Friday, 15 May 2020

Mega Drive Review - Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (Game 184)


Sonic the Hedgehog is a character that most will think of when they imagine the Mega Drive. But is the second game in the series really as good as the designers of 'Sonic Mania' claim?

Developed by Sega Technical Institute

Published by Sega
Released in 1992



There was a time during the PlayStation revolution when videogames briefly became cool again. Sony’s big push to prove that the console was culturally relevant and in touch with the clubbing culture made it a hit with people who thought they had outgrown childish games. It was a glorious time, but it didn’t last. Throughout my thirties people once again started to look at me with disgust when I mention that I like to play games. Now, hurtling towards my forties people roll their eyes when they see me playing games on the train. There are two people who now suddenly think my extensive video game knowledge is very cool; my daughters. When ‘Pokémon Go’s popularity reached the playground they asked me if I knew who Pikachu was. They were very impressed I did and we subsequently enjoyed playing ‘Let’s Go Pikachu’ together. But while knowledge of Pokémon vulnerability enthralled, it was my appreciation for a certain blue hedgehog that really gave me street cred. After watching the recent ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ my daughters fell for his attitude and flamboyance. But it was the quick cameo of a sidekick buddy at the end of the film that really sparked their imagination. While it seems girls under the age of 10 now suddenly love Sonic, it’s Miles “Tails” Prower that they truly adore.  So when my girls asked if they could play a 'Sonic' game I of course wanted to indulge. Obviously it wasn’t going to be a 3D game I pointed them towards; Sonic’s fall from grace when entering the third dimension has been well documented. The 2D side scrolling ‘Sonic Mania’ is a return to form, so while that would have been a good choice, it was the game than many consider to be the best 2D Sonic game that I went for. ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’ does after all have a (admittedly very limited) two player mode; perfect for two enthusiastic little girls try the series for the first time.

In the past, while I’ve acknowledged that ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ is an ambitious game, it certainly has glaring faults that nostalgia seem to shield many from. It’s a game that features a main character that’s defined by being quick, yet many of its levels seem to prohibit that. We all remember speeding through the loops of Green Hill and Spring Yard Zones, yet we choose to forget the slow trudge through Marble, Scrap Brain and Labyrinth Zones. The first ‘Sonic’ game is filled with leaps of faith, frustrating water sections and repetitive boss fights. But of course, the game was a massive success. It did everything Sega intended it to do, providing an iconic mascot, creating the first “must have” Mega Drive game and creating a character that could rival Nintendo's Mario. According to Game Informer; “[‘Sonic 2’] boosted sales of Genesis hardware to the point that it was nearly Nintendo's equal in terms of market share.“

Starting in November 1991, development of a sequel was inevitable but intriguingly it was being done by The Sega Technical Institute in America, rather than The Sonic Team in Japan. Sonic's original creator and designer Yuji Naka had had a well-documented falling out with Sega of Japan, leading to his departure from the company. Evidently, STI head Mark Cerny had charmed the director of ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ Hirokazu Yasuhara and he agreed to come out to the United States to join development on the sequel. When Cerny learned of Yuji Naka's departure from Sega of Japan, he immediately persuaded him to come out to America as well. “I'd managed to reunite two of the three key Sonic Team members [...] at my Sega Technical Institute” recalls Cerny. After a delayed start, the team had eleven months to finish the sequel, but with an even mix of Japanese and American developers working on the game, it was not a harmonious experience. Art director, Tim Skelly claimed “everyone attached to ‘Sonic 2’ ultimately worked for Yuji Naka. I think Naka would have been much happier if he was working with an all-Japanese team, just because of the language barrier and some cultural differences." These frictions led to conflicting ideas of the direction the sequel should take, and this combined with a tight one year development time meant that a treasure trove of levels was cut from the final game. Some never left the concept stage, others were programmed into the game yet never completed. This bounty of ideas is why ‘Sonic 2’ has two stages per zone rather than three as seen in the prequel. The exception to this is Metropolis Zone, as the third act was initially planned as a stage in the cut Genocide/ Cyber City Zone. Feeling it would be a shame to waste the finished map, Naka redesigned it as an additional act.

The game launched on November 24th 1992; a day christened as the pun-tastic “Sonic 2’sday”. Sega pushed the release with a $10 million advertising campaign believing a global release date would maximise sales; a fairly novel concept at the time. Although distribution head-aches meant the game was available a few days early in Japan, 400,000 copies of ‘Sonic 2’ were sold in the first seven days after release and over 6 million cartridges were sold in the lifespan of the console. Tellingly the American based development had made the brand more appealing to Western audiences, as only 180,000 copies were sold in Japan.

The game’s introduction is a good reflection of the experience most players will have; it’s familiar yet just better in every conceivable way. You are presented with the same iconic Sega Chorus at the start, but now the company logo that accompanies it is more ostentatious. The following game title page has the same fantastic theme tune, the same winged metal logo but now there more colours, and crucially more characters on screen. Sonic’s first buddy was trumpeted as a big deal at the time, but in reality he behaves very much like the second following character in ‘Donkey Kong Country’. He flies around with his two tails alongside you in the game, but doesn't add a whole lot else. Admittedly he can kill some enemies or collect some rings but more importantly his main inclusion does makes the overall journey feel more exciting,  like you're doing it all with a friend. It’s a little known fact that you can actually play with a second player taking control of Tails in the one player game. However, he has less functionality than Sonic and while infinite lives is good he isn’t able to explore beyond the screen walls that Sonic’s position defines.

While the inclusion of a second character may seem to be the biggest change, it’s actually the most insignificant for a solo player. A whole host of minor alterations have been implemented that really improve the experience as a whole. ‘Sonic 2’ still plays almost identically to the first game. The game has the same power ups, screen layout and basic controls. You’re collecting rings which still act as your health bar, mainly defeat enemies by hitting them in your ball form and race through levels as fast as possible. ‘Sonic the Hedgehog  was undeniably faster than your average platformer, but ‘Sonic 2’ makes it look comparatively slow and it seems the player’s screen can't even keep up with him.  "What stayed the same was Sonic's pursuit of speed," Naka says. "In ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’, we lifted up the limit of speed from the previous title. I think this proved our passion for speed”. This speed boost is largely due to a new move you can perform; the Spin Dash. While crouched, hammering a button grants an instant burst of speed. It’s a technique that’s so familiar to ‘Sonic’ players, it seems bizarre it was never in the first game. So useful is it in fact, that Sega have even retrospectively added it to many ports of the original game, since its changes the dynamics of the series so much. It definitely helps with Sonic's level design, as many of the slopes you have to traverse require you to be at a relatively high speed. The first game would demand you double back and build up speed, fracturing the pace of the game. Now instead, you just crouch, build up speed and continue through the level. “The inclusion of Sonic's mainstay spin dash move added substantially to players' gameplay options” notes Al Nilsen, former director of marketing at Sega of America. Its little adjustments like this that just make levels more fun to play and ‘Sonic 2’ really does focus on getting the player through the game as fast as possible.
For example, in ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’, if you had fifty or more rings by the end of an act you had a chance to hop into a big ring for a shot at the (infuriating migraine inducing) special stage to earn one of six Chaos Emeralds. In the sequel if you have 50 rings by the time you cross a mid-way checkpoint you get to partake in a much more fun 3D tunnel Special Stage. People seemed to be mesmerised by these bonus levels at the time, where anything that embraced the third dimension seemed technically astonishing. Looking back, they’re simply an exercise in memorisation, but fun none the less. It’s now fairly easy to collect the Chaos Emeralds and there’s a much better reward for putting in the effort. Becoming Super Sonic and enjoying his almost pure invincibility is thrilling, and far better than a marginally different end of game screen.

It’s hard to think of anything the first game does better than the second game, which is why ‘Sonic 2’ is often cited when naming the best video game sequels. Its first world Emerald Hill Zone, is essentially Green Hill Zone again but more colourful with more alternative routes, and an even greater focus on speed. Unlike the awful Marble Zone in ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ the sequels second stage, Chemical Plant Zone, only enhances the experience introduced in the first level. While ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’s Marble Zone restricted the fast running hedgehog, the springs and pipes of ‘Sonic 2’s more enjoyable second zone really do turn him into the blue blur. As the game progresses, even more fun dynamics are introduced including pinball sections, slot machines, gear lifts, switch back ramps, far more creative boss fights and a jaunt on the wings of Tails’ biplane. The game still has a lot of random deaths though. Falling into a waterfall pit in one level will reward you with bonuses, yet an identically looking section in another area will instantly kill you. Sonic still doesn’t get on with water to well, there are far too many hidden spikes and unannounced crush deaths should never be tolerated. But these occurrences are far rarer in the sequel and that makes it less frustrating as a whole. That is until the last stage.

Death Egg Zone Act 3 is a brutally hard conclusion to the game and it makes you realise that you’re only good at ‘Sonic 2’ when you have copious amounts of rings to fall back on. Dealing with Mecha Sonic and then the final Death Egg robot is brutally hard and a huge difficulty spike, since when you have no rings you have no margin for error. It feels like a duo of almost random battles that aren’t a fitting conclusion to an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable and fair game.

Since an emerald is a shinier more sparkly version of green, you’d be correct in thinking ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’ is a shinier more sparkly version of ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’. As Zone artist Tom Payne recalls, the instruction was to retain the look of the original but to enhance it in any way possible. “This was my first job so I only had ‘Sonic 1’ to go by and tried to make it match that style. I'd say [that] it was Yamaguchi who laid out the look. He would stay all night & fix everything that we did wrong.” Continuing the mantra of “familiar yet enhanced”, Masato Nakamura, returned to create the soundtrack for ‘Sonic 2’. The positive response to his music in the prequel, served as a drive and a challenge to Nakamura. According to the Japanese soundtracks inlay, “Nakamura felt the pressure of writing music that would satisfy fans of the first”. While there isn’t an individual track that is as iconic and memorable as Green Hills zone, the music on offer is possibly collectively better. However it would takethe involvement of the shamed former King of Pop to make the music of ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ games truly incredible. 

The modern ‘Sonic Mania’ game is frequently called “the ultimate fan made game”, a love-letter to the early 2D ‘Sonic’ games. However, it wouldn’t be wrong to consider the first official sequel to be doing a similar thing. It was consciously made to replicate and build on the successes of the first, focusing on the things fans enjoyed most.  “When developing 'Sonic the Hedgehog 2' we were able to recognize the great [power] of our title in the US and hear opinions from children," Naka says. "I think it was good influence for the development team."

There was a time when Sonic felt like he had fallen on hard times, when a deluge of largely awful 3D sequels sullied the brand. But now, my daughters enthusiasm for the ‘Sonic’ series show that perhaps the nineties hedgehog with attitude is relevant again. If that’s the case, let’s pretend the 3D games never happened and celebrate the games when they were at their best. Takashi Iizuka didn't work on the game, but he grudgingly recognises when the Mega Drive Sonic games peaked. "As someone who worked on ‘Sonic 3’, it kind of hurts me to say it, but I do feel that ‘Sonic 2’ really is the best of the classic 'Sonic' series," he says. "The level design is just really, really solid. There are a lot of reasons why I think a lot of people still gravitate toward ‘Sonic 2’. [It] happened in America with the perfect mixture of US development staff along with Japanese development staff and everyone talking, discussing, and working together. Where all of the staff would say it was a great game for Japanese tastes but also a great game for American tastes. ‘Sonic 2’ really captured that global sense of game design and level design." But perhaps more importantly, ‘Sonic 2’ managed to recognise something that the first game seemed to forget; to be good, “you gotta go fast”.


Where did I get this game from?
It's hard to imagine any Mega Drive owner not having a copy of 'Sonic 2'. It's appeared on practically every Sega endorsed compilations so it's even likely that some Sega fans will have multiple copies. Like the majority of my Mega Drive games I got my copy of 'Sonic the Hedgehog 2' in a bundle bought on a local Facebook page. 


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