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Review: SEGA AGES Sonic The Hedgehog 2

25 Feb 2020

We don’t need to delve into the…complicated history of the Blue Blur, but it’s safe to say that 2020 has been shaping up to be a decent year for him. He made his way to American cinemas in a halfway decent (and unsurprisingly immature at times) manner, and the movie is doing quite well at the box office at the time of this writing. Fans received two new games in the console space, one being a safe and bland boost game that somehow dropped the ball on 2D gameplay and the other amounting to an officially sanctioned fan game with those same fans delivering the best 2D Sonic game in years. Even with the uneven focus in the 3D space for many titles, Sonic ran into this world on a 2D plane and thrives in that space in the right hands.

My personal history with Sonic came at a time where I was the perfect age for the franchise. I had played the first game at a friends house having never even known what a Genesis/Mega Drive even was, but I sure did like playing as a fast rodent in a lush green hill. I ended up with said console in 1993 (yes, I’m aware of how old I am) for Christmas, and Sonic 2 was a pack in. I played the absolute crap out of it, looked for cheat codes, fell into the deep hole of beta versions years later when the internet was easily accessible, and devoured countless sequels as the years progressed. It’s not an original story by any means, but it would feel dishonest to not disclose this given my love for the franchise (for the most part).

It doesn’t surprise me that SEGA decided to bring Sonic 2 onto the Switch after M2’s port of the original game, and they’re at the helm for this port as well. SEGA loves to port these titles because they’re always going to sell, which is why it gets endlessly ported. While I would have much preferred to see Christian Whitehead’s ports of 1 & 2 break free from the clutches of mobile and finally make their way onto modern platforms, you’re still playing Sonic 2 with this version.

Originally developed by Sonic Team/Sega Technical Institute and published by SEGA, SEGA AGES Sonic The Hedgehog 2 was released on Nintendo Switch on February 20, 2020.

Speedy Nostalgia

After successfully defeating the nefarious Dr. Robotnik/Eggman in the original title, everyone’s favorite rotund villian saw fit to escalate his plans to a ridiculous scale. No longer would he just trap furry woodland creatures and force them to operate his many robotic creations known as Badniks, but he would somehow construct an equally circular Death Star ripoff (with his face, no less) and rename it the Death Egg, and would also be in pursuit of the now seven Chaos Emeralds to complete his master plan.

Meanwhile, Sonic has made his way to West Side Island and made friends with a mechanically inclined two-tailed fox named Miles Prower (miles per hour, get it?). He ends up with the nickname Tails, but the shy fox takes a shine to Sonic and quickly becomes his trusty sidekick. Catching news of Robotnik’s newest scheme, they make their way through West Side Island’s various zones to confront him on many occasions and also obtain the Chaos Emeralds in the process.

While we are talking about a game released in 1992, the story here is unsurprisingly simple. Most story in video games at the time was generally told through the game’s instruction manual, instead of the dearth of cutscenes seen today in modern Sonic games. We don’t see any significant attempt at showing the story in-game until Sonic 3 and Knuckles, but this title’s simple story attempts to expand the universe established in the original (never mind the Game Gear/Master System versions). It’s basically there to motivate the player into actually playing the game, even though later entries would lean heavily on assets seen in this game.

Because of this difference in focus, it’s hard to critique a story from an early ’90s platformer when most platforming games at the time were weak in story in the first place. If you were looking for anything resembling a significant story, you were playing a JRPG on either the Genesis or SNES. You played platformers because they were quick, usually easy, and fun to play. Not because you wanted to see what happened next in the story. Boiled down to it’s most basic elements, it’s “egg guy builds a Death Star and you have to get the magic rocks with your fox buddy to stop him” kind of plot. In 1992, that was perfectly okay for the time. Gaming might have evolved past that for better or for worse, but it’s totally representative of the time it came to exist.

Urk-ing Out A Promotion

While I’d rather not delve too much into the complicated history of the development process before the final version, part of the appeal of Sonic 2 for most people was the increased focus on speed for better or for worse. In the original, there were bursts of speed and the standard speedy upper route and slower lower route design philosophy. There was also more of a focus on slower Mario-esque platforming in specific zones, which did go against what would become Sonic’s defining feature. It was mostly straightforward in design and it just worked.

You see this similar philosophy imported into the sequel, but on an increased scale and much faster in more places than its predecessor. Granted, there are points in this game where quick and simple platforming is in place. But you can rip through stages much faster than you could in Sonic 1. The supposed drop in difficulty might irk some, but it’s not as bland as some would think even with well-placed checkpoints.

One major complaint from many folks is how this speed does lead to punishment for doing that very thing. Sure, you’re able to see badniks heading your way ahead of time. But you’ll come to a dead stop and maybe fall into a pit of spikes or run into foes without the appropriate reaction time. It’s a subject that has been done to death, but it’s something worth mentioning given the game in question. It’s something that 2D Sonic games have grappled with for years even with fantastic level design (looking at you, Mania). Given the focus, it can’t be helped sometimes.

Just like with Sonic 1, M2 went ahead and dropped in additional content for this release of 2. For one, they included the Knuckles campaign that was originally only accessible by connecting the Sonic 2 cart into the Sonic and Knuckles cart. This is a nice gesture, because they could have just done a straight up port and called it a day. However, there was the puzzling decision to not include Tails as a standalone playable character. If this were Sonic 3 and Knuckles, I would have a problem with it given his ability to fly was accessible in that game. But here he was just another playable character that functioned identically to Sonic, at least outside of the Whitehead version. You can also watch your replays if you like.

Regardless of which character you play, you’ll unlock their respective Super forms upon beating the game. Considering that they let you access level select immediately without inputting the cheat codes (which still work, by the way), this is a quick unlock. There’s nothing stopping you from getting all the Chaos Emeralds through the half-pipe style special stages if you want, but most people who played the crap out of it might not mind that given you can play the way it was designed. Sometimes you just want to blast through stages as Super Sonic or Super Knuckles. Though once it’s unlocked, it’s just its own mode alongside the original and “ring keep” (you never run out of rings, even when hit) mode.

Online leaderboards are here for those who want to show off their speedrunning times, so there’s that. If you want to sink your teeth into a different speedrun challenge, you can give the 100 Ring Challenge a shot. It’s exactly what it says on the tin, but you collect rings as fast as possible in a single act of Emerald Hill. Kind of disappointing to only limit this to one act, but it’s nice to see it exist at all. You can watch other people’s runs at the very least.

Sonic also gets to use the Drop Dash ability again that M2 introduced previously, which is nice for speedrunners and new people coming over from Mania as well. I have found that it’s super convenient to just let the move loose in places where the Spin Dash ability would have had to do. It helps the pace a bit, and I’m glad to see it used in the classic games at all. With Knuckles being included in this version, the abilities used in Sonic and Knuckles can be used here to explore parts of the zones via gliding and wall climbing if you want, at the sacrifice of a smaller jump height.

While Mania did it better, the multiplayer mode with a grand total of four zones is still present here. While limited in scope, it’s still a fun time to race through these zones with a pal and hope that you don’t get screwed over with the mystery item boxes throughout each zone. I’m sure if there were some younger folks fooling around in this mode, there’d be some trash talk for sure.

Porting As Usual, I See

Not going to lie, when it comes to presentation and music, this game is going to feel like a well-walked trail. But honestly, that’s okay given how classic the art design is here. Like all mainline games in the Genesis/MD era, zones are usually vibrant and quite detailed, despite some being a little more on the muted side of things. Sprite animations are appropriate for a speedy platformer, and more often than not the camera keeps up with that blasted hedgehog.

Sometimes he does glitch out the game and you lose a life, but usually the game is able to keep up with him. While later games would abuse this concept to death, the 3D appearance of the special stages looks nice here. Though we are talking about a trippy bomb-and-ring laden design here, it’s enough of a graphical departure that it does stand out from the 2D stages.

Don’t even get me started on the music. Without going into too much detail, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. The Genesis sound chip is and forever will be a wonky piece of hardware, so having music that sounds great and doesn’t sound like over-processed crunchy electric guitar is a win in my book (I still cannot stand the Spinball options menu). The composition of each zone’s music just gets stuck in your head in the best possible way, and is probably part of the reason I never really paid too much attention to how terrible the Genesis sound chip was in comparison to its SNES counterpart. Honestly, the soundtracks in all the mainline Sonic games seem to have used the philosophy of making lemonade out of lemons because of how good they sound in comparison to other Genesis titles at the time.

Polishing a Classic

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise how well Sonic 2 holds up against the test of time. It was a system seller back in the Genesis heydey, and people still gobble it up each and every time it’s made available on modern platforms. Hell, it’s readily available on modern platforms prior to this release in the SEGA Genesis Classics compilation, and I would still say this is worth a buy if you haven’t already laid your hands on that compilation.

The big takeaway here is that a port of Sonic 2 is still a port of a classic. I still consider the Whitehead version of the game to be the definitive release, but I’ll continue to fret at the fact that it’s still locked away on mobile devices. That shouldn’t detract from the fact that M2 pulled off yet another solid port of a game I’ll still happily blast through in 2020.

If for some reason you still haven’t picked this game up yet, the low price and impressive extras set should soften the blow of uncertainty. It’s a classic for a reason, and 2D Sonic games are a fantastic fit for Switch. Grab it.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review code provided by SEGA for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.