’t), I’d think the levels were all procedurally-generated and that that procedure was “make it as boring as possible, please”. At the end of each world you’ll have a standard Robotnik fight, but even these seem half-baked. You can actually manage to stun-lock Robotnik to get in more hits than you should really be able to (more so than in any previous game).
Other mechanics offer further problems. With the addition of the 32X, the Mega Drive could now produce the scaling and rotation effects akin to the Super Nintendo’s fabled ‘Mode 7’. SEGA is clearly quite proud of this, so it’s going to show it off needlessly. First, with a power-up that makes your character large enough to nearly fill the screen, and one that makes you small (these serve no real mechanic, however). The scaling can also cost you rings – in any Sonic game, when you get hit by an enemy you lose rings, and that’s the same here. Say goodbye to at least some rings, as now they will fly towards the screen making them impossible to collect and even blinding you for a second. The 32X is here and it’s come to wreck your day.
You get the sense that with an (even) longer development cycle, or perhaps just the main Sonic Team behind it, Knuckles’ Chaotix could have been something special. Instead, it feels like what it is: a glorified tech demo. Colours are bright and fairly varied using that awesome power of the 32X, though the palette leans towards favouring greens, blues and purples. Every two levels the lighting changes between dawn, dusk and night which keeps things a bit more interesting to look at (even if it is derivative of the changes between the Past, Present and Future versions of the levels in Sonic CD). I actually quite enjoyed the final boss too, as it’s Metal Sonic and in his first form you fight him on the level roulette screen which is a nice touch. His second form is a big red mech, and that’s also great.
Somehow juxtaposing simple ideas against annoyingly convoluted design choices, what you end up with is a game that frustrates by its design rather than its difficulty. Thankfully, Knuckles’ Chaotix has never seen a re-release in any format. Problems with emulating the 32X meant it missed out on being featured on the Sonic Gems Collection compilation for GameCube and PlayStation 2, though some of the characters would reappear in later entries (most notably Sonic Heroes and Sonic Mania Plus). The 32X hardware and a copy of the cart can set you back upwards of £250 these days. Somewhat lost to time, then.
Honestly, Knuckles, it’s for the best.