For a video-game character so obsessed with travelling blindly forwards, Sonic the Hedgehog sure spends a lot of time looking over his shoulder. Between the upcoming re-release of Sonic CD, the ongoing Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and the sidescrolling elements of modern titles like Sonic Colours, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Sonic Generations is slightly redundant. Nevertheless, it’s here and pulling no punches about being a celebration of twenty years of Sonic history: even the minimalistic story begins with Sonic arriving for his own birthday party, before an unknown creature rips through time and plonks lanky modern Sonic in the past with his pudgy younger self.
Like any celebratory party, Sonic Generations brings together elements from all eras of Sonic’s career. But whereas the party of the game’s opening is full of faces you can’t place (or faces you just plainly want to slap), the game itself turns out to entirely enjoyable, with few elements that are truly unwelcome (even if there’s definite room for improvement).
If I were asked to select just three zones from Sonic’s 16-bit catalogue, I’m not sure I could do better than the iconic Green Hill Zone, funky Chemical Plant Zone and the conceptually fantastic Sky Sanctuary Zone. The stages from the middle and modern eras are similarly memorable. Some sequences appear practically verbatim, though the tighter controls and wonderful visuals should make revisiting them entirely worthwhile for those more familiar with these periods than I.
Would I change anything about the selection? Perhaps it’s only a coincidence, but practically all of these levels come from the first half of their respective games, ensuring you’re more likely to have seen them in action whilst compromising a definite sense of progression. There is also a lot of thematic similarity, with all the levels covered by different combinations of the ‘tropical’, ‘industrial complex’, ‘ruins’ and ‘city’ clichés. But they’re all fruitful environments for gameplay.
As a fan of classic Sonic, I came to Sonic Generations suspecting that its three ‘classic’ levels would be insufficient. I was surprised to find that I chiefly wanted more ‘classic’ levels so that I could explore them in ‘modern’ mode. These reinterpretations offer a new perspective on some timeless and original designs, and they’re simply very fun to zip through. Not to say that the classic Sonic doesn’t offer up an equally exciting platforming experience, because it does. But nostalgia through a radical different lens has refreshing and illuminating effect.
Modern Sonic’s penchant for rail grinding and explosive non-interactive sequences is in evidence, but not offensively so. It remains easy to play in this mode and feel like there’s not an awful lot to it, however. In fact, this is true of the game at large, and it does itself no favours with its linear overworld structure: you complete the ‘Classic’ Act 1 and ‘Modern’ Act 2 for three zones in sequence. Then you play one of ten challenge acts on each of those zones in order to fight a boss. Then you repeat the process on the next three zones, and the next three after that – three other ‘rival’ battles on the overworld give you access to the final boss.
This uninspired process leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Nine stages are not an especially generous amount, and if anything can turn you against the game it’s that final battle. Up until this point you’ve tolerated the game’s awful boss battles: their dodgy collision detection, their protracted playtime, their tendency to have companions bark instructions at you whilst the gameplay itself offers too little feedback on why you’re failing to have an effect. They’re not actually challenging, just a test of endurance and patience, so you forgive them.
Modelling itself on Sonic & Knuckles‘ ‘Doomsday Zone’, Sonic Generations’ final boss is a frustrating ring-fuelled dash in both 2D and 3D in which it’s almost impossible to see where the rings are coming from and you’re given absolutely zero feedback on what you’re actually dashing towards (or whether you can actually dash towards it in the current perspective). Add to that an entire cast of squeaky-voiced sidekicks (‘It looks like a homing shot!’) and a signposted attack move that doesn’t actually do anything and prepare for frustration.
Finally beating this boss, it was difficult to be satisfied with the process of trial, error and blind luck that got me there. Considering I’d been playing for less than four hours, things hadn’t looked entirely favourable. There are plenty of troubles to focus on. The way ‘classic’ Sonic controls isn’t quite like any 16-bit version. He’s too slow to turn, too ‘sticky’, the entire game always too obsessed with forward movement. Features like lives and continues feel utterly vestigial. The ‘Crisis City’ Zone represents an inexplicable difficulty spike mired with clipping problems and camera issues. And your initial Modern Sonic play-through feels monotonous, relentless and poorly interactive. You’d be forgiven for dismissing the game entirely at this point. Don’t.
There is a lot to do in each of the main zones: complete an act quickly and without dying and you’ll get an ‘S’ grade. Discover the quickest or most obscure routes in either mode to get five red star rings. Then there are all those challenge gates (45 for each Sonic) you ignored whilst charging towards the game’s conclusion, and a good portion of them are actually inventive and a lot of fun. As you progress, you unlock new moves, concept artwork, and an entire soundtrack of legacy music (which can be played in zones if you’re getting sick of the – actually quite excellent – default tunes).
Does it squeeze too much extra playtime out of too few assets? Probably. Does the 30 frames per second cap undermine the speedy platforming? Sometimes (though reportedly, not on PC at all). Does the ‘modern’ act become incredibly frustrating the second you slow down to explore? Unquestionably. But a perfectly executed run in either mode is an exhilarating experience, made possible by constant iteration through seeking all those collectibles in these nine fantastic looking environments. It wins you over in the end.
What is Sonic Generations, really? It’s not a Super Mario Galaxy moment of sheer brilliance by any means, and its many problems let it fall shy of a ‘Headshot’ rating. Yet, it’s a game that past and present Sonic fans should revel in, and not merely as a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of sights, sounds and gameplay: it’s an effective ambassador for the present state of the series, one that can make you curious about all that you missed in the past and one that can make you unequivocally interested in what’s to come.
Verdict – On Target
Platforms Available – PC, 360, PS3
Platform Reviewed – PS3
A version exclusively featuring two modes of side-scrolling platforming and a different selection of zones will be released on November 22nd / 25th for the Nintendo 3DS.
For more information on our scoring system, please read this post.