Man vs. Machine | Knuckles Chaotix Soundtrack Review
A brief history and Review of the Sega 32X, Knuckles’ Chaotix and one of the best Sonic soundtracks of all time.
The first time you heard about Knuckles’ Chaotix went something like this: You excitedly booted up Sonic Generations and began speeding through the hedgehog’s kaleidoscopic past. At some point, around an hour or two in, you collected enough red star coins to unlock “Door Into Summer,” an infectiously groovy song that to your surprise, sounded unfamiliar.
Straight to YouTube you went, typing in the title only to be met with a twinkling melody and an unfamiliar box art. Knuckles’ Chaotix? Uhhh, what?
Ok, maybe you did hear about Knuckles’ Chaotix before that, but maybe you hadn’t played it. Either way, Sonic Generations was at the very least a reintroduction to a title, and more importantly a soundtrack, that was lost to a piece of hardware corroded by the hands of time.
Released in April 1995, Knuckles’ Chaotix was the first, and only, Sonic game to be released on the Sega 32X. It’s a Sonic game in format only — the blue blur wouldn’t appear in the game save for during the credits, unless you count the reskinned Mighty the Armadillo as a subtle nod to the hedgehog.
The 32X? What’s That?
I never owned a 32X and can’t say I’ve met anyone who did. Or if they had one, they certainly didn’t own up to it. The 32X was a sort of stopgap for SEGA as the developer worked to stay competitive during a transitional time in gaming. Following an aggressive marketing campaign that gave the Genesis an edgier, more adolescent character, SEGA was looking to capitalize on its momentum.
“Genesis does what Nintendon’t!” and “Blast Processing!” were two key slogans in Sega’s marketing in the 1990s.
Terms like these differentiated SEGA and its creations from Nintendo and its family first ideology, which ironically is a large reason why Nintendo consoles still sit in living rooms around the world.
Retailing for $159.99 the 32X slotted into Genesis systems to provide access to higher fidelity games in the run up to SEGA’s actual 32-bit system, the SEGA Saturn. Capable of playing Genesis games and sporting a library of 40 native titles, the 32X was viewed as a win, at least internally. According to Tom Kalinske in a 2011 interview with Sonic Retro, SEGA was aware of the 32X’s limited market space.
“At the end of the Genesis’ lifecycle, we knew that other competitors were working with 32-bit technology. And we were really simply trying to expand the life of the Genesis.” — Tom Kalinske
In order to help sell more units, the team developed Sonic Crackers for the 32X, which eventually exorcised both Sonic and Tails from the final product to provide fans the game starring everybody’s favorite red echidna, Knuckles. It’s actually pretty fitting. Knuckles, a character who was introduced in a game whose physical copy featured lock-on technology (Sonic and Knuckles) was re-introduced on the 32X, which locked on to the Genesis.
On the one hand, I could talk about how difficult it is to play Knuckles’ Chaotix. Though the game does provide a handy, and surprisingly optional tutorial, as well as configurable controls, which I believe are the first instance of such in the Sonic series, the game is hardly enjoyable. Like its Sonic Crackers prototype, Knuckles’ Chaotix incorporates a tether mechanic. Two characters are bound together by what I can only assume is magical ring dust. At a basic level it plays like a regular Sonic game. At another, you end up wackily careening around the game world with as much agency as a go-kart on a frozen lake.
If you thought navigating Wacky Workbench in Sonic CD was troublesome, try traversing Knuckles’ Chaotix with a secondary character whom you can only pray follows your inputs. Use the mechanic correctly and you can rocket to speeds rivaling a good Sonic game. But more often, you’ll probably end up flailing around hoping to make your way to the far-most right side of the stage to end the level.
It’s a shame the game plays so poorly, as its best feature is only realized if you spend ample time with the game. The Knuckles’ Chaotix soundtrack, composed by Junko Shiratsu and Mariko Nanba is arguably one of the best to come out of the Sonic series to date. It has an impeccable ability to both provide a last hurrah to the Genesis and its iconic sound capabilities while meshing dynamic level music with the game world and its diverse environments.
The Minds Behind the Music
At the time of Knuckles’ Chaotix release, Shiratsu and Nanba were just the second and third women to lead composing for a Sonic game, preceded only by Yayoi Fujimori’s compositions on Sonic Triple Trouble. Shiratsu had a hand in composing for Genesis and SEGA CD games as early as 1994, the same year she composed for the Sonic Crackers. Her talents were certainly recognized, as some of her tracks were further developed into Knuckles’ Chaotix songs like “Electoria” and “Evening Star.”
While Knuckles’ Chaotix was Nanba’s first run at composing for SEGA, she’d turn her career into 15 years of Sonic compositions, lending her ear to Sonic Heroes, Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), Sonic Rush Adventure, Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Colors. While Shiratsu laid the foundation for the Chaotix soundtrack, it was arguably Nanba’s knack for diverse soundscapes that would color the game’s world.
Knuckles Chaotix — Soundtrack Review
Knuckles’ Chaotix takes place in Newtrogic High Zone, which depending on whether you played the English or Japanese game was either a carnival sought out by Dr. Robotnik to harness the power of the Chaos Rings, or an Eggman influenced amusement park that he planned to use to take over the world.
Regardless, Newtrogic High Zone is a mechanical metropolis, filled with man made creations like sailboats and elevators, as well as geometrically shaped foliage. Visually it’s standard Sonic fare, but sonically, Shiratsu and Nanba take the game to the next level.
Though man versus machine is a common thread in Sonic games, Knuckles’ Chaotix and its soundtrack exaggerate this. Many of the songs are explicitly mechanical in nature. Percussion rattles about like a rollercoaster across wooden slats, and the instrumentation, unlike the realism of Sonic CD’s songs, favors digitized trembles and jingling synths.
Take “Mechanical Dance,” the game over theme. Behind the chaotic synth melody lays a harsh buzzing, reminiscent of the sound effect that plays during a wrong answer on a quiz show. Or, on “Hyper Hyper”, the lobby music, a metallic rhythmic section bounces from ear to ear as Knuckles and company prep to tackle the next stage.
Part of why Knuckles’ Chaotix’s music feels right at home in the Sonic series is how it’s produced. Rather than having its own sound chip, the 32X works off of the Genesis’ Yamaha YM2612 generator, with additional audio channels mixed in through 32X software. The result is a vivacious OST that’s on brand for the Sonic the Hedgehog and his layered compositions.
To go back to the lobby music for a second, that’s another part of what makes this soundtrack so successful. It features not one, but three separate tracks for its lobby, each reflecting the changing time of day. “Evening Star is a bass and synth groove that leaves behind some of the more manufactured sound effects for a more typically funky sonic track.
“Moonrise” reimagines the “Hyper Hyper” melody, albeit with a thick bassline not unlike the sub-nautical bounce of Tidal Tempest’s Bad Future from Sonic CD.
The stage themes feature similar musical diversity. “Electoria,” as it sounds, relies on frenetic eighth and sixteenth notes to drive the pace of Techno Tower, while fan favorite tracks like “Seascape” support the imagery of a lazy beach day as Knuckles strolls through Marina Madness.
Though I’m a sucker for all those songs, “Midnight Greenhouse is my personal favorite. The first half of the song would make for a perfect, low-key loop for a Sonic soundtrack, but the second half and its high-pitched melody breathe new life into an incredibly organic track.
I think I’ve realized why the Knuckles’ Chaotix soundtrack, like the Sonic CD one, is so impactful. Both games feature some of the longest tracklists in the classic 2D sonic series. Knuckles’ Chaotix clocks in at 41 tracks while Sonic CD boasts 42. Both soundtracks are dense, allowing them to morph and complement the levels around them. That means Chaotix levels like Amazing Arena sport multiple themes for various states, taking a game with just five unique stages and jazzing them up with new tunes to suit different moods.
I wouldn’t recommend playing Knuckles’ Chaotix for its gameplay. It’s not a drastically difficult game, but the tether mechanic is enough of a nuisance to leave you better off playing without the pressure of beating the game outright. However, I can recommend playing the game for its soundtrack. These are joyous earworms best enjoyed first hand, as Knuckles and his band of oddballs vault up, down and all around a colorful 32-bit world.