#3: He rather flex his muscles — unlike that troglodyte Sonic,
Gonna lose forever, never chuckle
In video games, all you ever need to do is fuck up. You fail over and over again. But whenever we see a loser on screen — most of the time, we’re just not supposed to like them. Someone who can’t keep a promise. Someone who is literally trying to ruin every living moment of your life. A nemesis, someone who can’t keep up with bad guys.
Knuckles is a sore loser. He’s made an entire career of losing things and finding them again. But he’s still, technically, a good guy — good enough to fail constantly and still be iconic. He is consistently in every Sonic roster. He, unsurprisingly, is also a failed furry macho in a world of cute saccharine good guys. A really, really fed up crimson heterosexual with a penchant for hard jewels and occasional crisis management.
Sonic 3 came out in 1994, two years before I was born. The game was broken into two parts: Sonic 3 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles, which together make one Frankenstein-esque narrative arc about Knuckles saving Angel Island with Sonic’s help. It was also the year The Mask came out, an equally challenging piece of art about a man with an identity crisis. Most importantly, it was the first time gamers in the US discovered what the hell an echidna was. According to the Sonic 3 manual, they like grapes, wearing giant boxing gloves, and gliding through the air. Amazing.
After crash-landing on the mysterious floating “Angel Island,” Sonic and Tails bounce around, destroying robots until one of Eggman’s fleets sets everything aflame. They have no respect for Knuckle’s home. They’re deviant hooligans burning fuel crashing airplanes on deserted island — maybe a little like the plot of Cast Away. Once the very first level’s boss is cleared...a cocky, chuckling Knuckles flips the switch and sends our dynamic duo into the watery grave of Hydrocity Zone. This is the first time we see Knuckles, and we absolutely hate his guts because he has no respect for the sanctity of life. He is utterly irredeemable now.
You ever met someone you knew you weren’t going to like? Ever? Knuckles was like that for me. I didn’t understand what the hell his deal was. He could’ve just walked away and left Sonic and Tails alone on that burning jungle. But maybe Knuckles never saw Oil Ocean Zone before — this was his Anakin moment. But he pushes that damn switch anyways. And he laughs the entire way while you’re tumbling down, down, down. Knuckles is the school bully who will make thinly-veiled problematic comments Facebook in 10 years. And he knows Sonic can’t swim. A complete douche move.
Other Sonic titles touch on Knuckles’ instability as a character, but I think Sonic 3 does it best. Guardian of the mystical Master Emerald — the source of energy that keeps his home, Angel Island, afloat — Knuckles is bound by his duty to make sure all hell doesn’t break loose. Once the Master Emerald goes missing, Dr. Robotnik/Eggman is quick to sweep into our rowdy boy’s ear and tell him it’s the blue hedgehog’s fault. And off Knuckles goes, to wreak havoc, punch things, and generally make everyone’s day worse. He fights Sonic, the two find their common enemy in Eggman, and suddenly Angel Island is saved, the end.
This is the world of Sonic 3, the end of an era, and the beginning of Knuckles’ spiral in a vaguely defined redemption arc. These are the trials and tribulations of a deeply troubled young echidna who isn’t quite sure if he’s winning or losing.
Single, Never Ready To Mingle
Knuckles has a short temper. He’s a perpetually angry young guy. He feels obligated to follow his own sense of justice, even if it’s misinformed. He has a hate-love affair with a sexy bat in Sonic Adventure 2 which is never properly explained, but again they’re cartoons. Is Knuckles, perhaps trying to overcompensate for failing to be the impenetrable macho archetype — an Atlas carrying the entirety of Angel Island on his back? An unsung hero?
In the opening cutscene of Sonic Adventure, we see Knuckles sitting on Angel Island alone, contemplating his destiny via a one-man monologue:
“I’ve been living here, on this dark island…always guarding the Master Emerald…from anything that could harm it. I don’t know why I was given this job…why it was my fate….”
In Sonic Adventure, the first proper 3D Sonic game, the Master Emerald is destroyed again. Knuckles honestly sounds exhausted at this point — he exclaims he’s “destined to be here…forever!” with the kind of over dramatic tone I used in high school calculus. I get the feeling Knuckles regrets his life decisions, but he can’t change them now. Like a bad tattoo. The context of this scene is that Knuckles is utterly exhausted, yet has quietly accepted his fate: he’s supposedly good at one thing (protecting Angel Island) and God help him if he can’t do even that.
Knuckles has consistently only had a bunch of broken shards to hunt down. No wonder he has a bruised ego while the rest of the gang marches their merry way. He never gets closer to keeping the Angel Island safe — restoring the environment, going back to his normal life — he eventually gets those Master Emerald shards back but at what cost? Some utter rando is just going to break them again in Sonic Adventure 2. The man has no peace of mind and he doesn’t even know it.
Knuckles is always the foil to Sonic — even more so than Tails — he never quite gets his day to shine despite constantly having to put the Master Emerald back together. Over and over with no end in sight. It’s like he’s being punished for wanting something that isn’t Sonic’s tyrannical, never-ending mission to end Eggman. There is no escape. Only the endless return to an unthankful job in a post-capitalist Sonic society full of horny bat ladies, robot animals, and ego-tripping hedgehogs.
Knuckles is everything hero isn’t meant to be. His power is being being a beefcake. But that overt masculinity/macho personality also feels so...un-Sonic to me? These are cute animal characters, for the most part, have pretty uncomplicated relationships to their morality. Knuckles is a lot like that angry jock I knew in college that’s smart enough to get by, but you know he probably has horrible anger management. Knuckles supposedly has a tragic backstory — but we never see it. We just know he’s the last of his people and that’s sad business. If he was too complicated, he’d steal the spotlight. I get the feeling Knuckles really just wants to go home whenever he’s dragged on adventures at this point. He wants a mortgage and a family and probably dental insurance.
By the end of Sonic Adventure, Knuckles gets a bookend conclusion, a literal parallel of the opening cutscene as though nothing ever happened. His adventures just so happen to be a minor inconvenience. Knuckles is so unbothered and yet so unexpectedly aggressive, it makes me wonder if this version of the character is the same one from 1994. He seems so aware of the never-ending nature of his plight: punch, rescue Master Emerald, save the day, repeat, I wonder if he even realizes he’s losing, or if he really thinks he will “win” some intangible thing. If Knuckles can keep losing and deal with it, I’m sure lots of other angry boys out there can, too. I hope.