Deciding what the best Sonic the Hedgehog game in the popular series is can be a difficult task, but Sonic the Hedgehog 3 brings plenty to the table for one hell of an opening statement. While Sonic 3 doesn't contain quite as many levels as Sonic 2, it makes full use of what it does have. Sonic 3 brings us the best water level ever made (Hydrocity Zone), the two best pure speed levels in the entire series (Hydrocity Zone Act 2 and Ice Cap Zone Act 2), shields which serve different functions depending on which one you're using, a whole set of expansive and different paths you can discover playing as Tails, a cool bonus round inside of a massive gumball machine, a bunch of spinning tops you have to ride, a mischievous red echidna named Knuckles, and lots of secret passages with giant rings and power-ups. Of course there's a flipside to all the goodness; in the case of Sonic 3 it's the soundtrack, which is still above average but not in the league of its predecessors.
Sonic 3 picks up right where Sonic 2 left off. Sonic and Tails are seen flying Tails' trusty biplane, the Tornado, back to floating Angel Island in order to return the Chaos Emeralds to their proper caretaker and guardian, Knuckles. But unbeknownst to Sonic and Tails, Dr. Robotnik still hasn't learned his lesson and this time he took a new course to get his dirty hands on the Emeralds. He tricked Knuckles into thinking he was the good guy and that Sonic and Tails are the devious evildoers who plan to destroy Mobius with the Chaos Emeralds! As Sonic reaches the shore of Angel Island, Knuckles pops out of the ground, hits Sonic, grabs the pretty destructive stones, and runs off. So guess what Sonic and Tails have to do!
Although Knuckles is supposed to be helping Dr. Robotnik in this game, he comes off as more of the misunderstood good guy that he actually is. You don't get to fight him, and while he shows up every now and then to throw a switch, those switches only set your path. The scenes with Knuckles are basically written into the story.
Sonic 3 is, in a way, puzzle-oriented. This is especially noticable in the third level, Marble Garden Zone, in which Sonic has to make progress by destroying magic jewels which are attached to arrow-spitting stone faces, flying on spinning tops, and revving up his Spin Dash Attack against blue wheels that are mostly buried in the ground. There are also mini-bosses at the end of the first act of each level. Most of them are easy enough, but some, like the ice-spitting hovering drone at the end of Ice Cap Zone Act 1, can be a real pain in the neck. The mini-bosses are just a fact of life in Sonic 3. They don't do anything to particularly help or hurt the basic game design, and no one would miss them if they were to suddenly up and disappear. Most of them take three or maybe four hits before taking their rightful places at the back of Dr. Robotnik's scrap heap.
This being a Sonic the Hedgehog game, the levels are of course masterpieces of exceptional level design. My favorite level in the game in the Hydrocity Zone, and it really says something about the talent of Sonic Team that my favorite level in the game is the freaking water level. Hydrocity Zone has its share of underwater parts as you might expect, but the second act of Hydrocity Zone is possibly my favorite level in the entire Sonic series. It's a massive and speedy world dominated by waterslides which Sonic flies up and down and through, and it's full of territory to explore and new things to discover. As far as water levels go, only Aquatic Ruin Zone from Sonic 2 comes even close to this one, and that one was designed in a way which let you avoid getting wet at all. There is also the brilliant Carnival Night Zone, which brings Sonic and Tails through two huge acts of carnival balloons, cannons, flywheels, and vacuum tubes. Marble Garden Zone is unique for an emphasis on puzzles. Each level has the layout we saw in Sonic 2 - two acts, facing the boss at the end of the second one, with the additions of the mini-bosses at the end of the first.
Sonic is actually receiving help from his shields this time around. No longer is a shield only for absorbing an extra shot before losing your rings or dying. This time, Sonic can fly like a torpedo at enemies with the fire shield, which also protects him from fire-based attacks; attract rings and double-jump with the lightning shield; and have an unlimited air supply underwater with the water shield. Sonic himself can also create a shield if you press the jump button during a Super Spin Attack. This is supposed to provide split-second protection, but I really haven't noticed any use for it. It's just a big waste of design space to me. The Super Spin Attack and the Spin Dash Attack are staples of Sonic, and so they're both useable and useful. Sonic seems to run faster than ever in Sonic 3, especially when he's given some kind of assistance from one of the speed-building machines lightly scattered throughout Angel Island's zones.
If you play as Tails alone this time, you're not just getting Sonic in a different suit. Tails can actually use his ability to fly, and this opens up a plethora of new paths in Sonic 3 which are inaccessable if you're playing as just Sonic. If you're going it with both Sonic and Tails, Tails can actually give Sonic a lift. The bad part about this is that you actually need a second controller in order to control Tails if you do it this way. Sonic and Tails was basically made as a cooperative mode with the ability to go through it with Tails on auto-pilot. Although the good part about this is that Tails can't get in the way during the emerald bonus stages again. The trade-off to playing as Tails alone is that you don't get to use the cool powers which come with the shields. This is actually a pretty fair trade-off.
The bonus stages in Sonic 3 involve collecting blue orbs while avoiding red ones. It's easier said than done, of course, since each blue orb you collect immediately turns into a red orb and collecting a red orb thrusts you back out into the real world. Getting to the bonus stages also takes a bit more work and exploration than it did in the past. This time, you have to actively seek out hidden passages. If a hidden passage contains a giant power ring, you're in luck because if you jump into it, you go to the bonus stage. The method of getting into the bonus stages though starposts, used in Sonic 2, also exists, but that method takes you to a bonus stage which makes you fly off wall bumpers into the handle of a giant gumball machine, which then drops power-up gumballs. These stages aren't bad, but they could probably stand to be a bit better. You don't quite anticipate going through them as you did the ring chute from Sonic 2 or the revolving maze from the first Sonic game.
The two-player mode is actually a race through five different zones which are not seen in the one-player game. They're fun if you're the competitive type and you're playing against someone, but with no power-ups, teleports, or enemies, and REALLY short levels, the novelty tends to wear off after awhile.
The great thing about the two-player competition, howeverm is that the graphics aren't quished versions of one-player graphics. The characters look like circles and not goose eggs when they jump. The graphics are just as detailed and colorful as they always were, only they're not quite as edged. But this is no problem - it adds to the lush graphic effect Sonic Team was probably aiming for. The backgrounds are colorful and spectacular. The soundtrack is good, but not even close to the immortal quality of the soundtracks from the last two games. I'm giving points here for the way the two acts from any particular level have similar-sounding but different soundtracks. That's very good, but you'll barely remember most of the music. The only memorable track from the game is the Carnival Night Zone, and that's because it's terrible. It is nothing but stereotypical carnival music. The gameplay is true to the Sonic tradition and as tight as ever.