If any game deserves a retrospective rather than our usual “review it as if back then” approach, it’s Sonic 2. The first Sonic revitalised the Mega Drive and gave Sega a worthy mascot. Following it up was both easy and difficult at the same time.
One thing Sega had already established was the game engine. But how to make a game that felt as good as the first without making it a clone? We need not have worried. The first thing I remember about Sonic 2 was the “wow” factor, even after replaying the first (on Mega Drive and Master System) extensively. Colour palette-wise, you can see that Sonic 2 is on another level. At the time it made all other 16-bit games seem dull in comparison and I’ll go out on a limb here, in the Sonic bundle on Xbox, looks brighter than most Xbox games.
How to make a sequel better than the original? The Sonic Team with assistance from the US-based Sega Technical Institute used every trick in the book. Added special move (the spin attack of course), tick. Competitive two-player mode, tick. Better bonus stage, tick. Bigger levels and badder bosses, tick and tick. It worked.
Sonic 2 feels more playable than the first, which is some feat. There are more obstacles per level of course but Sonic’s added repertoire makes them more fun to overcome. As someone famous once said (I forget who), life is better with a co-pilot, so we’re pleased to see Sonic’s buddy Miles Prower. Or “Tails” to his friends. Reading about the initial concept of Tails, it’s still a surprise that he was so much of a hit. The game might as well have been called Sonic & Tails. Showing off his fancy flying and getting in the way in the bonus stage (more on those later) it’s easy to want to start swatting him away. But then he bounces an enemy who’s about to make you drop your rings (??? – Ed), or even grabs a ring before that mentalist Robotnik is about to crush you, and all is well!
The levels follow almost the same format as the first but everything feels more polished, as it should. The Emerald Hill Zone is pretty much the Green Hill Zone which allows the player to feel instantly at home. After that, it all gets a lot more inventive from the spirally maze that is the Chemical Plant Zone to the gambling paradise Casino Night Zone. Yes, twenty-four years later you’ll still find me at those slots, trying to get a million rings (erm, you might be waiting a while – Ed).
Speed was the main selling point of the original and Sonic 2 doesn’t disappoint in this respect. It stays true for the first few levels but then thankfully changes down a few gears later on, namely in the Aquatic Ruins and Mystic Cave Zones where the routes to the finish line are less defined. Take the high road or the low road but you’ll probably still find yourself stuck in water without an air bubble or desperately seeking a vine to take you to higher ground. Needless to say, every stage is a joy to play.
And now to the bosses. Not a lot needed to be done here and the levels before the boss stage follow the same formula. Robotnik/Eggman is in a moving contraption that either shoots fireballs or drills or some combination of fireballs and drills. But then you get to the final stages and this is where Sonic 2 really delivers. The Sky Chase Zone opens it up beautifully. Attack bad guys whilst balance on the wings of a biplane? Don’t mind if I do. And the action ramps up from there. SPOILER ALERT. The last thing I expected to see after navigating the Wing Fortress and finally to get to the Death Egg Zone was an evil metal Sonic! I mean, come on!! Maybe in retrospect the name of the level ought to have been a clue. Follow this up with uber-mech Robotnik (not sure if that’s it’s actual name but I’m going with it) and you’ve got joy. So much joy.
So the graphics and gameplay can’t really be faulted, what about that music score? It’s amazing. Masato Nakamura is a living god amongst retro gamers and this is why. The score from the first Sonic made you tap your foot. Listen to Sonic 2 and your whole body moves! If you’ve not seen this from the wonderful Smooth McGroove then you really need to get out more. Or stay in more. Whichever lets you play more Sonic!
The two-player mode, even with only three of the main levels, is wonderful and it still says a lot that we play it (rather competitively) in our “offices” today. The main reason being the excellent bonus stages. 3D was barely a thing on the Mega Drive in the early nineties with possibly the awful Cyber-Cop/Corporation (a game that still baffles me to this day) being the closest thing you have. The scaling used on the Sonic 2 bonus levels is still a thing of beauty. Your brain knows the visuals are 2D but watching the Sonic and Tails sprites gallop towards the end, avoiding bombs and collecting rings as they go, you can’t help but feel you’re right there.
And so to Sonic 2’s main well-documented fault, a fault which I don’t think could have been avoided, being too easy. Sonic 2sDay (twos day? – Ed) was the result of what Sega had to do at the time to beat Nintendo, a worldwide launch (the world’s first? – Ed) that’s now commonplace. Could more have been squeezed in if it not for this deadline? Who knows! There is a lot of game here which was undermined somewhat with the Sonic Team’s preference of making the game so accessible. The quicker you pick up a game generally speaking, the quicker you’ll finish it. No amount of collapsible platforms or hidden enemies can stop that. At the time, Sega succumbed to the clamour for a larger game by ensuring that Sonic 3’s acts were huge and let’s be honest, it doesn’t work as well as this.
Sonic 2’s playability is its main strength and I’d take that over something more complex any day of the week.