Let’s talk about when gameplay storytelling succeeds and fails.
Give or take a title screen or maybe a level select menu, there are practically zero words in Sonic the Hedgehog (1) regarding anything but the eponymous mammal and his clearing of a zone or two. But we still learned everything we needed to know about Sonic from the moment-to-moment of his first adventure. He’s fast. He’s brave. He squashes his nefarious opponents with the greatest of ease. And, while you could ascribe these same traits to any ol’ videogame hero, we also know what sets Sonic apart. He’s got attitude! Mario would be happy with being the player’s best friend. Mega Man is an unfeeling, occasionally blinking robot. Pit is having a really tough time of it. But Sonic? Sonic really would like you to move fast, player. He doesn’t have any authority over his own body for the duration of this game, and you could ram him straight into the closest badnik if you’d like, but… could we hurry this thing up? This erinaceid has got places to be.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 has much the same script as Sonic the Hedgehog 1. There are some zones, an egg-shaped dude who likes robots perhaps a little too much, and one shining hero that is here to save the day. Oh, wait, my bad: there are two heroes! Sonic the Hedgehog 2 introduced Miles “Tails” Prower, and he’ll be assisting Sonic on this adventure. And what’s Tails like? Well, according to his debut game, Tails is a complete moron.
Let’s look at the evidence. Tails is, while participating as the second player, invincible. It has been mentioned before that this was and still is a revelation for cooperative platforming gaming. A little over twenty years before Nintendo figured out invulnerable Nabbit might be a fun way for Little Timmy to participate, Sonic the Hedgehog was blazing through levels with a buddy that could not be stopped by literally anything. Tails might fall victim to spikes, a bottomless pit, or the occasional squishing block, but he’s back literally seconds later to help Sonic all over again. The second player is never a burden upon the likely more experienced first player, and, give or take occasionally bonking a baddie at the wrong time, literally all a second player/Tails can do is help. A second player could enjoy a breezy, low-impact experience throughout Sonic 2, and help player one along the way.
Let’sHowever, in a way, this deviation from the norm seemed downright wrong in 1992. Being “less” as the second player, the mere sidekick to player one’s hero, seemed to justify all the punches thrown over who “has to be” Luigi back in the Super Mario Bros. days. What’s more, in a decision that still seems maddening today, Tails wasn’t even allowed to participate in the final levels. Hey, Sega, I’ve got an idea! Let’s promote this cool, accommodating new feature in the Sonic the Hedgehog mythos, and then not even allow it for the final, most difficult levels! That sounds wonderful! And, even if you’re not worried about sitting out the finale, playing as Tails means knowing you’re not steering the ship: the scroll of the level and the reactions of the baddies are always going to be firmly pivoting around the irreplaceable Sonic. Playing as Tails might be fun for a toddler or a mate that isn’t interested in paying attention, but there’s nothing empowering about Tails. It’s easy to consider yourself an afterthought when Sonic is constantly leaving you far behind.
And, unfortunately, single player mode portrays Tails in a similar light. It is wonderful that Sonic has a buddy, and said buddy doesn’t immediately turn the entire game into an escort mission. Anyone that has ever played an adventure-RPG knows that, given the chance, the AI can and will drain all your precious resources as Goofy downs the last ether. In short, Tails could be a burden, but he continues to be helpful… assuming you wait around for him. Tails is prone to losing time to traps and tribulations, and there is essentially zero reason Sonic would ever wait for his partner to recover while the clock is still ticking. Tails might be generally helpful here and there, but you’re never given a reason to really care whether Tails lives or dies.
Except when you want him to die.
Like right here.
Everyone that has ever played Sonic the Hedgehog 2 knows what they’re seeing. Sonic and Tails collect rings to earn the precious Chaos Emeralds, and the only way they’re going to receive those gems is through grabbing every last ring they can find. And when Tails grabs a ring, that’s great, but Tails also can’t dodge a bomb for his furry little life. Tails can and will run straight into mines one after another, and, whether Sonic deftly leaps around the stage or not, Tails is still going to bleed rings like a jewelry store having a going out of business sale. While it’s clear that AI Tails is following the player’s lead on movements, he’s not following those movements nearly fast enough, so Tails is lagging behind. Tails is too slow for this special stage, and he’s bringing Sonic down as a result.
And what does it mean when a character is continually being tripped by traps, falling behind the leader, and costing Sonic valuable rings due to slow reactions? It means Tails is slow. Tails is stupid.
(And don’t try to tell me Tails is a genius because he flies a plane in one level. That’s a standard videogame trope. The boys from Contra can steer a tank with ease, and those nimrods can’t even figure out basic shirt technology.)
Later games portrayed Tails not only as intelligent, but as a downright genius. Sonic Adventure 2 firmly placed Tails as the equal, benevolent balance to the evil genius of Dr. Eggman, but earlier Game Gear titles already portrayed Tails as an ingenious lil’ dude with access to a number of gadgets. Sonic has his speed, Tails has his smarts. But in the maiden voyage of Tails? Tails is a nitwit. And when Tails returned for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles, he didn’t fare better at all. He’s 33% of the playable cast, but he’s the one dummy who can’t figure out how to gain hyper emerald powers. And later games portray Knuckles as the “all brawn and no brains” protagonist of the franchise, but that’s only because he got tricked by Robotnik a time or two (or six). But I don’t see Tails escaping from Knuckles’ frequent traps. Tails! Why are you falling down one of Knuckles’ pitfalls? You can fly! We would have never had to suffer through the Hydrocity Pronunciation Wars if you could have remembered to literally get your ass in gear! Use your brain, dullard!
So here’s the sad truth of Sonic the Hedgehog 2: after immediately and successfully establishing Sonic’s status quo with nary a word in Sonic the Hedgehog (1), StH2 dropped the ball completely with Tails. Later games would have to tell us Tails was smart, but those who remember his debut will never forget the tagalong that didn’t have enough IQ points to get out of the way of a bomb.
Tails could have at least had one idle animation where he does math homework…
FGC #488 Sonic the Hedgehog 2
- System: Much like Mega Man 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is now available for every system that has ever existed, save the Nintendo 64. Okay, maybe Sonic is not as prolific as Mega Man, but he’s at least available on the Switch.
- Number of players: If you don’t know the answer to this, you’re dumber than Tails.
- Speaking of Special Stages: I hates them. I hates them so bad. Why are they so difficult? Why do they require pinpoint accuracy? Why in blazes did anyone think it was a good idea for them to wipe out your ring cache after every attempt? And why the hell has the stupid opening fanfare of the bonus stage theme been stuck in my head for twenty years!?
- And speaking of hate: The final boss can go to hell. There. I said it. Can we move on to things I enjoy, yet?
- Wanna talk about how you manage to get three eggmen every time you ever try the slots in Casino Night Zone? Nope. Moving on!
- Favorite Zone: Now we’re getting somewhere! Mystic Cave Zone has music that really slaps, and it has a lovely aesthetic to boot. I’m ambivalent about murderous lightning bugs, and the spike pit is rather unpleasant, and I could live without those hanging switches… Did I mention the music was great? Because the music is great.
- Super Sonic Racing: This was the first game to feature Super Sonic. And he completely breaks everything in the game in every conceivable way, occasionally even glitching out and completely breaking himself. And that’s just fine, because no one is ever going to complete those bonus stages without save states anyway.
- Did you know? Apparently Sonic the Hedgehog 2 takes place on “West Side Island”. We have no idea where West Side Island is on the Moebius world map, but I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s somewhere in the east.
- Would I play again: This is not my favorite Sonic the Hedgehog game (which more deliberately includes Knuckles), so I’m not itching for more Sonic 2 trouble in the near future. It’s a great game! But I feel it is less fun than 3 or Mania, so it might be another decade before I return to the Oil Ocean.
What’s next? Random ROB is closing out this two for twofer with… Breath of Fire 2! Join the second best Ryu from Capcom on a quest to slay the second best Jesus. Please look forward to it!