Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Game Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Game Gear)

Sonic the Hedgehog 2
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Aspect
  • Platforms/Release:
    • Master System (Europe only): October 1992
    • Game Gear: November 1992
    • Wii (DLC): December 2008
  • Genre: Action
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • Game Gear: Very common (US$1-5)
    • Master System: Moderate (US$10-20)
    • Wii: N/A (US $5)

Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is not only the best-selling game for the Sega Genesis, at 6 million copies, but for me it's the most iconic Genesis game of all time.  Yes, even more so than the first one, which I wasn't familiar with at first.  Despite my equating the sights and sounds of that game with the system as a whole, I was never able to get through the Chemical Plant Zone, only the second zone out of about nine.  Chalk that up to the fact that I never used to own a Genesis, and could only play it on the rare occasions when I visited someone who did.  I did have a Game Gear, however, and they did release a version for that handheld.  The experience, however, was nowhere near the same.

Right off the bat, there are two things that should tip you off that you're not playing the Genesis version.  One, the new character, the orange fox Miles "Tails" Prower, is not a playable character.  He was captured by Dr. Robotnik, as told by the opening cutscene.  Instead, you must play as Sonic and make it through seven zones to reach Robotnik and, if you have all six Chaos Emeralds, free Tails.  The second difference is that Sonic's standing spin dash ability from the Genesis version is missing.  I'll explain why later, but what that means is if you have to break down a wall, you'll have to do it the old-fashioned way: by getting a running start, rolling your thumb roll to Down, and rely purely on Sonic's momentum.  If you're used to revving up from a standstill, then this will take practice, but if you weaned yourself on the first Sonic the Hedgehog, then more power to you.

Lava in the first level.1
The seven worlds in this game are also quite unlike the itinerary the Genesis version makes you go through.  For one, you don't start out in some variant of the Green Hill Zone, the first level of the first Sonic games.  They have one of those (here called the Green Hills Zone...  Lazy.)  No, you start out in the Under Ground Zone, which has caves, mine carts, and lava.  Yes, lava in the first level.  I've got a bad feeling about this.  On the other hand, the level design is much improved from the first Game Gear Sonic, which suffered from not having much of what made the Genesis series famous.  For one, there are actually loops in this game!  You'll also take on some rides: mine carts, hang gliders, giant bubbles, and sling wheels.  I'm sorry if that has sent veterans of Shadow the Hedgehog into post-traumatic stress disorder, but they're tastefully executed here, albeit nothing memorable.

When I played this game as a kid, there were two spots that gave me serious trouble.  First, there was the boss of the Under Ground Zone - the first one in the game.  It's a pair of robotic crab pincers, but you can't hurt it by jumping or rolling into it.  Instead, you have to let a series of metal balls bounce into it, until Robotnik crashes his craft into it to deliver the final blow.  If any of these projectiles hits you, even if you're curled up, you die.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: like in the Game Gear's first Sonic title, there are no rings in the shorter levels where you fight bosses, so one hit of any kind will cost a life.  Given how many rings you can find in the normal stages, it's easier to stock up on lives, but that's beside the point.  Back on the point, what makes this boss hard is A) the ground is sloped down towards the boss, making it hard to move, B) the balls each follow one of three patterns that are selected randomly, and C) the Game Gear's low-resolution screen makes it hard to see the balls in time to react, especially when they bounce higher.  Even to this day, I blow much of my existing stock of lives on this guy - and let me remind you, this is the first boss.  Oh, and to rub salt in the wound, the Master System version not only has a larger screen resolution, letting you see farther, but all the balls follow the same, easy-to-jump-over pattern.  Bite me.

If you can manage to survive this boss, then you've pretty much gotten past the hardest segment in the game until the final two zones.  The second sticking point I was leading up to is in fact an optional objective: gathering the Chaos Emeralds.  Like in the first Game Gear Sonic, you have to pick up the Emeralds in the action stages themselves instead of in special stages, although they're only found in the second acts of each zone this time.  They are easy enough to find if you choose to follow directions online, except for the second one, in the Sky High Zone.  Hint: it's really high up.  Also note that without collecting all the Chaos Emeralds, not only do you get the "bad" ending, but you don't even get to play in the final zone!  Considering how much trouble I, personally, went to find them, that's a real ripoff.

Left: Master System.  Right: Game Gear.  See the difference?1
Oddly, the Game Gear version was released days before its Genesis counterpart in America and Europe (same day in Japan).  There was also a version released for the Master System in Europe (and possibly Brazil) even earlier than that, but since people elsewhere had moved on to the Genesis/Mega Drive, it was never released elsewhere.  That's a shame, because the Master System version is superior.  I had mentioned the screen resolution issue earlier, but being able to spot danger from farther away makes a world of difference.  There's even a speed power-up that was taken out in the Game Gear version (yet left in its instruction book - again, laziness abounds)!  You can always import it from Europe and play that, but it since it's synced to the PAL format's 50 fps rate, the music will play faster on NTSC-format consoles.  But on December 2008, the Master System version was released in all 3 regions through the Wii's Virtual Console, allowing Americans and Japanese to finally experience this game the way the developers intended!

The 8-bit versions of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 have the odd distinction of improving upon their predecessor, yet feeling completely dated next to not only the 16-bit but (most of) the later 8-bit Sonic games.  If you were expecting an experience like what you knew from the Genesis, you may feel disappointed.  And for those of you unable to get past the first boss, it's okay to feel cheated.  It's not your fault; it was the developers.  But if you can forgive them for this big problem and all the other little ones, it is a decent platformer you could do far worse with.  Game Gear users, however, could do far better.

Control: 4 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Design: 3 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Graphics: 3 Chaos Emeralds out of 5 (GG) / 4 Chaos Emeralds out of 5 (MS/Wii)
Sound: 4 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
The Call: 65% (C) (GG) / 70% (C+) (MS/Wii)

1"Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992) Screenshots". MobyGames.

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