Sonic Generations is a huge helping of fan service, plain and simple. With two Sonics and 20 years’ worth of history to speed through, Generations somehow manages to distill the blue blur’s history into nine zones, recounting a handful of titles from the hedgehog’s backlog. By stuffing both “fat” Sonic and the post-Dreamcast, “new” Sonic into the same game, Sonic Team has the rare opportunity to make two separate games for two separate generations of fans, all using the same palette.
Appropriately, the first level re-envisioned is the iconic Green Hill Zone, from the original Sonic the Hedgehog. Act 1 dumps fat Sonic into territory familiar to veterans of the series – yes, the first TV is still in that same palm tree. However, not far into the act, this new Green Hill begins to chart its own course. At this point, realizing we’re no longer playing the stage we remember, another feeling creeps in to take its place: this feels like Sonic. It’s been 17 years since Sonic & Knuckles, and this is the first time since lock-on technology that it’s felt right. The jump, the momentum, the classic sound effects, this is the Sonic we’ve been waiting for. But, of course, fat Sonic is only half of Generations.
12 years ago Sonic Adventure arrived alongside the Sega Dreamcast, reinventing the mascot and setting the tone for the past decade’s worth of sequels. With Adventure, Sonic Team successfully translated the speed and attitude, but they also unwittingly opened the side-character floodgates, paving the way for useless characters such as Shadow, Rouge and Silver. Less noted at the time, Sonic lost something far more important during his transition to 3D: his sense of exploration.
Like the 3D versions before it, the Act 2s of Sonic Generations feature a heavy dose of zipping into the foreground, both on and off-rails. In between mad third-person dashes, the acts are broken up with sidescrolling sections and moments of full 3D platforming. To inject some variety and reclaim what had been lost in translation, new Sonic levels provide high-roads, low-roads and something in between. All roads lead to the same goal, eventually, but the alternate routes provide an incentive to stop and observe the level or replay it, rather than just burn straight through it.
As fun as the 3D Sonic stages are – and they’re pretty good – they still walk a very thin line between exhilarating and infuriating. The experience is almost akin to Mirror’s Edge, forcing players to make quick decisions and inputs to cross seemingly impossible gaps or fall to a tragic death. Unfortunately, also like Mirror’s Edge, new Sonic has a tendency to not always work the way he should. Homing dashes occasionally fail to lock-on to nearby enemies, which will always break up your momentum, if not kill you. For the most part it works the way it ought to, it’s just that every single death has a tendency to stick out – an unfortunate byproduct when you go from super speed to fall death.
The frustration of the 3D stages is exacerbated by the Challenge Gates, which are a series of unique goals that are unlocked by clearing each of the six acts in each area. Despite a variety of goals dispersed among the 90 gates found in the game, the majority of them are time based, which means you’ll need even more precision in an imprecise world. The challenges that are memorable, for the right reasons, generally task you with collecting something, but even these usually have a time limit. Considering every act and challenge in the game comes with a ranking based on time, rings and lives lost, it’s totally unnecessary to require players to meet time goals as well; if they want to chase that best time let them do it while they’re shooting for an S ranking.
Spanning the three ‘generations’ of Sonic titles: the Genesis, the Dreamcast-era and finally the modern consoles, Sonic Generations is structured like a greatest hits. Stages have been resurrected from many of the major console iterations, including fan favorite Sonic the Hedgehog 2, all the way to the universally panned 2006 reboot, Sonic the Hedgehog. Fans only familiar with a certain era of the franchise will likely have no idea where many of the stages have been taken from, but the great level design mostly makes up for the lost nostalgia. Considering the nine disparate titles represented, there is an unfortunate lack of progression found from one stage to the next. Unique power-ups for both iterations come and go, leaving the game no chance to build on gameplay mechanics from one stage to the next.
What is represented is a cross section of great and not-so-great Sonic titles. Stages like Crisis City, Speed Highway and Chemical Plant really stand out, exemplifying what a ‘classic’ Sonic stage should be like, created with today’s gaming hardware. Sidescrolling levels are significantly longer than their Genesis siblings, and unlike the 3D stages, Sonic is mostly free to backtrack to missed routes or alternate paths. Having nailed the actual feeling of controlling fat Sonic, the return of light exploration is what makes this a true Sonic.
After 17 long years, Sonic Generations has finally recaptured the essence of its Genesis forebear. Half retro-revival, half new school refinement, this 20th anniversary outing should wrangle a smile from even the most jaded of Sonic fans. The lackluster Challenge Gates and boss battles prove there is still work to be done, but, for the first time in more than a decade, Sonic finds himself on sure footing. Though this isn’t quite it, Sonic Generations provides indisputable evidence that Sega is in fact capable of making the Sonic the Hedgehog title we’ve all been waiting for.