Sega has included Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in numerous collections throughout the years, so it's no surprise that the blue hedgehog's benefactors have made the game available for Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade service. Despite that fact that it is 15 years old and runs on the same machine you play Gears of War on, you may be surprised that this classic run-and-jump platformer is still fun, as well as visually engaging. And this version offers multiple save slots, achievements, and the competitive multiplayer aspects that you've come to expect from XBLA classic game releases.
Sonic 2 contains twenty levels of loops, launchers and bumpers you'll jump over, roll through and spin-dash under all while collecting rings and rescuing baby animals. Sonic also has a sidekick, in the form of a fox named Tails that follows you around. If you hook up a second controller, someone else can control Tails and make your job a lot easier.
Compared to many of the other games that are available for Xbox Live Arcade, the 16-bit 2D graphics do come across as rather plain, and a bit blocky in spots. You can enable a smoothing filter in the options menu that greatly reduces the blocky effect at a cost of slightly softening the overall image. What most people remember is the cute look of Sonic and the enemies. They also remember the blazing fast speed and the unique visual style behind each of the game's 10 environments. When you run through the jungles of the Emerald Hill zone or bounce off the bumpers in the Casino Night zone, there's no doubt in your mind that you're playing a Sonic the Hedgehog game. The same holds true for the lighthearted sound effects and the various musical themes. They make you feel happy and stick in your memory long after you shut the system off.
You can hook up a second controller to enlist a friend's help when playing in the single-player mode and to challenge him or her in the split-screen versus mode. However, the XBLA release of Sonic 2 goes one step further and allows you to compete against other Xbox Live members in versus matches. That may not seem like a big deal at first, but after you play a few rounds, you'll discover that being able to challenge total strangers and compare leaderboard scores has transformed this formerly throwaway feature into a genuine selling point. There are three different regular zones to choose from, along with multiple bonus stages. You basically compete against the other person to see who can complete the areas with the best times and scores. Lag depends on the quality of the host's connection and seems to vary from imperceptible to downright stalling. Some people will probably be bothered by the way the split-screen orientation still squishes the graphics, even though your opponent is playing on his or her own Xbox 360, but the benefit is that you can always check in on your opponent's progress.
Of course, this rendition of Sonic 2 also offers achievements. You can get 120 points relatively painlessly just by playing through the single-player mode and participating in a handful of multiplayer matches. The other 80 are tied into collecting the seven chaos emeralds. That seems excessive on first impression, but such a feat really isn't too terrible to manage thanks to this version's save feature.
Assuming you haven't already had your fill of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on other systems, you won't do yourself wrong by spending 400 points to download the Xbox Live Arcade rendition of it. The addition of achievements injects an extra layer of purpose into the already superb single-player mode, while the ability to compete against other people online in the multiplayer mode offers a lot of replay value that other renditions of the game lack.