Duncan Gutteridge sonic and tails art

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You need to play the most explosive Sonic game of all time on Switch ASAP

One of the greatest Sega games of all time.

Sega / Duncan Gutteridge

If a company wanted its video game console to succeed in the 1990s, especially a non-Nintendo console, it needed a mascot. Nintendo had a mascot in the form of a colorful and mustachioed Italian plumber, after all. A poll of American children in 1990 showed that Mario was more popular than even the venerable Mickey Mouse. Sega, the once-American and now-Japanese company that had previously focused on arcade games, wanted to face Nintendo in living rooms with a console of their own.

Yuji Naka, a Sega programmer who had worked on the Phantasy Star series, wrote a memo to his boss with a list of games he wanted to work on. He wanted to make a racing game or a puzzle game, but, as Naka said in a 2001 interview, “the one that caught his attention was the very last entry on the list, which said, ‘an action game to challenge Mario.’”

“I tried to object, saying, ‘Actually, I wrote them in order of which ones I want to do…’ but he didn’t listen to me at all,” Naka admitted.

At first, the character was a rabbit. Then, the team wanted to use an animal that could roll up in a ball, like a hedgehog. And they start looking at what Mario games did, and what they did not do. “Super Mario Bros. is a wonderful game, but if you play it every day, you always have to start from stage 1-1, right?” Naka said. “Once you get good and memorize the levels, you can just hold down the B button and run through the stage. But even then it just takes too long.”

Sonic and Tails!Sega

That’s what became Sonic the Hedgehog.

Did you know that perhaps the best Sonic game ever, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, is available right now if you’ve subscribed to the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack?

The first Sonic game had done everything Sega had hoped. Aimed squarely at American audiences, the speedy hedgehog quickly became associated with Sega. But the company didn’t want to rush a sequel. And Naka had quit, citing absurdly low pay considering he had developed a mega-hit.

An American, Mark Cerny, was able to convince Naka that his problems were in Japan. So Naka followed him out to the Sega Technical Institute (STI) in California, where a team of twelve built Sonic 2.

Sonic 2 is a game that both rewards and punishes speed. Sonic obviously wants to go fast, and the game encourages this in spades. Even the pleasant rushing sounds as he gets faster incentive speed over all else. But, crucially, speed can be a trap. Keep running through an aquatic zone, for example, and Sonic will eventually lose all his rings by running into some enemy that bursts through a brick wall or suddenly hits an underwater area where movement is much slower.

Sonic also does things that Mario can’t.

2-D Mario games are about timing and patience, lining up jumps just right, and memorizing the cadence. That core formula rarely, if ever, changes. Sonic 2 has elements like this, as is the case with any side-scrolling game, but it incorporates a more diverse set of gamified experiences to great effect.

The Casino Night Zone is perhaps the game’s most inspiring example of this, sticking Sonic and Tails into a series of pinball and slot machine-inspired contraptions, with Sonic acting at times more like a ball than a hedgehog. The colors whir and flash, the lights are bright, and the noises are fun. You feel like you’re playing an arcade game, which is made all the more fun when you remember that you’re not losing actual money every time you hit that start button.

Casino Night Zone is chaotic and colorful.Sega

At the end of every level, the evil Dr. Robotnik awaits.

While Sonic definitely has an attitude (he’s so impatient when left standing still!), and the game can present a few challenges that might have any player rewinding on their Switch, the relative ease of these boss battles shows that the game was initially intended for children. Yet that becomes a double-edged sword in a good way: So many classic games don’t age well by modern standards and feel tremendously difficult. Yet Sonic the Hedgehog 2 remains as playable as ever.

And, like, duh: It’s Sonic. This sequel shows how a game company can shape its entire ethos around a single character. Going fast will forever remain fun.

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