Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992, Sega Genesis)
In the great 16-bit war, in which a clever marketing scheme and arcade-port-friendly processor helped Sega paint Nintendo as slow and obsolete and out of touch (and, perhaps, ready to get its comeuppance for the stranglehold it had on the industry during the NES' reign), Sonic was its poster boy, and retrospectives have given him the reputation of being "edgy" (complete with quotation marks). I'm not sure that's entirely true, though. Sure, he has that Bart Simpson smirk, he wags his finger at the player on the title screen, and taps his feet impatiently if you let him linger. That's the extent of it in the Genesis games.
It's easy to apply that sort of retroactive reputation, though - after all, Mario, as a personality, hasn't evolved much, and Sega was quick to capitalize on Sonic's popularity with a grating cartoon (voiced by Jaleel White, AKA Urkel) and a not-bad Archie comic. But that's a hazy memory for you... the 16-bit generation was filled with mascot platformers who were "edgy," had "attitude," etc., and since Sonic was the first major character to even hint at "edginess," all of those other ridiculous mascots reflect back on him.
And then there's Sega's advertising. It's well documented elsewhere, so this should suffice:
It's mildly clever and very much a bold, direct attack on its main competitor. Not to mention - somewhat true. Anyone even a little familiar with the subject knows that the SNES really did have a slower processor, and that it probably couldn't handle something as speedy as Sonic (at least early in its life). Thus, as the system's official mascot, Sonic was inevitably linked to these kind of advertisements, and gained the reputation of being "edgy."
Sonic's 'tude may have been somewhat misplaced, but the games' reputation as being speedier, hand-in-hand with Sega's marketing scheme, is definitely not. "Blast Processing" may have been a BS term cooked up by marketing, but it seems fair to say that Sonic the Hedgehog 2, released a little more than a year after the first game, embodied it.
Sonic 2 opens with a familiar sight, and what would become something of a series standard: rolling green hills with a scenic watery backdrop (and the typical checkered dirt), with a catchy Masato Nakamura tune (he also composed for the first game; both games' excellent music invariably contributes to that vague Sonic "feel"). Curious players might have noticed that the choice to play the game solo is in the options; otherwise, the rest of us are saddled with new sidekick Tails, who seems pretty useless at first. But Tails serves a number of purposes: he can grab missed rings, can take virtually limitless hits for Sonic without losing rings, and a second player can control him for kicks, mostly (and maybe help out with bosses). But Tails serves a less observed, more aesthetic purpose - as he struggles to maintain the momentum and speed of Sonic himself, by contrast he makes Sonic appear faster.
The sensation of speed is paramount to the game's quality; though Sonic handles just fine, without his speed, the game offers only very basic platforming gameplay. The first game used speed as a showcase for the console's capabilities in the first few levels, and slowly segmented its obstacle-free runways in between more traditional platforming. Not so Sonic 2; nearly the entire game acts as a showpiece for the system's capabilities. The very first act, on average, takes about a minute to complete.
Rings again serve the same purpose as they did in the first game: source of both lives and health, and as a means to reach the bonus stages. Collecting emeralds (seven now, as would become the standard) means navigating pseudo-3D halfpipes, collecting rings and dodging obstacles. It's not particularly fun, and here Tails becomes a major detriment: because he lags behind Sonic, he often gets hit by the obstacles - losing the player's rings in the process, and disqualifying him from continuing past the checkpoint. I find these segments vastly more frustrating than anything in Sonic 1 (or Sonic 3, for that matter), but getting them all does at least give a bonus. With all seven emeralds, Sonic can transform into - wait for it - Super Sonic, after collecting 50 rings and jumping. Super Sonic is nearly invulnerable, is faster, and can jump higher - though why anyone would need that kind of an advantage in such an easy game is beyond me.
And make no mistake - it is an easy game. There's a reason, I guess, the special stages are so difficult - they're now accessed through checkpoint lampposts, if Sonic passes them with at least 50 rings. Rings are even easier to come by, as are the shield monitors, which makes the rings that much harder to lose. The levels are ripe with checkpoints - not that you'll need them. It's a smart decision to lock the special stages behind them, because almost all the game's zones have been pared down to two acts (from Sonic 1's three). The levels are bigger and more vivid, and offer even more branching paths. The emphasis is always on speed and momentum, only occasionally funneling the player into smaller areas with more typical platforming action. Even then, there's sometimes a way around it - usually above - thanks to Sonic's new spin dash move, which grants immediate (and free!) speed. It's a clever little trick to get around some of the spacing issues of the first game.
The massive levels themselves hit a sweet spot that almost always feel spacious, inviting speed, but never too wide-open. I'm still scratching my head, wondering how they pulled it off - how the levels can be so non-linear and yet still be pushing the player forward at all times, with little or no confusion as to where to go. What's more is that they always feel fresh and varied - helped, no doubt, by upping the number of zones but limiting each one to two acts. Chemical Plant Zone, with its vivid blue and yellow lanes and neon-pink chemical water, manages to capture the look of the typical industrial-theme level and still feel unique. It also introduces the dreaded water mechanic early on in the game, but it's almost entirely skippable for skilled players. Even more than the first game, Sonic 2 rewards players with quick reflexes by granting them extra rings and easier paths, but it never punishes slower players too harshly.
The core gameplay then extends to a simple objective: aim for the high ground. It might be more treacherous, with more enemies, but it offers faster routes and more momentum. The third zone, Aquatic Ruin Zone, encourages this even more, with annoyingly slow (and entirely skippable) water segments if the player should miss a jump. But again, it never really punishes you too severely - the level designers wisely chose not to include hardly any bottomless pits. At this speed, they would simply be too punishing - something that later games in the series would struggle with, and also something that contributes to Sonic 2's reputation as being too easy.
Casino Night Zone expands on the bumper-heavy design of Sonic 1's Spring Yard Zone, and gives it a (duh) Casino aesthetic. It also slows things down considerably, though not really for any true platforming action; rather, it offers a very speedy, (mostly) risk-free brand of pinball. It's perfectly placed to offer a brief rest from the full-on speed of the first three zones, and its theme would become pretty standard for the series.
Hill Top Zone, with its vivid colors and funky, laid-back music, is one of my favorites, because it really embodies both the "high ground objective" of the series and the breezy, fun experience of the game as a whole. A high altitude mountain range is a natural fit for Sonic gameplay, allowing for big slopes, big blue skies, and the occasional volcano-diving for a little more tense platforming action.
It's followed by Mystic Cave Zone (there isn't much continuity between zones, unlike Sonic 3), which is sort of a turning point in that it finally offers more traditional platforming challenges. Still a cakewalk, but spiked platforms, crumbling bridges, and crushing pillars give it a slightly more dangerous flair than the rest.
The same could be said for Oil Ocean Zone, but even that has a permanent safety net, of sorts: the oil lining the bottom of the stage acts more like quicksand, and Sonic can jump safely out of it if you're quick enough. With its oil slides, elevators, and deviously placed (some would say cheaply) seahorses, it's the first zone in the game where holding on to your rings becomes a challenge. Unfortunately, the boss too is a pushover - as are all the rest in the game so far. While Robotnik returns each zone with fresh mechanics, they lack a real sense of danger - one of the game's weaker points.
But that's what you have Metropolis Zone for. Experienced players are immediately tuned in to the zone's wavelength - its music, though still upbeat and catchy, it more urgent, and the industrial aesthetic heralds something more challenging. And it is - though it's still light on pits, the zone is filled with a few of the more deadly enemies in the game - starfish who explode in 5 directions, blade-throwing grasshoppers, punching crabs. When you reach the end of Act 2, and instead of facing Robotnik, moving on to Act 3, you know things are serious. Death is still a pretty rare thing, with so many rings to spare, but some Acts might even take you up to 6 minutes - good god.
On any given day for the past, what, 20 years, I could make it to the game's final few zones without a single death. But that's when things get tricky. Sky Chase Zone offers something new - Sonic standing on Tails' plane, dodging a few predictable enemies. Only by spin dashing off will you fall to your death. It segues directly into Wing Fortress Zone, where, as the title suggests, Sonic must navigate (alone) the outside of a massive flying ship. It's fairly linear, and here caution is key - its loaded with springs that can send you flying to your death. Eventually you're dropped inside, where you'll face the first true boss challenge so far - randomly rotating spiked platforms that allow you to jump and hit the giant laser above - oh, and it's only vulnerable just before it fires.
After the ship's destruction, Sonic hitches a ride up to Robotnik's Death Egg (yep, that's exactly what you imagine). The first boss, Metal Sonic, is easy enough, after some memorization (you'll have saved up plenty of lives before now), but a single mistake is deadly because the zone has no rings. It leads directly into the next fight against a massive Robotnik mech. It's still not controller-throwing hard, but with his flying arms and 12-hit health, you will most certainly die a few times trying. Just challenging enough to be satisfying when you beat him - that Sonic-type of satisfaction, not the big sigh of relief you gave when you beat Contra or whatever (yeah, like I ever beat Contra without the Konami code).
Sonic 2 is often criticized for being too easy, but that's part of the appeal for me. Later games in the series tried to overcome this with mixed success - mostly just leading to a lot of cheap deaths and unavoidable enemies. The game is always pushing the player forward and with its large, non-linear levels, no run is ever the same. I suppose that's what makes it so memorable some 20-odd years later; not to mention why my 4 year old nephew could grasp it and make significant progress when I first handed him a Wii controller back in 2007. Christ, how many times have I bought this game? I told you I was a sucker, didn't I?