A follower of my work kindly sent me a Mega Drive hack recently. Normally I would not show much interest, hacks are usually a bit rough or broken. But when it has my favourite video game character on the cart how could I resist? Knuckles in Sonic the Hedgehog was put together by a hacker known as Stealth. He is best known for his work with Headcannon, the developer behind Sonic Mania. Now, lets be clear from the start. Retro Faith does not condone hacking Sega’s intellectual properties but when something has had a lot of love poured into it I feel it is okay. The fan service provided here is second to none and breathes new life into a classic Sega title.
But we need to start at the beginning. Knuckles was introduced in the third Sonic game of the main series. He was originally a bad guy duped by Dr. Robotnik to thwart Sonic before joining forces with Sonic and Tails in Sonic & Knuckles. Most readers will be aware that the Sonic & Knuckles cart had ‘lock-on’ technology that allows you use other Mega Drive carts in new ways. The main feature was combining Sonic 3 with Knuckles to create a huge epic spanning both games, adding in new special stages and extra routes to the levels. You can also connect Sonic 2 and play as Knuckles through that game.
Before its release Sega were running out of time. They needed Sonic & Knuckles out before Christmas 1994. This meant any plans to bring Knuckles to the original game were scrapped. Instead, connecting the original Sonic game gives you access to thousands of blue sphere special stages. I remember ten-year-old me was a little disappointed that I could not play as my new favourite Sonic character in the original game but time moved on. Here we are now and I cannot believe it has taken me until 2021 to play this most excellent of hacks! Stealth put this together in 2005 and the fact it has now been dumped into a real cart is amazing to me. Being a huge Knuckles fan this cart now sits proudly with my other Knuckles paraphernalia.
But what about the game itself? The headline is that the hack plays very well and Knuckles has been faithfully recreated with has use of his climbing and gliding abilities. His shorter jump compared to Sonic and Tails is also in tact. As a gamer who knows 2D Knuckles inside and out the attention to detail was not wasted on me. I fell in love with Knuckles as soon as I started gliding about Green Hill. Even smashing through the hidden monitors felt fun and solid. I was worried that the hack would be glitchy but I was pleasantly surprised. There are a few walls that you could not climb but nothing that spoilt proceedings.
One of the great aspects of this game is how fresh it feels. Being able to traverse the game map by gliding and climbing opens up new areas. Much like when you use the ‘debug mode’ cheat. On that note, both the level select and debug cheats work in this hack. I was pleasantly surprised how well Knuckles fits into levels clearly not designed for him. I chuckled to myself as I completed Marble Zone (my least favourite zone) in under two minutes. You can climb up a tall wall near the start and glide right to the end of the level. The Special stages are in tact and it was great seeing Knuckles spin around. We had a glimpse of how Knuckles would play in the special stages in Sonic & Knuckles. There is a bonus stage that spins around you as you gamble your rings.
So with Green Hill and Marble out of the way I blasted into one of my favourite Sonic levels. Springyard Zone is so fun. Bouncing around off bumpers, huge curved dips that fling you up into the sky. It has it all and is essentially a quintessential classic sonic zone. I was not disappointed. Being able to climb about in Springyard gave me a fresh look at a road well trodden. Once again it was possible to skip large sections by climbing up and gliding but not like in Marble where you essentially skip the entire level. This was the first zone where Knuckles shorter jump caused problems. Getting onto some of the tougher platforms required a bit of skill. I liked this as it meant that getting through the level was a whole new experience that challenged my Sonic skills.
Next up is many players nightmare zone, the dreaded water filled ruins of the Labyrinth! I never really understood why folk struggle with this level, but I have completed this game 1000’s of times over 30 years. This is where Knuckles shone; his ability to hang on walls is a life saver. There are parts with spikes that spring in and out of walls and they can be tricky to traverse with Sonic. But with knuckles I could hang on the adjacent wall, wait for the spike to retract and easily flip over to the next platform. It was very fun using Knuckles in this level and made the tricky boss a breeze.
So far, using Knuckles in the original Sonic was like a dream come true and I looked forward to reaching my personal favourite level in the game. Starlight Zone did not disappoint. Being able to climb and glide allowed me to use the platforms in whole new ways. I purposefully tried not to skip too much but there certainly is a lot of headroom to glide through a lot of it. But it was more fun using the platforms in new ways. Being able to reach safe areas from a completely different angle that drew me in. I did not want Starlight to end but I soon found myself on Scrap Brain. This level has many tricky moving platforms, it is actually quite a hard level in an otherwise easy game. But once again, being able to glide and climb made this tough cookie feel like a wet blanket.
I quickly found myself destroying Dr Robitnik’s final form in no time and as the credits rolled I had a little smile on my face. I checked the clock, being a Sonic speed runner it is habit to time myself. Now, I put no effort into speed running this hack but I was surprised at how quick I blasted through it. Being able to essentially skip Marble Zone and large chunks of others had shaved a good few minutes off my average time. It was fun from start to finish and I just wish I had played it ten years ago. But I have it now and will cherish this little cart with my Knuckles on it.
Thank you to the anonymous reader who sent the gift and thank you to Stealth for creating a quality hack. It completes my journey as Knuckles in Sonic’s classic games…now I want Knuckles in Sonic Spinball and Sonic 3D!!!