Retrospective: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Retrospective: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

The ridiculous thing about this retrospective is that I bothered to play Sonic the Hedgehog 2 at all.

I love the damned thing of course, but I’ve reached the point where playing it is entirely redundant. It’s not like I expected to find anything new. In fact, I’m all but certain that there isn’t anything new to see. I’ve stumbled across every single route, bust open every box and collected every ring. I may as well sit beneath a bodhi tree and play the game etched into my mind – the aspect ratio is a lot better and there’s always the outside chance I may reach enlightenment. Which would be just swell.

In fact, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is less a game, more a benign growth in the body of my personal history. To call myself a Sonic fan in my earlier years would be rather understating the facts. For me, ‘Sonic’ wasn’t merely a series of snappy short-form platform games: Sonic was, for a long enough time, everything else in my day too. He wasn’t just the subject of the cartoons I watched or the comic books I read either. He popped up in my playground games, was the subject of a couple of binders worth of terrible felt-tip pen illustration and appeared in more pieces of school-work than a hard-working primary school teacher should ever have to deal with. My friends and I even created our own ‘zones’ and sidekicks, a fact I can recount without shame because SEGA created Big the Cat.

Sonic and Tails face Doctor Robotnik's first contraption
Nobody phones it in quite like Doctor Robotnik, seen here driving with no consideration for fellow bridleway users.

With Sonic Generations round the corner and a well established body of wholesale ‘modern Sonic’ bashing, It’s probably worth questioning: is it impossible to put such an all-encompassing part of your life to one side when playing a new entry in the series? As a warm-up, it can’t hurt to return the classics and see them with the nostalgia goggles set to one side. And so, Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 wasn’t my first video game – the Mega Drive wasn’t my first console. It isn’t even my favourite Sonic game, but that’s the point. It was. Falling out of love with it just makes it all the more interesting to write about.

It’s hardly new to point out that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was one of gaming’s first big sequels. In retrospect, it was also one of its most cynical, but hey, at least it was prophetic. Creating a sequel? Make it slightly bigger, chuck in a couple of new abilities and rush a multiplayer mode into it. How very contemporary.

And really, they lucked into a combination of hacked together pieces that worked extremely well. The new enemies were numerous, Tails was as inoffensive a sidekick as SEGA ever managed to create, and not a single one of the levels was anything short of memorable.

Sonic and Tails with friend, Casino Night Zone
The fusion of Vegas-style glitz and glamour with slot-machines and pinball was such a good horse, SEGA have never really stopped flogging it.

We know now that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was always meant to scrape the barrel of level themes, but somehow, it dodged a bullet by leaving out the desert level, the snow level, and the forest level – The sequels were left to make these mistakes. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 has far superior level design in terms of playing space, level length and slick transitions. But its predecessor used up all the conceptual inspiration on its intriguing industrial zones, polluted oceans, gigantic aeroplanes and walk-in casinos.

Consequently, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was a game that was delightful to discover, to see what crazy thing it would think up next. Fortunate again, because it’s also a rather wooly game. It can be credited with introducing me to glitches and chronic slowdown. But for me, the biggest of all the game breaking bugs was hard-coded into the game: the yellow one, your supposed reward for mastering the game’s faux-3D special stages. Super Sonic.

Super Sonic may have had a habit of blast processing his way through solid floors, and yes, a mistimed jump at the end of a zone could freeze the whole game. But these were just symptoms of a rushed Christmas sequel. He’s more of an issue when he’s operating precisely as intended -When he’s an invulnerable blur. He stomps in and ruins everything good about the game, and accentuates its problems a thousand fold.

Super Sonic Glides up a screw in the Metropolis Zone
No, screw you, you bitter lemon-coloured little man.

With Super Sonic in the driving seat, Sonic the Hedgehog 2‘s difficulty goes out of the window faster than you can say ‘Cidolfus Orlandeau’. Even the game’s legendary soundtrack is replaced by one of gaming’s most maddening twenty-second loops. Sure, there are work arounds and he’s optional to a degree… but to me, Super Sonic is singularly offensive because he’s such a striking reminder of the unpleasant truth about the Sonic series.

Even before the controversy of his 3D outings, SEGA were always content to let their mascot be the perennial underachiever. His games were always knocked together annually, leaving them intentionally short, buggy and incomplete. I mentioned earlier that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 has been deposed in my eyes, but Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles is only the finest if you conveniently ignore the fact that SEGA willingly bisected it into two separate, rather meagre-looking titles. The playtime involved in these games makes it seem rather ludicrous that Sonic the Hedgehog was genuinely SEGA’s rebuttal to Super Mario World‘s endless parade of worlds, levels and secrets.

But as cynical a product as any Sonic game seems, their small size is perhaps part of their charm: they’re still remarkable feats of design economy. A little goes a long way, and not just in terms of how these games managed to bizarrely monopolize my childhood. Even to this day, ROM hackers use Sonic the Hedgehog 2 as the basis for fan projects, or try to reveal one last tiny archaeological secret from the code of its accidentally released prototypes. Several projects to recreate the game in full and in High Definition have got themselves to various states of incompleteness. I can’t deny that it’s a game worthy of their obsession.

Sonic faces Doctor Robotnik's final contraption, a gigantic mechanised version of himself
Sonic's final bosses often made up for their easily killed predecessors, tension provided by a unique boss theme and a shortage of rings

Yet, for all the depth of feeling that the game obviously inspires in myself and others, I think it’s best summed up by the one truly graceful thing it added to the series. The spin dash. As soon as it was added in, the original game felt ponderous, uninteresting, apparently unwilling to throw off the shackles of traditional platforming. That one move showed how compelling design doesn’t have to come from expansive worlds, clever visual design, narrative complexity or any of the things that Sonic games had or didn’t have. Reclaiming that effective simplicity has been the struggle of the series every since…

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is not available on Android or Windows Phone 7. It is available on basically every other machine created in the last decade. You have already played it.

4 thoughts on “Retrospective: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

  1. I could debate about the series supposed “bugginess,” as it was pretty darn solid, and the engines had some amazing capabilities for their time. (Personally, I could code together a passable Mario clone fairly quickly, but creating a Sonic engine is a far bigger challenge.)
    But ignoring all that, I feel that each game of the series had something that made it great. Sonic 1 may not have had the spindash, but that makes the game more about managing your momentum and knowing your route. Sonic 2 was perhaps the most challenging. Sonic 3 and Knuckles was the biggest and most spectacular, with some amazing level design. And Sonic CD (my personal favorite), had some of the most creative levels and an excellent soundtrack. (The American version. The Japanese version was just boring Jpop riffs.) Heck, even the Game Gear/Master System Sonic games were quite fun, even if they were a little slower.
    For me, the classic series holds up to this day, and I often go back for a couple of playthroughs, not only for nostalgia, but because it’s still genuinely fun.

  2. Sonic CD… I have to admit, I’m not a fan! The first zone is absolutely beautiful in layout, art and execution of the time travel concept, but I feel that the rest of the game is a mess of eye-burning colour and flat feeling levels. But then, it’s a game that I didn’t play at the time of its release, so perhaps I’m missing something.

    Oh, and whilst I’m not a fan of either soundtrack, the American version possibly has the most ‘shoop-da-wa’s of any game soundtrack I can think of :P

    Nevertheless, I’m very interested by the version of Sonic CD they’re putting together for PSN / 360 / PC… It’s about time someone put together a proper widescreen mode for 16-bit era titles. Oh, an bonus Tails, apparently.

  3. How dare they make a game that is the same 20 years later. I am quite bothered by this and should be entitles to a full refund. Furthermore they should grant me a personal C3PO which would allow me to comprehend their foolish intent!

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