The Many Voices of Sonic the Hedgehog 2's Soundtrack
Masato Nakamura’s second outing with the hedgehog attempted new instrumentation on old hardware
How do you make a sequel? Maybe you go the Super Mario Bros. 2 route, and make things harder? Or perhaps you go the way of Dragon Ball Z by adding a funky, underused letter to make things more extreme?
Personally, I prefer the Sonic sequel method: let’s do more of the same, but better.
Hot off the presses of the system-seller that was Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega was tasked with replicating the first game’s magic. It’s a wonder that the sequel was such a well-received success. In addition to tensions between developer Yuji Naka and Sega of Japan, Sonic and Robotnik character designer Naoto Oshima departed from development.
Though Naka would eventually quit Sega in Japan, he’d stay involved with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 under the guise of a new studio. Founded by Mark Cerny, Sega Technical Institute was Sega’s American arm. Other talents that had worked on Sonic joined on, including level designer Hirokazu Yasuhara and, once again, Dreams Come True bassist and songwriter Masato Nakamura.
Despite developing the game in just 11 months — STI originally believed they’d have two years — Sonic the Hedgehog 2 introduced a number of new gameplay features to showcase the technical capabilities of the Genesis. The special stages were pseudo-3D half-pipes that would become a staple of the series, with variations in Sonic 3D Blast, Sonic Heroes, and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 2. There were also double the number of level themes, not including all of the cut content like Hidden Palace and the fan-hack favorite Wood Zone.
Remember how I said Sonic 2’s design philosophy was basically to make the first game, but better? That’s effectively the way Nakamura approached the game. He maintained his cinematic ideals in creating music, though this time he was offered more freedom given the success of the last game.
Nakamura composed the game on the Roland MC-4 Microcomposer while he worked on the Dreams Come True album, The Swinging Star. I’d like to try to draw a comparison between this album and the music of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, but honestly, it’s amazing how much the album diverges from Nakamura’s Sonic work. Of course, there’s the obvious connection in the song “Sweet Sweet Sweet” has to the game — Nakamura gifted a reworked version of the Dreams Come True track as the ending theme for Sonic 2. And at times the string sections on tracks like “Ano Natsu no Hanabi” are sort of reminiscent of bits of Emerald Hill Zone. But for the most part, The Swinging Star plays closer to the smooth sounds of Album-oriented-rock of the 1970s and 80s than the more progressive soundtrack of Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
In fact, Nakamura beats players over the head with his composition in the game’s first level, Emerald Hill. Sonic 2 brings a number of new voices to the soundtrack. In Emerald Hill a driving bass line propels Sonic and Tails amid squeaky synths that abandon the more symphonic touches of Green Hill. Equipped with the instant momentum generator that is the spin dash, the composition spares no expense in dictating the pace of the game, which tops anything the first game had to offer.
The second level, the fan-favorite Chemical Plant, might be so beloved for ditching the slow burn of the last game’s Marble Zone in favor of pure, uninhibited speed. The song follows suit, this time with call and response rhythms and again, Nakamura’s unmistakable, pounding bass.
Metropolis Zone, however, despite being something of Robotnik’s mechanical workshop, surprisingly takes a jovial turn, with an upbeat bassline and descending, arpeggiated synths that discard the sinister in favor of a more comical sound.
I’m particularly fond of the little guitar flourishes during the track, which helps inject some character into the song.
As I mentioned before, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 really thrives in how it uses a variety of voices with Genesis’s limited sound channels. Hill Top Zone, for example, includes the melodic wail of a harmonica, which emphasizes the more rural, mountainous setting of a level that reuses Emerald Hill assets.
Oil Ocean is another great instance of Nakamura’s stellar vocal usage. Middle Eastern music commonly employs tense melodies and complex rhythmic structures, unlike the ear-friendly four-four measures of western pop music. Nakamura recreates the reedy howl of the Duduk, an Armenian woodwind instrument, to carry the uneasy sounding Oil Ocean, which plays out over a burning orange sunset and an ocean filled with, well, oil.
No matter how you slice it, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was all around a better game than its predecessor. Unlike say, The Legend of Zelda, which flipped from a top-down adventure game to a side-scrolling action rpg between its first and second installments, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 simply did right by fans who came to love the first game.
The single button philosophy was expanded upon such that even the spin dash required a simple input. Look, they even managed to make the staple water level better, creating higher pathways that allowed Sonic to completely skirt the deep blue.
I find it amazing that all of these improvements could happen amidst the creation of a new branch at Sega. When companies are mired in controversy, whether it’s the allegations against Activision Blizzard or the failures of CD Projekt Red, their output usually suffers. Trying to manage PR while keeping staff focused on making the best possible games is no easy feat. More times than not, it results in gameplay sacrifices, key members leaving the company, or a sense of aimlessness as they try to please the public and fans.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 managed to mask those tensions to deliver a truly stunning game for its time. Maybe the game benefitted from the lack of social media, which amplifies industry struggles at a moment’s notice. Or maybe the brand of Sonic was just too strong at the time, with Sega closing the gap on Nintendo’s market share. Nakamura’s soundtrack was also a key contribution, helping to fold the musical experimentation of the first game into an even more eclectic set of songs that would become staples in the series.
For what it’s worth, the complete package of Sonic 2 is probably my favorite video game of all time. There’s just the right amount of challenge to make the game replayable, and it’s short enough to pick up and play just about anywhere. And though the series’ music would take a radical compositional shift by 1993, Sonic 2 still managed to lay a foundation for the hedgehog’s music for years to come