but with the introduction of the spindash, Sonic 2 does away with all the buildup, and allows you to go from 0-60 in the blink of an eye. It’s an astonishingly bold statement of purpose, one that promises non-stop thrills the likes of which have never been seen. As I argued in the original Sonic post, that game was meticulously crafted to make the most of its limited opportunities for unrestrained speed by carefully doling them out at exactly the right moments to make them really stand out, but this sequel provides a compelling case for the alternative all killer no filler approach. Taking away the need for long stretches of runup before the big flashy set pieces like the loop-the-loops means they can be more densely packed into the levels, allowing for a much tighter construction, and yet Sonic 2’s levels actually go bigger and more sprawling than their predecessors. It’s a case of the game brazenly trying to have its cake and eat it too, and one which turns out, preposterously, to be a completely unreserved success.
The other most notable addition from the original is the character of Miles “Tails” Prower, Sonic’s ever faithful sidekick, and the multiplayer functionality that he brings with him. What’s really interesting about this is that Tails is definitely not the Luigi to Sonic’s Mario. While Nintendo would eventually draw on the particular weirdness of Super Mario Bros. 2 to give Luigi an identity beyond ‘green Mario’, outside of the aforementioned exception, that’s all in the future. Multiplayer in Mario to this point has always involved two people taking turns at the exact same experience, with the only difference being the colour of their overalls. There is a fundamental equality to the process. But when Sonic the Hedgehog goes multiplayer, it does not, in any way, put its players on equal footing. No, there is a star of this show, and it is abundantly clear that Miles Prower is not that star.
Unlike the Mario games, both players play simultaneously, but the screen remains centered at all times on Sonic, and given his ability to go to warp speed at a moment’s notice, it is very easy for Tails to get left behind, and if that happens, the game says, well that’s just too bad. Player 2 just has to sit out for a while until he decides to show up again. There’s no individual score or ring counters; both players contribute to the same collective total, which could be a socialist utopia, except that there is also no individual lives counter, because Sonic is the only one who matters. If Sonic dies, it is a minor catastrophe, causing a level restart, and if he dies too any times, that’s it. Game over. But if Tails dies, it is barely worth a shrug; just as when Sonic speeds off without him, Player 2 must simply sit out until he shows up again. And if Tails dies too many times… well, he can’t. Tails can just keep coming back over and over. Hmm.
This certainly has some interesting applications; most notably, it makes boss fights that would be tricky into an absolute breeze, because Sonic can simply stay out of the way and leave Tails to confront the danger head on, safe in the knowledge that he can never truly be harmed by it. Ultimately, playing as Tails in a game of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is one of the more unique experiences available in gaming, because it really does put you in the role of a supporting player in someone else’s story. Your experience is entirely shaped by the way your lead player chooses to play; if they want to blunder ahead with reckless abandon, leaving you as little more than a glorified spectator, then they can. But whenever they need your support, when times get tough, you will always be there to lend a hand. You will carry them (literally, sometimes) through whatever hardships they encounter. That’s true friendship.
There’s a concept thrown around in certain circles of pop music criticism; the ‘imperial phase’. It was coined by the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, and refers to a period in an artist’s career when the stars align to put them on top of the world, when it seems that they can do no wrong. And Sonic 2 is unquestionably the peak of Sonic the Hedgehog’s imperial phase. Not necessarily the best the series ever got – my prog-rock sensibilities always made me more partial to the ridiculous double gatefold concept album that was Sonic 3 & Knuckles, which remained my favourite right up until the greatest hits album Sonic Generations came along and found a way to redeem even the worst excesses of the latter half of the discography – but the peak of its success both critically and commercially, and the moment where it left an indelible mark on the history of video games. The thing about imperial phases, though, is that they never last for long. Empires crumble, civilizations fall, all things return, inevitably, to dust. And usually, it happens sooner than you expect.