Console Yourself: Knuckles' Chaotix
“Let’s hear it for the fearless guardian of the Chaos Emeralds! Loosing these things is getting to be a bit of habit, isn’t it buddy?” -Sonic The Hedgehog
Format: 32X• Developer: Sega• Released: April 1995
After the unexpected success of the Mega Drive, Sega embarked on an ill-advised bid to extend the life of its underpowered system, though the use of hardware add-ons. After the Mega CD crashed and burned, offering little more than extra storage capacity, Sega followed it up with the 32X. Effectively Saturn hardware without the graphics card, the not-so-magic mushroom slotted into the console’s cartridge port, integrating closely with the Mega Drive’s hardware. The Mega CD’s brief lifespan was considerably extended by the appearance of Sonic CD, a less linear cousin of Sonic Team’s 16-bit titles. The game itself doesn’t hold up too well today, with bland level design noticeably lacking the inspiration of the original Team’s work, but the soundtrack and fmv had served as an effective showcase for the Mega CD’s technical capacity. Taking note, Sega shipped the prototype for a fifth Mega Drive Sonic across to the 32X, unwittingly creating one of the more curious entries in the series.
With the US-based Sonic Team proper commencing work on the long-delayed NiGHTS, development of another 16-bit Sonic title had been left in the hands of new group at Sega Japan. Their brainstorming resulted in a demo that attached a fully controllable Sonic and Tails by an elasticised strand, making all sorts of slingshot tricks possible. This was selected as the basis for the title, and the move to the 32X lead the team to experiment with the new hardware, devising sprite scaling and 3D elements first and then attaching gameplay applications to them. A further change in mission brief came partway through development. Sega was now quietly writing off the 32X, and it was decided that Sonic’s appearance on the system would merely dilute the appeal of the company’s mascot. However, there was an obvious replacement to hand. Knuckles had proven an extremely popular element of the hedgehog’s third outing, with the planned Sonic 3: Special Edition being hastily redesigned as Sonic & Knuckles, with a full campaign added for the echidna. He would now receive the mixed blessing of fronting the 32X’s moment in the sun.
The game’s main gimmick of the elasticised strand obviously requires two characters on screen at once, and the developers made this an integral part of the plot. Dr Robotnik’s attack on a theme park has left its defenders imprisoned in a giant claw machine, from which only one of the team can be released at a time. Before tacking each act, Knuckles may swap his partner, or even surrender himself in order to allow two of his friends freedom at once. The cast was drawn from an array of unlikely sources. Vector The Crocodile has been intended for inclusion in Sonic’s first game, but was scrapped from the final version. Resurrected as the leader of Chaotix, he was joined by custom-created characters Epsio The Chameleon and Charmy Bee. Further adding to the numbers was Mighty The Armadillo, a rather obvious re-use of the Sonic sprite created before the character was pulled from the game. Building the levels around Knuckles’ move set obviously presented some challenges for the team, as they had to find ways to let character access areas that the Echidna reached by climbing and gliding. There’s mixed success here, as while Charmy’s flight feels natural to the character and Espio’s ceiling-walks retain their novelty, Vector’s special moves feel rather forced. Unfortunately, these issues are compounded by the team’s determination of following their design logic to its conclusion, even to the detriment of gameplay. Selection of a partner was semi-randomised, and the team also included robots Heavy and Bomb as “wooden spoons” for the player. Playing a level with either of these slow and awkward nightmares is a severe trial to any gamer’s patience, and it quickly became standard practice to commit hara-kiri in order to return to the game’s hub, rather than persevere.
The game is essentially made up of five themed zones within the park, each of which is broken down into five acts. In a break with tradition, these levels are tackled in any order, with the next act chosen from another semi-randomising selection machine located in the game’s hub level. The levels themselves are extremely atmospheric, with the flat-out roller coaster Speed Slider a clear inspiration for the 3D Sonic games’ “highway” stages. Although the pastel art direction is a curious choice, the there’s a richness of detail here that goes beyond any other 2D Sonic games, and some areas are remarkably memorable. Sound design is good, with appropriate and striking music. The game is actually much faster than the Mega Drive’s 2D Sonic titles, with the elastic serving as a means of rapid acceleration above and beyond the classic spin dash, and several “throw” moves preventing the supporting character even being stuck behind a part of the scenery. A particular highlight of the game is its special stages. Although not winning any awards for originality, with Sonic 3’s blue spheres added to a hexagonal tube, the 32X’s 3D abilities allowed a much-improved implementation, with the tube often opening out into a true landscape and the implimentation of physics making falling off a real threat. The balancing of these sections was perfect, a noticeable contrast to the extremely easy main game.
Although Chaotix themselves made an extremely unlikely comeback in 2004’s Sonic Heroes, the difficulty of emulating the 32X means that their game has long since vanished into obscurity. The title gets top marks for imagination, effort and correct apostrophe use, but the lack of coherency hurts it. The team throw out ideas at a furious rate, but rarely grasped the full potential of any of their innovations. Chaotix was Sega’s Gears of War: not entirely without merit, but an obvious recycling of the company’s house style for purely commercial reasons.