I will answer when you call me
I will never have to guess
Cause we are very special friends
Dear, My Friend by Brent Cash, Sonic Unleashed.
“The following is a contributor post by the Hyperactive Coffee Mage.”
In January 1992, Sega was on top, overtaking their rival, Nintendo, for the first time since December of 1985.
The company had put their faith behind a certain speedy blue rodent and he delivered, rocketing the game company to relevance and starting a console war that would define the gaming scene well-throughout the 90’s. Sonic the Hedgehog (which the Well-Red Mage extensively covered the origins of) was praised for its visuals, gameplay and music. However, a series is rarely successful by staying as they are. For the next installment, Sega and Sonic Team needed more than just redesigned levels, gameplay mechanics and a story; they needed an edge.
Every mascot needs a sidekick of sorts, a friend that they can count on, that will stick by their side time and time again and that (for a business) will help make the brand stand out from all others. As Nintendo’s Mario had his brother, Luigi, to journey alongside him, so to did Sonic need a friend by his side to help battle against the forces of Dr. Robotnik/Dr. Eggman. Thus, an internal competition was held to create a tag-along partner, for which the entry submitted by main artist and zone director of the first game, Yasushi Yamaguchi, was selected. A two-tailed fox (inspired by the kitsune legend in Japan) with genius-level intellect and who hero-worshiped the hedgehog, Miles “Tails” Prower, was born.
Now, while Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) was Tails’ first playable debut, very few would know that his first actual appearance in the series stems from the Game Gear counterpart, also named Sonic the Hedgehog 2, released just days before the Genesis version, and the subject of today’s review.
Following Ancient’s attempt to make an 8-bit version of the original game, which the Hopeful Handheld Mage covered in his breakdown of the de-make, Sega turned to a company called Aspect Co. Ltd., founded in March of 1991, to develop the second iteration alongside its more powerful 16-bit sister. Prior to working on the new Sonic project, however, Aspect had only made two other games: Batman Returns and Ax Battler – A Legend of Golden Axe, both for the Game Gear. The lack of experience brought up the question of whether the small company could handle developing the game, given that the bar was set pretty high. Sega needed another success to prove that Sonic was the IP best suited to defeat Mario and claim video game supremacy.
So, instead of following Ancient’s footsteps and making a game similar to Sonic 2 on the Genesis, Aspect went with a radically different approach. They developed brand new zones from the ground up. They took what Ancient brought to the table and built upon it, improving the graphics, the mechanics, visuals, audio, etc. They also brought in things that Ancient itself struggled to implement themselves, such as being able to collect rings after being hit or rolling into breakable objects to reveal new pathways. They tailored the game to suit the Game Gear’s reduced screen resolution, which resulted in a dramatically altered gameplay experience. Finally, they pulled it all together with a simple, yet tense, story to make players feel the stakes were grand.
After all, if your arch-nemesis kidnapped your best friend in front of your very eyes and left a ransom note demanding six magical gems in exchange for their life, you’d be inclined to do whatever it takes to get that person back, wouldn’t you?
This iteration of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 holds a personal meaning to me as it was the first Sonic game I ever owned. One of my older cousins had the Genesis version while another had the Game Gear version and I begged my parents to get me Sonic 2. I wasn’t clear which version I wanted, so for Christmas of 1995 my parents guessed and got me a Game Gear that came with the 8-bit version of the game. While I was slightly upset at the time (I really wanted the Genesis version), it was abated by how amazing the game looked on a portable screen.
The Game Gear and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 went with me to a lot of places, most notably to Guyana, the country where my family came from before immigrating northward. Later that same year, the game would be my inspiration to write my very first fanfiction, retelling the story with illustrations, for a creative writing assignment, which is now, sadly, lost to time. It was a catalyst that started my writing journey and has led me to this moment: reviewing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 here on The Well-Red Mage. It’s funny how life works sometimes.
So, as we down the dredges of this mug full of history and go into the details of the game, we see that right off the bat, after the cutscene where Tails is kidnapped, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 starts differently versus other Sonic games. Whereas the first zone would have the titular blue hedgehog zip through lush greenery and loops with palm trees and blue skies in the background, the first zone of the 8-bit version of Sonic 2 has him traverse through underground caverns filled with lava, with mine carts readily available for transportation, should they be required. It’s a stark departure from its predecessor and is one of many things that make this title unique.
In total, there are seven Zones, each Zone consisting of three acts. Zone 1 is Underground Zone, which I’ve described above. Zone 2 is Sky High Zone, which takes place high above the clouds with hang gliders available for Sonic to use. Zone 3 is Aqua Lake Zone, which plays differently between the first and second acts; the former takes place above the water while the latter looks similar to Sonic 1’s Labyrinth Zone. Zone 4 is Green Hill Zone, a tougher variant of Green Hill from Sonic 1 with more hills. Zone 5 is Gimmick Mountain Zone, a place made of steel, where the flywheels from Scrap Brain Zone make their return, along with the mine carts from Underground Zone. The penultimate Zone is Scrambled Egg Zone, consisting of a plethora of pipe mazes, with wrong exits leading to dead ends or spike traps.
The final zone is Crystal Egg Zone – Robotnik’s base, where Tails is held captive. This zone brings together some of the tougher elements of the game, introduces a modified, moving flywheel and provides players a final challenge before facing off against Robotnik himself.
A neat feature in the game was the level introductory screens, which lists the title of the Zone and Act, and shows a title card displaying the environment and Sonic and Tails using the Zone’s gimmick or feature. This gives the player an idea of what they should expect going into the Zone, save for the final one, where it shows Sonic and Tails running.
Regarding gimmicks, mine carts aren’t the only thing available for Sonic to travel through zones; each Zone has it’s own vehicle or gimmick that either helps keep you in the safer, upper portions of the level or are sometimes necessary to completing levels altogether. Sky High Zone Act 1 is an example of the latter: you can’t reach the goal without using the hang-glider, which requires you to gently and rhythmically tap in the opposite direction while mid-flight to keep aloft. Too much button-mashing and you lose altitude and slowly drop into a bottomless pit before reaching the wall to the end of the level. Too little and you won’t make it over the wall, sending you crashing into the very same pit. It’s a mild annoyance, since it only takes a few, well-timed directional presses to get around that section, but for the new player, it can be quite frustrating.
Luckily, the game is a bit forgiving – that same Act has a 1-up that’s relatively easy to pick up, allowing the player more opportunities to practice getting the hang-glider mechanics down.
The hang-glider is used throughout the second Act and can be used to pick up the Chaos Emerald located in the top-most portion of the level, so it’s worth it to practice the mechanics.
Like its predecessor before them, Aspect hid the Chaos Emeralds in the second Act, which requires players to once again explore and find them. Unlike its predecessor though, there’s more of an emphasis on speed and good timing to collect them. Speed plays a factor in getting the first and fourth Chaos Emeralds, since they’re both located on high platforms right near the end of the level and requires some combination of using springs and ramps along with the game’s momentum physics to reach them.
As I mentioned before, Sky High Zone’s Emerald can be picked up using the hang-glider, although, there are some cleverly hidden springs among the clouds that can be used to pick it up as well. Aqua Lake Zone’s Emerald requires the player to act quickly while traveling through the underwater pipe maze two-thirds into the act (Pro tip: once you enter it, keep holding left and it should spit you out into the room holding the gem).
Gimmick Mountain Zone brings back the slower paced, exploration side of finding Emeralds. If you blow through the level too fast, you’ll definitely miss the fake wall that leads to the coveted item itself. I only discovered this in my early teens, so you can imagine my elation when I finally found that darned fifth Chaos Emerald (slight Shadow the Hedgehog references aside).
Number six’s Emerald, in Scrambled Egg Zone, is earned after the boss fight on Act 3. You may recognize him if you’ve recently played Sonic Mania.
Exploration isn’t limited only to trying to find the Emeralds; multiple pathways to the goal are abundant. Some pathways are hidden behind breakable blocks that Sonic can spin-attack into – a feature not seen in Ancient’s version of the series. Gimmick Mountain and Scrambled Egg are unique in the sense that you need to find the right path or use the proper tool to finish the Acts. I think out of all the levels, Gimmick Mountain Act 1 is probably the most unique in that you need to use the minecart (last seen in Underground Zone) to break through a spike infested corridor in order reach the goal. You’ll have to traverse around the whole level in order to find it, which I thought was a nice touch.
As with other Sonic exploits, there are two endings which depend on how many Emeralds you end up finding. Gathering all 6 yields the good ending with both Sonic and Tails, running to an upbeat victory tune, while the bad ending, if you have 5 or less, shows Sonic alone, running to a more somber number, before stopping and looking up at an image of Tails in the sky, signifying that he was unable to save him.
Sonic’s sprite has been updated and looks visually similar to his Genesis counterpart, as opposed to the GG/SMS version of Sonic 1. The sprite animations are also charming to watch. For example, in Aqua Lake when Sonic’s trapped in a bubble floating upward, his hands press against it, a visibly worried expression on his face.
Another is his waiting animation, where he looks to the player and shrugs his hand and shoulders, as if he’s asking “Hey, what gives?” It’s classic Sonic attitude in action and I love it.
Controls feel a touch tighter than the first Sonic outing on the Game Gear and Master System. I’m able to get to top speed quickly and make precise jumps without trouble. Rolling physics are pretty good; depending on the slope, Sonic’s speed increases either gradually or dramatically when he curls into a ball, as demonstrated by pressing down while running. Also added by Aspect are the fact that Sonic can reclaim some lost rings after being hit and the signature loops, as seen in the Genesis versions.
A few things were removed from the game, such as checkpoints, shields and bonus stages. The levels in general are short in nature, so the checkpoints aren’t missed. However, a few acts that would have benefited from a checkpoint would be Aqua Lake Zone Act 2 and Scrambled Egg Zone Act 2; the former due to the facts that Sonic can’t run as fast in water and because the large bubble sections can be tedious at times, the latter because of a tricky platforming section involving the pipes and moving platforms in the second half that requires the player to react quickly, lest they are dropped into a large spike pit and forced to dash across to safety, risking death all the while.
One of the series’ staple power ups, the Power Sneaker, is absent from the Game Gear version of the game, despite it being listed in the instruction manual. Also missing in translation was Sonic’s new ability introduced in the 16-bit version: the Spin-Dash. I played the Genesis version before the Game Gear and when I involuntarily tried to use the move in the Game Gear version, I’d just jump in place, sometimes right into a projectile or a spike trap overhead. However, I do feel that the addition of the Spin-Dash would have made the game too easy, since you can use it to gain enough momentum to breeze through the levels or avoid boss attacks.
To complete an act, Sonic has to find and hit a turnstile. Hitting it will reveal an image that grants the player bonuses depending on certain conditions. Most times, you’ll see Robotnik’s mug, which earns you nothing, but you may also see Rings, which grant 10 of them to boost your end-level score, an image of Sonic, which grants an extra life or the extremely rare image of Tails, which grants a continue. Continues are also earned by collecting Chaos Emeralds.
There are a variety of enemies to combat in the game. Some look familiar to enemies from the Genesis version of Sonic 1, like the New Motora and Taraban, both upgrades from the Motobug and Crab-Meat badniks. There are several new enemies to contend with, such as the Game-game, a turtle badnik that flies towards Sonic as he approaches it, or the annoying Zaririn, a crayfish-like badnik that approaches and backs off in an unpredictable manner.
The final quarter of Aqua Lake Zone’s second act involves Sonic ascending up a vertical shaft using the giant bubble, all while avoiding hazards along the way. Dodging the flying spears is one thing, but trying to avoid the Zaririn at the same time can be a troublesome task. If you go too close to the wall to try to avoid the badnik, you risk hitting the wall, popping the bubble and falling all the way back down to the beginning, but if you get too close to the Zaririn, it’ll sidle up, pop the bubble and hit you at the same time, costing you your rings. That corridor is one of the weaker parts of the game’s design and again, could really use a checkpoint.
I also take issues with the screen resolution and how it affects the gameplay. Due to the Game Gear’s small, landscape-oriented screen, which clocks in at 160 x 144 pixels, the game’s viewing visuals (what the player sees on the screen) were zoomed in, for lack of a better term, and unintentionally made some parts of the game harder, especially the boss fights.
Boss acts, in general, contain no rings, so it’s up to the player to get through the level and defeat bosses without getting hit. It presents a significant challenge, because not only do you have to avoid hazards on the way to the boss, the fights themselves are also a mixed bag, ranging from extremely simple to difficult and hard to predict. Some of this unpredictability stems from the Game Gear’s reduced visible area issue that I brought up previously.
The first boss in particular is a notably tough fight with a great lead up to it; Sonic goes through the act using the mine cart and then uses springs to get back to the upper path. He goes down a giant ramp, jumps off, sails into a wall and then seemingly falls to an inevitable death via lava. All of a sudden, Robotnik (I refuse to call him Eggman) swoops in, saves the hapless hedgehog and deposits him on a sloped surface on the other side of the wall to face off against an Antlion bot with long pincers. It can’t be hurt with the spin attack, but the bouncing orbs the good doctor drops from the top of the hill can damage him. And here is where the reduced visible area pushes the difficulty upwards as players are only given a split second to react to the bouncing balls.
Some are easy to dodge, like the short bouncing ones, but the mid and high bouncing orbs can be difficult to avoid. Coupled with the fact that players have no rings during this fight makes this boss fight one of the toughest first bosses ever faced.
I, however, consider Green Hill Zone Act 3 to be the toughest boss act of the game. Much of the ground is infested with spikes, save for the areas that have springs on them. And the springs are spaced far enough that you need some momentum in order to reach the final area leading to the boss unscathed. Go too slowly or be too careful and you’ll land in a spike pit. Go too fast and aggressive and you’ll overshoot… and hit a spike pit. And let’s not forget about the boss, a sumo pig that turns into a hazardous orb. The window of opportunity to hit it is extremely small. Not to mention that it moves quite quickly and can switch up its patterns on a dime. It makes for a pretty difficult fight.
Regardless, after defeating the boss, Sonic must hit the Egg Prison to complete the level and move on to the next Zone.
Sonic games are well-known for their music and this iteration does not disappoint. A few tracks stand out in my eyes; Underground Zone is upbeat and fun, thanks to the percussive elements from the noise generator on the Game Gear’s sound chip, yet there’s a hint of urgency behind it, as if Sonic realizes this is a crisis and he’s gotta go fast to help his buddy, Tails, out.
In contrast, Sky High Zone has more of an R & B sound to it; it’s mellow and very chill. It’s a great track for soaring through the skies.
Scrambled Egg Zone’s music is actually the first you hear when you start up the game as it’s used in the cutscene when Tails gets kidnapped. It’s my third favorite in the game; at this point, the urgency Sonic feels to get Tails back must be at a fever pitch, which is exemplified in the music. It’s high energy, but it’s also chock-full of tension.
My second favorite is the boss music. It’s one of the best boss themes in the Sonic series. It really underscores the severity of Sonic’s situation at the time, given that he has no rings to protect himself against Robotnik or his minions.
And finally, my all-time favorite from this game goes to Green Hill Zone. You might recognize this as “You Can Do Anything,” the title theme from the Japanese/Remastered version of Sonic CD. In fact, Green Hill Zone’s theme was the template used for the iconic song.
So, with all of the above to consider, how did Aspect’s venture fair? Pretty well in fact: many publications lauded the 8-bit version, mentioning that it was a big improvement from the first game and cited that its differences from its 16-bit counterpart were the game’s biggest strength. It was ranked as one of the top 10 best games for the Game Gear. In fact, the game did so well that Sega contracted Aspect to continue making more Sonic games for the system, including Sonic Chaos, Sonic Triple Trouble and Tails Adventures, to name a few. As for the game’s legacy, it’s been re-released on many platforms as a part of several compilation titles and as an offering in Nintendo’s e-Store for the Wii/Wii-U/3DS.
The 8-bit version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was an obscure gem, a literal diamond in the rough, when it was released back in 1992. But how does it fare under today’s standards? Strap in and top up your mug with some brew, because we’ll be taking a closer look in the 8-Bit Review:
The 8-bit Review
Sonic must rescue Tails after he and Sonic’s animal friends on South Island have been kidnapped by Dr. Robotnik (Dr. Eggman). In order to get him back, Sonic must travel through six dangerous Zones, gather the six Chaos Emeralds that lie in each Zone and deliver them to Robotnik in his base, the Crystal Egg.
These short, sweet narratives were fairly common during the early nineties and I liked the whole ransom bit. It gives incentive to the player to find all the Emeralds, because why wouldn’t you want to save Tails? (Unless you truly despised him). Beyond that, it’s fairly simple and straightforward.
As with the previous 8-bit installment, the game encourages exploration, specifically to find the Chaos Emeralds in order to rescue Tails. However, players are also encouraged to find multiple paths through Acts, including breaking through walls to uncover secret passages, a new feature in the 8-bit editions. Also added was the capability to travel through loops, however the loops are one-way only. An improvement from the previous entry is that when you lose rings, you can reclaim some of the lost ones that become scattered once hit. These additions and upgrades bring 8-bit Sonic closer to its 16-bit counterpart, yet further improvements could still be made.
Each zone has a gimmick or vehicle that Sonic can use to traverse the acts, including mine carts, hang gliders, pipes and the like. Some are necessary to progress through and complete levels, such as the hang glider in Sky High Zone Act 1 or the mine cart in Gimmick Mountain Zone Act 2, but are completely optional in most cases.
Sonic controls quite well. I can generally make pinpoint jumps to platforms without trouble and any mistakes I make are because I mis-timed my range or height. Movement is quick, with Sonic accelerating to top speed after a few seconds of running. Strangely missing from this game are quarter pipes, used to launch Sonic upwards while he’s rolling. In its place are plenty of ramps and various slopes
Missing from this game were the special stages, shield power ups and checkpoints, featured in the first iteration. Also, the Power Sneaker power up, despite it being mentioned in the instruction manual, was also removed from the game. What remains are the Ring, 1-Up and Invincibility power ups. This results in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 having the least amount of power-ups or bonuses in the series.
As for the boss fights themselves, like in the first game, you are not given any rings to protect yourself. This is where the challenge lies, since bosses aren’t real pushovers; some shoot projectiles, like the Sky High Zone’s boss, some, like Green Hill or Gimmick Mountain Zone’s bosses, have limited windows of opportunity to hit them. There have been many times in the past where I nearly threw the unit in frustration because an errant projectile hit me or I timed my jump wrong, causing me to die. It’s also mildly frustrating in this day and age that one has to go through a boss level AND fight the boss unscathed; I don’t see that as good game design.
The other gripe I have is that, because of the Game Gear’s small screen resolution, the zoomed-in visuals makes certain areas of the game more difficult than it should be. A major example of this is the first boss fight; it’s difficult to tell where the bouncing orbs will land and some bounce patterns give you very little time to react. A great deal of players state that this boss specifically is the main reason why they decided against finishing the game.
Sonic’s sprite has been updated from the first 8-bit iteration and looks much closer to his Genesis counterpart.
The levels are well-designed and are visually pleasing to look at. Visuals between acts one and two in some zones also differ, with environmental changes built in. Examples include Sky High and Aqua Lake Zones, with the former introducing wind mechanics for the hang glider and the latter starting with the level submerged in water. The only bland zone in the game was Gimmick Mountain; it’s drab and dark and not very enjoyable to look at.
There are a variety of enemies to encounter on your travels. They are clear and distinct, small enough that they don’t intrude with the background yet large enough to be a threat against Sonic. Some graphical lag or screen flickering does occur at times, either when a bunch of enemies and projectiles are on-screen at the same time or when Sonic strikes breakable environmental objects, like certain walls or bricks.
Music has always been the series’ strong point and the sounds in this game are no exception. Songs are generally upbeat and high tempo, reflecting the fact that this is a fast-paced game.
Notable tracks that are enjoyable to listen to are the Underground Zone, Scrambled Egg Zone, Green Hill Zone, the boss theme and both good and bad ending themes.
The sound effects are a bit on the tinny side, but they don’t interfere with the experience of playing the game. Some effects are pretty fun; for instance, a falling sound plays whenever Sonic falls from a high place and it reminds me of those old Looney Tunes cartoons. I quite enjoyed that little touch.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 breaks the mold from its starting stage. In typical Sonic games, the first level consists of an environment with plenty of greenery, hills, lush, blue sky backgrounds. This game, however, starts with the titular character travelling through underground passages, boarding mine carts, and leaping over lava pits, which is a departure from the series. Furthermore, the addition of vehicles like the mine cart and the hang glider, along with the ability to recollect lost rings and destroy breakable objects help it to stand out versus the first game.
What’s also interesting is that the final Zone, Crystal Egg, cannot be accessed without obtaining the other six Emeralds in the previous five Zones. To add to that, this entry in the Sonic series is also unique in the sense that the bad ending signifies that Tails may have been killed off because of Sonic’s (the player’s) inability to retrieve said Emeralds.
Beyond that, this iteration was mostly an upgrade for the graphics and environmental mechanics; there were no new controls or moves added to Sonic’s repertoire, unlike its sister game on the Genesis. While the story is different, since it revolves around saving the hedgehog’s new friend, Tails, it still follows the trend of “Find magical objects and beat the game in order to see the true ending.”
Sonic the Hedgehog games are notoriously easy to play and this one is no exception. The controls are very basic, emphasizing the pick-up-and-play aspect of the series; the D-pad is used for movement and either button 1 or 2 are used to jump. Jumping or pressing down on the D-pad while running allows the hedgehog to turn into a ball, which is the primary method of attacking enemies.
Despite the ease of the controls, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the game itself is easy. The game’s visuals had to be adjusted to fit the Game Gear’s smaller screen and, as mentioned above in the Gameplay section, unintentionally makes the game harder at some points, like the first boss for instance. Having that boss be unreasonably hard (compared to first bosses in other Sonic games) does not help this game to be accessible, especially to newcomers of the series.
While it’s worth it to play through the game twice to see both bad and good endings, beyond that, there’s not much to do. There’s no competition mode like in its 16-bit counterpart. I suppose you could aim to reach a high score by collecting 99 rings, defeating tons of badniks and finishing the level in the shortest possible time? Regardless, the zones are fun to play through, boss acts aside and I find myself coming back to the game from time to time and playing through it. So, in the end, good to play once in a while, but not substantial enough to play it for more than a day or two.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on Game Gear is one of my guilty pleasures. There, I’ve said it. As a kid, I was either frustrated at it thanks to that dreaded first boss, or flummoxed thanks to the fifth Chaos Emerald. Now, however, I appreciate it for what it is: a great and unique effort to bring forth a sequel that was vastly different from its more popular counterpart. It’s fun, on the short side and requires very little instruction to play. You pick it up, try to find the Emeralds and use them to save your buddy from certain doom. Basically, it’s nostalgia in a tiny package and it makes me yearn for the old days, when phones had cords, computers had dial-up and Power Rangers was the show to watch, until Pokémon came around.
Aggregate Score: 6.5
Engineer by day, adult-responsibility juggler and caffeinated gamer dad by night, the Hyperactive Coffee Mage is a coffee-fueled writing machine and expert gaming historian. Check out his cool beans at gameswithcoffee.com.
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Categories: Game Review