TV Game

Knuckles’ Chaotix

TV Game

As someone who has a tremendous love for retro games, and is willing to try and find some positives in games that are otherwise terrible, I need to say this: the Sega 32X was an abomination. A physical representation of corporate mismanagement, ego, and greed that permanently altered the course of an entire company, and almost certainly cost some people jobs that they didn’t need to lose. The best game on the system could best be described as “decent” or “oh hey, a good port of Space Harrier.” Of course, as a kid, I wanted one really bad. I wanted a 32X for the same reason I wanted a Sega CD: because it had a Sonic game. To the shock of nobody, I was a Sega kid who was obsessed with Sonic the Hedgehog. I never did get those add-ons, my parents refused to get them for me, which I guess means my childhood wasn’t that bad, as I ended up dodging a couple of bullets there.

I wanted to write about Knuckles’ Chaotix because, for whatever reason, my YouTube recommendations have had multiple videos on Chaotix being this underappreciated classic. I suppose this is better than my normal recommendations, which are either nine hour “essays” about some fucker I don’t care about that 4chan spent a week making fun of in 2004, or videos like “[ASMR] Sex Doctor Touches Your Penis.” There’s been a bit of a critical reevaluation of the game in recent years, you’ve probably even heard it being referred to as “The Thinking Man’s Sonic,” a term that has been a 5 year long running in-joke in my friend group. In any case, I felt compelled to talk about Knuckles’ Chaotix, if for no reason than because these videos are wrong.

Knuckles’ Chaotix is not a good game. I would recommend not playing it, assuming you’re the opposite of me and you haven’t already emulated the game, because you are checking out Sega games decades later the way I’m currently diving into Nintendo’s stuff. You’re not missing out on much. Now, it’s not the worst Sonic game of the 16-bit era, that’s firmly a tie between Sonic Spinball and Sonic 3D Blast, but it is a solid third worst. The thing about all this, is that Chaotix being bad is so fucking frustrating. You would think it’s easy to say that a bad game on a worse console sucks and isn’t worth your time, but it isn’t. There are actually some good ideas in this game. There are mechanics in this game that, if they were expanded upon, could have let to something good, if not great. Knuckles’ Chaotix is the kind of bad game where you can see small bits of potential buried under the malaise.

A bit of background: Chaotix began life as a tech demo on the Sega Genesis, that was going to become a Saturn game, that then ran into issues during development. Because Sega had invested money in a technological abortion that sat on top of a system Tom Kalinske refused to let go of despite rapid advancements in game development, the decision was made to move Chaotix from the Saturn to the 32X, further scaling back an already troubled project. Playing the finished product, you can feel every last second of pain that those developers went through trying to put this thing together. Every setback, every word of “guidance” from the top, every resigned shrug from tired people who undoubtedly wanted to move on and forget that Knuckles Chaotix ever happened.

As the title suggests, Knuckles’ Chaotix is a spin-off of Sonic where you play as Knuckles the Echidna. Well, Knuckles and a new* group of friends called the Chaotix. Aside from that, the first thing that sets Chaotix apart from regular Sonic games is the fact that instead of running from left to right, you navigate from the bottom of a level to the top. In and of itself, a Sonic game where you move vertically is already pretty innovative. The way that those games use movement, the use of speed and momentum, now being used to move in a different direction. Imagine the use of loop-de-loops and ramps, now applied to aerial travel. It’s such a simple concept, but in the right hands, it could be an amazing game. You’ve probably also noticed how there are two characters in these screenshots, both holding a ring. The stars between those rings acts as a tether, keeping you and a partner together. This magic tether can be used like a slingshot, with one character grounding themselves in place while the other pulls as far back as they can, before both go shooting off at, ahem, sonic speed. This is all sounds great, right? If nothing else, the use of physics in this game work extremely well.

Which is too damn bad that the level design doesn’t utilize this in any sort of meaningful way. Levels in Chaotix are long, empty shafts that never have any real gimmick beyond quarter-pipes and half-pipes leading from one platform to the next. Hardly any enemies, very little in the way of obstacles such as spikes, nothing. The biggest challenge is getting lost in a couple of levels, as the end of certain stages aren’t signposting very well, so you can go in circles a few times until you realize the end of a stage is to the left instead of the right, or the right instead of the left. You have all these new, well made mechanics, and nothing to use them on. You can select your main character, but your partner has to be chosen through a claw machine mini-game, and your level progression is dictated by a roulette. Not sure why there was such an emphasis on randomization. I also need to point out two completely useless power-ups: one that makes your player character bigger and able to jump higher, and another one that makes them smaller and unable to jump more than an inch off the ground. They serve either little purpose, or are there as a major inconvenience. Just another example of more half-implemented ideas in the game.

Knuckles’ Chaotix is the worst kind of bad a game like this could be: boring. An empty, lifeless game that goes on for twenty five levels. It’s a shame. A shame that something with all this potential never sees that potential realized. A shame that something that obviously had a lot of work put into it becomes this husk of a work. Also a shame that this might also be one of the best looking and best sounding games in the series. There is nothing going on in these levels, but at least they look nice! There’s a vibrant use of color, with each protagonist having some nice animation, far more detailed than what would have been seen on the Genesis. Then there’s music. Good lord, is there the music. Take a listen to this or this and tell me you aren’t feeling the disappointment I am right now. Years ago, I talked about wanting a Sonic game where the in-game worlds looked like the gallery from Sonic Jam. Knuckles’ Chaotix could have been that game. Aesthetically, it is what I wanted out of a “next-gen” Sonic game; bright, colorful, energetic, with a soundtrack that does such a wonderful job of combining 80’s Japanese Pop music with 90’s American Contemporary Soul and New Jack Swing. But again, it’s a fucking shame that actually playing Chaotix is so dull and mind-numbing. Instead, we would all have to wait until Sonic Mania for that kind of game.

I suppose that’s the real legacy of Knuckles’ Chaotix: wasted potential that was made to sell a piece of hardware that could itself be considered wasted potential (wasting potential that could have gone towards potentially making the Sega Saturn more profitable outside of Japan). This is a game that frustrates me, because I can only imagine what could have been. What could have been if this wasn’t a troubled project. What could have been if it didn’t turn into a metaphorical band-aid applied to a metaphorically terminally ill machine. What could have been if the developers were actually given time to make Chaotix something worthwhile.

oh hey, how nice of you to finally show up, sonic!