Insomnia | Reviews

Sonic The Hedgehog 2


By Joshua Farrelly / January 28, 2009

This review was originally published on SegaFans.

It's 1992, and Sega is riding pretty high. The success of Sonic the Hedgehog from a year prior has scended them to a new level of popularity worldwide. This is especially true in the West, where it has helped to more than quadruple Sega's market share and all but guarantees them a permanent presence in the 16-bit generation. All expectations have been shattered. Consoles are flying off the shelves, with Sonic as the pack-in. Retailers haven't even bothered swapping the game out of their kiosks yet. The merchandising machine is in full swing, and can only expand with a cartoon series on the horizon. Hayao Nakayama is happy. Tom Kalinske is happy. Naoto Oshima is happy. Yuji Naka is happy. Mega Drive fans are happy. Sega, however, is discontent to wallow in a single grand slam. They quickly begin preparing the follow-up, establishing a joint venture between their American and Japanese studios (in order to rope in some ex-Sonic Team members, including Naka, who recently moved to Sega Technical Institute).

And really, this one needs no introduction. It's probably the one you played the hell out of as a kid. If you were lucky enough to be the older sibling, you even got the privelege to play as Sonic. The characters were memorable and cool. The environments are some of the most charming and distinctive of any platformer. The soundtrack was so good you wish it were in EVERY game. And, as Kalinske predicted, commercially speaking, it could not have been a more well-placed rock against the head of Goliath.

And... it was shit.

Gwuh? How can I say this? This game is a classic. Just look at any number of memetic critiques on GameFaqs or any random Sega fan page. See, it's good! I don't know, that's not what I saw when I put it in this year. Maybe it was my motivation. I was cleaning my room, saw the case and said "Why the fuck not? I've got time and Daimakaimura needs a break." No yearning to recover the past. At first I was unsure of what exactly I was feeling while going through loop-the-loops, half-pipes, vaccuum tubes, spring boards, getting hit, collecting a ring, getting hit, collecting a ring, bouncing on Eggman for eight seconds. Of course I now recognize it to have been the onset of nihilism. Donkey Kong Country might've been the game that truly brought the platformer genre into the dark ages of inanity, but it wasn't the outbreak monkey.

Because simply put, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a cycle of faulty design endlessly revving spin-dashes into itself. And it all stems from its alleged highest quality: speed. Given the fast rate of scrolling, any type of serious opposition from enemies would seem unfair, for starters. It would be too difficult to react to more than the odd projectile or lunge without committing entire stage layouts to memory. Even nerfed enemies could prove challenging at top speed without a "proper" health mechanic, and we don't want to squander the selling point by making it unknown to beginning players, as they tip-toe around fearing punishment for wielding this fire you bestowed on them. So now we have rings, and an infinite potential for recovery from nearly any mistake. But an action game can't be completely without obstruction or penalty, can it? Not to worry, they've added in some spikes and a few pitfalls. F-U-N. Add a corkscrew loop-the-loop and congratulations, you've just designed a Sonic the Hedgehog stage. Now, maybe somewhere along the line, a game without these concessions would've been possible. But would it then have been the game that got the kids clamoring come Christmas time?

Rings. Fuck 'em. I could go into a whole digression here on how trinkets destroyed the genre, so I might as well. Either that or a paragraph on corkscrew loop-the-loops. You see, before Sonic 2, you had games like Wonder Boy, Rockman, Super Mario Bros. 2 (FDS), Jigoku Meguri, Wardner no Mori, et al. Games built on challenge. Overcoming a difficult platforming section in those games gave players a sense of accomplishment. They did something not everyone can do; they should feel proud. But it's the '90s, and console games aren't shackled by the doctrines of good design. And after all, a mascot platformer's battleground wasn't just on the screen; it was on the cereal boxes, and what child wants to send in boxtops for a plush representation of a character whose game they resent? We see how well that worked out for Bubsy the Bobcat. Rockman NEEDS those energy tanks now. Mario NEEDS that cape to swoop over entire stages. The value of challenge is gradually disregarded. And supplanting challenge for sense of accomplishment? Bananas, balloons and bonus barrels. Big coins, small coins, red coins, blue coins. Chaos emeralds, diamonds, stars, remotes, tokens, wumpa fruit, yarn balls, bottle caps, and last but not least, BUUUUUUUUG JUUUUUUUUUUUUICE! The sense of being Indiana Jones, minus that burdensome temple of doom.

There's a reason I'm singling out number two as well. The stage design in the original game was more compatible with what Sonic was: a glorified obstacle course. No meandering. No choice to go through one loop-the-loop over the other, snagging on something from another route. All you had to do was figure out how to maintain inertia for as long as possible -- without the aid of spin-dashes, by the way. Later sequels, particularly the Dimps series, would do the obstacle course thing MUCH better by having a greater variety of props to interact with, unlike the inaction of watching Sonic pretend to be a bank withdrawal in Chemical Plant or getting shot through cannons for ten seconds in Oil Ocean. Don't think I don't get the obstacle course, either. The concept is not far off from NiGHTS Into Dreams, and that game rules. These courses are just exceptionally asinine. A small ditch with two springs on the sides, slogging boxes in Casino Night (a zone consisting of non-threatening bumpers), propellers in Oil Ocean that serve no other purpose than to keep you from progressing for five seconds. Won't even go into the underwater portions; even Sonic fans hate that shit. All adequate punches to the gut, because if you're not saying "Woah! Look how fast he's going through that corkscrew loop-the-loop!" you're not saying anything at all. Unless you're eight and think there's a point to that slot machine mini-game. Anyway, if for some reason I ever have the desire to time attack a Sonic game, I'll put in Jam and pick Sonic 3 & Knuckles, where I can at least control the tops, spinning cups, and decide when to let go of the pulley. I might even get a grin out of that for a while.

It's a shame they chose to exacerbate the original's flaws by playing up the razzle-dazzle, because everything else about this game is top-shelf. Sonic's surroundings are gorgeous, demonstrating a charisma not often seen outside the Mario series; not exactly easy when you're dealing with simple geometric shapes. But who doesn't remember what the grass in Emerald Hill Zone looks like? Or the opening chords of Hill Top Zone? The soundtrack, courtesy of Masato Nakamura, is particularly endearing. Just the type of melodies you need to help fixate a character in people's minds. Surely it's an experience not unworthy of a half-hour of your time, even if it's just in the Sound Test. And I'll admit, it is deserving of one toast. Without its revenues, who knows what real, merited Sega classics would've remained sketches in the heads of their creators.