In a 16-bit era constrained by technological limitations, Sky Sanctuary manages to communicate the giddying excitement of approaching the end-game. The music is triumphant, the enemies more intimidating and sophisticated than the typical grunts you’ve come across before. The Death Egg which previously sat on the horizon is now within spitting distance, rising ominously out of a sea of clouds as swarms of robots zip out of it like robotic wasps. Angel Island, home to the entirety of Sonic 3 and most of Sonic & Knuckles, floats in the background, tilting gently from side to side.
The sense of drama and tension is palpable even today, and undoubtedly more so way back when – later Sonic titles packed plenty of spectacle into their short completion times, unlike the longer, more calculated outings of Mario and co. at the time, and Sky Sanctuary was as brash as they came. This was the kind of stage you’d look at on the back of the box as a child and wonder when you’d get to see.
The beautiful, desolate ruins of the stage were a million miles away from the mushroom-filled forests and desert temples you had previously raced through, and significantly more surreal and inspired. Spinning circular platforms, screaming teleporters, springy clouds and moving monkey bars serve to keep the level interesting as you scale ever upwards towards the end of the zone. There’s a great sense of fragility to the level, which is densely populated by platforms and bridges which crumble as soon as you set foot on them, as though you’re the first person to run through it in centuries – one particularly memorable event takes place at the very end of the zone, as you race up a crumbling spiral path in order to reach the Death Egg before it takes off into orbit. It’s as close to a set-piece as you’d get in the old Sonic saga, long before the days of talking partners and open world hubs.
The boss of the zone is none other than Mecha Sonic, who shows up in flashback forms of the old Green Hill and Metropolis zone bosses before he engages you in a one-to-one showdown. In fact, he serves as the final boss of the game for Knuckles, as you battle him for possession of the Master Emerald. This reunion with an old foe is the icing on the cake of one of the series’ best zones.