Special Stages, also called 3D Special Stages, in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles are a series of extra levels. Here, the player must collect blue spheres and avoid red spheres on a checkerboard-covered, spherical planet.
To enter the Special Stages, the player needs to find the Giant Rings that are hidden in the regular Zones. Upon clearing a Special Stage, the player will receive a Chaos Emerald. In the locked-on version of the game, multicolored Super Rings from Mushroom Hill Zone and onward can also be found. These rings let the player enter additional Special Stages which award them with Super Emeralds.
In Special Stages, the player constantly moves around on a small, checkerboard-covered spherical planet full of different objects related to the player's goal. Being spherical planets, these Special Stages will loop around infinitely; when the player reaches the northern point, they will find themselves walking towards the south point. Meanwhile, all of the playable characters' moves besides the Spin Jump will be disabled while in the Special Stages, and the player is only able to move left or right using . The player is capable of jumping a distance of two spheres with the Spin Jump. Additionally, the longer the player stays in a Special Stage, the faster the playable characters will move, raising the risk of hitting a red sphere unintentionally.
The opening line "Get blue spheres" sums up the goal in the Special Stages: the player has to run through all blue spheres found in the stage. Doing so, however, turns them into dangerous red spheres. Small Ring formations are also found separately in Special Stages, which the player can pick up to earn additional awards. The upper left HUD counter shows the remaining blue spheres, and the upper right HUD shows the number of Rings the player has collected. When the player walks over the entire perimeter of a group of blue spheres, each blue sphere will be turned into a Ring. Special Stages also include other spheres with different effects that trigger upon contact.
If the player collects all blue spheres in a Special Stage, all objects present will fly off the planet and the player will come across a Chaos Emerald, thus completing the Special Stage. By completing all seven Special Stages in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Sonic will be able to turn into Super Sonic and the game's good ending will be unlocked. Sonic & Knuckles has another seven Special Stages, but with more challenging object layouts and routes to collect the blue spheres. Completing these Special Stages will earn the player Chaos Emeralds like in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, allowing Sonic and Knuckles to turn into Super Sonic and Super Knuckles in Sonic & Knuckles. For Sonic, however, the player can also access The Doomsday Zone after defeating Kyodai Eggman Robo and unlock the game's good ending.
|Blue Sphere||Obtainable spheres in the Special Stages which the player must collect all of to get a Chaos Emerald/Super Emerald. When the player gets the blue sphere, it turns into a red sphere. When the player obtains all blue spheres from the edges of large blue sphere groups, they turn into Rings. However, red spheres included in the group will remain intact.|
|Red Sphere||The most common sphere in the Special Stages, which the player should avoid. Touching them transports the player out of the Special Stage without getting an Emerald. They can be avoided by jumping over them or moving around them.|
|Yellow Sphere||Only featured in the Special Stages of Sonic & Knuckles and the locked-on version of the game. If the player runs into one of these, they will spring five squares forward on the grid of the planet. They are usually necessary to proceed, but tread with caution.|
|Bumper||When the player touches these spheres, they will bounce them backwards. However, the player is able to run forward again by pressing up on . Bumpers can be dangerous objects if the player rams into them at high speed.|
|Ring||Can be found in different places. Collecting all blue spheres from the edges of large blue sphere groups will also turn each blue sphere there into a Ring. In a Special Stage, collecting fifty Rings earns the player a Continue, while collecting all Rings gives a "perfect" bonus, which is worth 50,000 points (and an extra life).|
Special Stage information
Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Sonic & Knuckles
In Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles, the rules for accessing specific Special Stages have changed due to the new exclusive Super Emerald feature in the lock-on. When entering Zones from Mushroom Hill Zone and onwards while having all seven Chaos Emeralds, there will be multicolored Giant Rings (dubbed the "Super Ring") which replace the Special Rings. These Super Rings will take the player to the Hidden Palace Zone, where the player's Chaos Emeralds will turn into gray Super Emeralds on pedestals. Jumping onto one of these deactivated Emeralds will transport the player to a Special Stage of Sonic & Knuckles; clearing such a Special Stage will unlock one of the Super Emeralds. In return, the player will lose all their Chaos Emeralds and will be unable to use their Super State.
If the player does not have all of the Chaos Emeralds prior to reaching Mushroom Hill Zone, the player is given the opportunity to acquire the first Super Emerald via the Super Ring encountered at the beginning of Mushroom Hill Zone Act 1. However, the player will not be allowed to return to the Super Emerald Special Stages via Super Rings until they collect the remaining Chaos Emeralds. If the player attempts to access Hidden Palace Zone via the said Super Ring without having a single Chaos Emerald, they will not be able to play any Special Stages and must leave Hidden Palace Zone by standing on the green transporter from which they arrived on. By completing all seven Special Stages for the Super Emeralds, the player gets to play as either Hyper Sonic, Super Tails or Hyper Knuckles. The game's ending also changes slightly.
- In Sonic the Hedgehog 3, there is a secret eighth Special Stage which the player is able to enter using cheat codes. The player must access the Level Select code and play the music number "07" on the Sound Test. After this, the player must press and START button at the same time to enter the "Special Stage 1" section. By completing it, the player earns a golden Chaos Emerald, which does not have any effect on the game whatsoever.
- In Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles, there also exists a ninth Special Stage with a yellow Super Emerald. To enter this Special Stage, the player must have enabled Level Select and Debug Mode while going to the Sound Test. There, the player must play music number "07" and then go to the "Special Stage 1" while pressing and START button at the same time.
- The line "Get Blue Spheres" was originally called "Get Blue Balls" during game's development. This was changed by the game's testers in the final cut.
- This type of Special Stage is used as the core gameplay mechanic for the standalone game Blue Sphere.
- The Special Stages return in Sonic Mania, this time acting as Bonus Stages for passing a Star Post with enough Rings and jumping into the Star Circle that appears above. The rules remain the same as in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles. Some of the layouts are directly derived from Sonic the Hedgehog 3, including the aforementioned secret Special Stage.