A year after the runaway success of Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991, SEGA followed up with a sequel that introduced Miles 'Tails' Prower and the iconic Casino Night Zone to the gaming world. This, however, is not that sequel. Rather than leaving its Master System and Game Gear-owning fans with a simple, downsized port of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, SEGA crafted a wholly unique title for the 8-bit systems, with a new plot, original level set, and quite a few gameplay differences. While it doesn't quite live up to either its big-screen sibling or its excellent portable predecessor, it's still a worthwhile link in the Sonic series, and a fun - if sometimes frustrating - game.
The first change players familiar with the console version of Sonic 2 will notice is that there's no spunky sidekick to run alongside you this time. That's because Tails - despite his prominent placement right behind Sonic in every pre-level illustration - has been kidnapped by Eggman, and it's up to you to save him. You'll do that by running and jumping through seven stages of two acts apiece, picking up rings, taking out baddies, looking for Chaos Emeralds, and besting bosses at the end of every world. It's the standard Sonic formula, and it's undeniably fun, but the difference between good and great in Sonic's world is largely down to level design, and that's where this one stumbles.
First, the good news, because there's a lot to love about these levels. There are tons of secrets - more so than in most Sonic games - with hidden rooms full of rings and power-ups, unmarked shortcuts, and invisible paths to discover. There are also quite a few inspired set pieces that keep things fresh: Sonic will ride mine carts, fly hang gliders, navigate pipe mazes, float inside air bubbles, and skip across the water on his journey to Eggman, and each addition makes the trip that much more fun.
Unfortunately, this game is also an early example of death-trap-heavy Sonic design - blind jumps that lead right into lava pits, a hang glider positioned playfully above an unseen, spike-filled ravine, springs that launch you directly into enemy fire - and it feels cheap, rather than challenging. Sonic games are at their best when the levels play to his abilities, but here it seems like they're working against him as often as not. Many require quite a bit of trial and error - can Sonic make that jump, or will there be spikes? Will this tube bring rings or death? - and that feels at odds with the secret-filled stages of this game, which otherwise encourage exploration.
Even if you're not after any secret ring stashes, you'll still need to do some treasure hunting, since the Chaos Emeralds are hidden within the levels. Most of them are quite tricky to find, which would be a nice bit of added challenge, except for the fact that Sonic needs to grab every last one before he's even allowed to attempt the final zone. It's entirely possible to reach the end of the sixth zone without seeing a single gem, and the resulting disappointment of watching the aptly-named "bad ending" and having to start all over to get to Eggman is the kind of traumatizing experience that taught children of the '90s to always read the manual first.
Along with the Chaos Emerald requirement, there are a few other gameplay changes from Sonic's first Game Gear appearance. There aren't any Special Stages, for one, which is disappointing as they're often a highlight. A happier change is that you can pick up rings you've dropped this time around, but you still won't be able to use any in boss battles; Sonic can only take one hit in his Act 3 encounters, and that makes them incredibly tense. The bosses themselves - all based on robotic versions of animals - are fantastic, from a sumo-stomping pig to a mechanical seal that bounces Sonic around on his nose like a beach ball.
The Mega Drive version of Sonic's second adventure introduced his signature Spin Dash, but that's not an option in the Game Gear game. Instead, Sonic's still getting plenty of mileage out of its manual equivalent: running and curling up into a spiky sphere. It takes a bit more skill to use effectively, but it's a lot of fun to pull off, and uncovering secret rooms and pathways often involves clever uses of the technique. Luckily, Sonic controls very well on the 3DS - though the hang glider takes some getting used to - and the Circle Pad is a superb stand-in for the Game Gear's eight-way D-Pad, though the new handhelds equivalent is also a fine option.
SEGA's done an excellent job with the Virtual Console conversion as always, bringing Sonic up to speed with customizable controls, tons of display options, and restore points, which are especially helpful here. Restore points can be used to soften the constant threat of cheap deaths if you so choose, of course, but they'll also let you easily retry Act 2 of each zone until you find the all-important Chaos Emeralds, and that makes a big difference.
Visually, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a treat. Sonic's sprite is charming and well-animated, the backgrounds are clean and colourful, and - occasional bout of slowdown aside - it all looks great in motion. The level themes are fantastic as well: Sky High Zone's second-act thunderstorm is wonderfully atmospheric, and Eggman's hideout in Crystal Egg Zone is especially cool decked out in glistening glass, baby blues and coral pink - a very welcome departure from the metallic doom and gloom of most final Sonic levels.
Sonic is a series renowned for its music, and his second portable outing carries on the tradition with 8-bit gusto. The earlier songs are catchy enough, but the second half showcases some incredible tunes well worth plugging in headphones for, like Green Hills Zone's chiptune anthem - later reworked into the title theme for Sonic CD ("Toot Toot Sonic Warrior!") - and the ornate, infectiously upbeat Crystal Egg Zone track that matches the stage perfectly.
The personality that made the hedgehog a hit is present in spades in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, with fun gameplay ideas, beautiful graphics, a memorable soundtrack, and glimpses of speed-platforming delight. Unfortunately, the experience is somewhat marred by sporadically sadistic level design that bends over backwards to put the breaks on Sonic's joyride. There's still lots of fun between the death jingles, and its unique zones definitely make it worth playing for series fans, but if there's no nostalgia tying you to this particular cartridge, we recommend checking out the original Game Gear Sonic the Hedgehog before dashing into this one.