It's difficult to believe now, but there was a time when Sonic the Hedgehog games were good. Like, really good. Sega's recent efforts have been average at best, tragically bad at their worst (with a few exceptions here and there, mostly on handheld formats). Sonic the Hedgehog 2 falls into the series 'really good' period and so it is with this Mega Drive classic that developer M2 finishes off its current run of 3D Classics for Nintendo 3DS.
Following on from the smash-hit original was never going to be easy, but thankfully 3D Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is everything a good sequel should be; bigger and brasher without breaking any of the key elements that made the first game such a success. The set-up is similar to the previous iteration; Dr. Robotnik returns with a new plan to transform the helpless animal inhabitants of Mobius into an army and force them into building his Death Egg super weapon. Along comes Sonic to save the day, only this time he's brought along some help in the form of his buddy, Tails the Fox.
For the benefit of those who've been living under a rock for a few decades, Sonic 2 is at its core a 2D platformer with the simple goal of reaching the end of each level unscathed. A plethora of enemies and level hazards will attempt to halt your progress as you make your way to the final battle with Dr. Robotnik. Collectable rings placed throughout each level provide protection, but taking damage will cause you to drop all your rings, after which any subsequent hit will result in a loss of life (although if you're quick enough, Sonic can grab a few of the fallen rings before they disappear for good).
Sonic games have always been a bit flaky in terms of the platforming elements, never feeling quite as tight as Mario and friends. However, where Sonic lacks a little in precision, he makes up for it with sheer, crazy speed. In Sonic 2, the developers really went all-out to create wonderfully intricate levels, with plenty of exploring to be had, but at the same time allowing for some insane set-piece speed sequences with balls-to-the-wall rushing through loop-the-loops, twisting tunnels and cannonballing along vast networks of industrial pipes. It's exhilarating stuff, and it's amazing to note just how far Sega managed to push the Mega Drive to its absolute limits. The then-new Spin Dash move allows Sonic to accelerate to dashing speed from a standing start, which helps alleviate minor frustrations present in the first game; you no longer need to find a suitable run-up before tackling tricky sections requiring momentum (note that the Spin Dash was added into M2's 3D Classics port of Sonic 1).
If you're aiming to achieve the true ending you'll additionally have to obtain all 7 Chaos Emeralds on the way to Robotnik. Chaos Emeralds are inconveniently locked away inside Special Stages, which can only be accessed by activating Star Posts (essentially checkpoints) while carrying 50 or more rings. These Special Stages were a technical marvel in 1992; positioning the camera behind Sonic, he rushes along a 3D half-pipe tube that eventually ends with a Chaos Emerald prize providing you've hit all the ring collecting targets on the way down. It's fair to say that this element of Sonic 2 has aged the worst; a slightly shoddy frame rate in the scrolling effect and clunky controls don't completely ruin the experience, but these stages aren't the marvel they once were. The addition of stereoscopic 3D helps a little for sure, but don't expect to be blown away - rose-tinted glasses are a must here.
Along with eleven new zones to get through, various boss battles and an epic end fight, Sonic 2 also introduced the world to Sonic's sidekick Tails. In single player, the CPU takes control of Tails and he meanders along in the background, collecting rings and generally being useless. Should you not be a Fox-lover you can choose to eliminate Tails from the equation completely and play just as Sonic, or even flip it around and take control of Tails. Playing as Tails is marginally different to Sonic and there's even a separate ending reserved just for him.
Clearly Sonic 2 is best experienced as a single player outing, although a second player can take control of Tails and lend a hand keeping Sonic's ring count up. It's evident how broken this is from the off though as Tails simply can't keep up with Sonic and is forever being pushed off the screen only to fly back on a few seconds delay later. However, Sega did see fit to include a proper multiplayer mode which pits two players against each other, racing to victory across selected stages. In order to access either mode on the 3DS version, both players must own a copy of the game and these features are accessed via local play. In a rather disappointing turn of events, the vs. races remain playable only in split screen, which is a shame. Apparently M2 decided both players needed to be able to see each other at all times in order to strategize, but it would have been nice to have had an option to enable a full screen for each player. Still, the multiplayer is hardly the main draw of the game and remains little more than a nice-to-have time waster.
So what of the 3DS particulars? This being an M2 port it's no surprise to find a cracking version of Sonic 2 with beautiful implementation of stereoscopic 3D, super-smooth visuals and plenty of options to tweak, including swapping regions, sound modes and retro visuals. M2 have also included 'Ring Keeper Mode' in which you begin the game with 10 rings (usually zero) and taking damage only results in the loss of half your rings. Along with instant access to the stage select cheat, M2 have empowered all gamers (regardless of skill level) to feasibly see all that the game has to offer (Sonic 2 quite famously has a rather tough end-game sequence). Additionally, it's nice to see that all the cheats from the Mega Drive original still work, so should you wish to unlock Super Sonic without having to collect all those pesky Chaos Emeralds, it's still built into the code. Finally of note: the restored Hidden Palace Zone from the iOS/Android port of Sonic 2 is not present here.
Aside from the throwaway multiplayer and slightly iffy Special Stages, Sonic 2 is still an absolutely fantastic game. Improving on the speed-based platforming of the original in every way, Sonic 2 remains one of the greatest sequels of the 2D age. M2 delivers once again and its usual flourishes and extra features open up the game to newcomers while still catering to the fans. The icing on this already gorgeous retro cake is the utterly awesome and timeless soundtrack, so grab some decent headphones before you jump in. Sonic fans will already have made their mind up and rushed onto the eShop to purchase, but if you haven't made the leap yet do yourself a favour and pick up 3D Sonic the Hedgehog 2 as soon as you can. Simply put, this is Sonic at his very best and a platforming masterclass. Now if only Sega still made them this good; after all it has been ages, right?