In February 1994, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 came to the Sega Genesis in North America and Sega Megadrive in PAL territories. The 16-bit console war between Sega and Nintendo was at its peak, and the new Sonic game was a valuable piece of heavy artillery.
Sonic 3 garnered strong reviews from critics, though some comments were made on its short length (six zones with two acts each; 1992's Sonic 2 has 10 levels with two acts each, not including the level containing the final showdown with Dr. Robotnik). Sonic 3's producer, Yuji Naka, admitted Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was "half a game" because of limited development time. Its follow-up, Sonic & Knuckles, attaches to Sonic 3 and forms a whole game via "Lock-On Technology," which is arguably the last great buzz term to drop from Sega of America's legendary marketing team ("Nah, kids, you're not paying twice for a game we split in half! It's 'Lock-On Technology,' you little rugrats!").
Nevertheless, Sonic 3 looks good, it plays well, and it sounds great thanks to uncredited contributions from the King of Pop, Michael Jackson (though I'm more fond of composer Brad Buxter's Ice Cap Zone theme, which is appropriated from a song called "Hard Times" that was penned by his former new wave band, The Jetzons). But Sonic 2 is a tough act to follow, even if the team involved was eager and talented.
Luckily, Sonic 3 boasts a big red machine: A round-fisted anthropomorphic echidna named Knuckles. Though not a playable character, the blood-red newcomer brings a splash of distinguishing color to the game by giving Sonic a rival. If you're a terrible person who revels in puns, you might even suggest Knuckles adds some real punch to Sonic 3. Honestly, though? It's true. And it's interesting too look back on Knuckles and note how his introduction gave the Sonic universe its first fascinating taste of story definition, for better or worse.
His Name is Knuckles, and Unlike Sonic he Doesn't Chuckle
Knuckles was designed by former Sonic Team character creator and developer Takashi "Thomas" Yuda. The echnida's profile in The History of Sonic the Hedgehog by Udon Publications states Yuda wanted Knuckles to emphasize strength, whereas Sonic himself symbolizes speed. Knuckles' coat was initially a charming radioactive green (maybe to remind players of The Hulk's emerald hue, thus driving home Knuckles' strength and desire to "SMASH!"), but Sonic Team ultimately decided on red to better contrast with Sonic's cobalt blue quills and Tails' orange fur.
In a 1996 interview with Yuji Naka published on Sega.com (now archived by the Wayback Machine), Naka says Knuckles was specifically created as a rival for Sonic. That much is obvious when you compare the spiky mammals. Besides the struggle of speed versus strength, Sonic and Knuckles' personalities are at odds with each other. Sonic is carefree, untroubled by rules, and often keeps company with lots of friends. He's smart, and he's cool. Knuckles is a homebody who takes his duty of guarding the precious Master Emerald very seriously. He's a loner in the extreme sense: He'd never met anyone outside his floating home of Angel Island until Sonic, Tails, and the villainous Dr. Eggman (née: Robotnik) literally showed up out of the blue one day and started tromping all over the sacred lands Knuckles' extinct tribe once called home.
Knuckles' isolation understandably makes him naïve. He's easily duped when Dr. Eggman tells the echidna Sonic the Hedgehog has designs on stealing the Master Emerald. In the most shocking twist of '90s video game storytelling, Dr. Eggman nabs the Emerald while Knuckles spends his time and energy harassing Sonic and Tails across the events of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles.
Sonic Team's efforts to make Knuckles stand out proved fruitful—and then some. In a 2006 interview with GameSpy, Takashi Yuda said he never intended for Knuckles to become more than a supporting character, but he wound up with second billing by the time Sonic & Knuckles locked onto the Sega Genesis in October of 1994.
Knuckles' wordless rivalry with Sonic makes him unforgettable in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, but it also probably helps Sonic Team chose one of God's practical jokes for Knuckles' species. The echidna is one of the most bizarre mammals living in Australia, a continent that's not lacking for weird creatures. Echidnas are monotremes, a group of mammals that lay eggs but also feed their young with milk through a "milk patch" on their abdomen. Platypuses are another example of a monotreme.
National Geographic has a fascinating profile on echidnas. It's titled Spiky Baby Killers: Echidna Secrets Revealed, which kind of lets you know what you're getting into. Indeed, male echidnas will sometimes commit infanticide for a chance to father their own offspring with a female. This explains why Knuckles is seemingly the last of his kind in the mainline Sonic games (that's a joke. Knuckles' tribe was once fruitful, but its hubris brought down the wrath of the gods, and tribe's numbers dwindled until there was only one).
The History of Sonic the Hedgehog states Knuckles was originally supposed to be a mole. That checks out; echidnas are spiny animals, and Knuckles has few spines outside his "dreadlocks." Then again, echidnas generally don't stand upright and wear gloves, either. If Sonic Team ever shared a reason for making the last-minute species switch, that reason's been lost to the high winds of Angel Island. Maybe it was just another small tweak to help Knuckles stand out a little more. After all, the echidna is a fascinating animal that still manages to raise eyebrows on a planet that boasts incredible biodiversity.
Also, the echidna's penis splits into four heads, and zoologists report its testicles are huge. That's the kind of pub trivia that makes it impossible to forget about echidnas, and thus impossible to forget about Knuckles. Was that Sonic Team's intention? I doubt an official answer is forthcoming, so just find yourself an ancient oak, sit under it, and reflect deeply.
A Dreamer, a Fighter, a Punk
However you slice it, echidnas are more weird (read: Disturbing) than cool. Knuckles still managed to find himself a sizeable fanbase in the '90s, though. How'd he do it?
In addition to his penchant for doing weird loner stuff on a floating island—always an attractive idea for young teens forced to live with their parents and share personal space with siblings—Knuckles' struggle against Sonic and Dr. Eggman helped build up Sonic's world and its story. It's tempting in our post-Sonic 2006 world to shake the echidna by the shoulders and scream "How could you," but Sonic-crazed fans of the '90s were desperate for official lore of any kind. Some of the earliest internet fan pages served as shrines to Sonic the Hedgehog and held libraries of fanfiction penned by Sega enthusiasts who wanted more than the Sonic cartoons offered at the time.
Cinematics were rare in 16-bit games, so I still enjoy watching Knuckles' fist-shaking and snarling after he (finally) realizes Dr. Eggman's been playing him for a fool. Eggman's betrayal and Knuckles' subsequent realization also takes us through Hidden Palace Zone and the Castle in the Sky-inspired Sky Sanctuary Zone, two of the coolest levels in any 2D Sonic game. Knuckles' role as a protector of Angel Island and the Master Emerald finally gives us some context to Sonic's world. Sure, we explored ruins before met Knuckles: Marble Zone in Sonic the Hedgehog and Aquatic Ruin Zone in Sonic 2 are just a couple of examples. But the ruins protected by Knuckles (which are decorated by murals prophesizing the upcoming final battle between Dr. Eggman and Super Sonic) give Sonic's surroundings a little shading, a little depth.
Finally, it's hard not to get invested in a friendship that's fraught with rivalry, and that describes Sonic and Knuckles' relationship nicely. In the '90s, Sonic's relationships were black and white. Tails was the tagalong "little brother," and Dr. Eggman was the big bad guy. Even Amy Rose, introduced in 1993's Sonic CD, regarded Sonic as a spiny Jesus and clung to him. Knuckles filled in void by giving Sonic a powerful antagonist who isn't evil; merely a bit gullible.
Super Smash Bro
Knuckles has gained a voice (currently supplied by Travis Willingham) in the 25 years since his introduction. He's the leader of the furry anti-Eggman resistance in 2017's Sonic Forces. His popularity has remained steady across the past quarter century, but that doesn't mean Knuckles isn't the target of jokes or mockery. Some fans regard him as a gateway; he was the last newcomer introduced to the mainline Sonic franchise before Sega invited a mess of characters into the series with the Sonic Adventure games. If you ever hear a Sonic fan snark about "Sonic's shitty friends," they're referring to that deluge. While Knuckles isn't counted as a shitty friend, people still remark how it all seemed to go wrong after the echidna joined the fray.
Knuckles also turned some heads when he underwent a significant transformation for Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, Big Red Button's poorly-received 2014 game for the Wii U. Big Red Button seemingly stretched the echidna on a medieval rack before injecting his upper body with marshmallow fluff. Knuckles' brain power (and leg muscles) deflated in turn, leaving us with a meathead who traded naivety for a dunce cap. Boom Knuckles is understandably controversial, though he's admittedly funny in the Sonic Boom animated series.
Regardless of what Knuckles looks like now, and regardless of the fact his mind is sometimes totally out to lunch, Sonic owes the red brawler a debt for giving '90s kids yet another reason to fall in love with the world and characters Sega crafted for them. We don't know what Sonic and Knuckles will look like in another 25 years. Maybe we don't want to know. But we can safely bet whatever the duo goes up against in the coming decades, they'll be there to help (and occasionally oh-so-gently hinder) one another.