Critical Phantoms #001: Sonic 2

It’s difficult to express how your first game impacted you, especially when you began playing games at as young an age as I did, but there’s no time better than the start of this project to attempt it.

I started playing games young enough that there was no point of my non-infant life where I interacted with media, but not games. My dad jokes that he’s the one who set me down the wrong path by setting up edutainment computer games for me at less than two years old, and over the course of my childhood, my mom boasted of me starting on computers at 18 months old enough times that it’s kinda burned into my brain. But that game is something we can discuss another time; this isn’t a post about the first game I played. This is about the first game that stuck with me.

I have scant few coherent memories of games that I played before the age of five, but Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is the focus of the majority of them. The earliest and clearest memory I have at all is me standing in what I’d later come to recognize as a local pawn shop, holding a Sega Genesis box, staring intently at the back at a single tiny screen from Sonic 2, as if my fifth minute of staring at this blob of color printed onto cardboard would somehow yield new insights. I saw other games, but I knew this one was the one I was getting, so the rest were irrelevant in that moment. I was, at best guess, 3 years old, maybe approaching 4.

Talking about Sonic 2 has always been a sticking point for me, because it’s not a matter of being good or bad. This game is integral to how I learned to play video games, and its levels are etched into my brain, both due to how formative this game was for me, and for how long I made it last. Every zone was an ordeal, leading to an eventual triumph, and exploring all the paths as I either hit game overs or just needed to turn the game off and replay levels when I came back led me to an acute awareness of the spaces the game held.

I remember discovering triggers for extra passages in Emerald Hill Zone, imagining them as tiny buttons you have to press before tunnels will open, and realizing that there was one I really liked, but that killed me every time, right before the final checkpoint and the boss.

I remember the incredibly stressful flooded shaft near the end of act 2 of Chemical Plant Zone, and realizing I could escape from the spider-grabber bots while spending a sick day at home, nauseous and curled up in a blanket on the couch.

I remember seeing the Aquatic Ruin Zone and being terrified of drowning in the water that was only a vague threat in Chemical Plant. Then, with time came the realization that a little patience went a long way, and kept you out of the water almost entirely.

Casino Night Zone is the most complex level in the early game, and walled me for months; it’s a nightmare to navigate as a child, it’s loaded with crushing hazards, and it’s got way too many distractions, some of which you need to just let go of or you’ll never get through the level. On top of all that, it’s got a boss with a really strange arena and attack pattern, which thwarted me and made me dread fighting it whenever I got that far. Once I finally did beat it, I felt a sense of relief that was quickly replaced with apprehension.

Hill Top Zone is weird. I’ve always thought this, but it’s a strange refrain in the gradation from nature to industry that the game otherwise generally follows. The game does throw you from verdant hills into the harsh glass and steel maze full of chemicals rather quickly, but then, after trudging through a sunken ruin full of greenery and a neon-lit nightlife locale, you find yourself in an echo of Emerald Hill. But here, the gaps in the earth lead not to waterfalls, but bottomless pits or lava, and the level itself fills with a tide of magma during one of the most stressful stretches of gaming in my childhood. It’s a crueler version of the first level, one that doesn’t even let you into it unless you understand how the spindash works, and I definitely did not by the time I got to it for the first time.

Mystic Cave and Oil Ocean are zones that I almost always forget one of, because they’re both mazes with different rules to follow, and are always overshadowed in my mind by the behemoth of Metropolis, but both put a different kind of fear and resolve into my young mind. Mystic Cave is full of crushing obstacles, and is probably mostly responsible for me being so squeamish about the thought of getting crushed in video games, but Oil Ocean has some platforms launched by a plate underneath them that can be a lot more terrifying in their descent onto an unwitting 4 year old.

Oil Ocean also has the first instance of a liquid in which Sonic can vaguely swim, but with that ability comes the dread of treading a line in the level where if you let up, you’ll just die outright. No safety net, no drowning timer; you hit the bottom of the oil, you’re dead. This is used in the boss of the area, where Robotnik ascends from the depths to see if he’s killed you yet, and if you get greedy with hitting him as he goes back down, you’ll get caught in the titular ocean and likely be struck with the next attack. I feel like these moments were what honed the basis for my action game instincts more than anything, but the next stage was where they were tempered.

I called Metropolis a behemoth earlier. It’s the largest level in the game, in volume if not only in my memory. The format of the levels is smashed underneath a crusher, the rules for a level’s structure change, and everything in this goddamn factory wants you dead. Metropolis Zone is the only level in Sonic 2 that has three acts; a reflection of Sonic 1’s normal act count, but a very different experience for this entry, which made two-act zones the norm.

It’s not like they made the acts easier, either; this was grueling. This zone is all mechanical, all function, and all ruthless. There are crabs that fire their hammer arm out and get an actually absurd hurtbox that I can’t 100% deal with to this day, there are crushers, conveyor belts, pneumatic tubes, blocks with rotating spikes, and some kind of molten nonsense that acts like lava everywhere… All of these things aren’t even as bad as the speed-sensitive starfish and praying mantis bots with overly-homing boomerang arms that infest the tunnels and assault you while you’re dealing with the nuts you have to spin up giant bolts that function as elevators. God damn, Metropolis is a pain in the ass.

After working through Metropolis and its absurd boss, where Robotnik throws balloons of himself out at you, you then get to sit through an auto-scroller where Tails (or Sonic, if you’re playing as Tails) takes you on the approach to the big aerial fortress. Sky Chase is a breather before the final platforming challenge of the game, and even though it can be a little stressful, after Metropolis’ entire bag of nasty, enemies that die when you jump into them and cute little robot turtles that you can stand on are a nice little breather, and the way they maneuver the form of Wing Fortress past you as you near the end of the level is cool.

Wing Fortress, however, is hell. Here’s a level gimmick I don’t like: zig-zagging up a vertical area with platforming over pits that risk falling down a level, and other pits that are bottomless being between you and the area you just fell down. Wing Fortress is a fortress in the sky, so the entire level is platforms situated over a bottomless pit, with daring jumps baked into the path to progress, and it was super stressful! I don’t like bottomless pits, and the legacy of this level in later Sonic games did this whole thing a lot better. Fortunately, this is only a single act, and then, Death Egg happens.

Death Egg is double hell. It’s got the most finicky bosses in the game, there’s no checkpoint, and there’s no rings, so there’s no safety net for you taking damage, and also, even worse, Super Sonic isn’t available to you! You need 50 rings, and Death Egg has zero. So if you went through the effort of doing all the special stages, you’re out of luck! No palpable benefits for you!

By the time I got to Death Egg legitimately, I’d discovered the major cheats the game has, both level select and debug, so when I failed to beat the game, I warped to Death Egg and gave myself some rings. I ended up still losing, but next time I got that far, I had a little more experience and… lost again. Eventually, though, I got the hang of things, and memorized Silver Sonic’s patterns, and got over the dread that set in whenever the final boss music played, and I beat the game!… only to discover that if you beat it with all the Chaos Emeralds, you get a different ending. So I eventually beat it 100%, but by that time I had more games to play and didn’t need to get so ridiculously into it.

Largely, I believe my time with Sonic 2 laid a really good foundation for my spatial awareness in games, and also the stubborn nature I’m still working on tempering into something less silly. I’ve gotten better about taking breaks when I’m starting to get worn out, which is something I know I did when I was a kid, just because my parents wouldn’t let me play video games all day without taking breaks. Despite that, I will still beat my head against a wall in a game a lot, which, now that I think about it, kinder games in recent years will enable as a behavior with checkpoints and such.

It’s weird to think about this, but I probably didn’t actually play Sonic 2 until after Super Mario 64 was out. The Genesis from the pawn shop, and other games used from our local Funcoland, meant that I was already a generation behind by the time I got into gaming, and getting a hand-me-down foundation, in a way, but so it goes. This might be why I feel like the 90s is such a compressed chunk of time in terms of gaming importance; it’s weird to think about how long ago that was, but how recent its games feel in my perspective of things.

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