Game Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Master System)

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Back in the early 1990’s, Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog was a top-speed sensation – gorgeous, dazzling, kinetic… it was a sheer thrill to play. All of a sudden, Super Mario Bros. seemed very old hat. I know, I know, we were wrong – the plumber would ultimately win the war, but who can be blamed for falling for the blue one’s thrills back then? Besides, time has been exceptionally kind to both sides. I’ve played Sonic recently and it really still is a joy – slick, sleek and super-smooth, full of inventive levels, eye-popping graphics, wonderful music and thrillingly fast gameplay.

Oh, did I mention that I’ve been referring to the Mega Drive (MD) version? That’s what most people think of when they think of Sonic.

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In comparison, the version of Sonic the Hedgehog that was released for the Sega Master System (MS) was a different kettle of fish (or should I say bag of hedgehogs?). For one thing, it was a lot more sedate. Because the MS was half as powerful as the MD, it couldn’t hope to emulate its big brother’s speed and complexity. Stuff like the beloved loop-de-loops, the wild and wacky bonus stages and the torrent of rings that were released whenever you sat on a spike were nowhere to be found on the MS. Therefore, instead of weakly porting the MD, the developers of MS Sonic decided to create its own game entirely.

I suppose you could say that things felt a lot less quintessentially Sonic on the MS, but it was still a wonderful game, a really great platformer and, although no game-changer like the MD, a smaller, cosier experience that was very charming indeed. The only real criticism you could have against it were that it simply wasn’t as good as the MD. For those of us who couldn’t afford Mega Drives however, it was a game we took to our hearts, and anyway, regardless of which of the two consoles you had, by the time Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was due to come out, hedgehog hype was at fever pitch. No one was disappointed when the big release date came. Critics praised both versions to the skies – obviously the MD version was the one that got all the attention. Why? Well it was just like the first one but faster, harder, better, stronger… and it had Tails!

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We all loved Tails back then, the little two-tailed fox. On top of all of this, you had two-player split screen! This was very, very cool back  in 1992, even if the picture looked stupidly squashed and the slowdown was a pain in the arse. For the most part, the game was a total success. Come to think of it, apart from a few neat extras and those crazy halfpipe bonus stages, Sonic 2 was essentially more of the same of Sonic, but with bells on. Nothing wrong with that, everybody agreed.

Compare all of that to the MS version of Sonic 2, which, like the first MS game, seemed so small next to the MD. It belatedly delivered the loop-de-loops, but loop-de-loops were so last year. This year it was all about the spindash, where Sonic could attain instant super-speed just by pressing down and one of the main buttons. It was a novel addition to the MD Sonic 2 that made it even faster than its predecessor. Lucky Mega Drive owners, eh?

Oh well, at least there was Tails to look forward to in the MS version. Right?

Right?

I mean, he’s on the front cover of the game!

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Eeek. Sorry, no Tails. How embarrassing.

No two-player either. Instead, the MS plot circled around rescuing Tails from the clutches of Dr. Robotnik – we see the moustachioed bastard flying off with the poor fox in the pre-title sequence. Oddly, each zone’s title card featured an image of Sonic within the level with Tails in tow, even though at no point in the game can you actually play the latter. To be honest, I didn’t care about not being able to play Tails. The Mega Drive seemed so out of reach that there was no point getting worked up over it. I had a Master System with its own Sonic 2, so let’s play!

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To summarise, we get six zones (seven if you get all the coveted Chaos Emeralds), each with three acts. You know the score – collect the rings, don’t get killed, reach the end, etc. If you get hit, you lose the rings. If you get hit again without any rings, you’re dead. There are no rings in the third act, so be extra careful. Chaos Emeralds, like in the first MS Sonic, were not to be won during special stages but to be discovered somewhere in the zones themselves. In fact, special stages were absent entirely from this sequel.

I’ll be making the odd reference here to the Game Gear (GG) version of Sonic 2, which was almost the same as the MS, except for some differences in execution which made it a lot trickier to master.

Zone 1: Underground

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A Sonic game that didn’t begin in a pleasant, greeny/emeraldy, hilly environment? Now there’s a reason to love this game right from the off. However, despite the urgency of the main theme and the abundance of spikes, this is still an accessible, easy first zone. The mine cart is a novel touch, although you don’t actually get to control its speed, so you’re pretty much a captive passenger. Just make sure you jump off at the right time. The build up to the final boss is illogical – Sonic flies downwards towards lava/certain death, only for Robotnik to ‘rescue’ him so that he can be placed in the firing line of one of the easiest bosses in gaming history – a crab/ant that can’t move and some bouncing balls that are hurled in your direction but are so easily avoidable that they only wind up hitting the boss. Of course, this boss is only a cinch if you’re playing the MS version. The GG version is another story entirely. More on that later.

Zone 2: Sky High

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A bit more serene, this one. The first act is a total doddle, aside from a few blind jumps near the start. One the plus side there’s plenty of rings later on to make up for that life you probably just lost. We get another novel mode of transportation – the hang glider – but this has proved to be a controversial addition to the Sonic canon, mainly because it’s so difficult to control. Once you get the hang of it (chortle, chortle), it’s pretty simple, if far from the ethereal, joyous experience it could have been. Simply keep tapping the left pad and you’re sorted.

Act 2, with its dark, rain-swept skies and colourful platforms, is even better looking, but don’t bother with the glider. The Chaos Emerald is one of the trickiest to obtain – it’s all a matter of recognising which clouds amongst the sky are actually spring-loaded. If you do insist on using the glider, whatever you do, don’t use it on the lower section of the level later on, a route which unfortunately appears to be the only one available at first. Try higher up and test some of those clouds out instead. The boss is a lot more challenging and satisfying than the first one – to begin with we get two sets of four little robot birdies (don’t get complacent, it’s easy to get killed here) and then you drop to a lower level where a big robot mother bird who shoots out fireballs and has four little eggs that periodically hatch out more robo-chicks. Kill the eggs first, then the mother.

Zone 3: Aqua Lake

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A very nice looking level, full of nice cool blues and greens, and notable for finally getting the loop-de-loops from the MD onto the MS for the first time, as well as a delightful new bit where you can skip over the water like a stone. The almost entirely underwater second act is substantially different from the first – with its darker palette (green on the MS, blue on the GG) and trickier level design it’s more like the Labyrinth Zone from the first game. The meanest bits are when you must survive inside a bubble and float upwards past darting spears and pouncing monsters without bursting. If you do, it’s all the way back down to the bottom. In the GG version this can prove particularly tough. There are also a couple of mazes which send you hurtling towards the exit with seemingly no control over Sonic – however, if you keep the D-pad held down in advance, you can take your own route, which is handy given that the third Chaos Emerald is hidden somewhere in the second one. I The final boss is ridiculously easy – a seal blows up a bubble and all you have to do is sit on its face every time!

Zone 4: Green Hills

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Graphically, this is a significant improvement from its equivalent on the first MS Sonic -check out those colours! Rumour has it that this was going to be the first zone, which would account for how easy the first two acts are. I don’t think I’ve ever played a pair of Sonic levels with more available rings and extra lives. However, if it was at any point tipped to be the first zone, it was probably the realisation of how extremely tricky the last act was that finally got it moved to later on in the game. Seriously, this level is utterly notorious amongst gamers for just how unfair it is, although much of that reputation is down to the GG version. Saying that, the MS take is no slouch – to put it nicely, there are quite a few blind jumps, so all those lives you stocked up on in the first two acts will be needed to trial-and-error your way to the end. The boss – a bull that turns into a killer ball and comes at you in a manner of different ways – is pretty tough and will keep you on your toes. Incidentally, the music in this zone became retrospectively famous in Sonic quarters for being an instrumental rehearsal for what would be ‘Toot Toot Sonic Warrior/You Can Do Anything’, the opening song from Mega CD game Sonic CD.

Zone 5: Gimmick Mt.

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There’s plenty of variety in Sonic 2’s zones, and this keeps the freshness going – here we’re in an industrial world that with a steely, purple look. The mine carts are back, but we’ve got something new in the form of some oversized spinning CDs that you leap on to and gather enough momentum from to propel yourself up to higher platforms. Mastering this is a little awkward to handle at first, but once you’ve worked it out you’ll be on a roll. Or should I say spin? This zone is pretty unique in that it features an act which may be the only one where you finish the zone by passing the checkpoint from the right instead of the left. Seriously, it’ll make you question your reality, Inception-style. The boss is a metal bull that rams the side of the screen so hard it knocks itself out for a moment or two – this is when you bounce on the bastard, but be quick, because soon enough it’ll produce spikes on its back sharp enough to kill you. Oh, and the reverberations from his knock-out will cause part of the ceiling to fall down. Avoid that too. PS: This zone features the introduction of these little bombs-on-legs blighters which are a pain in the arse, more so in the next zone..

Zone 6: Scrambled Egg

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This is only the final zone if you haven’t collected all five Chaos Emeralds. I love the look of this one. It’s set in what looks like a cave range in outer space, with glittering coloured lights. Okay, let’s get the worst thing out of the way – those little bombs on legs are a bloody nuisance. You have to get close enough for it to set itself off, but then you have to rapidly jump back to the preceding platform to avoid its blast. And that doesn’t always work out so well. There’s also the return of the mazes from Aqua Lake, except this time they’re pipes, and some trial-and-error is to be expected to make sure you don’t end up on spikes. Of all the zones, this is the one that’ll keep you on your toes the most. The boss is Sonic’s evil robot twin, but unlike the absolutely vicious version that’s on the MD, this one shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Be careful though, because he does love to zoom directly towards you. Once you kill him, you’ll only get the sixth Chaos Emerald if you’ve already got the first five.

If not, you move straight on to the credits, which features Sonic running and running and running past pretty fields as the sun goes down, stopping at the end to look up and see Tails’ face in the clouds, a vision that many have taken to be proof that our foxy friend has been murdered by Robotnik and that this is him up in Heaven. Nice theory, but it doesn’t match up with the good ending, where the credits feature both Sonic and Tails running past the fields and looking up to see both of their faces up in the clouds. They can’t both be dead if they’re both still on Earth, or wherever the hell Sonic is set, right? I always took the bad ending to mean that Tails is still out there, waiting to be rescued. Come on, he’s not dead. Blimey. As for the good ending, and the sight of both of them up in the clouds? Well, it’s just a nice image, isn’t it? At no point did I ever think Tails had been killed. Not until all these YouTube conspiracy theories.

Zone 7: Crystal Egg

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The genuine final zone of Sonic 2 has an adorable, cutesy look that’s actually quite disconcerting given that it’s the final world and the odds are that the final boss will be worse than anything we’ve ever encountered. We’re talking the calm before the storm here, people. Even the music is sweet and cuddly. All I can think is that something is very, very wrong here. The level reminds me a little of Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back – all this peace and tranquillity but treachery is just around the corner, you know? The levels are pretty easy – the CDs from Gimmick Mt make a return, although they’re a lot smaller here. If the earlier versions were regular CDs, then these are like those little 3” CD singles that were available for a little while in the nineties. Actually, scratch that, they’re the equivalent of Nintendo Gamecube discs. After two very pleasant and pastel-coloured levels, the final boss indeed turns out to be an absolute beast. We’re now in a dark world mostly occupied by a single room bordered by a pipe that you’re best off staying inside while Robotnik does his thing (shooting out little electric gremlins, releasing little electric patterns that shoot out more electric patterns, creating electrical storms). Just stay inside the pipes until it’s all clear, shoot yourself out of the pipe and into the arena long enough to smash Robotnik once before you scarper back into the pipe. I think you have to do this twelve times before you defeat him. It’s definitely the tensest part of the game, and tough stuff. It’s a doddle compared to the monstrous Mega-Robotnik from the Mega Drive version though. Once this is done, Robotnik scarpers and vanishes inside some telepod, the bugger. However, in his place we get Tails! I’m happy, you’re happy, but Sonic just looks confused…

As far as I was aware, everybody loved Sonic 2 – the Mega Drive fans were sorted and the Master System fans were satisfied. It wasn’t until I started reading these retro reviews about how much of an unfair git the 8-bit version was that I began to realise there was a whole other school of thought out there that really didn’t like the game at all. Of course that was when I realised that most of the criticisms were being levelled at the Game Gear version. I hadn’t realised the MS and GG versions, for all their similarities, were very different in execution.

Unfortunately, the MS version never got a wider release outside of Europe – for example, in the US the console was pretty much dead, so the only way the Americans got to play Sonic 2 was on the GG. Obviously, the hand-held GG screen is smaller than the MS’s, but instead of literally shrinking the picture to get everything onscreen, the GG version cropped the image, which turned out to be a very unpopular move. It also made the camera jerk queasily in the wrong direction if you happened to feel like sliding the breaks on Sonic’s feet and backtracked. That’s right, it’s the old-school gaming equivalent of shaky-cam in action films. Oh, and you thought the occasional blind jump was unfair in the Master System version? You ain’t seen shit, mate. The GG is so much more brutal. You have to be so much more on the ball here, although having played it directly after completing the MS version did make things a lot easier for me as a lot of the level design was fresh in my memory.

The Underground Zone boss is probably the best comparison – on the MS it is almost hilariously easy. You barely have to move. Just stay where you are, and jump when that ball comes towards you. On the GG the hill is much steeper and the balls are coming at you at different speeds – it’s not impossible, but it’s so much more intense and tricky. However, I’ve seen comments online where people have admitted to not even being able to get past this first boss and have given up on the game entirely.

Later problems that arise from the cropped screen include the bubble sections in Aqua Lake Act 2, where you have an extremely small-to-nonexistent window of time to react to those spears and gremlins. This proves to be particularly bad the higher up you are – if you do get hit, you fall down to the bottom with no way to alter your trajectory, which means if you do end up in the path of a spear or a gremlin, you’re screwed, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The final act of Green Hills, which was already a challenge on the MS, becomes an absolute nightmare. Even if you do clear the bulk of it, there’s always the odds that after all that trial-and-error, the final boss will only end up killing you, a much more likely result given the GG’s cramped screen and lack of room to manoeuvre. The final boss in Crystal Egg really suffers too, given that any part of the room (which comfortably took up the space of the whole screen on the MS) is made to constantly be shunted off-screen as you move through the bordering pipe – what a joke! In addition to these problems was the lack of checkpoints throughout the levels which in any other Sonic game would have let you re-start a level from a certain part. In this game, death meant going all the way back to the start. You still couldn’t gather more than a couple of rings after being hit either. For Sonic 2 haters, this was salt in the wound.

However, when I was young, I never found Sonic 2 that difficult, and that’s because I had the MS. It was a challenge, for sure, but wasn’t it meant to be? I think it took me about four months to complete. That felt about right, and I wasn’t playing it non-stop or anything like that either. I was only eleven at the time, and as such I had gaming rations forced upon me by my mum. There were tricky bits for sure – the hang glider/clouds situation in Sky High Act 2, all of Green Hills Act 3, the boss in Gimmick Mountain Zone 3, the treachery of the platform/spike/pipe combo in Scrambled Egg Act 2 and of course, the Crystal Egg final boss.

However, the absolute pinnacle of mind-bending frustration was in trying to find the Chaos Emerald hidden somewhere in Gimmick Mt.– my God, that took me forever! The happiness I felt on finding that red bastard after so many attempts can’t be encapsulated in mere words. I just can’t do it.

Seriously, this game dominated my life for those first few months back in 1993. Good thing too, because video games back then were almost as expensive as they are now – Sonic 2 cost a whopping £29.99! This meant that games weren’t frivolously purchased. The whole used-game market was yet to really take off, so (and this is something I realised when writing about the Game Boy a few years back) even though us fans loved our games and our consoles, there were usually large portions of the catalogue that were never played, because we just didn’t have the titles.

Therefore Sonic 2 wasn’t just any old game to me – for a while it was THE game. Getting it on a Christmas Day added to the appeal. No school to worry about, just me and my game. This was also the year I got Batman Returns on VHS (I was under ‘15’ at the time, but ssshh) so I was as happy as a fox with two tails. I was eleven at the time, and my interest in video games was really beginning to fire up. I hadn’t played that many titles back then, so I think I’d be right in saying that Sonic 2 was the second game I truly devoured (I think I delved into the original afterwards) after Alex Kidd in Miracle World, which came built-in into my Master System II. Sonic 2 didn’t have a save-option, so it was something you had to master. You could end up getting so far, lose your lives and have to do it all over again. This meant that you ended up becoming very familiar with those early levels. Not a problem for me – I loved the levels, loved their look, loved their sound, loved their feel – I was definitely getting my mum’s money’s worth. The later levels, especially Crystal Egg, became less familiar by comparison and as a result was the most pleasurable to revisit recently. Of course, it’s an incredibly modest game – it was back then and it really is now, but for all its flaws it’s still a joy to play and the peak of all things Sonic-related on the MS. A second sequel, Sonic Chaos, would be released but I missed out on it the time. Playing it decades later, I was glad I had.

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