"The obnoxious, unforgiving failure that is Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Game Gear can be extremely enjoyable on a very obscure, smallish level. Unfortunately, to access that slim slice of playability, cheating is necessary and encouraged. "
The obnoxious, unforgiving failure that is Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Game Gear can be extremely enjoyable on a very obscure, smallish level. Unfortunately, to access that slim slice of playability, cheating is necessary and encouraged.
I'll explain. If you've played any previous or subsequent incarnation of the series of games featuring this spiky-spined blue hedgehog, be prepared to toss much of that hard-earned experience out the window. It's not that Sonic 2 is a completely different animal; after all, the sea blue wonder is still remarkably fleet of foot, and still requires only one button function to facilitate his one main move: the spin jump. The back-bladed tuck-and-roll leap will serve as your jump and as your attack in this platformer, as it has in every Sonic game to this point. Small animals in cutesy robot get-ups still patrol the levels (slaves to the evil Dr Robotnik's control), and deadly spikes still cover the ground. Rings hang in shiny abundance in the skies for the collecting - don't be caught without at least one, as the rings are somehow Sonic's life blood, and earning 100 will net you an extra life.
But beyond the very superficial skin of basic moves and appearances, Sonic 2 strays far from the happy-go-lucky attitude of the other games the franchise has brought us. The presentation is as good as Sonic's first outing on the Game Gear/Master System; it's mostly bright and vibrant with fun, if forgettable tunes, culminating beautifully with the final Zone where Robotnik awaits and ice cream sweet sights and sounds right out of Castle of Illusion soothe and please us. Of course, it's unlikely we'll ever reach that hidden Zone: if not from the fact that it's only unlocked by finding the diabolically secreted Chaos Emeralds (they're right in the levels now, no more bonus rounds), then from the glaring programming oversights and illogical gameplay limitations. The flaws are such that they've conspired to bring us the very first Sonic game that you'll want to use as a doorstop (the cart even fails at that function - it's too damn small!).
The story of the unfortunate slippery slope to ruin begins this way: Sonic 2 is ridiculously difficult to get into. For whatever reason, the screen moves about far too much, and far too little of the screen is visible to you at any given time. In other Sonic games, our hero could take in an impressive panorama at every turn, only needing to press down to look down when we were extra cautious about what lay far beneath, and just the opposite when we were uncertain of potential dangers far above.
Sonic 2 mutates those functions, and makes every move - every step, every jump - an adventure, a foray into the precarious unknown. Beds of spikes lie evilly hidden right in front of our noses, but somehow just below or above our stupidly limited line of sight. Sonic must look up or down, rocking the screen dizzyingly, to make almost every jump! He must centre the screen around him by tapping to the left or right (depending on which direction he's running in) to help him see what's right in front of him!
The ramifications of our impaired vision here is obvious: either you should expect to plod along painstakingly slowly in your cautiousness, or you can attempt to play the game at the fast pace that was intended, and in so doing, anticipate a lot of guesswork. Which wouldn't be so bad in itself, but in an imitation of great comedy, one blunder compounds the next, and so on. When you inevitably, blindly fall on spikes and lose all your rings, the 8-bit engine limits the game to scattering only three rings about for you to run after, instead of the heaps of rings Sonic is allowed to regain in the Genesis games. This is actually a step up from the one ring that flashed from Sonic's grasp in the original Sonic the Hedgehog (both for Game Gear and the Master System), but that's hardly any consolation.
So you can only manage to scoop up one of the scampering, retreating rings you've lost. You're in a foul mood now, because you just had 94 rings, and you were that close to earning an extra man before you fell down some chasm you couldn't see, and those 94 rings are gone forever, transmogrifying into just three, of which only one was even remotely possible to get back. One more hit and it's over for you. Only seconds later you hit another pit of spikes, lose your one ring, and haphazardly make a dash after it, panicking, still atop the damaging spike floor that seems to stretch on without end. Sonic dies. Here lies Sonic. And it's all because the game wants him dead, as the crappiness of their execution tells us all too clearly.
Sonic will die time after time in this fashion, and spikes will be the bane of his short rodent existence, but if the spikes are the hitmen, the 8-bit 'camera' is the mastermind, the John Gotti, the don. Sonic 2 is all about crippling the player to the point where simple enough scenarios maim and destroy. With Sonic thus impaired, Sega adds insult to injury by removing the checkpoints we grew so fond of in the much easier Genesis games, and they've never been more needed! Every death sends you back to the start of the level you're on - it's unnecessarily painful. Further, with only three lives and zero continues, the pain may not last long - which is good to those who would just as soon give up on Sonic 2's ugly attitude - but for those of us who are determined enough to want to fight on in spite of everything, the lack of checkpoints and continues and scarcity of extra lives just makes us angrier.
And expect no respite for the determined, because none is forthcoming. Each of the seven worlds has three levels, the third playing host to unique boss battles with characters as cool as an evil Robo-Sonic, and as lame as bouncing ball bearings clumsily defending some crab thing. Green Hill Zone, about halfway through the proceedings, is bright and beautiful, and wonderfully easy, almost devoid of enemies and spikes, so that amassing a half dozen extra lives in one go-through is possible. But the boss level of this Zone of hills and valleys and loop-de-loops infuriates more than any other. Incredibly, the boss zones provide no rings, so it's one hit and you're dead. Even more incredibly, the boss zones require you to navigate your way through difficult challenges just to reach the boss, so you'll likely lose all of the lives you just amassed in levels one and two of Green Hill Zone if only for a sneak peek at the boss of level three before he does you in for the first time - you, wide-eyed and surprised you made it that far.
This level is one of the worst sequences I've ever experienced in my platforming life. You must guide Sonic past platforms and beds and beds of spikes by cannoning into the air on springs set on the narrow platforms. Of course, once you're airborne and pushing right to hopefully land on the next platform of springs, you can't see what's beneath you until the last second. This means you can't confidently aim yourself at anything; you just spring up and to the right and hope you'll land on solid ground rather than impale yourself.
It is the worst kind of trial and error. The kind where, just to advance one screen further than you did on your previous try, you must be willing to sacrifice your life. Ironically, death buys precious little progress, but the price of life is painfully steep! Sonic 2 has no checkpoints or continues, remember? And yet the game seriously expects us to try and die, try and die, try and die. Twenty deaths might not see you through Green Hill Zone 3, and you won't have twenty lives to attempt the feat! I laugh at the impossibility of it all.
And yet, I've cleared the game. This is where the cheating I mentioned early on, came into play. Using the level select cheat, I was able to select sticking points like Green Hill Zone 3, and try and die the 2000 required times so as to have it memorized. Now I am able to clear the entire zone without worry of dying. And with clearing it comes great satisfaction also… this is where the thin piece of joy can be gained from Sonic 2. From cheating. Because there is no other way to clear these levels. Neither psychics nor masochists will see their way through one zone before a mere infant has finished any other Sonic game.
But this cheating thing…! It has a certain sumptuous appeal. It has me wanting to love Sonic 2, it has me wanting to give it a good score. I can finish the game without dying a single death now, because I have practiced, and cheating allowed me to practice each mind-blastingly difficult sequence and stage. It has me cruising through Under Ground Zone's lava filled areas, whistling easily as I descend corridors on mine carts. It has me soaring through the rain on a hang-glider in Sky High Zone, in and out of toothless spikes, where once I had flailed about with the anything-but-intuitive glider bucking me about and slashing me fatally ad nauseum.
The practice allowed me to navigate the dark recesses of Mt Gimmick Zone (yes, you read right) fraught with spinning cogs and slippery conveyor belts. And it was especially necessary for any hope of success in Scrambled Egg Zone where Sonic rolls into ball form and hurtles through tubes with different turn offs that come so suddenly it's impossible to determine which fork in the tubes to take, and which ones lead to… you guessed it, a fall into a comfy bed of spikes. And of course, where would I be without being able to cheat in Green Hill Zone? The verdict is in: cheating makes Sonic 2 playable - enjoyable even.
It's the kind of enjoyment you got from playing Prince of Persia, or Out of This World. The game expected you to get things perfect. There was no alternative to perfection in planning and execution other than death. The execution was always hard enough, but the planning… there was no way around dying over and over just to come up with the plan in the first place. It's an infuriating type of game that employs this unhealthy emphasis on memorization and perfection, but if the game gives you ample opportunities to learn what to do, it's acceptable. That's where Sonic 2 drops out of the running with these other games. Three lives doesn't buy enough time for you to learn.
If you purchase the game despite this warning (at least it's inexpensive), you'll play the first few levels for yourself and discover the unreasonable gameplay begrudging you progress, even from the onset. You'll likely give up soon after that, like so many of my peers who own the game have. But if you don't mind cheating to give yourself the chance to chip away at the concrete odds, the chance that Sega should have furnished you - then you'll find a tasty drop of very addicting joy in the opportunity to try your hand at the impossible. This is not to say that unlimited lives or continues would turn Sonic 2 into a winner. (For a winner, get Ristar for your Game Gear. Replaying it after I played this, elicited from me: ''Wow, the Game Gear can do some amazing shit after all!'') The way the game kills you outside your vision is still inexcusable, and Sonic 2 is a loser in any estimation.
It's just that the cheating helps it lose with grace.
Staff review by Marc Golding (December 09, 2003)
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