Sonic The Hedgehog was a bonafied hit. It saved the Genesis, made Sega relevant in America, and gave Nintendo a run for their money for the first time. Of course, the game industry is never one to exercise restraint, and Sega was eager to get to work on a follow-up. But there was a problem – Yuji Naka, the lead programmer of the Blue Blur’s debut, had resigned from Sega following growing dissatisfaction with his pay and the overbearing corporate culture inside the company.
Yuji Naka’s importance to the Sonic franchise can’t be overstated. While he might not be the one who came up with the world or characters, he was responsible for pioneering the tech that gave the early games their signature mechanics. The idea of friction-based, momentum-driven gameplay was all thanks to Naka, and with him out of the picture, the idea of putting out a sequel seemed pretty ill-advised. Without a strong foundation to build off of, how could Sega possibly hope to keep a legion of new fans happy?
Enter Mark Cerny. Yes – the Knack guy, and the man behind those bandicoot games people seem to like. At the time, he was heading up Sega Technical Institute (STI,) that internal studio I brought up in the last column. STI was in full swing, and they were gearing up to make the next Sonic. But without Naka, could they pull it off? Cerny wasn’t so sure, and so he flew to Japan to negotiate with the disgruntled programmer. He offered more pay and more creative freedom, which was enough to keep Naka on board. Naka would soon fly out to STI, which was based in California, along with Hirokazu Yasuhara – the level designer on the first game. By November of 1991, development on Sonic The Hedgehog 2 had begun in earnest.
While the turnaround for the game was quick, the development wasn’t exactly smooth. There were large rifts in communication between Yuji Naka and the rest of STI, due in large part to the language barrier and cultural differences. Technically a collaborative Japanese-American coproduction, developers like Tim Skelly have stated that they felt like they were basically just working for Naka the entire time. This became a problem when it started being clear that Naka was something of a perfectionist, and while those impulses wouldn’t become too much of a problem during the development of this game, it would wrap around to bite Sega in a few short years.
Aside from the communication gap and confusing hierarchy, however, development proceeded as scheduled. Sega of America lit a fire under STI to have the game ready for “Sonic 2sday” – a marketing gimmick to release the game on the Tuesday before the one-two punch of Thanksgiving and Black Friday. STI was basically told to have the game ready by that date, no excuses, no exceptions. And ready they were – Sonic The Hedgehog 2 was released on November 23, 1992, around a year and half after the first title.
Was it any good, though? Or had the rushed development produced an inferior game? Well, that depends on who you ask. To many, if not most, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is one of the greatest games ever made. Generally speaking, it’s considered to be the high point of the classic entries, if not the franchise as a whole. It was a smash hit upon release, critically and commercially, and has sold several million copies in the past 27 years.
With all that being said, I have to confess that when it comes to the mainline Sonic titles of that era, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 has always been a bit of a letdown in my book. While this is far from an objective statement, and an opinion that I’m well aware transcends “unpopular,” Sonic’s sophomore entry feels more like a proof-of-concept than a fully realized game. When playing it you can see the potential of the ideas, the novelty of new mechanics, and the fun of an additional cast member, but the package as a whole feels a tad incomplete and disjointed.
This starts at a base level with the narrative. You’re basically being dealt a retread of first game – Robotnik’s enslaved some animals, built some robots, and made a big scary base. Sonic’s got to run through some levels and smash stuff up until all the animals are freed. That’s basically it. I mean, I guess Tails is also there, but he doesn’t really do much aside from look cute. Point being, not much thought was given towards how to successfully iterate and build on the bones of the first game’s narrative, and the result is something that feels ambitiously unambitious. It’s too safe.
However, I think my larger problem lies within the gameplay. Levels feel way too focused on pushing Sonic in a straight line from start to finish, and while that’s a formula that would prove to work in later 3D games, it makes for a fairly unremarkable time on a two-dimensional plane. Not only that, but the levels themselves lack cohesion, and feel like a grabbag of ideas versus a fully realized world with a binding aesthetic. Variety is key to good visual design, as it keeps a one’s attention, but equally as important is maintaining a semblance of consistent art direction to ground players in the world. This applies to all forms of visual media. To me, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 fails because many of the levels don’t really feel like they belong in the same game. While the new spindash mechanic, which allowed Sonic to peel and burnout like a tire, undeniably changed the shape of future games, it’s not really used in many interesting ways throughout the entirety of the game. At least, to me.
I realize that this is all a bunch of very controversial opinions distilled into something that sounds pretty negative, so let me be clear – I don’t hate this game at all! I’ve played through it a whole bunch! But for me, it doesn’t capture the exuberant burst of energy of the first game, nor the polished perfection of the third main outing. It’s stuck in this liminal space between both games, and while that’s a pretty good space to be stuck in, it still feels stuck all the same.
Anyway. Sonic The Hedgehog 2 came out and everyone loved it. It did gangbusters, and continued Sega’s rolling coal over Nintendo in the holiday season. People loved Sonic. People craved Sonic. People couldn’t wait for more Sonic.
That would turn out to be a real monkey’s paw situation in the coming year…