To be this good takes Generations
In 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog was a unique idea. More than simply just Sega’s attempt at creating a mascot to topple Mario, Sonic featured world-class graphics, an unmatched sense of speed, and a style of gameplay nobody had ever seen before – the ability to control a living pinball as he ricocheted around a surreal, beautiful world. Sonic existed in the little bubble people like to refer to as “being cool”. He was hip, rude, and I, like many other children of the era ate it up. Sega knew they were on to something big, and it wasn’t long before a blitz of cartoons, comics and toys flooded the market. In the three years following, Sega released no fewer than five Sonic games, culminating with the back-to-back releases of Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles in 1994. By this point, Sonic Team in Japan was tired of blue hedgehogs, and moved on to greener pastures – giving us Ristar, NiGHTS, and Burning Rangers. In America, where Sonic was most popular, Sega scrambled to figure out what to do next. The original idea was to supplant Sonic with a new star – Bug! on the Saturn. When Bug! failed to set the world on fire, Sega attempted to fall back on their old mascot once again with Sonic X-Treme, but after a notoriously grueling development cycle produced no game, things were looking dire. Sonic Team returned to the helm in 1999 with Sonic Adventure, and while the game was above and beyond the scope of every other 3D platformer on the market at the time, it was not the pitch-perfect relaunch needed to propel the franchise back to its former glory. Each subsequent game to follow Sonic Adventure was worse than the last – a continually dropping bar of quality that finally hit rock bottom in 2006, with the unnecessarily-titled “SONIC the Hedgehog“, hereby referred to as “Sonic 2006“. Originally billed as a reboot for the franchise, Sonic 2006 was such a disastrous train wreck that it made other, better Sonic games look worse in relation to it. It seemed as though Sonic was finished. If rumors are to be believed, Sonic 2006 was a wake-up call that saw Sonic Team being completely restructured, with the old, tired workhorses being replaced with enthusiastic game developers fresh out of college. This leaner, meaner Sonic Team went on to produce Sonic Unleashed, a game that proved to be a much-needed step in the right direction. This was followed by Sonic Colors, which trimmed the fat from Unleashed, further elevating the franchise back in to good graces. And now we have Sonic Generations – a game intended to be a summation of the last 20 years of Sonic the Hedgehog. Does it stay the course, or go off the rails?
When Sonic Generations opens, Sonic’s friends are rushing to set up a surprise birthday party for our heroic hedgehog before he shows up early and spoils the whole thing. The celebration doesn’t last long before a mysterious creature, cloaked in shadow, erupts from a black portal and scatters Sonic and his friends across various eras in time and space. Much like the classic Sega Genesis games, it’s up to Sonic to rescue his friends and save the world from peril – but he’s not alone. Sonic eventually runs in to his younger, considerably less talkative self, and the pair of hedgehogs team up to revisit the past in order to restore the future. For those of you expecting a typically involved Sonic the Hedgehog plot, Generations, again, much like the classic Sega Genesis games, spares important details like motive in favor of keeping things simplified. Outside of the opening and ending cinematics, the storyline in Sonic Generations is paper-thin – something that can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. But don’t think that this lack of story has stopped Sonic Team from going through the trouble of animating cutscenes, as Sonic still frequently checks in with Tails who usually relays some disposable mumbo-jumbo about space-time before pointing our heroes to the next area. For as hit-or-miss as the humor was in Sonic Colors, it at least gave the game its own narrative personality – something like a Saturday morning cartoon. Despite being the same writing team, little of that tone comes through in Sonic Generations. I don’t want to be the guy who asks for more plot in his Sonic game or anything, but in a way it feels kind of like a wasted opportunity – the Sonic franchise has no shortage of storyline iconography both worth paying tribute to and lampooning for its absurdity, and almost all of it is left untouched in favor of a story that is about as deep as a fully-animated cutscene where Toad tells Mario that “our Princess is in another castle”. More than most Sonic games, the plot in Generations is best left ignored.
With such a massive library of levels available for inclusion in Sonic Generations, one would expect a highlight reel of the franchise’s most memorable locales. And, to a certain extent, it is: You have Green Hill Zone from Sonic 1, Sonic 2‘s Chemical Plant, and Sonic Adventure 2‘s City Escape to name a few, but the concept of “missed opportunities” quickly becomes an overarching theme, as evident by the fact that most of the stages can be broken down in to three or so basic archetypes, with almost of half the overall level roster being dominated by some variant of the “city” motif. The levels themselves do their best to feel like separate locations, but it doesn’t change the fact that a lot of these city levels could have been swapped out for other environments that offered a little more variety while still staying just as synonymous with the games they’re referencing. For as ubiquitous as they were in earlier Sonic games, there isn’t even a dedicated pinball environment, unless you count a Casino Night Zone mini-game provided as pre-order DLC. And while that offers a few minutes of amusement here or there, it’s nowhere near as robust as a real pinball table, nor is it any kind of substitute for a real level set in this environment type. The theme of “missed opportunities” even extends to the cast itself – when you have a game that plays with the concept of retro versions of characters interacting with their modern-day equivalents, it is disappointing when you don’t get to see “Classic” versions of more characters like Knuckles or, given the brief reference to Sonic CD, Classic Amy Rose. And for how by-the-books Sonic Generations plays the whole concept, being denied an opportunity to see a retro, cutesy-style version of the constantly-brooding Shadow the Hedgehog feels like squandered potential for humor. But then again, it just wouldn’t be a modern Sonic the Hedgehog game without a little unspent potential.
Missed opportunities or not, what really matters is how the game itself plays; and this is something Sonic Generations manages to get right in a big way. A good Sonic the Hedgehog game is a finely-tuned balance of high-speed spectacle, challenging jumping puzzles, and an element of genuine exploration. When Sonic entered the third dimension, a lot of those elements were separated off in to their own character classes, leaving those playing as Sonic facing levels where the one and only level design caveat was “never stop running fast”. The only way to get the complete experience was to switch off to another character with a different class of abilities, and with each game, the roster of available classes grew, reducing the time you spent actually playing as Sonic. A side effect of all of this was that with so much focus on what abilities each character could use and how that defined their environment, the number of unique level design elements was also reduced. Gone were swinging platforms, pushable blocks, teeter-totters, and oil slicks – instead replaced with a suite of generic, interchangeable hazards that made constant re-appearances across every single level in the game. With Sonic Generations‘ tighter focus on just being able to play as one of two versions of Sonic, we bare witness to the re-birth of Sonic the Hedgehog as a platformer. Each Sonic has their own completely unique version of the game’s nine stages, with Classic Sonic seeing levels from a strictly side-scrolling perspective more in line with the Sega Genesis games from which he hails, and Modern Sonic returns to the mixture of side-scrolling 2D and behind-the-back 3D he’s had in both Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Colors. While there’s plenty of moments where you’ll find yourself breaking the sound barrier, there’s also tons of tricky platform hopping packed in to these stages – as much as there ever was in the old Genesis games. Levels are impressively huge; among some of the biggest, most sprawling environments ever offered in a 3D Sonic game. Half the fun of the 16-bit games was exploring any given stage’s multiple pathways to the goal, each with their own unique challenges and secrets to be discovered. Sonic Generations is a grand return to form in this aspect, with some alternate paths diverging so dramatically it can almost feel like you stumbled into a completely different level. And with score rankings, time trial leaderboards and tons of hidden unlockables, there’s plenty of incentive to go exploring. Expertly paced and densely packed, Sonic Generations‘ fantastic level design is where the game really shines, no matter which Sonic you’re playing as.
If there was one major complaint I could level against Sonic Generations, it would be the game’s length. If you’re aiming to see the credits roll, you can beat the game in as little as four hours. Fortunately, it’s backed up by a wealth of post-game content – so for completionists looking to finish every challenge mission or collect all the red star rings, expect the game to last you considerably longer. In fact, one could make the observation that nearly 75% of the game’s total content exists in these optional challenge missions. That’s not to say these should have been made mandatory in order to clear Sonic Generations, however; while there are a number of them that are unique and interesting, the bulk of these challenge missions are not good enough to belong on the critical path and frequently return to the same pool of repeated mission types. Sonic Team games have always had problems with gameplay length – a lot of the more erroneous design choices they’ve made since the advent of the story-driven game can usually be blamed on their tendency to take a small amount of content and pad it out with filler so that it lasts much longer than necessary. But with games like Portal proving that a few brief moments of intense, tightly-compacted fun is often more enjoyable than hours of mediocrity, they made the correct decision to focus on the high points of Sonic Generations while letting everything else be optional.
Sonic Generations may not be perfect, but then again, not many games are. What it represents, in spite of some nitpicky complaints, is a Sonic game that everyone can enjoy with few qualifiers. It may feel a little bit rushed on occasion, and often stops just short of genuinely celebrating the games it references, but this is the closest Sonic Team has come to recapturing the magical balance that defined this franchise back in the early 90’s. There’s still plenty of room for improvement, but for the first time in a long time, I find myself hungry for more of this game – and while that’s due in part to the game’s relatively brisk length, it’s also because the game is good enough that it actually makes bad Sonic games look better by relation, and as an extension of that, I want to see more old levels converted to work in this format. If you were at any point fond of a Sonic game in the last 20 years, you owe it to yourself to check out Sonic Generations.