Twenty years ago Sega released Sonic the Hedgehog 3. You remember the American box art for the video game, right? Sonic fittingly holding up three fingers; Tails enthusiastically flying above the Angel Island Zone, seemingly oblivious to Dr. Eggman advancing towards him with the intent to turn him into a fried fox. But who is that hidden within the greenery, staring at our protagonist with menacing eyes?
Three words: Knuckles the Echidna.
Gamers were introduced to this ill-tempered badass in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, as he stopped players from defeating Dr. Eggman. Manipulated by the evil scientist into believing that Sonic wanted to steal the Master Emerald, Knuckles becomes Sonic's rival, attacking him with powerful punches and a spin attack similar to the protagonist's.
Sure, if Knuckles was not so gullible, players could have been tag teaming on Dr. Eggman until his balloon-shaped belly popped. But sometimes friendships are built from a good ass kicking. Ryu and Ken; Solid Snake and Gray Fox; Sonic and Knuckles.
Once players successfully defeated the red-colored foe, he became one of their best allies. He also began to appear more frequently in Sonic the Hedgehog series, becoming a playable character in Sonic & Knuckles, the follow up to Sonic the Hedgehog 3.
Nothing was the same when Knuckles could be selected. The first time I made Knuckles fly across the screen I screamed, and when I realized he could climb on walls I found myself asking a question I thought I would never ask: Is Knuckles better than Sonic?
Be real with yourself. You can probably count on one hand the number of times you selected Sonic once Knuckles became a playable character. Defecting over to Team Knuckles became the norm; even if his levels were a little more challenging than Sonic's, the thrill of being able to explore certain parts of levels that the blue-colored hero could not was worth it. Plus -- HE COULD FLY. Nothing resonates with adolescents quite like seeing a character fly. Super speed is cool but why run through nausea-inducing loops when you could simply fly over them?
Future Sonic games, specifically the Sonic Adventure series, expanded on this freedom and exploration introduced with Knuckles. Sonic Adventure gave Knuckles enthusiasts the opportunity to search for pieces of the Master Emerald across several different levels. Players climbed, dug and flew through Casinopolis, Speed Highway, Red Mountain and other locations, to put the Master Emerald back together.
Knuckles envied Sonic's sense of adventure and finally Sega was returning the favor. As a 16 year old with the ability to break boulders with his fists, it's only fitting that Knuckles had one of the more engaging storylines in Sonic Adventure. Sure, those first several seconds of outrunning a killer whale with Sonic were incredible. But if it were Knuckles? Well, Sonic Adventure probably would have been bumped from Everyone to Mature for showing an echidna rip through a whale's stomach.
Knuckles could have never been Sega's mascot; the echidna lacks the sociability of Sonic and his Nintendo counterpart, Mario. And yet this defining characteristic is what makes him so appealing. He is Sega's anti-hero: the dreadlocked brawler who is surprisingly selfless and has a soft spot for grapes and adorable animals.
Now, to argue that Knuckles is better than Sonic is to imply that the former would win in a fight against the latter. As much as you probably want an objective answer, objectivity is overrated and I believe Knuckles would defeat Sonic in a non-canonical fight. Ignoring all other forms of Sonic-related media (comics, TV series, movies), Knuckles proved his strength over Sonic when he knocked the hedgehog out of his Super State in Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Sure, you could call Knuckles attacking Sonic from underground unfair (although the echidna is just using one of his several distinct abilities, similar to how Super Sonic can, you know, jump higher and move faster, but whatever), but even then the fact that Knuckles could deliver an attack that overrides Super Sonic's invulnerability is impressive.
And if we're acknowledging Knuckles's appearances in non-canonical Sonic games -- specifically Sonic Battle -- the echidna also has the ability to harness elemental earth energies to heal himself, and can control rocks from above to strike his opponents. Needless to say, it's probable that Knuckles would win over Sonic.
Unfortunately, there has never been a Super Sonic and Super Knuckles battle, nor a Hyper Sonic and Hyper Knuckles one in the Sonic video game universe. The closest players will probably get to such a moment is when Nintendo releases Super Smash Bros. Battle Royal, or some other synonym of brawl in the title.
Or maybe someday Sonic the Hedgehog creator Naoto Oshima will finally answer the question players have been wondering for years now. Who knows? Until then players have fan fiction and forums dedicated to who is better: Knuckles or Sonic?
You know where I stand, and considering that Knuckles is the fourth most popular character a part of the series (Tails and Shadow are third and second, respectively), there are many others that feel the same way. Sonic you are great, but nothing exemplifies absolute joy like blowing on a Sega Genesis cartridge and soaring through a 16-bit sky as a red echidna.
Punching his way to glory since 1994: Knuckles the Echidna.
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