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In my opinion, video game music died with the Nintendo 64 and the Sony PlayStation. It’s not that there’s not good music that’s been made since, but there’s certainly something that’s been lost from the days of chip-created tunes.
So when Chris Hoadley came up with his “concept album” writing prompt, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about – and it wasn’t going to be anything resembling the word “orchestral:” Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
You begin in the serene Emerald Hill Zone. The sun is shining, the flowers are bouncing, it’s quite peaceful. That is until you are greeted with a powerful synthetic trumpet demanding you to put the pedal to the metal. The trumpet becomes your companion throughout the act – it’s certainly more reliable than Tails, who’s in a constant struggle just to keep up with the blue blur – a companion that keeps your spirits up with its perkiness and drives you forward with its quick-noted solos. As with almost every other Sonic 2 track, a blazing drum line commands the background keeping the pace as up-tempo as possible without becoming disorienting.
Like Tails, the trumpet of the Emerald Hill is also unable to keep up with Sonic, as it tags in it’s jazzier brother, the saxophone for stage number two: the Chemical Plant Zone. The instrument change is about as sharp as the change in scenery. The greens have been replaced by steel grays and suspicious purples. In turn, the optimism of the music has changed to something decidedly more alarming. What started as an everyday stifling of Robotnik’s dastardly dealings has reared its ugly head as something much more serious.
And while not technically a part of the Chemical Plant theme, the design of Act 2 has made it nigh impossible to pass it without hearing the dreaded “holy shit, I’m about to drown” music. Where once Sonic was thought to be an invincible force, he is now shown – and heard – in his most vulnerable form.
A good mix should rise and fall, or so I’ve been told. Sonic doesn’t really do “fall,” so instead Sonic’s Casino Night Zone is merely “up-beat.” Like the City of Sin itself the Casino Night Zone is all about feeling as ritzy as you can with its big band influences. Whether looking for a loose slot machine or taking one of the stage’s numerous elevators, this is one Sonic track that is more about being chill than being quick.
But after a little gambling and the fresh air – and music – of the Hill Top Zone, it’s time to get back to the speed and aggression Sonic is known for with what is quite possibly the best track of the game: the Mystic Cave Zone. The light, twinkling notes are contrasted with an intense bass line. The aural assault complements the menagerie of death dealing obstacles, keeping Sonic – and the player – perpetually on their toes.
Ending on the nightmarish space-themed Death Egg Zone, Sonic can only be lulled into a creepy, yet fairytale-like dream state by the accompanying music. The main melody sounds like it came from a haunted space organ. This leads right into the suitably epic final boss fight’s theme: a snare-filled campaign that can intimidate or inspire, depending solely on your confidence, a fitting end to a game that can do the same.
Though each track has been tailored specifically to the theme of its stage, Sonic 2’s soundtrack as a whole delivers two consistent themes: speed and exploration. Not coincidentally, these are the same themes as the entire Sonic franchise. The cohesiveness of the music and the motifs of the game make it, without a doubt, my favorite video game soundtrack of all-time.