Call it blind nostalgia for the first video game I ever owned, but I will die on a (green) hill for possibly the greatest collection of music to ever be squeezed onto a cartridge, CD or hard-drive: the Sonic The Hedgehog 2 soundtrack.
And, whether it holds the same place in your heart or not, I think there’s a strong case to be made for this being one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time – if not the #1.
The Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis for you mob) had plenty of things going for it (who could forget ‘blast processing’!), but it’s not a system that was renowned for top-quality sound. When stacked up against the impressive hardware packed into its rival the SNES, and the remarkably realistic symphonic scores it was able to produce in titles like Final Fantasy VI, the Sega wasn’t quite on the same level.
But while it wasn’t quite as versatile, the Mega Drive’s Yamaha synth chip had a uniquely edgy sound of its own that, in the right hands, sounded less muffled than the SNES, and could belt out some brilliant and truly memorable tracks that seared themselves into your brain. Like, for instance, this collection of simply incredible tunes, composed by a returning Masato Nakamura after his success on the original.
He was sadly not brought back for the next instalment after financial bickering with Sega, but in my mind they should have coughed up, because his influence here is a huge part of what makes Sonic the Hedgehog 2 the series high point for plenty of fans – after all, the J Pop band he composes for has also gone on to sell 50 million records, so he clearly knows a thing or two.
Let’s take a dive, shall we?
Flip the switch and there it is: the iconic “Seeeh-gaaaah”, in all its crunchy, compressed glory. It tickles the nostalgia, sure, but doesn’t necessarily set high expectations for your eardrums, about to hear the best collection of video game music ever composed. But then the title screen kicks in and brings you a tweaked take on the classic Sonic the Hedgehog theme (with added twinkles!) and you know you’re in for something good.
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Emerald Hill Zone
Right from the opening stage, this soundtrack is crushing it, and more than manages to recapture the airy charm of the first game’s classic Green Hill Stage. From those twangy bass runs to that delicious key-change, this track never got old for me as a kid, even after breezing past it for the thousandth time on the way to an inevitable death at the hands of the next act.
Every great boss needs its own amazing theme song, and many great fights have been let down by sub-par anthems. Not here, though. As Robotnik charges on-screen for the first time to this industrial, militaristic dirge, he feels properly menacing – even if he is just riding around in what’s basically a go-kart. As the boss fights get increasingly intense throughout the course of the game, though, this epic tune always manages to set the tone perfectly.
Chemical Plant Zone
Look, I’ll be honest here: this list is going to peak early. In fact, this song is pretty much the impetus behind this whole article, and without doubt one of the best songs to come out of the entire 16-bit generation. Chemical Plant Zone is a work of art.
Taking advantage of the unique buzz of the Yamaha chip, it’s a jazzy and textured jam with some serious earworm riffs, maintaining a relentless pace. It also works to up the tension significantly, in keeping with the added challenge found here compared to the opening act.
It’s just as well that this song is so fantastic, too, as this second act was one that brought me undone countless times as a kid – and I don’t think I’m alone. The rotating blocks and rising waters of Act 2 were the hurdle that for years and years kept me from progressing any further, but partly thanks to this song, I still kept coming back again and again.
I still remember the moment. Having knocked my head against Act 2 of Chemical Zone for years and years without success, one frosty Sunday morning I booted the game up for a few runs, not ever imagining it’d be the day I finally navigated that rotating staircase, sliding platforms and second boss fight, and could actually witness the rest of the game. As the opening bars of Aquatic Zone struck my young eardrums, a whole new world opened up before me.
The music probably represents something a lot different for most: trudgery. As if the underwater sections of Chemical Plant Zone weren’t enough, Aquatic Zone’s twangy theme still send a shiver down the spines of many 16-bit gamers as they contemplate the constant fear of drowning they’re about to face for the next few minutes. Aside from that though, it’s got a brilliant Mediterranean feel with percussion that you could actually salsa to, and wouldn’t sound out of place in a Street Fighter stage – it’s peak ‘Genesis’.
Speaking of the ever-present fear of a watery death, nothing was more stressful for a young gamer than having the music drop out and be replaced by this horribly urgent refrain, a sort of hyperactive riff on the Jaws theme that still sends hearts into palpitations to this day.
Casino Night Zone
Another early highlight, he Sinatra-esque tones and leisurely pace suit the Casino Night Zone perfectly, as we slow our roll for a while and take a moment to mess around with the working slot machines that litter the level, and ride the elevators from floor to floor. The sound of those digital brushes hitting that snare is just a great touch, and the whole thing just has an amazing cruise ship swing to it, offset by some sleazy gangster undertones in that intro.
Somewhere along the way, you’ll have stumbled upon a glimmering power-up that not only ups your speed, but also makes you invincible. Perhaps the best effect of all though? Giving you a chance to jam out to a sped-up reprise of the Sonic theme from the title screen, with a bit of extra flair. It’s the gaming equivalent of a cocaine rush, especially when the power wears off suddenly and you find you’ve slipped back into the plodding tones of Casino Night, mortal once more.
Hill Top Zone
The thing that stands out most about the Sonic 2 soundtrack is the way it works through such a variety of different instruments, all synthesised in a way so typical to the Mega Drive’s Yamaha chip. The wailing harmonicas and twangy banjo of Hill Top Zone are yet another glorious example, and when the level openswith Sonic and Tails standing on a green hill in the clouds and this track ringing in your ears, the game reaches its sunny optimistic mid-point – very appropriate, considering that the level was originally intended to be a prehistoric take on the game’s opening level.
The race day horns give way to a dizzying jam that was its own reward for finding each hidden entrance to the Special Stages, and its slightly discordant sound really hammered home the idea of having slipped out of reality momentarily and landed in a carnival sideshow. I never did manage to snag all of the gems from these painfully hard challenges, but I kept giving it a crack.
Mystic Cave Zone
From the joyous heights and blue skies of the hilltops, to the gloomy, claustrophobic vines of underground caverns, the circus tones of this one at first feel a bit at odds with the dark backdrops. It’s the spookiness that ties it all together though, the paranoid wailing making you feel as if something could leap out and grab you at any moment – which, in the Mystic Cave Zone, it certainly could.
Of course, whether it’s falling into a bottomless pit, or being crushed by a moving box, you’re bound to lose all of your lives eventually – and what platformer would be complete without a continue screen jingle that made you feel like a goofy loser, while still offering you the chance to redeem yourself?
Oil Ocean Zone
Apparently some of the tracks on the soundtrack got shuffled around when it was clear that not every planned level was going to make the tight deadline, and it’s arguable that this one could have found its perfect home in the dark of the Mystic Cave Zone. But here, it gives the Oil Ocean Zone a distinctly (and perhaps stereotypically) Middle Eastern flair and, while its meandering melody does result in one of the game’s less memorable tracks, it doesn’t set a low bar by any stretch.
Okay, I’m still not 100% sure why the devs decided we needed a third act of Metropolis Zone rather than the usual two, but damn, at least they made it up to us by giving us one of the best tracks in the game. A bustling, mechanic jam with piston-like drums and some delightful record-scratches, the highlight is definitely the electric guitar line that breaks into a dizzying solo. Together with Chemical Plant Zone, it’s another industrial triumph.
After that Sunday morning breakthrough on Chemical Plant Zone, I managed to blaze through most of the following levels on first play, but it was somewhere among the three-act gauntlet of pistons, pits and aggravatingly-placed preying mantises that was Metropolis Zone that my dream run finally came undone.
As the mournful yet slightly taunting strains of the Game Over jingle hit my ears for the hundredth time though, I wasn’t sad. I’d seen so many new sights that morning, and knew that next time I’d finally be able to get that bastard Robotnik.
For the slightly less inept players than I was, the game over screen had become a thing of the past, and they were instead spending more time with the exact opposite of its dreary tones – the pinnacle of Sonic The Hedgehog 2. Rather than running head-first into an annoyingly-placed enemy and bringing their quest to a crashing halt, they were snagging all seven of the fabled Chaos Emeralds and hit the highest of highs: becoming the invincible and blazing fast Super Sonic, which also rewarded them with a remixed take on the invincibility theme that manages to take the rollicking momentum up yet another notch.
Sky Chase Zone
After the stress of navigating Metropolis Zone, the gentle flight through the Sky Chase Zone made for a nice palate-cleanser, and its theme tune was no different. Adorned with sparkles, the gentle warmth of its synth horns was the perfect backdrop for Sonic and Tails laid-back massacre of robotic turtles (riding larger, flying robotic turtles, mind you). While the journey does drag a bit as you slowly drift through the clouds, this tune at least saves it from seriously outstaying its welcome.
Wing Fortress Zone
As the sunny horns of the Sky Chase Zone give way to a militaristic dirge, you know one thing: this is war, and shit’s about to go down. One of the most perilous platforming challenges in the game, Wing Fortress Zone is well-served by this one, which hits the narrative tone perfectly as Robotni, even if it doesn’t quite match the genuinely brilliant pop sensibilities of some of the tunes that came before it.
Death Egg Zone
It only shows its face for a brief moment before Sonic is Thrust into an instant-death final boss fight gauntlet, but there’s a distinct cosmic menace about this one, even if you only hear about four bars’ of it. Gotta go fast, after all.
While sub-boss Mecha Sonic has to make do with the game’s standard boss theme, Robotnik scores his own final boss theme to go along with his outlandish giant mech. Urgent sirens and machine-gun drums provide the backdrop for this epic final confrontation, with a little Baltic flair, and the air is thick with the feeling of danger and triumph as Sonic kicks some egg-shaped ass – but the best is yet to come.
Maybe, just maybe, the absolute highlight of the entire game comes once its beaten, your victory over Robotnik rewarded with this wonderful anthem that dips and dives between melancholy and joy as a victorious Sonic first falls back to earth, and is then swept up by Tails in his hurriedly-repaired bi-plane.
It’s the perfect ending an adventure like this could have asked for, especially when followed by a medley reminding you of every level you just beat into a pulp. A glorious cherry on top.
Options & Stage Select
But wait, there’s still a little more depth to this wonderful assortment. While there really weren’t that many settings to fiddle around with, even the options screen music takes you on a journey, while the stage select menu (which required listening to different sound-test samples in a particular order to unlock, and remained hidden from me for most of my childhood) rewards you for discovering it with a short but triumphant looped version of the ending theme.
The Two-Player Tracks
First composed for levels that were eventually scrapped from the game due to space constraints, this trio ended up getting a second life as the music for the game’s two-player levels – and it’s just as well. While some players may not have mucked around much with the odd, squished competitive race mode that got tacked on to the game at the last moment, I did.
It wasn’t that I had a bunch of friends who loved the game as much as I did, though. Rather, it was that, being hopelessly stuck in the game’s second act for years (and not knowing the stage select code), my only chance to get more Sonic 2 was by playing through these multiplayer levels solo, making my fun where I could.
But while that does sound a little sad, at least I was rewarded with some extra music for my troubles: the slightly grimier jam of Casino Night version two; the subterranean hustle of Mystic Cave’s alternate soundtrack; and finally the bright, beachside jam of Emerald Hill v2, which would become so inexorably linked with Sonic 2 for me that it supplanted the original version in my brain as the default Emerald Hill music.
Not bad for a pack of b-sides.
Hidden Palace Zone
Finally, there’s a track that even many Sonic 2 die-hards may have never heard, the theme for the axed Hidden Palace Zone, which was originally intended to be the final challenge standing between a player who’d collected all seven chaos emeralds, and their chance at taking Super Sonic for a spin.
Its lazy melody actually brings to mind recent slacker bands like Mac DeMarco as it buzzes away in the ears and, while it’s not quite the highlight of the awesome compilation we have here, it just goes to show that even the tunes left on the cutting room floor were all killer, no filler.
So, is the Sonic The Hedgehog 2 music the greatest gaming soundtrack of all time?
It just might be, for some of us. So much of what makes this soundtrack great, though, isn’t just found in the tunes themselves, but in their connection with a moment in time for the generation of players who experienced them at the time – the repeated Chemical Plant runs, the lonely two-player sessions, and the wonder of reaching later stages for the first time all leaving an indelible mark on me that transcends a pleasant combination of synthesised instruments. The millions of players who snapped the Sonic 2 cartridge into their Mega Drives decades ago might just feel the same way.
But taking the nostalgia out of the equation, there’s also no doubt that this is one of the finest examples of the soundtracks of 16-bit era, and the brilliance that could come from working within the limitations of supposedly ‘weak’ technology. It raised the bar for the ‘chiptunes’ that are seeing resurgent popularity today as people look back to rediscover the sounds that helped such simple concepts as holding right on a controller keep gamers enthralled for hours.
For both reasons, the music of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 holds the place in my heart and mind as the greatest in all of gaming. What’s yours?