Sonic the Hedgehog 2: The Game Has Changed, but So Have I

July 8, 2010

“I was playing this game 17 years ago, back when I was 13 years old.”

These words actually came out of my mouth.

My kids sat with me, transfixed as the colorful-yet-primitive vistas of the classic Green Hill Zone of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 splayed anachronistically across the 46-inch plasma screen hung on the wall. The words were true, of course — selling more than half of my NES games for a Sega Genesis (nearly $200, which equates to $350 in today’s dollars) turned me into a Sega Fanboy for the entirety of the 16-bit console war, and the release of Sonic 2 was an event. Every time the Green Hill Zone begins, it conjures memories of a game played on a small CRT in my bedroom, memories I saw fit to share with my own children on this day.

Well, I didn’t tell them the television was in my bedroom; wouldn’t want to give them ammunition to ask for the same, after all.

“Your uncle and I used to play it together. I was always Sonic, he was always Tails.”

“Why were you Sonic?”

“I don’t know — probably because I was older.”

Remembering the drag of a CPU-controlled Tails in the all-important special stages — special stages that were done in what at the time was a groundbreaking behind-the-back perspective despite textures that were shockingly crude even for a 16-bit game — I played on my own, as Sonic. Little did I realize when I started just how much I relied on my brother as Tails way back when. He was the one who could go on ahead, clearing the way of baddies, collecting hard-to-reach rings, and experimenting without fear of consequences. All I had to do back then, as Sonic, was wait for him to clear the way and do a little bit of running and jumping behind him.

Sure, sometimes I’d get bored, pick up some shoes, and go to town, but usually the experience would end in a complete loss of rings. I couldn’t be completely passive, either, lest I risk death at the hands of, say, an underwater level or a rising floor of fire. Still, it’s amazing to look at the game from the eyes of what a second-player helper could be doing, rather than simply expecting that it’s going to be done.

He always was better at these things than I was — I just couldn’t admit it because, well, I was bigger and I had an ego to protect.

“You know, back when this game first came out, you couldn’t save. If you died, you had to start all the way back at the beginning.”

“Did you ever beat it when you used to play it?”

“A couple times. It took a while though.”

Being able to save at quite literally any time turns this XBLA edition of Sonic 2 into a cakewalk, far more reminiscent of a Lego Star Wars-style consequence-free romp than an old-school platformer. It changes the game completely.

On one hand, it takes away from the game. The importance of a single ring is never so high than when you’re at risk of losing all of the progress you’ve made to a given point. The care that you put into each jump, the extra check you’ll do that you have something to land on, those disappear when you’re saving the game all the time to ensure the preservation of progress. The presence of a save/load mechanism turns the game into a museum piece more than an actual game — this is something to admire, this is something to conjure up memories of what once was, but it’s not a game to be taken seriously, not really.

Still, in a way, it’s more fun. No longer am I spamming the Casino Night Zone for extra lives. No longer do I have to crawl along at a snail’s pace when I pick up the running shoes because, horror of horrors, an enemy might await. Before, the faster aspects of Sonic 2 resembled the mechanics of a shmup, reliant on memorization and pattern-recognition in the name of progress. Now, it’s a playground of a game, encouraging its players to experiment for the sake of discovering just how deep a game Sonic 2 was and is. It’s a classic for a reason, and its many secrets never seem to stop revealing themselves.

“You know what, guys? It’s time for bed. I’ll finish this up tomorrow.”

“But DAD. You’re at the LAST GUY. You SAID so. Can’t you just finish?”

“It’s already past your bedtime. It’ll give you something to look forward to. I’ve tried it enough for tonight. I think we’re all tired, and we should get some sleep.”

The truth was, I didn’t know how to beat the final incarnation of Robotnik, where he inhabits a giant robot suit, walks very slowly, flies up and down, and shoots limited-distance boomerang hands at you. Despite the almost insulting predictability of his attacks, I couldn’t figure out how to beat him without getting killed, and I had saved at a point where I had no rings (having used all of them whipping through Sonic’s metal doppelganger as Super Sonic). I tried to reach back, figure out how I’d done this so many years ago, and nothing came. At one point I assumed that I’d had my brother go after him as Tails, but that couldn’t be right, because Tails is still off flying his plane at this point in the story. Figuring out that it had to have been me only frustrated me more.

After a few more attempts at it after the kids had gone to bed, I did something I’m utterly ashamed of.

I went to YouTube.

Somewhere, where time has ceased to exist and the paradox of addressing oneself in the continuum has been neatly resolved, my 13-year-old self is relentlessly mocking the 30-year-old me.

I could say something here about how the “save” mechanism had spoiled me to the difficulty of the original game, or how I was simply performing the noble act of ensuring my eventual success because the kids wanted to see the end, but I won’t. It was lazy, and probably unnecessary. Any little bit of “gamer cred” that I had once given myself for, say, beating New Super Mario Bros. Wii, bonus coins and all, without Luigi’s help has instantly evaporated in that moment of weakness. I have to acknowledge that age and parenthood have turned me into a gamer who’s not quite what he used to be, and I have to be okay with that.

Still, it was a low point.

“Are there any other Sonic games?”

“There sure are, but only the old ones are any good.”

“Are you going to play another one?”

“You know, I think I’ve had enough for now.”

Sonic 2 still sticks in my head as the greatest Genesis game I ever played, if only for the amount of joy it brought. It was the one that even my Super Nintendo-owning friends wanted to try out, the pièce de résistance of my collection for a short time that would convince them to trade systems with me for a week so I could get my Axelay/U.N. Squadron fix.

It’s a little bit different now, of course, a little bit of daddy’s history to show the kids. It’s still fun, but some of the seams are a little bit more visible now than they used to be. The unnecessary and redundant Hill Top Zone, the slowed action of the largely underwater Aquatic Ruin zone, and the frustration of landing in a spiked pit as Super Sonic all feel a little bit bigger than they used to. Of course, the game’s changed, thanks to the saving mechanism.

I’ve changed, too, as my YouTube-enabled moment of weakness demonstrated. I’m older now, and as much as I am a slave to nostalgia, it’s unlikely that any game now, much less any old game, will make me feel the sort of delight that Sonic 2 once did.

But at least I got to share that delight.

Maybe the kids will remember it, maybe they won’t. If nothing else, though, I hope they keep themselves open to feeling it someday, if not for a video game, then for something.


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