Are old-school Sonic and Mario really that good?

Myth-busting, nostalgia-free re-reviews of gaming's two most sacred cows

The original 1991 Sonic game was a blistering statement of intent for Sega’s cooler, edgier approach to games in the face of Nintendo’s family-friendly market dominance. Simultaneously launching a charismatic star and a brand new adrenaline-soaked approach to platforming, it was a genuine landmark for gaming.

Above: The look like they mean business, and they do

When Sonic the Hedgehog 2 came along in 1992, the gaming world exploded, as did Sega’s fortunes. Bigger, cooler, flashier and wider in scope, it rocketed Sega’s market share to 50% within six months thanks to its smart honing of everything that made the first game great. Later sequels might have diluted the format with new characters and gameplay elements, but Sonic 2 is as pure a slice of 2D Sonic goodness as aficionados could want.

Better by comparison

Going back to review Sonic 2 today is an interesting experience, given the way the awful new 3D games have amplified the deification of the original trilogy. There are certain images and emotions that flash immediately into the mind when thinking of this period in the hedgehog’s history.

Above: Sega imagery doesn't get more iconic - Fact

Blasting around loop-the-loops with widened, sweaty eyeballs. Soaring majestically into the sky as several miles of scenery hurtles past underfoot. The thrill of hearing the rapidly chained chime of rings as Sonic burns along a perfect racing line. That half-pipe bonus level. All of those things are still present and correct, and they still feel amazing now. But unfortunately Sonic 2 contains quite a few things that you don’t remember quite as clearly… But first, the great stuff.

At its best, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is the pinnacle of the “more of the same, but better” school of sequel design. Sonic’s simple but effective move-set of blast-processed acceleration and Hulk-rivalling jumping ability are wisely untinkered with, as is the general model of balancing his lightning-fast environmental domination alongside more careful platforming and exploration.

Pacey but paced

That latter element is often glossed over when many players discuss Sonic, but it’s fundamentally vital tothe game. As invigorating and empowering as the fast stuff is, Sonic 2 would be a very dull game indeed if it were the mere case of “Hold right FTW” many mistake it for. The real funof 2D Sonic games is in the way in which those ten-second speed blitzes act as a cathartic reward after a careful platforming section or trickysequence of hazard evasion. It’s an approach to pacing that’s both viscerally satisfying and clever in the way that its constant high/low octane alternation pulls the player through the game.

Above: The eyeball blazing Technicolor rollercoaster of Chemical Plant Zone typifies the new and improved Sonic 2

Sonic 2 does this even better than its predecessor did, thanks to its immensely larger levels and more streamlined exploration and secret hunting. The increased vertical spread of its stage layouts provides several completely different routes through each, as well as plenty of opportunity to switch paths on the fly with some deft navigation. So much so in fact, that most stages can essentially be played several times over for a completely different experience on each run through.

Above: As does gratuitous corkscrewing

This proliferation of secret itemsis also more accessible than the first game’s hidden areas were, as level layout and signpostingare more friendly and well thought out. Clues to secret areas, at least in the first half of the game, are usually clear and alluring enough to prompt an excitable back-peddling treasure hunt, even in the midst of a storming supersonic speed run. Sonic 2 definitely carries over the first game’s problem of trial and error exploration (wherein later secrets could be so obtusely hidden that there’s no way you’d think of looking where they are unless you knew they were there already), but the issue is certainly reduced and the process noticeably slicker and more enjoyable.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.
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