It’s something of an understatement to say PAL territories had it pretty rough for a very long time: Games often arrived late – if they ever arrived at all – and when they did they’d be visibly squished and run significantly slower than their cheaper, earlier, NTSC cousins. Final Fantasy started at VII here. The NES apologetically squeaked into UK shops years after it’d enjoyed record-breaking success in other regions and fizzled out with little fuss. We could pay £500 for the dubious pleasure of owning a Commodore CDTV if we wanted to though. Yay.
The Master System feels like the notable exception to this cursed rule. Sega’s behaviour towards PAL-people like myself was something to feel cheerful about – it felt like they cared, or at the very least took an active interest in parting us from our money. And everything was designed so beautifully: Those clean grid-lined covers that sometimes told you how many rounds a game had (remember when levels were called “rounds”?) on the back of their sturdy plastic box, the pleasantly rectangular cartridges, the smart wedge-ish shape of the original console and the space-age curves of its replacement, the slide-back cover on the cartridge slot almost making you believe the hardware within needed to be carefully contained when it wasn’t in use. We felt, well, noticed. And it was this unexpected (but welcome) attention and the support we couldn’t help but give in return that resulted in only Europe, Brazil, and South Korea receiving Sonic the Hedgehog‘s other sequel – a Game Gear only release in Japan and the US – on Sega’s 8-bit home console.
Generally the changes between the home and handheld versions of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 are so minor they’re not much more than little tidbits of interesting trivia – a swapped music track here, an altered credit there – but there is one really big difference worth mentioning, and it’s definitely a point in the Master System’s favour…
That’ll be the size of the screen – and no, this isn’t a silly point about TVs versus handhelds. You’d think that as the Game Gear version was the important one with the global release (and a recent Mini Japanese re-release as well) that would be the hardware the game’s levels were designed around (maybe it was, I can’t pretend I was in the room at the time) but in practise it’s the roomier display area of the console version that feels like a more natural fit, Game Gear Sonic 2 often suffering from dangerous objects appearing just a bit too close to be fairly dealt with and some things that are easily spotted on the Master System ending up sitting out of sight.
However you’re playing the game Tails is strangely only present in the pre-level title cards – because he’s been kidnapped! That evil Dr
Eggman Ivo Robotnik made Tails write a letter to Sonic explaining as much and that he would only be freed on the condition that Sonic found and then handed over all six Chaos Emeralds. Hang on – a hand-written letter, sent directly to Sonic’s “digs” (as the manual calls them)? It sounds quite sweet, as far as kidnappings go. But it does also rather cleverly answer what would have been the burning questions on everyone’s lips – “Where’s Sonic’s brand new co-star?” “When can we play as Tails?”. Learning he’d been written out of the game before he’d even had a chance to show up is probably not what Master System-owning fans of Miles Prower wanted to hear, but at least it’s a more thoughtful reason than “He’s not there because we said so”.
Sonic 2 has another early shock to follow that up with: When you do get started you’re not greeted with the lush greens and welcoming flowers of the latest Green Hill-alike a Sonic game “should” get players warmed up with but the yellow bricks, steel rails, and bubbling lava of the Under Ground Zone – and I like it. And that’s not because I think they’re an amazing set of levels decorated with an imaginative visual flourish (they’re nice enough but nothing to seriously enthuse over), but because this opening upset makes it very clear that even though Sonic 2 shares the exact same name as what was at the time one of the biggest releases of the year and perhaps one of Sega’s most important games ever, 8-bit Sonic had no interest whatsoever in trying to imitate its slick and speedy Mega Drive big brother. This is a game that’s prepared to stand apart and do what works best for itself and the hardware it runs on, even if doing so meant creating something completely different from the ground up.
Much like the Neo Geo Pocket‘s rightly cherished collection of successful demakes Sonic 2 feels distinct from its 16-bit origins but also true, ditching the Mega Drive game’s twisting ribbons of speedway in favour of a smaller… no, it’s more like a miniature Sonic game, the digital equivalent of a tiny ship carefully constructed inside a glass bottle. And it captures this sense of Sonic so well because the game understands Sonic was always more concerned with flow than speed: A perfectly judged sequence of leaps over tiny platforms, a fall off a high ledge resulting in a seamless drop to an alternative route in a lower portion of the level, being able to know just by feel when to roll into a ball to allow Sonic to fling himself off the finishing curl of a ramp at maximum speed. In keeping with this distillation of the series’ essence stages tend to be short and sharp affairs packed with palette-cycling background details and undulating paths leading to some familiar Sonic features – spikes, pipes, flywheels (or as I’ve always known them, “spinny CD-lookin’ things”), being made to run against the direction of a inconvenient conveyor belt and cautious of log bridges that fall away underfoot – there’s no doubt it’s as “Sonic” as any other game. The quality of this solid foundation helps the more unusual forms of transportation – mine carts, giant air bubbles, hang gliders… even bouncing across the water at high speed like a skipping stone – come across more like carefully considered special events than shoehorned novelties, Sonic hang gliding through a storm while trying to find the balance between speed and height or navigating bubble bursting walls ending up as something you wish he’d do more often than a simple gimmick never to be repeated again.
As forward-thinking and inventive as the game can be it wasn’t afraid to draw from platforming’s past either, best shown in its fondness for using sneaky passable walls to hide little extra rooms containing 1UPs or extra rings. Normally I’m not in love with this very old gaming trick because it involves a game breaking its own established rules without any logic or warning but here – as it is in Castlevania: The Adventure – these small side areas are reserved for entirely optional bonus items so the response to stumbling upon one is more a sense of discovery and reward than relief that you’ve finally found the one magical wall, otherwise indistinguishable from all the others, that allows you to progress to the end of the level. Another unashamedly retro – even by Sonic 2’s time – challenge shows up for the third Act of every Zone: A complete lack of rings. Yep, unlike the rest of the game – and almost every stage in every Mega Drive Sonic – you have to defeat the boss (and the mini-stage before them) without a single slip-up. Not one. It’s just the sort of challenge Sonic’s adventures are at times accused of lacking, the game demanding nothing less than precision and perfection if you want to proceed and made all the more difficult by the unusual shapes and unpredictable behaviour of the bosses themselves. As these metallic 8-bit meanies weren’t forced to have Eggman cackling away at the controls they could be anything the designers wanted them to be, beginning with Sonic stuck between bouncing bombs and a snapping mechanical mouth on a steep slope and from there going on to robo-seals balancing inflatable balls on the end of their nose (and in a move that’s sure to raise a smile – Sonic too) and a metallic hedgehog that in all honesty is far more interesting to fight than his Mega Drive equivalent: You really do never know what’s coming next, and every battle requires some clever thinking and your full attention to clear.
The only thing that really feels missing are the special stages. I do appreciate the Chaos Emerald hunt that replaced them – especially as it gives players a very good reason to thoroughly explore each stage (even if I never can remember where they all are and get the bad ending because of it) – but special stages feel like such a Sonic thing to me it is a shame there wasn’t even a token effort at bringing the concept of a bonus round to life even if they were never going to end up anything like the whirling showstoppers found in the Mega Drive games. But that’s genuinely the harshest criticism I can muster for this otherwise beautiful and inventive game, a title I honestly find more consistently enjoyable than its famous namesake. It’s true – these days I find once I’ve cleared Mystic Cave on a happy run through the Mega Drive version of Sonic 2 I tend to switch the game off; Sky Chase onwards is a lot of fun but who can be bothered to slog through Oil Ocean and Metropolis Zone to get there, really? I’d rather eat a fistful of nettles. Scrambled Egg Zone’s tangle of pipes aren’t exactly the highlight of my gaming life either but at least they have the decency of appearing in what is at worst the penultimate zone of the whole game (or the last, if you’re like me and missed a Chaos Emerald again) so they’re more like one last thing to tackle before the credits than a multi-stage roadblock standing between you and the best bits.
By insisting on being nothing other than itself 8-bit Sonic 2 – and this Master System version especially – still feels as fresh and unique as it was on release day. I’d even go so far as to claim it’s something of a special semi-hidden treat for fans of the Blue Blur’s Mega Drive adventures who’ve already exhausted both Sonic Mania as well as Sonic Generations‘ 2D stages: All-new, very old, and unpredictably familiar – Sonic’s other sequel is a timeless treasure.