I thought I knew everything there was to know about the Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog games. Those first four chapters — Sonic The Hedgehog, Sonic 2, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles — are the font of my earliest and fondest video game memories. They’re the bedrock of my video games persona, the kernel of dust at the centre of the pearl that is my love of the medium, and I thought I knew everything there was to know about them.
This weekend, a speedrun of Sonic 3 & Knuckles completely shattered that perception.
The Sonic block of any Games Done Quick marathon is not to be missed. This year, the marathon featured an “all chaos emeralds” run of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. All-emeralds runs are rare for GDQs, and because the special stages of Sonic 3 & Knuckles require some of the trickiest timing in any Sonic game, I knew I’d be in for an acrobatic spectacle. The run lived up to my expectations. My jaw was on the floor as runner TheSoundDefense effortlessly hopped over countless red spheres that, when touched, boot you out of the special stage, or when he later ran through those special stages backward. Yeah. Backward.
My real surprise came when the game shifted from Sonic 3 to Sonic & Knuckles. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a weird creation, literally an amalgamation of its two constituent titles. To play it back in the day you’d insert (“lock-on”) a Sonic 3 cartridge into the top of the special Sonic & Knuckles cart. Here’s how Wikipedia explains it:
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were intended to be a single game, but were released separately due to time constraints and small cartridge sizes. The Sonic & Knuckles cartridge features a “lock-on” adaptor that allows other Genesis cartridges to be physically attached to it. Connecting the Sonic 3 cartridge creates a combined game, Sonic 3 & Knuckles.
You can play the two games separately, or combine them to form one cohesive game that flows seamlessly between the end of Sonic 3 and the beginning of Sonic & Knuckles. The combined game is very similar to its two parts, such that a kid playing wouldn’t really notice the difference. Except that I, in my childhood naïveté, missed a critical detail: Unlocking all the chaos emeralds in the Sonic 3 stages grants the ability to collect super emeralds in the Sonic & Knuckles levels.
I’ve always known what a chaos emerald is, seven little gems of power Sonic earns through completing special stages. In Sonic 2, earning all the gems grants access to a powered-up version of Sonic called Super Sonic. The same happens in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. I’ve known this forever.
But I had no clue about super emeralds. Or what they unlocked.
As I was watching the speedrun on Twitter, I asked if everyone knew about this or if there was someone out there just as bewildered as I was. “Wait, there are more emeralds to get?” But everybody who responded already knew.
I’m embarrassed to admit this. Sonic was my life growing up. I went through those games so many times, taking them apart level by level with my cousins. How could I have missed something so fundamental? But my embarrassment has less to do with not knowing as much as I thought and more to do with a past mistake I can never correct.
I never owned a Sega Genesis. When I talk about playing these games I mean playing them on a console my older cousin Eric owned. That’s how I got all of my pre-teen video game experience, through him. There were maybe five years between us. I never considered him “cool” and I don’t think he thought much of me either, but he tolerated me and my other cousin enough to let us play his Genesis so, in that way, I guess he was cool. I also had another cousin, Jason. He was my age, and closer to me than my five-years-younger sister. He was my video game partner, my buddy, and as best a friend as I could have. When I played Sonic 2, he played with me. When we played Sonic 2 co-op and argued over who got to play which character, I always relented and let him play Tails, because Tails could fly.
Jason was a teller of tall tales. He loved to exaggerate and boast. He would always tell me that he’d beaten another game, or defeated one of the later levels of Ms. Pac-Man. Sometimes I believed him, sometimes I didn’t. What’s so shocking to me about this Sonic revelation is I think I actually remember him telling me about super emeralds and how he unlocked Hyper Sonic (a more powerful Super Sonic)… and it was one of his tales I chose not to believe. It just didn’t sound believable to me, more like a boast an eleven-year-old boy would make. You know, like supposed knowledge of a Sega Genesis 2, or having an uncle who works at Nintendo. “Oh yeah, well I bet you didn’t know about super emeralds or Hyper Sonic!”
We grew older, we grew apart. New games came out to vie for our attention. I don’t remember how I reacted to Jason’s revelation. I probably just gave his story the most cursory acknowledgment so we could move on to watching more Dragon Ball Z or playing Mortal Kombat or something. I don’t know. And I can’t ask him or Eric. They are gone, both passed away before my 18th birthday.
I wish I could apologise to Jason. I should have believed him. After all, he’d spent more time with the games than I did, so it’s perfectly plausible that he discovered the secret of Hyper Sonic one day after school. He never was able to prove it, as I think our Sonic 3 cartridge broke or was lost in a loan to neighbourhood kids. I have more memories of trying to fit another cartridge into the Sonic & Knuckles dock and getting the “No Way!” screen than I do of playing the combined game. Something happened to the cartridge, and with it, the save file and the proof.
More than an apology though, I owe both my cousins gratitude. Were it not for them and their tolerance for their girl cousin I would never have encountered Sonic at such a young age. I would have never asked for the Sega Game Gear I got instead of a Genesis because it was cheaper and didn’t require the monopolization of our only TV. I would have never asked for a blue Game Boy Colour and a copy of Pokémon Blue to match.
My first console was a hand-me-down PSX from my mother’s boyfriend, something he only offered because he saw me playing my ageing handhelds and thought I should have a proper console. No PSX would’ve meant no Final Fantasy VIII, and no Final Fantasy would’ve meant no me. Without them, my love of video games would never have been born, and I would have never devoted my career to working in games.
Thanks boys. I miss you.