Wing Fortress Zone’s music cleverly combined a steady pace with an unnerving composition to create an incredible song to take Sonic 2 to a whole new level, just as the game was coming to its unforgettable close, argues Matt Gardner.

So there I was, on top of a rickety biplane piloted by my best mate, wing-walking towards the most ludicrous flying fortress owned by a supervillain scientist who was hellbent on world domination via the mechanised capture and weaponisation of countless woodland creatures, plus the utilisation of a heavily armed space station.

Game

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Platform

Mega Drive

Year

1992

Composer

Masato Nakamura

It was just another day for Sonic, but not for me – during my first-ever playthrough of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, it just felt like things wouldn’t stop escalating, but I’d luckily scraped through each stage. I’d just defeated dozens of airborne Badniks in the preceding Sky Chase Zone, presumably sending every single one of these newly-freed critters plummeting to their deaths. However, good fortune was no longer on my side.

It was my faithful companion’s turn to crash and burn courtesy of a big, fuck-off laser fired directly at his plane. All it took was a quick leap to get me from the craft and to the (relative) safety of the evil Dr Robotnik’s soaring juggernaut – even though it did take two deaths to realise that it was the only course of action to progress, as simply taking the plunge alongside Tails in the Tornado was not an option.

During this early debacle, and subsequently through the stage, a bombastic, jingoistic tune simultaneously filled me with pride that I’d made it so far in Sonic’s journey, but also doled out a true sense of dread. It signalled there was a real challenge ahead, no-one was there to back me up, and if I missed a beat, I too would plummet to my death. My fate would mimic those of the hedgehog-led genocide I’d wreaked in the moments leading up to this decisive moment, as well as the two-tailed yellow fox who, to be honest, didn’t seem to give a shiny shite that he was going to die in a burning plane.

Going solo

Welcome to level ten of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. It was a stage so ridiculous, grandiose and intimidating that only a song like the delightfully weird Wing Fortress Zone could do it justice. After all, you were now aboard an unbelievably unconventional aircraft; you only need to look at the expanded layout of the map to realise that Dr Robotnik was clearly tripping balls when designing this wingless plane, which defied the laws of gravity, not least because it connected the front third of the plane to the rest of the fuselage with a single cambelt. And air.

This penultimate level of the game served as the true tonal shift in Sonic 2. Gone was the dreamlike music provided by Sky Chase Zone a beautiful song and experience which I covered in GameTripper’s first-ever VGM retrospective – as well as other wistful, positive songs like Casino Night Zone, Metropolis Zone and Special Stage.

It was replaced with Wing Fortress Zone’s militaristic overtones, which carried more than a whiff of the soundtrack to a mid-70s Soviet propaganda film depicting the brave actions of the Warsaw Pact’s finest cosmonauts. It was the perfect mix of lofty aspiration and the general peril of evil, much like the USSR’s nuclear proliferation policy during the Cold War.

On this first of many “trying to complete Sonic 2 with my brother” summer Saturdays, I found myself in awe of this incredible stage. Its design was beyond anything seen previously – even the maze-like Metropolis Zone, with its looping verticals, was no match for the spinning rotor blades, peeling metal panels and pop-up chicken gunners that were like nothing I’d ever experienced in gaming.

A chicken gunner in Wing Fortress Zone.

Setting the pace

For all its menacing undertones, Wing Fortress Zone didn’t use a raised tempo to create a sense of urgency. Composer Masato Nakamura had clearly given this stage’s music a lot of thought, because when you were playing through the level, the last thing you could do was rush – and the music reflected this perfectly.

Despite Sonic’s textbook speed, there were all kinds of never-before-seen obstacles that needed to be overcome with tact and care. Wing Fortress Zone effortlessly kept a certain sense of decorum by maintaining the chilled-out 107bpm of the slow, steady Sky Chase Zone, but by scattering an array of dystopian minor keys throughout the composition, it also gave a consistently unnerving fear that something could go wrong at any time.

And go wrong things did. Rushing blind into the zone on our first-ever run, my brother and I had amassed a good three or four continues and around 32 lives. It turned out that we’d need most of them just to reach the end-of-level boss, and for several reasons:

  • Your run could be thrown into jeopardy at any time by metal speed launchers, which threw you off the end of platforms and often to your death;
  • The inability to jump straight into an attacking ball formation if you were hanging from a hook meant you were susceptible to enemies;
  • Poorly timed jumps between on/off, horizontal/vertical platforms or gunner windows sent you to your doom; and
  • A nervous approach to rotating platforms was a recipe for destruction at any time.

Throughout these hair-raising moments, I’d inevitably hear the infamous “WA-WOWWW, WA-WOWWW, WA-WOWWWWWW!” refrain of Wing Fortress Zone, which would always put me on the back foot. Sometimes, I’d try to stop a jump thinking I wasn’t going to make it, only to lock in too late and have Sonic pitifully walk off the end of a platform and fall into the deep blue skies below. Other times, I’d mistime a flying leap onto a chicken gunner, only to lose all my rings, then likely chase them off the edge in an act of redemption only to, well, fall into the deep blue skies below.

From darkness came light

Yet Wing Fortress Zone wasn’t as cruel a mistress as many other fearmongering works of VGM have been to gamers. In fact, after the above refrain, the song rebuilt its tone slowly, admittedly harnessing the minor key but slowly phasing it out as the tune grew hopeful and then BAM, you were right back at the start of the song as it blared out its most positively pugnacious bars once more, and you were filled with confidence once again.

The cycle continued, and I was simultaneously encouraged and dissuaded from getting to the final fight. Blood, sweat and tears were shed, but before I knew it, I’d found a hatch. Success, I thought – Robotnik won’t have one of his stupid vehicles inside a plane to help him engage me in battle, so surely this was the end of this tale?

Well, as we all know, Wing Fortress Zone didn’t end like that. More blood, sweat and tears were on the cards, but as it was the boss, the music wasn’t there any more to make it an enjoyable challenge – just an awful, awful experience that sapped my remaining lives.

Oh well. Next Saturday it was.

Or maybe the Saturday after that.

Matt’s take

While Wing Fortress Zone wasn’t the final battle of the game, its music gave it the grandeur and grandiosity such a cleverly-designed and punishing level deserved. With a clever combination of steady pacing, a spectrum of emotions and a marching style to tie it together to the source material, Wing Fortress Zone is an excellent, yet still often underrated, Sonic music track. It’s simply one of the best tunes to ever grace the franchise.