N64 Jamesy speaks of the fortuitous appearance of a level-select screen during an often-brutal playthrough of Sonic 3D, and how this “black sheep” of the franchise’s 16-bit era, despite its foibles, was saved by some truly fine musical efforts.
Ever since my first gaming experience with Sonic the Hedgehog way back in 1991, I knew I’d found a firm favourite gaming series. I must have done a good job convincing my parents of how much I liked it, and they saw the titles as suitable for me to play, because throughout the rest of my primary school years it was almost a right of passage: no Christmas was complete without a Sonic cartridge tucked under the tree.
1992 brought me Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for my Master System before 1993 saw me become a Mega Drive owner, with the “bigger” Sonic 1 wowing me. 1994 brought the fantastic Sonic & Knuckles, alongside fond memories of playing Mushroom Hill at top volume attempting to drown out East 17’s Stay Another Day blasting out of my sister’s room. The neighbours must have loved us; mam and dad weren’t best pleased either.
1995 was the year I finally got hold of Sonic 2, with it being everything I’d anticipated and more. The games, back then, were my all-time favourites, but things were changing. Mega Drive games were disappearing from store shelves, the Sega Saturn and the new Sony PlayStation were asserting themselves as the dominant forces. Mega Drive production had been officially discontinued, and I felt sad that I had to move on. There was still one more 16-bit offering to come…
On Christmas Day in 1996, I got hold of Sonic’s – and the Mega Drive’s – swansong: Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island. “The next generation has come!”, I thought, as I eagerly stuffed the cartridge into the slot and powered on, Sonic’s funny face staring back at me from the label as I settled into my folded-up chair-bed, pad in hand.
A changing of the guard
Around this time Sonic Team was focused on the Saturn console, working on a new IP called NiGHTS into Dreams, so development of Sonic 3D was outsourced to Traveller’s Tales, which had impressed with its work on the excellent Mickey Mania and, err… Toy Story. Sonic X-treme, Sonic’s debut on Sega’s 32-bit system, ended up being a non-starter and so Sonic’s 3D debut was moved to the Mega Drive.
It was certainly different from any other Sonic game I played; slower-paced, and all about looking for robots to smash and free the Flicky birds before guiding them to safety through a special big ring to progress. It was a far cry from dashing to the bonus panel at high speed. I wasn’t sure about this one.
What I did like, even this early on, was the music. Green Grove had a fresh feel about it, which really complemented the visuals of its jungle environment. I progressed through this first world without much trouble once I’d got used to navigating the isometrics of the world with the D-pad. The precision jumps and spinning sections of Rusty Ruin really tested me for some time, but after eventually mastering it, I was onto my second battle with Dr Robotnik. Zone 2’s boss music had different music to the first Zone’s, and it was much better. Sonic 3D was proving a real treat to the ears.
Spring Stadium was next, and its music had a real uplifting feel, offsetting what I found to be a steep difficulty curve in the gameplay. For a time, I was seeing a lot of Game Over screens here, and the part where I had to climb a wall by bouncing off balloons left me frustrated. Platforming was never this tricky in the old games. Eventually I busted my plateau, beat the third zone and was about to experience some amazing music in the second half of the game.
Songs of ice and fire
I’d always been fascinated by winter, the snow, Christmas, the anticipation of new games – as such, I always found myself drawn to wintry stages in video games, and the music is what really made them. Getting to Diamond Dust turned out to be my highlight of Sonic 3D thus far. It had nice visual touches: ice, springs buried in snow and slushy rivers.
Its music, however, was on another level. To this day I’m yet to hear a game song that captures the nostalgia of carefree childhood days – running around playing in the snow with the dogs, building snowmen and having snowball fights with the kids down the road – it all felt captured so perfectly by Sonic 3D’s icy world. Even back then I knew it was something truly, truly beautiful.
By the time I’d reached this fourth stage, Sonic 3D already felt a lot bigger than the other Sonic games I’d played and was somewhat more relaxed: there was no urgency around the timer, so taking over ten minutes to finish a level would simply result in a shame-inducing “too long” at the score screen. I would easily find myself having sessions over two hours long looking for Flickies, Tails and Knuckles to get all I needed from the game, which didn’t go unnoticed.
My mam would regularly shout to me to “get off that game, you’re spending too long on it, think of your eyes!”, which would naturally lead to sulks on my part. I bet other kids’ mams didn’t make them stop playing games all the time, I’d think to myself. In hindsight, I can understand, she just didn’t want me getting square eyes – the number one killer of kids in the 90s who spent too much time in front of a TV.
I got more skilled, and eventually within my allowed game time, I finally conquered Diamond Dust Zone and made it to the next one: Volcano Valley. I immediately knew the music was going to be brilliant as soon as I heard the high-tempo opening notes of the first act. For as long as I can remember, fire worlds have always delivered when it comes to VGM, and Volcano Valley Zone was no exception.
In the level itself, there was no let-up in the difficulty curve, and I found the perils expected of a lava world too much of a challenge as an impatient ratty 11-year-old. Try as I might, building up to the maximum nine lives in the early stages, this is where it all kept falling apart. I could never make it this far without more than a couple of lives left, and somehow lost the game here. It was truly a joy listening to the music, but I’d found my sticking point. Back to the 2D Sonic games I went.
An unexpected gift
After taking a break for a week or so, I decided to give Sonic 3D another try. I put the cartridge in place, powered on and even before the Sega screen flashed up, I was greeted with something I’d never seen or known existed: a level-select screen. How? What had I done to have such a blessing from the gaming gods bestowed upon me? I hadn’t entered any combos, maybe I’d held a button down while switching the Mega Drive on? I just didn’t know.
I wasn’t going to look this gift horse in the mouth – or any other orifice for that matter – so I just went for it: Volcano Valley Act 2. I didn’t know if I’d ever see that screen again, but now I had an opportunity to finally get to the final stages of Sonic 3D and beat the game.
The music was slower and quieter than in Act 1, and I didn’t think much of it at first. Little did I know that it was a slow build-up in what I would soon find to be one of Sonic 3D’s – and the Sonic series’ – greatest pieces of background music. The guitar riffs in the middle of the piece were a delight, and the track kept building up to its final section, which was as intense as anything Act 1 had offered. The music had become the best part of the game.
From a gameplay perspective, I wasn’t getting the same enjoyment as I had from the earlier games. It was still great to play; it was Sonic after all. I’ve never been one to kick up a stink because a game’s graphics aren’t perfect. I was never bothered by framerate or fog or filters or puddles – if I had fun and enjoyed myself while playing, that was all that mattered. I’d managed to beat Volcano Valley 2, but ended up losing the Dr Robotnik fight in the third. Back to square one it was.
Next time I fired up Sonic 3D, it loaded up as usual. I had no luck with a secret level-select this time, and no idea how I’d accessed it beforehand. I’d just have to do it the hard way. It took time, but I chipped away, getting further and further into the later stages of the game.
Yet still took another appearance of the level select screen to get me to the end.
Here we go again
Once more, I had no idea how it had happened, but this time I opted for Panic Puppet Act 1. I played through and progressed through this zone, appreciating the instant hit that Act 2’s music also was. Finally, after overcoming Robotnik in the final battle, Sonic 3D was finished! Or was it? I’d only played the last zone, so it felt like a cheap, hollow victory that I hadn’t really earned. I’d need to get the Chaos Emeralds to get the complete ending, too.
With a lot of practice, I finally found Tails and Knuckles enough times to acquire all the Chaos Emeralds. Yet I was disappointed to see that there was no ability to become Super Sonic as the expected reward. It had been a highlight of the older 2D Sonic games: flying through the later stages at breakneck speed while completely invincible. It wouldn’t have been the same in Sonic 3D, with its slower pace and focus on collecting, rather than getting through each level as fast as possible.
A remaster of Sonic 3D had been made for the Saturn – and later, PC – soon after the Mega Drive version. I played through it on the latter platform some time later, and was really impressed with the extra attention to detail invested into each world, not least the snowfall in Diamond Dust and the improved special stages. I haven’t played this on a Saturn; one day I’d like to. It had analog controls (special thanks to fellow GameTripper writer Dan Driver for the research to confirm this), which I imagine fared better than the clunky D-pad controls of the original. Musically it was the Mega Drive game that won out; there was no competing with Diamond Dust and Volcano Valley’s VGM tracks.
While I thoroughly enjoyed playing through Sonic 3D – and still do when I have time – there was no denying that it just didn’t match the gameplay of its predecessors, and the 16-bit Sonic era went out with a whimper rather than a bang. It was a solid effort that doubtlessly paved the way for the excellent Sonic Adventure, and seeing such a technically proficient game on a 16-bit console was a real eye-opener. It just didn’t click as a Sonic game for me, but the music made it a hit, having been the best part of the experience from day one.
The music from both acts of Sonic 3D’s Volcano Valley world had been an absolute highlight, and to me easily held its own against the might of fan-favourite tunes such as Star Light Zone, Wing Fortress Zone, Carnival Night Zone and Flying Battery Zone. This was a glorious time for VGM and it’s the music of Volcano Valley, particularly in its slow build-up to the sheer brilliance of the second act, that’s stuck with me. The black sheep came good.
As for that level-select screen, it took until 2018 for me to finally learn how to get it back. It was as simple as giving the cartridge a thump while it was in the slot. It’d been worked into Sonic 3D as a glitch to prevent the game crashing due to loose connections – special thanks to another GameTripper writer, FatNicK, via his Twitter for making me aware of that! If you’re playing via emulation, a Sega or Sonic collection, or you simply don’t want to abuse your ageing hardware, hit B, A, right, A, C, up, down and A on the title screen: the BARACUDA trick.
- Seven varied worlds which belied a real charm beyond their basic appearance
- Pound for pound, one of the most beautiful OSTs of its generation
- An impressive showcase of early isometric 3D in a full 16-bit Sonic game – this was a real glimpse into the future
- A bit too long to be played in a single sitting
- The D-pad controls felt clunky when moving about, particularly precision jumps
- It was slow and cumbersome for a Sonic game, which cost it some of its magic
N64 Jamesy’s take
There’s no denying how drastically different Sonic 3D was to the games that had gone before, and how it split fans right down the middle. Throughout my experience there were ups and downs, where the only constant was the music – something that delivered time and time again. This alone put me firmly on Sonic 3D‘s side, and I think there’s an enjoyable game there too. Just make sure you play with the sound up.