Weird title right? Well the vestigial tail is what we call the remnants of a tail that is visible in young human embryos. Essentially our genetic ancestors most likely had a form of tail and this tiny trace is all that we have left of it – we can thank the marvel of millions of years of evolution for sparing us that unique inconvenience. Frankly I have difficulty enough buying jeans that fit two legs rather than throwing a tail into the mix.
Thing is – what does that have to do with Sonic 2? Well the issue is that much like the vestigial tail, a remnant of something that was once potentially useful, Miles Tails in Sonic 2 is also an utterly pointless remnant of something that I’m sure was originally much more interesting. Clunky opening metaphors aside, let’s dive into exactly what I mean and why I think this game is actually surprisingly overrated.
Just to remind you of my background, until about a month ago, I’d never beaten a Sonic game. Clearly this is a gaping hole in the CV of any self respecting video game fan, so I have endeavoured to play through them in order. Last month we knocked Sonic 1 out of the park, which I was surprised by how much I enjoyed, and now we’re diving into Sonic 2.
Having read a few “All Sonic Games Ranked” and spoken to a few die hard fans, I was expecting big things from Sonic 2. I’d been told it’s the best game in the series and considering it’s regularly on “best game ever” lists, I was ready to be absolutely blown away.
Sadly though (and I realise this is going to catch me a lot of flack) I’ve got to say that I think it’s a good but not great game, with some really weird design choices that actually really spoil the experience. Now before you close this article and message me on Twitter to tell me what awful taste I have, hear me out.
Let’s talk about the most glaring improvement first – Sonic 2 looks far better than Sonic 1. The level of detail in the backgrounds and stages has really been cranked up and you can tell that a huge amount of effort has been put into pushing the megadrive to the edge of it’s capabilities. The colours pop and animations are smooth as you could possibly want which is incredible considering the speed that the game often runs at.
Considering it was released in 1992 and was up against Nintendo’s much more powerful Super Nintendo, I’d say it actually looks much better than some of its competition. Just compare it to Contra 3 which released the very same year and I think you’d be hard pressed to know which game came out on the more powerful console.
The big gameplay innovation was that Sega added is the spin dash which means you can now easily regain your lost momentum by holding down and charging up a dash to get Sonic back up to full speed. While I’m sure this felt fantastic at the time, the issue for me is that this has actually been retrospectively added into Sonic 1 so gameplay wise, Sonic 2 felt absolutely identical to the first game. It’s a strange situation because it means that while objectively Sonic 2 is absolutely the better game in terms of it’s gameplay design, I’ve unfortunately missed out on being able to appreciate that. To me, it was very much “more of the same” which was slightly disappointing when my expectations had been set so high.
On top of this, I actually felt a little disappointed that there hadn’t been more change ups in the gameplay versus what is available in the first game. Unlike in say, Super Marios Bros 3, which added in a world map, new power ups and a small item economy, the additions to the gameplay in Sonic 2 are really very sight by comparison. Yes there is a slot machine you can play around with, yes there is a section where you control a plane but these are really just small diversions from the running and jumping that makes up the vast majority of the gameplay.
I’ve really got to stress that I’m not saying that this is bad, it’s just that I’d expected something excellent and instead just got more of the same perfectly fun but simple platforming that I’d already experienced in Sonic 1.
An area that had been really hyped up for me was the inclusion of Super Sonic. Now I’m sure that some people have read the previous paragraphs disgusted with me that I could say there is no change up in the gameplay when the shadow of Super Sonic looms so large over this game. In Sonic 2, if you collect 50 rings before the checkpoint, you’re able to access a pseudo 3D section that, if completed, gives you a chaos emerald. If you collect enough of these you’ll unlock Super Sonic, a permanent upgrade that makes you faster and invincible if you reach 50 rings in a level. I will happily concede that this is a great addition to the game but the issue is the way you unlocked it is completely ruined by a huge flaw.
When starting the game you can choose to either go alone or bring Tails with you. Now considering how Tails is right there front and centre in the title screen and in the story, you’d imagine it’s the developers intention for you to bring him along. The issue is you can’t actually control him and he makes the bonus stages literally impossible to clear. Some of the later ones require some quite quick reflexes and memorisation which the CPU just isn’t able to do and Tails will just continually smash into bombs, costing you your rings and making Super Sonic completely unattainable. It’s a total buzzkill as it locks away one of the coolest new features and instead brings your focus onto how utterly pointless Tails is.
Let’s return to the title of this article – the vestigial tail. I have absolutely no clue what the point of adding Tails into this game was outside of simply creating another mascot-like character to sell merchandise with. If you choose to bring him along with you, he does nothing as you can’t control him and for the most part he spends large sections of the level either getting trapped or dying. None of this has any bearing on how you perform as Sonic so you’ll quickly just tune him out completely.
If you chose to play as Tails, he plays exactly the same as Sonic with no difference in moveset or levels. In fact when you get a shield power up, it’s still blue and not even palette swapped to match Tail’s model which really tells you everything about the amount of effort put into making a Tails playthrough distinct. The overriding feeling is simply that it’s totally pointless and I’ve got no idea what it’s supposed to add to the game.
What keeps the game from being a total disappointment is that the level design is still for the most part excellent and the multiple path, high speed formula that made Sonic 1 so fun is still present and still strong as ever. The first two levels – Emerald Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone – are both great examples of how the series blends high speed twitch platforming with exploration to create something that still stands as unique in the platforming genre.
Casino Night Zone does indeed add in the famous slot machines which you can launch yourself into in order to win extra lives and rings and thankfully there is no longer a lengthy underwater level, instead being replaced with the Oil Ocean Zone, a high speed blast across what looks like an oil rig. It’s all great fun and despite there not being masses of innovation, more of a good thing is never a bad thing.
I will say that the ending is a really weird change of pace that wasn’t particularly welcome. Once you beat the final level and grab onto Dr Eggman’s spaceship you are taken out into space and up to the DEATH EGG (an absolutely hilarious name for his base). You have all of your rings removed and then have to defeat Metal Sonic and Dr Eggman one after the other with no checkpoint in between. It’s widely considered to be the hardest part of any of the Sonic games and it feels like such an odd ending to a game that isn’t particularly hard at all.
Suddenly a single hit takes you all the way back to the start of two boss fights and both of the boss fights mechanics basically amount to pattern memorisation as there isn’t really any way to avoid their attacks without knowing what is coming next. You’d better have farmed for extra lives in the Casino Night Zone because I can imagine many a young child’s play through came screeching to a permanent stop here.
So that’s my thoughts on Sonic 2, a very fun old school platformer but one that absolutely doesn’t live up to the hype as one of the greatest platformers of all time. In fact I’d arguably say that it’s a toss up between this and Sonic 1 as to which is better. 2 has tighter level design and a better flow but has some really pointless and frustrating elements shoved into it. 1 certainly has it’s low moments (that goddamn water level) but generally maintains its quality and offers more of a fair challenge without the ludicrous endgame difficulty spike.
It’s funny really because going into this journey, the only thing I really knew about the Sonic series was that it has some real varied quality in it’s games and that the fan base is basically divided on almost everything. It’s odd to think that having only played through two of the games with no previous experience of them, I’d be diving straight into becoming a typical sonic fan with an opinion totally against what I’d read. I’m sure that in 1992 this felt like a monstrous step forwards but unfortunately in 2020, those big steps have been rather minimised by jumps we’ve made elsewhere in the medium.
We’ll have to see if Sonic 3, the last of the Megadrive Sonic games, can displace the first from it’s pedestal in my mind!