GameTripper exists because of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. For GT’s 100th article – and third birthday – editor Matt Gardner finally explains why.
Have you ever tried to write about something you adore? I find it close to impossible. I could chat for hours about how much I love my partner, my mum, my friends. Pepsi Max. Lego. Peeling those plastic scratch guards off new gadgets. But actually putting pen to paper about them? That’s a whole different ballgame for me.
I write for a living. It’s a consistently self-punishing profession; you’re always learning, never feel like you’re at the top of your game, and you constantly criticise yourself, because the smallest mistake can undo all your hard work.
Any writer worth their salt is, to at least some degree, a clinical perfectionist; only the very best are able to overcome the constant battle with their own internal monologue and get their work done.
I’m not one of those elites. The closer to my heart a topic is, the louder my internal monologue gets, and it’s nothing short of oppressive. As a result, my desire to write about my undying love for Sonic the Hedgehog 2 has turned into the biggest weight on my shoulders for over three years.
I’m finally putting a stop to that.
Today is GameTripper’s third birthday. This is its 100th article. And Sonic 2 is solely responsible for the creation of this site. It’s only right to explain why.
Objectively speaking, Sonic 2 is not the greatest game ever made – it’s simply the first game I ever loved. It’s what made me a gamer. It helped me forge relationships, from family and best friends to the cavalcade of incredible contributors and followers I’ve met during my time running GameTripper. All of these wonderful things exist because of Sonic 2.
So too does today’s rebrand and relaunch of GT, after it laid dormant for six months due to my procrastination.
It’s finally time to trust my heart and my abilities – time to ignore the ever-present critical voice in my head and get it written. This is a stream-of-consciousness ramble. No overthinking, no over-the-top editing: just a story of how one game changed, and will undoubtedly continue to change, my life for the better.
By early 2017, I’d been writing for websites for over a decade, but I’d never created my own. I’d had ideas I wanted to run with: a health blog, after I successfully lost 63kg; a travel site, based on photography from my holidays; a podcast-based website, because my friend and I were total gobshites. None of these came to fruition for one simple reason: I could see myself abandoning them in a matter of months, even weeks. They didn’t offer a long-term hook.
But during the same period, I was in a dark place. Everything was, on the surface, great: a lovely girlfriend, amazing friends, decent digs. But my job, which was my means of escaping an even worse job, sucked. Things weren’t great for my family. The pressures of just living life were never-ending. Anxiety and depression, which I hadn’t yet acknowledged – never mind addressed – were beginning to profoundly affect my life.
Escapism is something we all rely on from time to time, in one form or another. For me, it’s always been gaming. When I was low, I’d boot up my Xbox One, but at my lowest, I’d go back to my roots: the fourth generation, specifically the Mega Drive. Even more specifically, Sonic 2.
By 2017, my undiagnosed anxiety was making it impossible for me to make even the simplest decisions without getting stressed, sad, or even tearful. But there wasn’t a decision required with Sonic 2. I knew where I was with it. I must’ve completed it four or five times by February of that year.
I knew every level back-to-front, but it’d still catch me out and provide enough of a challenge. The incredible level design, stunning colour scheme, faultless controls and utterly beautiful soundtrack gave me everything I wanted: a throwback to better times, when life was simple.
Sonic 2 had become talismanic: it never failed to remind me of those times I played it during those school holidays that seemed to last years; a game I used to bond with my brothers and create friendships with people I now see as family members; and, ironically, something I could escape to when I was low as a kid, having been heavily bullied at school.
Playing it in 2017, it hit me: this game had been there for me my entire life. It shaped me as a person. I realised that I’d never heard someone say anything like that about a game; at least, not in such a bold way. I wanted to be that person.
From this thought, GameTripper was born: a website where I, and anyone else, could write about the games that affected them on a deeply personal level. It didn’t matter if they were good or bad – this wasn’t another review site. It would be a celebration of the gamers as much as the games: an insight into different personalities, talking about memories they’d otherwise rarely share, if ever. For me, it would be cathartic: another escape at a time when I needed as many positives in my life as possible.
In April 2017, after two months of planning, I finally launched a ramshackle alpha version of the GameTripper site, alongside its Twitter account. It became my own little corner of the internet. I started talking to fellow gamers online, escaping from the doldrums of my former, politically charged social presence. It felt great. I was still developing the site, so I told myself that I’d eventually get around to writing that all-important Sonic 2 piece. I’d just get a bit of practice elsewhere. I kicked off with Kuru Kuru Kururin, NHL ‘94 and Columns: low-hanging fruit that still had personal stories tied to them, but were much easier to talk about.
After six months, it dawned on me that my Sonic 2 piece wouldn’t get written about for a long time. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I soldiered on.
It was because the story wasn’t over. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was an ongoing crutch – one that may never have existed, had it not been for an incredibly fortunate upbringing.
Brothers in arms
I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s in north-east England: the youngest of three brothers in a pretty standard family unit. I was lucky to have a phenomenally hard-working dad; a loving, tireless, stay-at-home mum; and two brothers who looked after me, albeit with the understandable caveat that I was a constant source of annoyance to them.
The age gap between me and my older brothers was, and obviously still is, pretty pronounced. There are 14 years between me and the oldest, and another eight between me and the middle sibling. I was often treated by them as a son as much as a little brother; while the concept of three father figures might sound horrific to most, it actually worked for me – the benefits far outweighed the negatives.
They were kind and supportive. They introduced me to music, TV and comedy. They played in the garden with me. They gave me amazing presents. Given the age difference, they also gave me freedom: I didn’t have to share the house with them for much longer than a few weeks at a time past the age of ten, as they’d moved to university or started working.
Most importantly, they got me into gaming. It was slow at first, both figuratively and literally: in 1992, when I was six, my house only had a ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64: pseudo-second-generation “consoles” bought ten years prior. Despite it being the second one they owned, the Speccy was dead: the first melted to a desk from overuse. Thankfully, the dusty C64 was still working.
They taught me how to boot games, and I came to love the Commodore, warts and all. Sure, games occasionally took four hours to load (fuck you, BC Bill); others wouldn’t let you progress if you couldn’t kill specific baddies (fuck you, Shinobi); but I knew how to load and play games. It was a slog, and occasionally games wouldn’t load at all, but it was definitely better than nothing.
My obvious love for gaming soon improved courtesy of my oldest brother’s university friend – more specifically, their hilarious attitude to money.
The long good Saturdays
In the summer of 1993, my brother returned from St Andrews with a huge surprise: a pristine Sega Mega Drive II, alongside Sonic 2 and FIFA International Soccer. His friend had signed up to a £300 student loan – over £600 in today’s money – and blew it all in a couple of hours during a trip to Dundee. For his money, he got the Mega Drive package, a Mickey Mouse beach towel and a bubblegum dispenser, because of course he did. I’d’ve done the same, but then again, I was seven.
Yet there was no way my brother’s friend could return home for the summer holidays with his new console: his mum, I was told, would go absolutely mental. And so, to avoid death by matriarch – and knowing how much I loved games – he gave it to my brother to share with me during the holiday. Imagine my delight: a console that could simply plug into a TV, starting a game instantly with the single push of a button. Seeing how good the games were was another thing entirely.
As keen football fans, and taking advantage of two controllers, we initially put endless hours into FIFA. We’d either select random teams and face off against one another, or take turns to see how many goals we could put past woeful Qatar with the EA All-Stars; our record still stands at 17-2, with seven goals each for Hans van Smeiter and Janco Tianno.
But Sonic mania had gripped the UK; he was everywhere, from magazine covers to Happy Meal boxes. One fateful Saturday, my oldest brother and I decided to see what all the fuss was about. In minutes, I’d fallen head over heels in love with Sonic 2.
Across the next few Saturdays, we’d have the same ritual. Starting mid-morning, we’d work our way through the iconic Emerald Hill; narrowly avoid drowning in Chemical Plant and Aquatic Ruin; then scrape through Casino Night Zone after taking a thorough beating from Dr Robotnik’s floating, spiked-ball-dropping, electrified thunderbastard of a boss.
By this point, and before heading out to watch the local cricket, my dad would sort us out with lunch: almost always on Saturdays, it was fish fingers and chips. With our plates cleared in record time, the TV was free for the afternoon. Hill Top Zone was next, where we’d always hide in the cave to avoid the rising lava. The spiked pits and falling stalactites of Mystic Cave followed, before we endured the vaguely racist vibes of Oil Ocean, complete with its frustrating boss.
By 4pm, we’d be fruitlessly exploring the three acts of Metropolis Zone and its amazing music. More often than not, we’d be caught out by a Time Over, but given how exhaustively we’d played each level by this point, we’d also amassed about 30 lives and nine continues, so it barely made a dent. The gorgeous music of Sky Chase Zone still never fails to take me back to those late afternoons on the living-room floor, our eyes completely devoid of moisture after unblinkingly playing Sonic 2 for about six hours.
Then came the first true test: Wing Fortress Zone, where the game introduced loads of new mechanics and a boss I still struggle through today, with its spiked platforms and ring glitches. Around this time, my dad would come home for tea; we’d be forced to pause the game while he watched the BBC sport videprinter, so he could see if his score-draw predictions were correct.
After this, it was the final stretch. The big one. Death Egg Zone. Two bosses, no rings, but dozens of lives. And boy, did we chew through those lives. Not knowing you could attack Mecha Sonic as he stood and vibrated his spikes, we solely relied on spin-dashing through him as he drifted across the platform. As our ringless Sonic lost countless lives, we got further into his attack cycle and wrote down every move so we knew when to hit him. After about an hour, the robo-clone was buried. But it wasn’t over, as the rotund Robotnik ran inside a bigger, fatter, robotic version of himself.
My brother and I never beat the Death Egg Robot. Not once. By this stage of our Saturdays, the problem was threefold: a combination of our parents wanting the TV back; running out of lives and crashing out; and, most telling of all, apathy at the seeming perfection needed to defeat the last boss. Looking back, it’s amazing to think how long it took us to get through Sonic 2 when I can now reach Death Egg Zone in under an hour. But time took its toll, even on me.
Over the years, I regularly dipped back into Sonic 2. Even after getting a PlayStation, PlayStation 2, Wii, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, I’d regularly boot it up. Even though I played it a lot less frequently in later years, it always seemed to feature prominently in massive parts of my life from those early days.
In 2004, the summer before I started university, I was visiting my best friend Richard, who lived a couple of blocks away. He had a GameCube, as well as a copy of Sonic Mega Collection – something still unreleased on my PS2. I leapt at the chance to play it one last time before heading off to uni; I didn’t have a TV to take with me, and so my PS2 had to temporarily stay in Hartlepool.
Just 90 minutes later, I finally completed it. I teared up. In much the same way that Richard had defeated Bowser on his beloved Super Mario 64 at my house a few years previously – going absolutely (and rightly) mental in the process – I returned the favour, overcoming one of my own favourite games in his room.
The emotional reaction was complicated. I was leaving home, as was my best friend, to make our new lives; it may’ve been the last time I’d see Richard in months; my brother wasn’t there to see me do it. It was a bittersweet victory.
A couple of years later, I fractured my back playing American football. It went undiagnosed for months and I could barely walk. At that point, I weighed around 23 stone (146kg), and the work I’d put into building my muscles disappeared in days. I was obese, in pain, and depressed. Back to the games I went, specifically holing up in my student room with Sonic 2, trying to perfect my run. It certainly took the edge off.
In 2008, having completed a journalism post-grad, I moved away from home, got a writing job, then lost a few stone. By 2010, I moved to the US to work as a sports journalist, taking my underpowered laptop with me. It could only emulate pre-PS1 games, so I downloaded the entire Sega catalogue. Sonic 2 got me through more bouts of homesickness than I can count.
I was hoping to stay on in America, but my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer, so I put my transatlantic plans on (what would ultimately become permanent) hold; I moved back to the UK so I could be closer to home and help out where I could. After weeks of treatment, my dad – one of the most tireless people you could ever meet, who was made an MBE by the Queen herself because of his dedication to hard work – wasn’t the same. For the first time ever, in his late 60s, he was showing his age.
Shortly after, in 2011, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Not long into his treatment, I got a call from my mum: my dad had been diagnosed with dementia with Lewy bodies. I couldn’t process it.
No-one was around in my shared house in Leeds to speak to. It was just as well, because I didn’t really want to talk to anyone. Ahead of going home the following day to help out at home, I booted up my Xbox 360, which was connected to a projector in our living room, and started playing Sonic 2. There was scant, but still very real, comfort from the game: bright, beautiful, simple, tuneful. A chance to turn the brain off.
My dad passed away the first weekend of the 2012 Olympics. By that time, I’d come to terms with the inevitable. Two days after the funeral, I got the train home to Leeds. I played Sonic 2 the entire way home on my phone. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t defeat Death Egg Robot by the time the train pulled into Leeds. Old habits.
And so, to 2017. I was happy, on the face of it. But here I was again, piecing together what Sonic 2 had been to me for 25 years: a game that supported me through thick and thin. Something that finally gave me an opportunity to do my own thing in a convincing way.
GameTripper launched. With it, I came into contact with so many wonderful, like-minded people who shared my love of gaming, gave me a greater insight into the things I loved, and shared their own stories on GT itself.
A lot of them also spoke of the mental health issues they lived with. Over time, it sunk in, and along with the support of my loved ones in real life, I came to terms with the fact I needed help. I spoke to my doctor and, a few months later, I was having one-to-one therapy, coming to terms with my own problems. Sonic 2 was mentioned by name as one of those constants in my life.
The final hurdle was to write about it and, well, here we are. It’s revived this dormant site. Another big step in life due to the game. Once again, it brings me more joy than I, a professional writer, can express in words.
A surprise twist
To tie up loose ends, I decided to complete Sonic the Hedgehog 2 this morning. I wanted to see if there was anything I’d forgotten. I didn’t get far. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve actively stopped playing it out of indifference – I didn’t even make it to Casino Night Zone.
I came to a weird realisation: I wasn’t enjoying it. Maybe it’s because I’ve played it too much, or that I wasn’t in the right mood? It got me thinking… when was the last time I played Sonic 2 to enjoy it, as opposed to putting it on as a comforting distraction?
The truth is, I don’t know.
After I switched it off, I sat back and looked around my TV, surrounded by hundreds of games and trinkets: the usual. Among them is a Sonic controller holder; a statue of Sonic on a Mega Drive; Hama-bead versions of Sonic, Tails and Robotnik; a Sonic light; mini Totakus of Sonic, Tails and Knuckles; UK and Japanese copies of Sonic 2; and a print of every level from Sonic 2, which I literally bought a month ago, aged 33, because that’s just who I am.
Sonic 2 really is who I am. Looking at each one takes me back to so many periods in my life, both good and bad. I’ve changed a ridiculous amount over the years, both positively and negatively. Sonic 2 never did. It’s one of the few constants.
So, I suppose that’s how you write about a game without ever really explaining why the game itself was so good. Sometimes, things in your life are just… there. Sonic 2 always was for me, and always will be.
- Arguably the greatest platform game of its generation, if not all time
- One of the most iconic soundtracks ever
- Pure, simple mechanics that consistently worked
- It hasn’t aged a day, 30 years on
- A late, brutal difficulty spike
- Death Egg Robot is still my nemesis
- Set such a high bar that every subsequent Sonic release never quite matched it
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was my first love, and it’s been there for me ever since. It’s an all-time great: a game that continues to set the bar for platformers, combining incredible music, iconic graphics, and unbelievable playability. It’s so timeless, it could be released tomorrow and get rave reviews.