It seems a long way off now, but there was a time when news of a new Sonic the Hedgehog game was met with whispered excitement rather than a collective groan - and, perhaps in some eyes, the faintest glimmer of hope. That's not to say that Sega hasn't been trying to recapture former glories in the intervening years, but its continued failure to match the quality of Sonic's 16-bit heyday either suggests the publisher has forgotten what made Sonic great, or, more troublingly, that the industry has since left him far behind.
In other words, Sega's attempts to revisit the Mega Drive years might just be a fool's errand. Back then, the 'hog offered unparalleled speed and spectacle, a direct response to the comparatively sluggish Mario, but he's now been superseded on both counts; meanwhile, his rival has smartly reinvented himself for the 3D age while Sonic Team has struggled.
But is the problem more than technical? The original three Sonic games still seem to hold up pretty well, but how much of our affection for them is filtered through the lens of nostalgia? After all, Sonic 4: Episode 1 seemed to have everything that fans had been clamouring for, but it still didn't quite make the grade: the physics weren't quite right, the animation was sloppy, the platforming was fiddly. Perhaps, in the end, what we were really after was Sonic as he exists in our heads; an imagined, idealised version of the real thing.
If Dimps and Sonic Team could learn from the mistakes of Episode 1, though, then surely this follow-up could potentially offer some retro-tinted fun in its own right, even if it could never live up to the arguably unreasonable expectations placed on the shoulders of the developer.
It is doubly disappointing, then, to discover that Episode II is worse than its predecessor in almost every respect.
The opening Act of the leafy Sylvania Castle Zone - whose name briefly makes you wonder if Sega has signed a very unlikely corporate sponsorship deal - shows Sonic at his exhilarating best. Bouncing off bumpers, speeding across water, plunging down vertical inclines and accelerating around loops, he's the force of nature we all fell in love with. Even here, though, there's something not quite right. It still takes too long to get Sonic up to full speed, while the artificial inertia and rudimentary physics take some time to acclimatise to. Elsewhere, Sonic's mid-air homing attack proves to be as capricious as ever, occasionally bouncing you directly into enemies as planned, but occasionally boosting you into nothing, precipitating falls that can often be deadly.
Worse is the catastrophic decision to include so many underwater sequences. The chief appeal of Sonic is his lightning pace: why take that away from him so regularly? By placing the focus on sluggish platforming, the game throws Sonic's main weaknesses into the spotlight. The addition of Tails hardly helps: occasionally you're forced into using tag-team moves to smash through breakable objects or to reach higher platforms, the fox giving his blue friend a temporary lift. But their inclusion feels half-hearted and awkward. Tails can only carry Sonic a short way, presumably to prevent you flying through the entire level, but the distance varies according to your location, and the inconsistency rankles.
At least the settings are attractive, though that all changes by the third zone, set in - of all places - an oil refinery. What next, Brown Warehouse Zone? This adds the irritants of slick, slippery surfaces and forced-scrolling sections, one of which represents an inordinately frustrating difficulty spike. That you can attempt the stages in any order seems less a concession to modern gaming standards and more an admission that the frustrations are too great to ask players to complete multiple stages in one go.
Those who bought the first episode are treated to a secret zone starring Metal Sonic, which feels similarly clumsy in places, but comes much closer to the spirit of the originals. Fast-paced and packed with gimmicks, it's a fleeting glimpse at what could have been. As, too, is the second act of the snowy White Park Zone, a literal rollercoaster ride with plenty of dips and loops to hurl this blue ball of energy around. The special stages, too, are briefly entertaining ring-grab challenges, even if they're basically the old ones with a lick of current-gen paint.
What's most galling about the whole exercise is that you find yourself wanting nothing more than a graphically-enhanced version of the Mega Drive originals. It says much about how far this former trailblazer has fallen that we hope for nothing more than that, and expect quite a bit less. With every new Sonic release that groan grows louder, that glimmer of hope ever fainter.
Version Tested: Xbox 360