Meeting Go Live with the fastest thing alive

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Sonic 3 & Knuckles (1994)

Now that I’ve nestled my career within the vast cargo pants of Information Technology, I find myself tasked with leading projects and deployments and integrations various. But I’m not a project manager, in the same way that when asked, Amsterdam’s finest say they’re not prostitutes – they’re “sex workers”. It’s all about avoiding a potentially dirty title.

Here’s how it all goes down. Somewhere, sometime, a salesperson has beaten a potential client’s door down and persisted at it long enough to finally push the client’s decision-makers into a heartbreaking decision to buy the software. “OK, we’ll take your product,” they whimper, knowing that they had no choice – their fate would be either death by CEO or death by a thousand sales emails.

In a bid to salvage some control of the situation, the client stakeholders will call the sales team’s bluff and begin making all sorts of demands. Automation? Yep, we want that. A dedicated support package? Absolutely! Go Live three days before yesterday? That has to be guaranteed, or we’re not going ahead. To get the deal over the line and maybe eat some food that month, the sales team just nod and agree to everything, no matter how ridiculous. The wretched client signs the dotted line, signing a few death warrants and future budget problems along with it, and a statement of work is drawn up. Then it lands on my desk and the fun begins.

I’d say if you ran a search of all my emails, or even if you recorded all of my calls and were able to locate specific words, you’d find the word “unfortunately” in there for days on end. It’d be like Graham’s number written out. Also, “limitations”, “coming down the line” and “this is the best we can do”. Gosh, do I regularly disappoint people. The sales videos make it look so easy, you guys! But then the client makes some perfectly reasonable request which suddenly exposes a major fault in the whole system. Result: total collapse, and I’m left with my head in my hands, having to explain why we accidentally slaughtered all their end users. “Unfortunately, there’ll be bank balance limitations coming down the line for me. Chewing gum for lunch is the best I can do”.

When we do embark on a project, the client’s “vision” (a nonsense phrase up there with “mission statement”) is of a sun-kissed vista with children playing, birds chirping, a babbling brook nearby and everything moving along harmoniously. Six months down the line, I end up delivering… rather than give you a full description, think of the cheapest, grimmest city hotel you’ve been to, and try to remember the view out the window. That’s what I give them, with a few vats of sludge and some other dubious liquids and matter into the bargain that even I, the supposed subject matter expert, know nowt about.

Cripes, it’s not for want of trying. I do my best, but no matter how much forecasting and planning and Gantt charts and mutual masturbation you undertake at the start of the endeavour, these things can just spiral wildly out of control. That’s why I have to laugh when I read the story about how Sonic the Hedgehog 3 got so big during development that they took the decision to split it out into two games.

Now I always get this impression that project management was a lot more casual back in 1993/94, but I’m just seeing a massively stressed out Sega of Japan development studio, and I must wonder how desperate they must have been to come to that crazy, unprecedented decision. Cue the next planning discussion, or whatever the mid 90s equivalent of a scrum was:

“Ahm… that sequel we were making, the one we need on the market soon to keep the Sonic craze going strong? Well, we got a bit too big for our boots, sir.”

The ‘sir’ in question, a monster of a man, picture a Japanese Tyson Fury, presses something underneath the table that sounds awfully like the click of a revolver. “Go on…”

“We’re proposing that we split the game in half, and one of the cartridges will actually plug into the other to give the full experience. Or they can be bought and played separately…”

And I really don’t know what happened next. Did the CEO want to throw these buffoons out the window there and then, and have done with them? Or did he rejoice and give them a most uncharacteristic kiss, thanking them for their genious at gouging not one but two prices of entry out of the consumer? Whatever about that, the really crazy thing is how well it actually worked for them.

It may have cost gamers double the whack in 1994, but you’re getting a real bargain from me today, readers, because we’re looking at two games for the price of one. Actually, that’s not quite accurate – Sonic 3 & Knuckles is one game for the price of two. My word though, what a step forward.

People talk about games stretching the hardware to its limit, but it’s taken to new levels here. There’s something wild about seeing this Frankengame sticking out of your console, as if it’s all working independently of the Mega Drive itself and the dormant console is gonna wake up in a visceral panic any second now. You know that bit in Kill Bill when the mosquito starts going ham on The Bride and she bolts awake screaming? Ah, never mind.

If you want to get properly cheeky, you could even construct a power-tower of S3&K astride a centipede of Game Genies and 32Xes, right the way up to the ceiling. The game will still play, or so I’m told. That’s something that Nintendon’t could certainly never boast.

Certainly the two games were released a little too late in the Mega Drive’s life to get the classic recognition that Sonic 2 did – that particular game was an event in itself. But S3&K, with its massive levels (each with a different piece of music), a nice story brilliantly told, more bonuses and better graphics, had all of the trimmings you might expect from a feast.

My favourite aspect of the game is how each of the diverse Zones have end-of-level transitions. How, for example, did Sonic immediately go from Emerald Hill to Chemical Plant in the previous game? That one kept us all up at night, but you need wonder this type of thing no more because now you can watch the poor bugger fall off Robotnik’s Flying Battery and land in the infinite dunes of Sandopolis. How funky is that?

And those are just two of fourteen massive Zones that I’ve mentioned. There are save files as well, and multiple endings. There’s even a two-player mode, although Sonic 2 had this as well and arguably that one was better. In Sonic 3 & Knuckles, multiplayer is a strange 5-lap race through five tiny areas. Five laps, five areas, and probably five minutes of fun.

Do you know what’s best of all, though? In Sonic 3 by itself, and indeed some of the combined game, there were certain music tracks composed by Michael Jackson. Can you believe that? I’d love to go into more detail about him soon, possibly when I finally get round to giving the Moonwalker game a spin. Although keep in mind, you’re not gonna get Sonic cruising down through the hills and dales while Billie Jean plays. We’re on about that mid 1990s MJ when he’d gotten quite a bit paler. Put a more direct way, have you ever heard Jam? Or Stranger in Moscow?

Well, it’s just a good thing that the quality of early Sonic games was so high that it justified the purchase of both these games. Of course, these days you can acquire Sega Mega Drive games for nowt except a bit of time spent downloading. And you might even be forced to do this, because re-releases of this title have been pretty sparse, likely due to the King of Pop’s involvement.

But do yourself a favour here and get this one by any means possible, because this is the best that the early Sonic games get. Sonic 1 scores the classic points. Sonic 2 is the most fondly remembered. But Sonic 3 & Knuckles, if it’s fair enough to take the two cartridges as one, represents the crest of the 16-bit Sonic wave, before it broke into a backwash of 3D mediocrity. Thanks heavens for Sonic Mania.

22 May 2020

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