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They say that Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles are solid games on their own, but combined, they form what may very well be the greatest game of the classic series. Honestly, this doesn't make much sense to me. Two lukewarm beers do not make a cold and refreshing one.
Both halves of this game have some admittedly solid zones (I'd argue that Sonic & Knuckles more-so), and some really vibrant backgrounds that makes it stand out from the previous two games. Unfortunately, the attractive package is severely hampered by plenty of other subpar, and even downright terrible zones (I'm looking at you Carnival Night). The problem is made even worse by the fact that most of the zones are just too damn long. I actually ran out of time while doing one of the Acts in Carnival Night. That has never happened to me before in a Sonic game.
Y'all can laugh all you want and say it's skill issue (hell, I didn't even know you could jump in the special stages until someone pointed it out), but I still beat it, didn't I? I just really don't think the level design is up to par with what I expect from a good Sonic game. It's ambitious, I'll give it that. And you certainly get a lot more content than your average classic Sonic title. This game is like crab legs, though. If you wanna enjoy the meaty bits, you gotta really work for it, and I honestly don't think it's very much worth it. I'll just go back to the superior game: Sonic 2.
I hope whoever designed Wing Fortress Zone has had a horrible life. Between this and some of the other bullshit in the final third of the game, like the terrible enemy placement in Metropolis and being forced to beat the final 2 bosses without any rings, I ended up feeling a bit conflicted on what to rate this one. Overall, this is definitely a huge improvement over the first game. Gone is the slow and tedious platforming that was often required. This is the beginning of the faster-paced gameplay we have grown accustomed to with the 2D series. Also, there's a spin-dash now!
There are also more zones here, most of which are pretty darn good, but despite what many people say about this being peak Sonic, I can't help but feel it's just a tad overrated. My heart may already belong to CD's level design, but I was hoping I'd be blown away with this one, and the final few acts didn't help. But you know what? The soundtrack kicks so much ass that I'm willing to partially forgive it. Very rarely does a game's soundtrack greatly enhance the experience for me, but this one did, and it's not even a JRPG! Color me surprised.
P.S. I heard the special stages are worse here than in the first game... Well, I can't comment on that because I didn't find a single special stage on my first playthrough. Not like I ever really cared about them anyway.