I pity the players whose formative gaming experiences coincided with SEGA's Sonic series taking a speedy turn for the abhorrent. That'll be the mid-'00s, when the colourful 2D platformers that were – and that continued on portable systems – finally went full 3D on home consoles. The bullets of Shadow the Hedgehog. The disastrously broken 2006 Sonic on 360 and PS3. Sonic Unleashed and that whole werehog nonsense. They were such dark, depressing days.
This isn't nostalgia talking. The first wave of 16bit Sonic games for the Mega Drive/Genesis and Mega-CD were genuine game-changers, whereas the series' transition into 3D positioned it as a peloton proposition rather than a breakaway leader in the race for platforming supremacy. And the very best of the Mega Drive's Sonic titles was 1992's Sonic the Hedgehog 2. It was, and remains, a perfect sequel, retaining the colourful charm and speed of its predecessor but expanding the experience through the introduction of sprawling zones inviting greater exploration, the now-standard Spin Dash move, awesomely tubular faux-3D special stages that looked better than what the Super Nintendo's Mode 7 graphical tech (as seen in F-Zero and Pilotwings) was pulling off, and increased difficulty that represented a serious challenge for thumbs not yet fully grown. To be honest, the game's still tough now that these digits of mine are as big as they'll ever be.
Because once you're through the tutorial-like greenery of Emerald Hill Zone, with a Dr Robotnik boss fight so easy you can sleepwalk it, it's onto Chemical Plant and its multitude of death traps. The second one of these levels is flooded, the water a constant drowning hazard whenever your leaps aren't perfect – and with platforms not only moving but also disappearing completely in some places, plunging you into the drink, you really have to be precise. There are blocks that can crush you, leading to instant death however many protective rings you've collected (get hit once in the old Sonic games and you'll lose these rings; get hit with zero in hand and it's a life lost, so always having at least one is pretty essential). Chemical Zone features some of the fastest play in Sonic 2, but it also requires careful positioning and what feels like backtracking (you're actually zigzagging around the stage), and blindly rushing left to right as you did before will always get you killed.
And the Chemical Plant boss? Fuck that guy. It's Robotnik again, obviously, but you face him on a platform with disappearing floorboards either side of a thin central base that, mercifully, remains solid. Get hit by his bombs and the impact can (and frequently does) knock you sideways, into the water below: another instant kill. I don't remember ever tossing my Mega Drive pad away in frustration at failing to beat this battle back in the day, but I could feel my blood of today boiling the third time I was exterminated by a fat man splashing some slippery H2O around. I've even failed to get past him on a couple of occasions, losing as many as eight lives on the bounce. Fuck that guy.
But you should definitely meet him at least once in your gaming life, as what comes afterwards is sublime: dazzling in colour and creativity, keeping Sonic as much on a cautious back foot as encouraging him (and you) to breathlessly fly forwards. And now gamers of today who never owned a 16bit machine can do just that, with what is the best version of Sonic 2 yet seen: Tokyo studio M2's lovingly crafted 3D conversion for Nintendo's 3DS handheld.
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Just recently released through the Nintendo eShop, this is just the most beautiful time machine, beaming me into my memories but sharpening every image – and presenting them in hugely effective, eyes-sympathetic 3D. The "SEGA" announcement at the beginning still sounds like it was recorded by a drunken wasp spinning deliriously inside a vacuum cleaner, but from then onwards every aspect of this new addition to the developer's 3D Classics range – see also: Streets of Rage II, Outrun, and many more – is soaked in respect for the original game, the overall product elevated to an unprecedented level of excellence by the introduction of new features.
Ring Keeper Mode means that a single hit won't spill all of Sonic's rings – not quite invincibility given the many ways SEGA's mascot can expire even when loaded with gold, but certainly a great help towards accumulating extra lives, earned by collecting 100 rings per level. A similar mechanic was introduced in the Game Gear's Sonic: Triple Trouble, but here the mode locks off the special stages, so if it's the series staple of the Chaos Emeralds you're after, you need to play without this assistance. (And now that the special stages really are 3D, you'll want to see them.) You can also select a stage to play whenever you want to from the start menu, without the need to get through everything that comes before it – so the pinball-style Casino Night Zone can be bounced around before you've almost drowned a dozen times getting through the watery Hidden Palace Zone.
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M2's work on this 3D Sonic 2 is award worthy. (Are there awards for such things? Let's introduce one.) There's a long interview with SEGA producer Yosuke Okunari and M2 president Naoki Horii (who previously spoke to VICE Gaming around the release of the 3D SoR II) on the SEGA Blog right now, which makes it clear that this conversion was a far from simple process. The size of the game was just one of several challenges M2 faced. "The maps are huge," says Okunari. "The development scale for Sonic 2 was by far the largest in the (3D Classics) series." The special stage had to be entirely rebuilt for the 3DS, by, in Horii's words, "sort of eyeing the original images and creating polygon equivalents". Sincerely, this Sonic 2 is so much more than your average port – it feels like an entirely new game.
Which it's not, quite, obviously – but if you've never played Sonic 2 before, on account of it looking primitive and flat beside flashier yet shallower successors, now is absolutely the time. Its quality, even before M2's additions, is palpable. The game's music by multi-million-selling Japanese producer Masato Nakamura, a member of J-Pop veterans Dreams Come True, is rampant with earworm melodies; the pointlessness of the newly introduced Tails is gloriously baffling (okay, so he came in useful if you had a friend over); and Sonic's fantastic animations, be he stood idle, scowling out of the screen, or wobbling on the edge of a precipice, bring uncommon personality to what is just a bundle of blue and red pixels.
M2's Sonic 2 is faster than the game's ever been, its visuals so crisp now that you can slice a coconut on them. Basically, this is the definitive version of what is widely regarded as the best Sonic game ever made – and I say that despite my own deep-rooted love of Sonic CD. If you own a 3DS, snap to it, like, right now. It's not like all Sonic games that came after the Dreamcast era and its Adventure brace were terrible, but plenty of them were; this 3D Sonic 2 is the perfect reminder than the character became famous not due to repeated disappointments, but because for just a few years in the 1990s, SEGA legitimately had a potential Mario beater on its hands.
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