Sega rounds out the trilogy with an unfortunately luke-warm entry to the series.
The first thing I noticed with this game is that the characters I was playing as were missing moves. Sonic Advance and Sonic Advance 2 fleshed out our characters with a robust set of easy-to-use moves. Sonic Advance 3 removes a lot of your favorite moves in order to force you to play around with the "team play" aspect; depending on which characters you team up, your move set will change. For example, if you're a fan of Sonic Advance 2, pairing Sonic up with Tails will, for the most part, replicate Sonic's move set from that game, complete with tricks and the Sonic Boom manuver, in addition to a new move where Sonic and Tails play leap-frog (allowing Sonic to do a super high jump). Pairing Sonic up with Knuckles will disable the Tricks and Sonic Boom, replacing them with the ability to do a flaming kick manuver, the choice to pick up and throw Knuckles like a giant red baseball, or Piggy back him as he glides. Trying out the 25 total combination possibilities is half the fun of the game, but having to pick one buddy character over another annoys me greatly - I enjoyed how these characters controlled in Sonic Advance 2, and forcing me to stick with a character I might not want to be with just so I can do X move was a poor choice in my opinion.
The next thing I noticed is how slow I moved. Perhaps it's from playing too much Sonic Advance 2, but when you first start playing Sonic Advance 3, Sonic feels extremely sluggish. As you collect more rings, Sonic's acceleration increases, but that leads into a second problem: Sonic Advance 3 is cheaper than ever. While the amount of bottomless pits has been toned down, the number of cheap hits has not. Infact, dare I say, the cheap hits have only been increased - for every bottomless pit in Sonic Advance 2, there is two spike pits in Sonic Advance 3. There are so many spike pits in this game, it puts Megaman to shame. Add in to this equation cluttered, hap-hazard level design and you've got the pinnacle of frusteration: right when you start getting enough rings for some tolerable acceleration, you find yourself on the recieving end of spikes. The trend only gets more frusterating as the game progresses. Level design itself feels dense and cluttered; levels feel like they were designed for a slower, more deliberate pace like the original Sonic Advance, which makes the higher speed levels feel unweildy and difficult to control - this is only compounded by the abundance of objects designed to hurt the player. It makes Sonic Advance 3 feel messy.
Even more frusterating is the fact that the game is broken up into something called "The Sonic Factory". Borrowing a page from Sonic Adventure, these stages are somewhat like the Adventure Fields in that game, except less exciting: Rather than actual locales, each "Sonic Factory" looks exactly like the last, just with a different color palette. Each stage is completely devoid of enemies obstacles, or often, even level design period, and you must hunt out warp rings in each "Sonic Factory" to enter each act of the stage, the boss, and various bonus/minigames. These would have been more interesting if there was actually gameplay to them - but as it stands, they only serve to slow down the process of getting to the next stage, with inane puzzles. These same puzzles pepper the main stages - which generally are about as complex as "push a button for a spring to appear where you need it to be". They don't add anything, but they certainly take away a lot of the flow the stages have; as often times you must stop moving, press a button, and then hunt out the spring/platform it activated. Rounding out the stages are boss fights, most of which rank up there as some of the most awkward-looking fights in history. They are neither fast nor exciting, and one boss fight in particular took over 5 minutes to complete. Not because it was difficult, mind you: Instead, because it was simply tedious.
Keeping with tradition, Special Stages are even more difficult to enter this time around. Rather than having to find seven "SP Rings" as in Sonic Advance 2, you must now find eight Chao per "world". Once you find all the Chao, keys begin to appear in the stages. Each key you collect counts as one "try" for the Special Stage, and you can carry up to nine keys for each stage per world. The Special Stages themselves are among some of the most bland-looking, uninspired bonus levels in Sonic history.
Visually, Sonic Advance 3 is a mixed bag. Character sprites are just as animated as they always have been, but visual design for the levels is seriously lacking. These are some of the least visually appealing levels in Sonic history, just about. Sunset Hill, Toy Kingdom, and Twinkle Snow are just plain ugly (Sunset Hill especially). This picks up later for the final stage, Chaos Angel, which is a very visually pleasing stage. But, overall, one stage does not help the fact that this is not a game that's easy on the eyes. Adding to this are misaligned sprites - generally, throughout most of the game, the tiles for the levels seem to be properly aligned. But every now and then, you'll run across a portion of levels that look like a bad jig-saw puzzle, where edges of the tiles don't fit together properly. It's a minor annoyance, but once you notice it the first time, you start noticing it everywhere else. This just makes Sonic Advance 3 feel lazy in construction.
Musically, the game is just as mixed as the graphics. Some songs are remixes of old-school Sonic songs, some are lifted from previous Sonic Advance titles, but the majority of the music is new and uninspired. There is nothing memorable about the music at all. Sound effects are as they should be, with very sparse voice clips sprinkled here and there. The voice clips can get annoying, but I didn't find them annoying enough to really reach for the volume dial.
Overall, what we are left with is a game that totally misses the mark set by Sonic Advance 2. It tries to fix a lot of the problems Sonic Advance 2 created, but in turn, it creates a host of new problems all it's own that far outweigh the problems in Sonic Advance 2. If you're looking for a good Gameboy Advance Sonic title, pass over Sonic Advance 3 and check out Sonic Advance 2, or even Sonic Advance 1. They are much better games.