Sonic drops down into the molten caves, deep inside the volcano that the Death Egg crashed into, and you can see it looming over you at the top of the stage. Act 1 is quite a fun, lively network of rocky tunnels and pits of bubbling lava. The calmer Act 2 brings with it one of the most significant mid-level changes ever, as the molten rock cools and forms glowing icy crystals, sitting alongside the lava lakes in miraculous harmony. There's a completely different style and atmosphere in these more deadly ice caverns, loaded with traps as Sonic and Knuckles move ever closer, albeit in mostly separate routes, to the Master Emerald.
Spacious areas inside the subterranean volcanic caves of Act 1 are supported by massive thick rocky pillars with a green-ish glow, reaching up from the floor to the ceiling in the background, with stalagmites and stalactites surrounding their bases on either end. Beyond, there are veins of bright lava streaming between black rocks, and other endless glowing pillars into the distant abyss of the colossal caverns. Look for Robotnik's Death Egg facing downwards in a hole in the ceiling some distance away, with red flashing eyes. The rough, molten foreground surfaces of Act 1 are based mostly on rounded light brown rocks, almost polygonal in appearance, and stacked on top of each other. Their darkened areas shift from black to glowing purple regularly, and among them you'll also find a grid network of thick, purple pipes running throughout the act, with various connecting features such as valves and flashing patterns. Though thoroughly integrated into the rock, their purpose and origin isn't clear, but presumably they have been placed by Eggman, along with the other man-made traps and features in the level, perhaps to aid and defend the Death Egg's regeneration once again. Steep slopes are tamed by a series of square wooden block steps, and narrow tunnels are supported by wooden beams reaching horizontally and vertically. Short thin bronze poles flank either side of some pathways with little red and yellow decorative flashing patterns on their tops. Though pits of lava and tumbling "lava-falls" are obvious hazards, some lava also falls harmlessly in vast, wide streams just behind the character. The many internal tunnels have a dark, dull green crystalised pattern to them that fades gently in colour.
Lava Reef is a level of opposite extremes, and when you enter Act 2 you'll see exactly why, as the environment magically changes from violent and active to a calmer, blue world of ice and crystals. It's unfortunate that the reasons and stories behind so many of these old levels are never officially clarified, but I like to think in this case that it's the Master Emerald that keeps these hot and cold environments in such close co-existence. The background of Act 2, in the few areas that actually break away from the internal tunnels, is almost exactly the same as Act 1, though with a purple glow to the mighty pillars as opposed to a green one. Towards the end, the perched Death Egg appears much bigger, peering in through the rocky ceiling. The foreground is partly blue-ish rounded rock, similar to the brown ones in Act 1, and partly sparkling crystals that glow from one colour to another. The disorganised rubble is overlayed this time by thin turquoise blocks, laid down for you to run smoothly across. The pipes, now white in colour, abandon the grid formation and are used for the majority of the ceilings of the rooms and sections, many of them curved. The block steps, less frequent in this act, are now part of the piping system and feature animated red yellow and orange lighting patterns on them, and turquoise posts or more white piping supports the weight in narrow corridors. More crystals appear along the pathways, and internals tunnels are backed by flowing dark and light blue stripes of small rocks, much more prevalent than in Act 1.
It has its speedy moments, but Lava Reef is generally more maze-like in its structure. Act 1 is essentially a massive network of tunnels mostly cut inside the rocky ground. Though a handful of open rooms can be found in the more external cave areas, it is mostly a very enclosed level, with areas of solid ground everywhere around you. Surfaces in this first act are rocky and uneven, though paths in general are more straight than curved, plus there are steep slopes made up of a series of block steps to climb. Some areas require you to hop across a pool of lava by small stepping stones, but there are plenty of other traps to keep you busy in the tunnels too. Use large curved cuttings in the wall or spiraling pathways to throw yourself with speed across a wide open area at the bottom end. All directions are explored, sometimes leading you up or down alternating paths on the left and right, particularly in Act 2. Here, it's a similar deal, but these internal icy caves generally feel a a little bit less enclosed, with larger rooms and corridors. The curved piping on the floor and mostly ceilings encourage more speed when a spring is introduced, and there are many sections where you can be thrown upwards, only to use the ceiling curve to run right around and fall back down again (particularly annoying if there happens to be yet another spring awaiting you at the bottom). Act 2 also introduces more platform hopping across large blocks, both moving and stationary, and the slopes are smooth and gentle, with fewer steps to climb.
One thing that's really worth noting about Lava Reef Zone is that Sonic and Knuckles are confined to nearly completely different routes to each other in both Acts - or so it may seem at first anyway. In Act 1, Sonic has the ability to explore most of the space, with his route splintering into a couple of significant choices of sub-routes towards the end, while Knuckles meanwhile appears to have a largely single-route path to himself that's literally crammed into the bottom of the stage, and takes place mostly inside the internal passages. The two meet near the end and Knuckles' tasks are quite a bit more challenging here. What you might not know is that Knuckles can actually access the majority of Sonic's routes too, by making use of a very well hidden stairway, described in Point #1, accessible if you can bypass the large drilling badnik near the start. Act 2 mostly keeps the characters to their own separate journeys once again, Knuckles still having to deal with some genuinely difficult sections, but at least his take on both acts are a lot shorter than Sonic's, and in Act 2, he doesn't even have a boss to fight! There are fewer multiple routes in Act 2, but those not afraid to explore may find one or two shortcuts if they look hard enough - a particularly big one for Sonic near the start. There are no death drops, except for below the thin walkway at the very end, in a huge open section. Still, this is a pretty difficult level for either character, though at the same time, Act 1 in particular is still a fun and lively stage to play.
Act 1 has boulders and solid rock protruding from the ground all over the shop. Some crumble when you stand on them, others are breakable by a spin dash or a touch of Knuckles' fist, but some single rocks or thin lines of them remain sturdy, and can be found on floor, ceiling or as small ledges on the walls. In narrow tunnels, watch out for small sharp rocks that hang from the ceilings and drop when you stand or pass by underneath them, and press small buttons on walls or the floor to open up thin rock doorways, located nearby or opposite. When crossing lava pits, be aware that the small square stepping stones you use to hop across them move down under your weight, so if you hang around on them, you'll land in the lava, which of course, hurts you. Stand on these stones when on solid ground though and you may find a hidden spring underneath them. Usually while making your way up or down a series of wooden steps, horizontal flame shooters located along the opposite walls, or on the steps themselves, periodically shoot a small blast of fire that travels fairly slowly across the screen.
Sometimes lava flows down in the immediate background, in a wide lava-fall, but other times it will drop in thinner falls in the foreground, which will harm you. These will cease for brief moments, allowing you to pass by, but be quick. Watch out for small chained spikeballs swinging 360 degrees, often on the lengthy wooden staircases or in corridors, and small green gun pods positioned outside and above closed doorways will fire projectiles diagonally down toward you in quick succession. As an alternative to a button, jump and destroy them to open the doorway in question.
Mostly inside the internal tunnels, you'll find small black wheeled elevator devices, two wheels on either side, and often positioned at the top or bottom of a narrow vertical shaft. Stand in the middle and spin dash facing left to get it to move down, or right to move up the shaft. It'll keep moving for as long as you maintain your spin dash charge, but will cease soon after you release it. And then there are the crushers. These wide bronze things are possibly the meanest of all and are lined with large spikes underneath and a touch of fire to propel them upwards. They float up slowly but come down suddenly, trying to squish you into the ground or a lava pit, but their tops are flat, and make for perfect platforms to get to a higher point. Particularly nasty in narrow corridors where you only get a second or two to pass them. Massive spikeballs borrowed from Marble Garden roll back and forth quickly across the ground, cutting it up as they go. In one instance described in Point #5, one will be swinging around a large column inside a narrow tunnel, and then actually begin to chase you down a slope after you've passed it!
Almost all of this is dropped for Act 2, which has its own separate range of objects to tackle. The same buttons still open doors in the same way, but flame throwers, no longer content with a short fireball now and then, now produce a flurry of fire that dances back and forth over a small area. These torches can be located on the wall, floor and ceiling this time and only pause for very brief intervals. They normally protrude from the ends of the piping system that circulates ceilings and walls. The small spikeballs are sharper but can still be found swinging 360 on chains, both above the ground and circling platforms. You can also find them swinging around vertical posts in corridors, and in this case, are safe to pass when they're behind the post and out of view. In long thin stretches, you may find a whole string of them circling the thin ledge that you need to walk along, so wait until the first one is below it, then quickly run along the ledge. The others should move down accordingly, keeping in rhythm. Spikeballs that sit on the ground and emit the standard "laser charge-up" sound effect are thrown up a little way into the air by the flashing metal thing underneath them, upon being fully charged. Almost a bit of an anti-climax really.
Long, rotating drums stretching over a wide vertical shaft contain rows of spikes and ladder steps. Obviously you need to avoid the spikes and when you jump on the ladder, you'll grab onto it and swing around on the drum. What you need to do is jump from there to a ladder on the next one above. Do so while you're swinging upward on it rather than down, and the lower you are when you press the jump button, the higher up you should go. Pressing up at the same time may help too.
The crushers are completely different in Act 2. Now they're large, square white blocks (with a valve on the front that kind of make them look like a big washing machine) and they move slowly right/left or up/down. Be careful you don't get crushed between them and a solid surface, but also use them as platforms, jumping from one to the other in an open space. Ice barriers need smashing and single collapsing platforms crumble under your weight. Reminiscent of a similar item in Metropolis Zone, a pair of large wheels on either end move a series of big, spike-bottomed platforms round a thin moving belt, lined vertically. Jump on one and wait until it takes you around to the next area, avoiding the spikes on the bottom of the one above it, and of course the big pit of spikes that usually lurks below. Act 2 also has its own high speed transportation system. Step inside the entrance to a golden tunnel, and you'll be sent spinning through the winding pipe, eventually throwing you right out the other end with speed, often in a whole other area of the stage.
Eggman robots to encounter include Toxomister, Fireworm and an unnamed exploding badnik. Toxomister are the strange grey poles sticking out of the ground, reaching just above your character's head and with a single lazy looking eye mounted on the top, which you need to hit in order to defeat them. They can also be found upside down on the ceilings. They don't go anywhere and aren't very animated - as to be expected from a pole really - but they do produce small clouds of nasty toxic gas in their immediate area, which float down and attach to you if you make contact. Similar to the piranhas of Hydrocity, when the cloud is on you, your speed will dramatically reduce, you won't be able to jump very high, and worse, your ring count will begin to drop by one per second until it kills you. To free yourself, either kill the badnik, spin dash away, or quickly move from left to right. They're a real danger actually, not just if you're low on rings when you find yourself under the cloud, but all you need to do is take one hit from something else, and then the cloud will be able to kill you instantly. Don't think it won't! Fireworms are usually found inside the tunnels and are like flying Caterkillers, sometimes grouped in pairs. They emerge from small, well hidden black holes in the background wall, so be careful as they can take you by surprise when they first emerge. They then proceed to float back and forth, producing small flames from their wriggling spiked body parts, so hit them on the heads only please. The third badnik - "Iwamodoki" in Japanese, but unnamed in English - is a self-harming one that hides under rocks that stick out of the ground, and peaks out when you get close. At this point, you will have set them off and they begin to flash. You've got about three seconds before they explode, throwing harmful chunks of rock a fair distance around them, and you can tell that they're about to pop when their eyes open up wide. You cannot harm this badnik yourself, but if you've got a shield (and a good player usually will, in this stage), the pieces of rock will just bounce right off, causing you zero discomfort. Very useful, considering the vast number of these exploders.
- There's a strong theory regarding the part Knuckles plays during his playable story through Sonic 3/Sonic & Knuckles. There's reasonable evidence, particularly in this level and the following one, that suggests his story actually takes place completely after Sonic's has finished, constraining it simply to a "clean-up" operation across the island in which the aim is to defeat the remaining badniks, including one particularly resilient and confident Eggrobo. At the end of Act 2, Sonic clearly approaches the Death Egg, as it peers through the open volcano in the ceiling, yet it's no longer there when Knuckles comes to the exact same spot - presumably having already been launched. The same can be said for its appearance in the upper background of the next level, Hidden Palace, where the light coming through highlights it even more clearly. In Act 1, Knuckles' exclusive route is contained almost entirely within internal sections where the background (which also normally contains the Death Egg) can't be seen. However the theory stumbles slightly if you take the very secret alternate route described in Point #1 which redirects Knuckles onto the vast majority of Sonic's route. Vexingly, by Point #4 as Knuckles, you will then see the Death Egg in the background, with a method that's perfectly above board. Nothing has ever been officially clarified, but nevertheless, I would say there is enough other evidence throughout the game to suggest this theory to be true, and that perhaps this was an oversight on the part of the developers.