HydroCity Zone Is the Most Hateable Zone in Sonic 3

Sonic 3 - Hydrocity Zone

I first played Sonic the Hedgehog 3 when it was fairly new — probably 1994 or 1995. I tend to revisit it occasionally, maybe once every five years or so, to see if it still holds up after all these years. And yes, it does. Sonic 3 is absolutely great.

I love how the game starts you off immediately where Sonic 2 ends — on the wings of Tails’ plane. I adore how this time around, there’s no longer any separation between Act 1 and Act 2; acts just flow from one to the other with a simple text overlay. It’s an incredibly sleek transition for a game that came out in 1994. Plus, I will never stop loving the music for Ice Cap Zone.

But every time I revisit Sonic 3, I get to Hydrocity Zone and suddenly remember how awful this zone is. Seriously, this is one of the worst Sonic zones of the Genesis era. In fact, it might be the worst. (I can actually think of zones in Sonic 4 that are worse, but most of us would rather forget that game even existed. Besides, Sonic 4 isn’t a Genesis-era game.)

Sonic 3 - Hydrocity Zone

My biggest beef with Hydrocity is that everything about it is designed to slow you down.

The entire premise of the Sonic games is that Sonic goes fast, and level layouts are generally designed to show that off. You’ve got loops and ramps to make use of your momentum, springs to give you a quick start, and the Spin Dash (introduced in Sonic 2), which is designed to give Sonic the means to hit top speed from a dead stop almost instantaneously. More than anything else, the Sonic games are about speed.

Too much about Hydrocity Zone is designed to take that away from you. For starters, you’re submerged in water, which slows Sonic to a crawl. On top of that, Sonic needs to stop for air or he’ll drown, so you’ll spend time waiting for air bubbles to emerge so you can breathe. And, perhaps worst of all, there are robotic piranhas that cling to Sonic, making him unable to jump (and draining rings in the process).

As an experiment, I decided to combine two of these things to make what might be the most stressful sound in Sonic history. I got Sonic into a position where he was drowning (cuing the panic-inducing drowning music) and being nibbled on by a piranha (triggering the ring sound once for each time a ring is stolen) at the same time. Combined, this is enough to frazzle just about anyone. This is what anxiety sounds like.

Here’s a video in case you don’t believe me:

It’s horrible, right?

So anyway, Hydrocity is the second zone in Sonic 3, immediately following the stunningly brilliant Angel Island Zone. Angel Island is sort of your tutorial zone, and while it has a few troublesome spots that will halt your progress, there’s a good amount of momentum to it as a whole. This primes you to get comfortable with Sonic’s speed, making you ready to really tear things up by the end of it. And then, you’re forced to endure the underwater nightmare of Hydrocity.

Now, let’s compare this with Chemical Plant Zone, which is the second zone in Sonic 2. There’s a purple chemical that’s designed using all the same mechanics as the water: It slows you down and Sonic can’t breathe while submerged. However, you actually spend very little of Chemical Plant Zone submerged in the stuff. You’re mostly zipping along extended ramps and hitting loops at incredible speeds. Chemical Plant has a great deal of momentum to it, despite the chemicals.

It also has a real banger of a background music track.

Chemical Plant is how you implement a water-based level in a Sonic game. It actually makes sense coming off of the “tutorial” zone. You are put into situations where you get to move at ludicrous speeds, yet the chemical submersion is a mechanic that’s added on top of the whole speed thing. It’s additive, for the most part, rather than subtractive.

And sure, Chemical Plant Zone is followed by Aquatic Ruin Zone, which has a lot of the same problems as Hydrocity. However, the stages are shorter in Sonic 2 than in Sonic 3. Sonic 3‘s lengthy stages only exacerbate everything that’s wrong with Hydrocity, whereas Sonic 2‘s shorter levels make Aquatic Ruin something that you just sort of just grit your teeth and press through so you can play the better zones that follow it. (Aquatic Ruin Zone is followed by Casino Night Zone, which I never cared for, but everything after that is pure gold, with the exception of maybe Metropolis Zone.)

Sonic 3 is an amazing, innovative game that’s still fun to play nearly three decades after it launched, and I really do love it as a whole (though not as much as I love Sonic CD, which is peak Sonic in my book). So I really do hate to point this out. But let’s be honest, Hydrocity Zone is just an unnecessary roadblock in an otherwise fantastic game.

In fact, I hate Hydrocity so much that my brain completely erases it as soon as I’m finished. This means that every time I replay Sonic 3, I’m suddenly aggravated by this awful stage that I’d completely forgotten about.

Every. Single. Time.

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