Oh Sonic. The breaker of hearts. The destroyer of childhoods. Well, mine anyway: growing up, the Mega Drive Sonic titles were my favourite games in the whole wide world. And then when he went 3D (and started to talk), it all came crashing down. Innocence lost, and all that.
And then something like Sonic Generations comes along, promising to tug at my nostalgia, and promising — as ever — that maybe, just maybe, this Sonic game will actually be good.
Is it? Well, no, not particularly. It’s a truly mixed bag in every sense, with moments of genuine fun jostling against more numerous moments of frustration. Let’s break it all down…
The plot, so far as I can tell, runs thusly: an evil time-related being spoils Sonic’s birthday party, shattering time in the process. Everything gets fragmented, and small pockets of previous adventures pop up all over the place. Sonic must play through these old times again in order to… I don’t know, stitch everything back together.
This provides a handy excuse to (re-)introduce old Sonic, who is shorter, has a pot belly, and (mercifully) doesn’t talk. When you play as old Sonic, the levels play along a 2D plane. Play as new Sonic, and it switches between a hodge-podge of side-on and over-the-shoulder gameplay. Each of the nine zones has one act per Sonic, and are taken from a wide selection of the many games Sonic has starred in over the years, from the Mega Drive to the Wii.
A game like this succeeds or fails based on the quality of its level design, and it’s here where the majority of Sonic Generation’s problems lie. Since Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, Sonic and 3D haven’t really mixed all that well, and unfortunately, I kept seeing the same problems here 12 years later. Unless you’re a pro Sonic player, you’ll be falling into deathly water and down bottomless pits time and time again — and it often won’t feel like your own fault, which is a cardinal game design sin.
The developers are obviously aware of this, because the game takes control away from you for a lot of new Sonic’s gameplay moments. The general formula for his levels is hold forward during a speedy section, come to a standstill navigating a few annoying jumps, watch him do something spectacular and out of your control, then repeat.
There are moments, however, where the level design actually compliments his mediocre control scheme, and during these times the game actually manages to be fun. Generally, this is when bottomless pits are nowhere to be found, so why throw so many in? Why not focus on dashing around various paths, homing in on enemies, and so on? There’s no need to make your levels an annoying mixture of pinpoint jumps over gaping chasms, especially when your engine isn’t up to the task of preventing player frustration. Unfortunately, the developers didn’t agree.
Old Sonic fares better, seeing as his levels are played completely along a 2D plane. Here, there are far fewer cheap deaths, and the levels actually feel more open and deep than the 3D versions. I actually wanted to return to old Sonic’s Green Hill, Sky Sanctuary and City Escape zones, for example, whereas I won’t be touching new Sonic’s worse levels with a 10-foot pole.
In addition to the core levels, there are three boss fights taken from various games and remixed for Generations. The first riffs off Sonic 2’s final boss, and is good fun, but the subsequent two (including Perfect Chaos from Sonic Adventure) are short, easy, and not terribly satisfying.
Call me an old-fashioned grump, but what happened to interesting bosses at the end of each act? Same goes for the Chaos Emeralds: rather than earning them in psychedelic bonus levels, you simply get them for defeating one of the bosses and completing challenges.
Okay, so those new to Sonic games won’t care about that. More relevant: an impressively large number of mini challenge levels become unlocked for each level as you progress. These vignettes are based around specific tasks, such as beating a doppelganger to the finish line, performing a certain number of air tricks, and so forth. It pads out the gameplay time, but once again, they’re a mixed bag. Some are fun, but others are irreversibly ruined by — guess what? — the game engine and poor level design.
And finally, you can also earn and spend points in a mini shop that gives you access to new abilities. These aren’t all that essential for your initial play through, but become necessary for accessing various nooks and crannies in levels, something I appreciate.
Sonic games are meant to be fast and seamless, so it’s a shame that loading screens abound. They’re generally kind of short, but boy are they frequent. Switching between old and new Sonic in the level select hub causes a loading screen every time, which seems a tad excessive given it’s just a single character model.
Upon exiting a level, you can see Sonic back in the main hub, but won’t be able to move for a number of seconds while the rest of the game catches up. Even in the game itself, there are a number of frame-rate slowdowns and actual pauses in the action while new assets are loaded into memory. For a game based around speed, these frequent hiccups throughout are fairly jarring.
Obligatory paragraph about the graphics: at their best, they’re pretty. Green Hill zone and other sunny locations are well showcased and look very pleasing to the eye. The city-based levels don’t fare quite as well — they look more utilitarian and drab, and it doesn’t seem like the designers really had much to work with to bring out the best here.
The music is yet another mixed bag. My nostalgia loves the new takes on the oldest music tracks, but unfortunately there’s a generous helping of newer music tracks as well, which means we get to listen to terrible lyrics about city life and how badass Shadow the Hedgehog is. Ah well, there’s always the mute button if you get annoyed…
So there you go: Sonic Generations is a mixed bag on almost every level. Old-school fans will absolutely find some things to love here, it’s just that they’re wedged in amongst a ton of less-than-stellar moments. Someone new to Sonic games, I would guess, might simply be confused about the highly fragmented nature of the game’s structure: why are some levels all 2D, but others are a mix of perspectives? Why does only one Sonic have this particular move? Why does one Sonic spend most of his time falling to his death? And so on.
There’s good in here, but too much mediocre or just plain bad moments to recommend paying full retail price for the game. If you really need to get your nostalgia fix, content yourself by playing the demo until the price drops. As usually happens with Sonic, I really wanted to like this game, but came away disappointed and annoyed at some of the more mind-bogglingly stupid design decisions Sonic Team made here.
Ah well, there’s always the next hypothetical Sonic game: I hear it’s going to be great…