Recently, three of my best friends visited for a long weekend. While we have fairly varied backgrounds and life stories, a strong bond has formed between the five of us (including my wife now) thanks to video and board games. We had a great time hitting on our usual favorites: eating out, wine, social games (I’ll always have a soft spot for Tee K.O.), and trying some new board games (Wingspan and The Networks in particular). But one (somewhat unplanned) experience in particular stood out to me.
Other than my wife (who didn’t grow up with video games like the rest of us), we share an attachment to Sonic the Hedgehog. If you know anything about me, I feel somewhat indebted to that series for a variety of things. I taught myself what hexadecimal numbers in grade school from the Sound Test menu in Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I’ve been inspired by the songs of the series in my off and on compositions over the years. I dream of having the over-the-top positivity and can-do attitude of the series’ protagonist. I know I have a career in technology at least in part due to the wonder that series inspired in me.
On our last day together, we decided to attempt a playthrough of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. There exists internal disagreement about which games of the original Genesis series is the best (at least one of us would argue in favor of Sonic the Hedgehog 2), but I have always enjoyed Sonic 3 & Knuckles the most. We also disagree on the best character in S3&K as well (I like Knuckles – gliding/climbing is just too fun).
I expected a fairly typical playthrough when we started. Generally we trade the controller off after an act is completed and muddle our way through the game. But something was different this time. Maybe it was not having seen everyone in person for such a long time. Maybe its having aged a bit since we started doing these things in graduate school. But I found us forming perhaps our most cohesive team ever.
That each of us settled into a specialization really caught me off guard. One of us was the careful navigator reliably passing act after act. Another had a near encyclopedic knowledge of Special Stage ring locations. I acted as the steady hand gathering Chaos Emeralds in the hypnotic (and at this age, often nauseating) Special Stages. After all these years, I never truly appreciated how we looked at the game so differently, resulting in a well-balanced team. How did I miss it?
I remember having a conversation with a coworker about this sort of specialization on our application team as well. We have a great variety of backgrounds and specializations on our team. Some have extensive System Admins/Operations background and transitioned to development retaining this asset. Others have a great eye for design and make sure our interfaces make common sense. Unlike in S3&K with my friends that night, I’m often not sure exactly where I fit or what my specialization would be on our team, and it can be a bit frustrating not knowing exactly what value you provide. Nonetheless, I’m constantly reassured that I’m a valued member of our team. Maybe I’m just a generalist in my current role (and there’s nothing wrong with that!).
Anyway, back to Sonic. We worked our way through the jungle in Angel Island Zone, once again horrified by its firebombing by Robotnik (I’ve accepted the English retcon to “Eggman” introduced in the 3D games, but they haven’t – I’ll humor them). I was able to show off all my practice in outrunning the moving wall in the aquatic Hydrocity (which is very clearly supposed to rhyme with “velocity” no matter what my misinformed friends say!) Zone. The newest member of the group fought off frustration while exploring the ruins of Marble Garden Zone and avoiding the freeze of Ice Cap Zone. Carnival Night Zone, which I used to hate like many other young players, has become one of my favorites both in terms of gameplay and music (and I relished taking out Robotnik as Super Sonic). I think Launch Base Zone was fairly uneventful, but by this point it was clear that we had established a nice rhythm and the excitement was building.
We got off to a slow start with the Super Emeralds in Mushroom Hill Zone but pushed through, enjoying each of its color changes. Using some maps, we explored all sorts of new (and some hidden) areas in Flying Battery Zone and Sandopolis Zone (and relived fears over the ghosts haunting its second act). Anticipation built as we captured the last of the Super Emeralds and dreaded the relaunch of Robotnik’s legendary Death Egg in Lava Reef Zone. We watched together as Knuckles once again realized he’d been duped by Robotnik and helped Sonic chase him through Sky Sanctuary Zone to jump onto the Death Egg. We foiled plan after plan of the doctor, ultimately progressing to the final zone: Doomsday Zone.
Having had the most experience with Doomsday Zone over the years, I took the helm but had some missteps guessing where the rings (which you absolutely need in this stage to sustain your life) were during the initial chase of Robotnik. I was able to correctly guide his ship’s defense missiles into backfiring and then the true chase began. With Master Emerald in (robo) hand, Robotnik raced off in his mecha with me in pursuit. For added dramatic effect, I managed to take down his robot and recover the Master Emerald with just one sole ring remaining (talk about taking a risk…and unintentionally showing off!).
A certain catharsis worked through me as we watched the ending of the story. The Master Emerald was returned to a grateful and now friendly Knuckles. Angel Island now restored, it floated back into the sky where it belonged. The soundtrack of our childhood played over the end credits and we watched the main players say a final farewell before the game returned to the title screen.
I’m not sure we’ll ever capture the magic of this playthrough again, but I’m grateful for it happening. It was a reminder of a few things. First, I’m not quite old yet (those 3D Special Stages sure are a workout though). Second, I have some fantastic friends and teammates both in these games and in life. And finally, I’m not quite sure where I’d be without Sonic the Hedgehog. Thanks for the memories everyone…and never stop stopping that Eggman.