The early 90’s were quite the time to be a gamer. I mean, I wouldn’t know from experience (I am but a wee lad,) but from what I’ve heard, the schoolyard smackdowns that were the result of the console-war were something to behold. When I was growing up, everything was so civil. “Oh, you have an Xbox? That’s cool, I have a Gamecube.” I never once got into a heated argument over whether Metroid Prime was better than Halo, or that my Gamecube was inferior because of its relatively limited graphical power, and I never saw a commercial that contained anything close to the catchphrase “We do what Nintendon’t.” And no, I never had the debate over which was better, Mario or Sonic.
In North America, the year 1991 saw the releases of Super Mario World on the SNES and Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis. At the time they seemed like worthy foes: both of them were side-scrolling platformers with just enough in common to be comparable, however each embodied different design philosophies: Mario fought on the side of precision, while Sonic was passionate about speed.
In all honesty, hindsight allows us to see that that battle was hilariously unbalanced. Super Mario World is one of the greatest video games ever made and it has stood the test of time remarkably well, while the original Sonic the Hedgehog is a flawed but fun game whose potential was ultimately underutilized. Even comparing Sonic to the earlier Mario games on the NES is not a fair fight. Despite this, I still think Sonic the Hedgehog was a good platformer that was just shy of greatness, one that just needed some fine-tuning and it would have aged much better.
I can not say the same for its sequel, 1992’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2. While the first game’s flaws could have mostly been fixed by changing the order of the levels, Sonic 2’s issues are more deeply-rooted in its level design philosophy. This game represents the epitome of the age-old criticism against Sonic; it consists primarily of holding right until the level ends. Gone is the precise platforming that occupied more of the original game than we tend to remember, gone is the challenge of earning those high speeds, and as such, gone is the challenge.
My god and how easy the vast majority of this game is. Sure, the final level and boss is tough, but everything leading up to that is mind-numbingly simple. When the game does decide to present a little bit of challenge near the end, it is generally cheap: enemies placements are obnoxious (those damn praying mantises in Metropolis Zone gave me a stroke), blind jumps are not uncommon, and level layouts are just downright confusing. Seriously, how am I supposed to know when to start going left instead of going right? Introducing random leftward movement later in this game was a terrible decision, especially since the only thing that allowed me to get through some of the earlier level’s nonsensical designs was a blind insistence to just keep going to the right (I’m looking at you Casino Night.)
And when the game does decide to slow down a little, it’s infuriating because they changed Sonic’s physics to accommodate speedier play. This is generally fine because most of the time Sonic is just going really fast towards the right side of the screen (you’ll reach the end eventually, don’t think too much about it), but in the rare instance where you have to actually input some skill, it can become an exercise in frustration. Sonic goes from zero to sixty much faster than he did in the first game, and this makes precise movement and jumping feel like a chore. Thankfully, this is not too much of an issue most of the time, since in this game Sonic Team is gives out more speed than a drug dealer.
My point is there are too many times in this game where you can just put down the controller and watch the screen get blurry as Sonic rockets through loops and spirals at the speed of sound. And I will admit, these moments are exhilarating the first time you see them. Chemical Plant Zone is a visceral delight, even though it requires practically no skill to complete. But these moments wear thin pretty quickly. There was speed and loop-de-loops in the first game too, but it felt more genuine because you had to earn that speed. You had to start at zero and navigate your way through the level without stopping. This was a genuine challenge that was fun to master! You couldn’t just touch a spring and launch forward at top speed, or spin dash at the beginning of a level. Going fast is fun in a Sonic game, but when it’s just given to me like this, and it’s as much of an emphasis as it is here, it becomes boring, especially since maintaining that speed is so much easier than it was in the first game. Enemies are placed more sparingly, level designs accommodate staying rolled-up in a ball a lot more than they did before, and thanks to the far more linear level design, staying on the high road is not something you need to worry about anymore.
In fact, the whole philosophy of ‘Reward and Punishment’ that was present throughout most of the first game is gone here. Falling to lower areas of a level no longer presents you with punishments for poor play, but rather just some slightly different scenery to run by. Likewise, staying on the high road does not reward you with an easier time if you can manage to stay up there. This game has the linearity and structure of a precise platformer like Mario, but it doesn’t actually have much precise platforming and so it just feels shallow. And yes, I understand the argument that the point of this game is to play it over and over again so that you’ll get faster and feel better about it. But again, since I don’t have to work for speed in the first place, and since there isn’t much challenge in the first place, then why would I feel incentivized to keep playing to go faster? It wouldn’t feel like a genuine achievement like the way it did in the first game.
Also, why is Tails in this game? We accept him as part of Sonic canon now, and as a character he’s okay I guess, but even nowadays you don’t play through levels with him by your side. What does he do?? Jump on moving platforms right before I do so that I fall to my death? Hit bombs in the special stages causing me to lose rings? He has some benefits (he can make boss fights go by faster), but it's just strange to go from playing the first game where Sonic is such a cool, hip dude to playing the second where he’s such a cool, hip babysitter. Ultimately, I find that Tails causes more problems than anything else. Yes, you can turn him off in the options menu, but I always feel like I’m cheating if I do that.
There’s a lot that I feel like I haven’t said about this game, but at this point I’m rambling, so I’ll just get to the point: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a visceral thrill-ride that is ultimately a mediocre platformer. It’s not a terrible game by any stretch, and it even improves upon the first game in some respects, of particular note is the pacing, which is much better here than before. And okay, there is some decent level design here. I find the Aquatic Ruins Zone to be the closest in spirit to the original game, as it seems to be the only level that adheres to the ‘Reward and Punishment’ philosophy. In fact, it’s pretty ingenious, as it's a water level where, if you’re good and keep to the high ground, you never have to touch water. And let’s face it, we all hate water levels, so this is a great concept. Sure, it’s held back by cheap enemy placement (get outta those walls!), and it seems to be kind of a buggy level, but at least it tries to be interesting.
But the lack of challenge, at times nonsensical level design, and emphasis on moments where you simply watch Sonic bolt through the level with no player input makes for a mostly boring and sometimes frustrating experience. There’s a pervasive feeling throughout the game that what you’re experiencing is just for show, and there isn’t actually much below the surface. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I would say this game is really only recommendable to young children who will get a kick out of the speed and won’t get too frustrated by the lack of interesting platforming and skill necessity. However, somehow (nostalgia?) this game seems to be the favorite in the Sonic series among many gamers. Playing through this again, I just do not understand it; even as a kid I always found this one to be the inferior Sonic game of the Genesis days. Perhaps I’m missing something. Perhaps I do not fully appreciate the sheer visceral thrill of watching Sonic move so fast that the screen cannot keep up. Perhaps I’m just being a grouch; after all, its two-in-the-morning, and like I said, the game’s not horrible. It can be fun in spots; and it’s not broken, just mediocre. For what it is, it’s fine. I just don’t really care for what it is.