Sadly, it's reached this point.
I grew up as one of the rare few who didn't pick a side during the Sega/Nintendo wars of the early '90s. There was too much awesome to go around—it was a magnificent time. But after a while, Mario was declared the winner in my eyes due to more impressive, interesting level design. Sonic was damn pretty, but it was Mario's stage structure that stood out in my mind… while Sonic focused entirely on being pretty and fast.
Now, I recognize that the whole point of Sonic games is to go super-fast and fly by on reflex. But if that's the thought, Episode II is not all there. Sonic by comparison handles okay, but still runs a bit too slippery for my tastes. Though most of the levels are primarily structured to let him run without interruption, there's inevitably a puzzle element thrown that requires Tails' help, which break up any semblance of speed built earlier in the stage.
There's nothing quite like getting a full head of steam only to have to stop completely, figure out what needs doing, and try to recover the speed from before, all for the sake of the simplest of irritating "puzzles" where the answer is literally given right next to the "puzzle" itself. Way to keep up the blistering pace, fellas…
Speaking of controls, I cannot throw any more hatred at the the levels involving Tail's "Sonic F" biplane. Thankfully, it's only in a few levels, but those are the lowest I've played in a 2D Sonic title. Not only are they sluggish, but they're out-and-out boring. If the plane bits were put in to make the rest of the stages look better, then it's an unfortunate success. Sure, they break up the action, but I get the feeling they're more of an accident than a creative decision.
The reintroduction of Metal Sonic is cool and the stages featuring him are a fun reminder of the good ol' days, but fighting him feels more based on chance than actually figuring out his timing. The rest of the bosses are hit or miss, some being easy to figure out and capturing that classic vibe, while others being simply a matter of playing it enough times to get lucky. Did I mention I hated flying Tails' plane? The boss battle with that blasted thing is so subtle that I didn't know the battle had even started five minutes in. Could've used some clarity there, developers.
If looked at just for its visual beauty, Sonic 4 does just fine. It's still one of the prettiest platformers I've ever seen, even with the background flying away at breakneck (or painfully "sorta-quick") speeds. The bonus round ripped from Sonic 2 looks great, and it's a nice return to the one bonus in the series that I didn't find utterly frustrating. But everything here feels recycled. Nothing stands out as particularly original.
Some of the late stages are more than a little stomach-churning with how they play around with physics. When I'm already trying to let the level blur past, the view in my tunnel-vision rotating back and forth very quickly makes me physically ill. If not for the upbeat techno tracks surrounding everything… wait, those make me want to puke too. But in a kinder, more retro-loving way.
With 13 levels, 7 bonus round incarnations, and 5 boss fights, Sonic 4 Episode 2 can be easily played through in a single sitting,and doesn't take much longer if you're really looking for completion. It doesn't so much give that feeling of nostalgia, as much as it reminds you of what the series used to be, and for me, how much I'd rather play Sonic 2 again; especially when the first three entries in the series can be purchased (along with a host of other Genesis classics) in compilations like Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection for the same price as—or less than—this $15 episode.