"Sonic's flashy revolution concerns an issue far more important than pace. It's the one critical to every platformer, the one that separates the triple-hopping superstars from the clumsy goons tripping off the bottom of the screen: control."
Here's how to figure out any side-scrolling platformer: step back from your 2D heroes, and visualize the lines that they trace through their games. In Shinobi 3, Joe Musashi somersaults and wall-jumps an expert sketch of curves and zig-zags. Umihara Kawase frantically scribbles tarzan-swings and abseil descents. The gallery piece, however, is drawn by Super Mario; Nintendo's legendary mascot engraves a wide arc in the mind's eye every time he leaps.
Then there's Sonic.
The sapphire hero's coup of the 16-bit mascot stage is of course the stuff of schoolboy legend. While fanciful youths staged him epic struggles with the reviled plumber (those earth-shattering battles now chronicled for future generations in only yellowing margin snuff-doodles), the older gamer would look past the sharp 'tude and dope threads sported by Sega's great blue hope and instead attribute his genre-shifting success to simple speed ratios. Sonic moves a lot faster than Mario.
The differences between the two, however, run deeper than that. Sonic's flashy revolution concerns an issue far more important than pace. It's the one critical to every platformer, the one that separates the triple-hopping superstars from the clumsy fools sailing off the bottom of the screen: control.
Where Nintendo places it squarely in the player's hands, granting him an avatar that's at the mercy of nothing but gravity, Sega flings Sonic into a world full of influential forces. Every Sonic level is full of slopes and inclines, boosters to send you sprinting and springs to launch you into the air. Many long stretches can navigate themselves; you can let the momentum alone roll Sonic down the steeper slopes or flip him through the spring chains. The trick is in joining the dots, in slipping him between the robots and over the spikes, into those spots where you can simply sit smugly back and let the physics spirit him ever onwards.
Mario is about control.
Sonic is about letting go of it.
That's why Sonic can roll into a ball; it's a simple, clever way to surrender him to the lay of the land. That's why he can barely be killed if he has at least one of the ubiquitous golden rings; slip off the racing line into a row of spikes and you're not hit with the expected tedium of level memorisation, because you can simply retrieve a few of your scattered rings and start chaining up the superfly stunts again.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2, then: the Mega Drive middle child and the defining example of that type of gameplay. It features 20 varied stages' worth of the glorious free-wheeling exhilaration that the series first hinted at with the original's Green Hill Zone and later replaced with linear tedium in Sonic 3. Every step of this sparkling adventure seems designed to elicit impressed gasps and amused giggles; the new Spin-Dash move - quite aside from being a brilliant device for eliminating run-up times - is stupidly satisfying, even when you just hammer the button to rev Sonic on the spot and enjoy at the squeals of testosterone-pumping power his revolutions give off.
Likewise, debuting vulpine sidekick Tails seems like the plain orange friend to your devillish blue avatar, making you feel even more awesome than you could alone. He mostly just scurries along at your heels representing the Yoshi's Island school of videogame slapstick; occasionally though he'll come out of a wacky scrape to land a jammy strike on a Badnik that's bugging you, and you'll just want to lean into the screen and kiss the fluffy little bastard. He's the genuine king of CPU buddies, and, when you eventually face the game's outstanding series of final challenges, he's the lynchpin for some of that whimsical, dialogue-free drama that games of this generation did so well.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 ends absolutely beautifully. There's a perfect, aesthetic catharsis here, to be felt when you watch the heroic pair wind through the figure-eight tubes in the Chemical Plant Zone, or when you go so fast that the checkerboard motifs start flying past in beautiful blurs. Sonic flips and rebounds, and when you see his adventure through to its inspiring conclusion, his stylish lines are forever traced into the backs of your eyes.
Staff review by Daniel Forbes (July 30, 2005)
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