It's difficult for me to pinpoint why Sonic Generations exists. Oh sure anyone could say it's because Sega wants to make money, and Sonic games are usually pretty successful. When I think about this game, I also have to think about the past twenty years of Sonic games I've played. I'm supposed to get a little nostalgic and remember the better days aren't I? No, I can't let that happen. Just hearing a familiar tune or seeing something that brings back pleasant memories does not mean anything. In order for me to consider Sonic Generations a success, it has to be on its own merits.
Admittedly, my judgment gets more than a little clouded while playing this game. Sonic Team knew exactly what strings to pull and what notes to hit. In audiovisual terms, Sonic Generations is quite the love letter to fans of the franchise. But if history has taught me anything when it comes to Sonic, games I should go beyond those good first impressions to discover if the game itself is worthwhile.
Sonic Generations could have been an absolutely stellar package.
This time around, Sonic doesn't have to deal with ancient civilizations or fuss around with princess-rescuing. All he has to do is go back in time, to another world, where he can . . . relive past adventures with his former self to save his friends. Back then, for all the running Sonic did, he was still a pretty chubby guy, and he didn't talk either. Today Sonic is looking fit but he just won't shut up. The two of them must work together to stop something known as the time-eater from destroying the fabric of time and space. The worst-case scenario if our heroes fail is that the Sonic game from 2006 could be willed into existence, and nobody wants that. For fans of bullet points: this game consists of nine zones with two acts apiece, along with a handful of boss fights and nearly one hundred challenge missions.
The deal with Sonic Generations is that it follows a bit of a timeline. The game starts off humbly with yesterday's Sonic sticking to what works, which is running, jumping, and occasionally spin-dashing. Today's Sonic doesn't have it quite as simple, since he has his whiz-bang supersonic powers like boosting, the homing attack, light-speed dash, and all sorts of other tricks. In order to progress, the Sonics have to complete each zone, rescue their friends, and then take on at least one challenge in each zone to collect keys for the boss battles. If you've played a Sonic game in the early 90s and one of the newer games like Unleashed or Colors you won't have any trouble here.
Unlike that time Sonic turned into a werehog for a bad God of War re-enactment, there is no weak link in this go-around. Retro Sonic lacks the superb controls and mechanics of his 16-bit days, but the levels he explores more than make up for it. Some of them, such as City Escape and Sky Sanctuary, make creative use of the lost art of 2.5D game-design. There's something about seeing a rampaging semi knocking down platforms or enemies that attack from the background that is just very cool. The levels also feature several alternate paths and shortcuts, some leading to red rings. These are worth looking for since they lead to neat rewards such as new music and abilities, which I'll get into a bit later. Out of the nine, if I had to pick the worst level it'd be Planet Wisp. Most of the level is spent fumbling around with gears and is generally a bit of a slog. It reminds me of act 2 of the Sandopolis Zone in Sonic & Knuckles - an experience I wish I could forget.
As far as concerns Modern Sonic, I have to be honest: I think he got the better side of this game. Now the thing to keep in mind is that my two favorite entries in the franchise are the first game and Sonic CD. To me Sonic works best when he isn't weighed down by context and understanding, and he should stick to running through worlds each more fantastical than the last. Also, while he had his trademark blazing speed, it was about how he controlled it and used it in advantageous ways to really make his imprint on these fascinating worlds. Today's Sonic doesn't really have that ability, since the levels he races through are paced more appropriately with him in mind.
Originally, Sonic was a fast hero in a slow world; now it feels like the world has caught up with him. When the controls and level design actually work, the Sonic of right now is capable of some great things, and I'm disappointed that it took close to ten years for that formula to approach perfection. It's really strange how it works out. The Sonic of the past got it right the first time around, and his future games served as an extension of that basis. The Sonic of today (and quite possibly tomorrow) has seen many ups and downs and only now are things starting to come together, a situation that makes me enthused for what could happen next.
Where the two Sonics really differ is in how their stages play out. Current Sonic relies on his skills and reflexes to succeed while early Sonic understands the importance of memorization and learning his way around the level. This isn't always the case over the course of the game, but it's rare that either Sonic will find himself with a reversed role. It's disappointing that the 16-bit Sonic doesn't have his full potential available to him. Because with all of the technology available to Sonic Team combined with the masterful controls and physics of the early games, Sonic Generations could have been an absolutely stellar package.
Both Sonics have an access to a cache of special abilities they can either purchase or unlock through completing challenges or collecting red rings. Some of them are familiar, such as a bubble shield for 2.5D Sonic, and others are just mundane, like an increased boost meter for 3D Sonic. It's worth attaining and testing them all since they give incentive to replay levels. The ranking system in this game is very generous, as even new players will be drowning in S-ranks for what they consider to be mediocre performances in the acts. There is leaderboard support, however, so the real way to prove that you're the best is through how long it takes you to beat every level.
The challenges are numerous and tend to fall under certain categories. Sometimes Sonic has to race himself, other times he's given some new ability and must complete a portion of a level with it, still other times one of his many friends assists in his endeavors. As you can imagine, having so many challenge missions to go through means there are a handful of bad ones. Most can be completed on the first attempt, but the few that slip by can be frustrating and make one question the decision-making process over at Sonic Team. On the bright side, while the missions usually take place in their respective zones, they tend to offer changed aspects such as different enemy placement, or in some cases entirely new areas. Plus, every completed mission can lead to a new song or piece of art unlocked. There are about fifty music tracks in this game, and you're free to select any you've acquired for the challenge you're about to take on. Traditionally the music in Sonic the Hedgehog games has always been excellent, so this is a very welcome feature.
Sonic Generations has one of the worst final boss fights I have seen in a video game. For the most part, the bosses in this game are quite good, but the finale this time around feels like something that belongs in a "worst of Modern Sonic" compilation along with Sonic Heroes. More than anything, this was a huge missed opportunity that should have been used to create an encounter that both Sonics could team up for. Instead, it feels like something that was thrown in at the last minute to make the deadline. On the bright side, at least a very cool special ability is awarded for suffering through this horrid finale. Aside from that mess, the only other issues I have with this game involve the frame rate and a handful of glitches. Unlike with almost all of the other 3D Sonic games I've played, I can attribute only a few of my deaths to glitches or something involving the camera or controls. It's a vast improvement but still not perfect in that regard.
As a modern Sonic game, Generations is really good. The levels are generally fantastic and for once I only needed one hand to count the number of times I've died due to issues with controls or glitches. It's obvious that the designers behind this game had a lot of confidence in what they were doing, so they really got creative with its levels. As a classic Sonic game, Generations is a solid ride. It's lacking in the ways that made the early titles special, but it still does the job with some great levels and endearing charm. Whether you prefer old or new Sonic is irrelevant. As long as you can enjoy a good platforming game you'll find a lot to like about Sonic Generations.