In the wake of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and its tremendous success in the west, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that another sequel would be created in the franchise. Wanting to keep the ball rolling, Sega once again looked towards the Sega Technical Institute and the now-veteran game creators Yuji Naka and Hirokazu Yasuhara to create a third entry in the main numbered series. Fresh from the intense creation of the second game, Yuji Naka at first hit the same hesitation that he had when approached with Sonic 2, not wanting to simply work on the same game over and over again. He finally agreed to be a part of the project if he was allowed to work primarily with the Japanese-half of STI, hoping to avoid much of the drama that resulted during the last game because of the differences between the Japanese and American work culture. Also fishing for a promotion, Sega decided to give in to Naka's demands, knowing how important the game was and its almost assured success. Giving him the title of Producer, Naka was granted the freedom he had been looking for, once again embraced into the staff of Sega of Japan. Not wanting to leave the American side of STI in the dust, Sega gave them a separate Sonic the Hedgehog-related project to work on that would fill in a gap in scheduling between Sonic 2 and Sonic 3, Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball.
At first, work on Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was intended to be developed using a new technology Sega was working on with microprocessor producer Hitachi. Looking for an answer to Nintendo's Super-FX Chip, Sega licensed the SH-1 chip (meant to be dubbed the "Sega Virtual Processor") that would be placed in specific Sega Mega Drive cartridges, allowing rudimentary 3D graphics. With Naka's interest in taking the franchise in new directions, the original plan was to use the chip to create an isometric world for Sonic to run in (the perspective similar to what was used in Sonic Labyrinth and Sonic 3D: Flickies' Island) which would have resulted in a vastly different game. However, Sega refused Sonic Team's demands, stating that the chip would not be ready to use before they wanted Sonic the Hedgehog 3 to hit store shelves. Instead, the development team decided to create another traditional two-dimensional platformer. In the end, the only title released by Sega to use the chip was the Mega Drive port of Virtua Racing.
As the plans for the game were laid out, Yasuhara and Naka wanted to create a large, sprawling game, grander in scope than any Sonic title to date, essentially accomplishing what they had hoped to do in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 but couldn't due to time constraints. Roger Hector, a director at STI and Executive Coordinator for Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, knew almost from the start that such an ambitious project might be impossible in the form they wanted to take it.
|“||There were so many creative ideas that it would take too much time to develop such a massive project. The team brainstormed up two games' worth of material initially and it was decided, before the Alpha stage I think, that it would make more sense to split it into two games.||„|
— Roger Hector, Executive Coordinator, Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Though it was decided early on that the game may be needed to be split in half, what form this would take was still unknown, material for both games developed concurrently.
Just as had happened in the last game, it was decided that a new character should be added to the world of Sonic the Hedgehog, yet another internal competition held to decide what form they would take. Takashi Yuda would end up winning with his design, Knuckles the Echidna. Originally conceived as yet another friend for Sonic, it was decided later on that he would instead become Sonic's rival, becoming yet another obstacle for the hedgehog to overcome. When the design was presented to a focus group composed of children, the design was taken favorably except for one element: the character's color. Meant to originally be green, the research from the group led to his hue being changed to the now-classic red echidna. While the design of the character was being molded, Sega was in the process of working out a merchandising deal with Nike. In a show of good will, a white swoosh was added to Knuckles, resembling that of the Nike logo. While the deal fell through, the markings on Knuckles remained, giving him the look that would make him stand out from the rest of the cast.
As development on Sonic 3 got underway, the team decided to take inspiration from the world around them, designing entire Zones from names of places and trips the group took together to get away from production for a couple days. Angel Island, for example, was named after an island off the coast of San Francisco where the team made the game, which was once a hub for immigrants coming to America. Carnival Night Zone was inspired by the many roving local carnivals that the group would see around the area, and IceCap Zone was derived from an often-visited relaxation spot for the team.
|“||While developing, we went snowboarding a lot at a nearby resort. People kept getting injured though… (laugh) Originally, this stage was planned to begin after zone 8 (Flying Battery Zone). Sonic was going to break down the door from the airship and make a snowboard out of it on the way down. The other characters can fly, so they wouldn't appear in that event.||„|
— Yuji Naka, Producer, Sonic 3 & Knuckles
As hinted at in the above quote, the fourteen Zones of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 were already laid out, the earlier levels given higher priority due to the game being split in half. As the release date for America drew closer, it was decided that Flying Battery, once the fifth Zone, would be moved over to the sequel, the game ending at Launch Base Zone. Polishing up the six levels, the idea came as to how the two halves of the game would be presented. The first half, simply titled Sonic the Hedgehog 3, would be a game that could be standalone. However, inside the code for the game were numerous pointers and leftover data from the second half, placed there for a specific reason. Wanting people to be able to play the game as they intended, Sonic Team came up with the idea of "Lock-On Technology," which would make the next game released (titled Sonic & Knuckles) "lock on" to the previous title through a specially designed port in the cartridge. It was only with the two cartridges together that the true version of Sonic 3 could be played, with all three characters, bonus rounds, and the fourteen Special Stages.
Knowing that people would be essentially paying for the one game twice over, Sonic Team decided to try and extend the "backward compatibility" of the cartridge to their previous Sonic outings. Developing a special patch that allowed the game to connect to Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the public was given the option to run through the classic game with Knuckles the Echidna. The ability to play with Knuckles in the first Sonic the Hedgehog was also considered, but halted as time did not allow for the amount of work needed to make the character work properly in the game, the team focusing on the remainder of Sonic & Knuckles. Instead, the "Blue Sphere" mode was created, that allowed an almost limitless amount of Sonic 3-styled Special Stages to be played through when the first game was connected.
While in the west Sonic 3 was released in February, the game would not see release in Japan until May of that year. Though no official word was given on the delay, rumor was that Sega was planning on releasing a 24-megabit version of the cartridge in Japan, but instead, released the standard version that had been in Europe and the United States, unable to hold off any longer because of import shops selling the western copy of the game. Years later, it was discovered that Sega, not content with only releasing Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles separately, had planned on releasing a Sonic the Hedgehog 3 Limited Edition that would take the two halves and release them as a single cart, as was originally intended. While work on this version of the game continued for a while, it was ultimately shelved, the only public release of the game being in two parts. It is quite possible that Japan was originally meant to only have this "limited edition" released, but was changed at the last minute. Sonic & Knuckles and its Lock-On powers would be released in October in all regions, including Japan.
With the two parts finally out, much of the Japanese staff at STI decided to return to their native land, including Yuji Naka. Yasuhara, however, elected to remain in the United States. Though the reasons as to why are unknown, some rumors suggest that the legendary partnership between the two minds of Sonic had become strained, with Yasuhara not wanting to continue dealing with Naka. Whether or not this is true does not change the fact that Sonic & Knuckles truly marked the end of an era. Though he would have some input in Sonic 3D: Flickies Island, Sonic R, and the ill-fated Sonic X-treme, it was the swan song for the man who had directed the four main Mega Drive entries in the series. The Sonic Team name would live on, however, as Yuji Naka would reunite with Sonic creator Naoto Ohshima back in Japan, where the pair would spearhead such Sega Saturn titles as NiGHTS into Dreams and Burning Rangers, and eventually return to the Sonic franchise with the Dreamcast title Sonic Adventure.
While DREAMS COME TRUE leader Masato Nakamura was responsible for the soundtracks to the first two games, the success of his band during that time caused Nakamura to not only ask for more money for the next game, but also ask for a higher fee if they wanted to reuse his compositions for any future Sonic titles. Not wanting to pay what he was requesting, Sega decided to turn elsewhere for the composition power needed in Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Getting wind of the vacancy, 80's popstar (and inspiration for Sonic's buckled shoes) Michael Jackson, still very much in his prime, contacted the Sega Technical Institute. Being a fan of the franchise himself, Michael Jackson offered up his services in the creation of the soundtrack. Immediately Sega accepted, and Jackson, along with a group of other musicians that he had worked with on previous projects, went to work in creating the sound for the game. However, in the final product, no mention of Michael Jackson is found within the credits.
|“||The music fitted perfectly for the game, and they had a distinctive 'Michael Jackson' sound. We had it all ready and integrated into the game when the first news stories came out accusing him child molestation, and Sega had to back away from the collaboration...It was too bad nobody outside ever heard the Michael Jackson music.||„|
— Roger Hector, Executive Coordinator, Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Hector went on to recollect that Howard Drossin, who is credited as the sole composer for Sonic & Knuckles, was the one who came in at the last minute and redid the soundtrack. However, the team that Michael Jackson had gathered together were credited in Sonic the Hedgehog 3. One of those credited, Brad Buxer, was interviewed by the French magazine Black & White shortly after Michael Jackson's death, recalling a very different sequence of events with the King of Pop's involvement in the soundtrack.
|“||if he is not credited for composing the music, because he was not happy with the result sound coming out of the console. At the time, game consoles did not allow an optimal sound reproduction, and Michael found it frustrating. He did not want to be associated with a product that devalued and his music...Michael and I had made the following arrangements for the game, and it has served as the basis for Stranger In Moscow. More than any other song that I worked with Michael, Stranger In Moscow is where I made my most artistic leg.||„|
— Brad Buxer, Music Composer for Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Howard Drossin, when recollecting his involvement in the soundtrack, was adamant that Michael Jackson had nothing to do with the final product, but went on to say that he was not responsible for the bulk of the soundtrack as Roger Hector claimed, but only a handful of his tracks made it into the final product, most exclusive to Sonic & Knuckles. Even with this confusion as to who wrote which track for the game, the man responsible for creating the differences between the "Act 1" and "Act 2" songs was Masaru Setsumaru, who would also go on to create music for such other Sonic titles as Sonic 3D: Flickies Island and Sonic Adventure.
When the game was eventually ported to the PC in the Sonic & Knuckles Collection, six of the tracks (Carnival Night, IceCap, Launch Base, the Credits to Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Knuckles' theme in Sonic 3 and the Competition menu) were replaced with entirely different compositions. Though for a time it was thought it might have something to do with the Michael Jackson connection, the songs have remained in subsequent rereleases over a number of platforms, making it just another oddity in a subject that has never been clearly explained.
For the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 3, an active publicity campaign was put behind the game. Released on February 2nd in the United States, the release date was dubbed "Hedgehog Day" by marketing, to cash in on the fact that it also happened to be "Groundhog Day." From McDonald's toys to tie-ins with Lifesavers and Spaghetti-O's, Sonic was everywhere, all amping up for the title's premiere in the states. The festivities went into full swing when the game "officially" premiered in the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the home of Groundhog Day. Bringing out the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Sonic balloon, the game was ushered out in style, complete with miniature Sonic balloons for the kids, and kiosks set up in the local Junior High so everyone from the youngest kid obsessed with Sonic to the top hat-wearing guardians of the groundhog could experience Sonic 3 firsthand. In the United Kingdom, Sega reached out to pop group Right Said Fred to compose a song connected to the game. Entitled "Wonderman", the single was released with a music video utilizing Sonic the Hedgehog imagery as well as using Steve O'Donnell, one of the faces of Sega's advertising in Europe. The track peaked on the U.K. Singles Chart at #55.
Sonic & Knuckles also met with its own push, a television special airing on the MTV Network. The special, called Inside "Sonic & Knuckles" but also referred to as Sonic & Knuckles Rock the Rock, was the finale of a videogame competition that had been occurring across the country. Sponsored by Sega, the program was hosted by Daisy Fuentes and Bill Bellamy. The collected finalists in the competition had to play through the first level of Sonic & Knuckles, the Mushroom Hill Zone, and collect as many rings as possible before reaching the end. Taking place on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, the special also featured interviews with many of the people who worked at STI, including Roger Hector, Hirokazu Yasuhara, Victor Mercieca, Adrian Stephens, Howard Drossin, Kunitake Aoki, Chris Senn, and Dean Lester.
The game Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was also the first Sonic game in the west to offer an incentive to people who preordered the game, receiving a free copy of the music CD Sonic the Hedgehog Boom. Although paired with Sonic 3, the disc actually contained music from the American soundtrack of Sonic the Hedgehog CD and Sonic Spinball. In Japan, a "History of Sonic" VHS was given to those who preordered the game, just as a similar video was available to Japanese residents who had preordered Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
Unlike Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2, very little was previewed of Sonic 3 before launch, possibly so as not to accidentally give away clues for Sonic & Knuckles. Very few magazines were given access to pre-release material, so it cannot be assertained whether a physical prototype was given to the press, or if Sega supplied these publications with screenshots.
Recurring themes include the use of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 sprites and a differing HUD, as well as some missing features like the snowboard in IceCap Zone.
Hyrdocity Zone sees the most differences to the final game, opting for a green flora background. Water is handled differently too - in the final game a pseudo-3D effect simulating the surface of the water way into the distance is created depending on the camera's Y position. Here it seems to be entirely missing, leading to the situation where a large pool of water in the background is seen underneath a large pool of water in the foreground.
Launch Base has minor palette differences - in Act 1, the water is blue, the sky is purple and the Death Egg is a little bit more green. This is actually consistent with the level's stage select icon.
|Sonic the Hedgehog 3|