Desperately attempting to please two different sets of fans on Sonic the Hedgehog’s 20th anniversary, Sega has crammed two different types of hedgehog gameplay into Sonic Generations, a formula that never fails to create entertaining game reviews.
What else can Sega do? Some fans hate 2D Sonic, other fans hate 3D Sonic. They’ve tried making different games for different fans, but one group or the other always feels alienated, or something isn’t quite right, or the stars are knocked out of alignment. They just can’t win, so they’ve just crammed the whole history of the series into one title with two very different types of gameplay and called it a day. Here’s your damn Sonic game, thanks for playing.
So tell me, assembled video game reviewers, how does that make you feel?
Revisiting two decades of games, Sonic Generations is pitched as a celebration of Sega’s previously pudgy mascot and the timeless appeal of blue skies, checkerboard loops, and things that go “boing.” But much like the one Sonic receives in the opening, Generations is closer to a lame birthday party that you attend out of courtesy.
That feeling you get from playing every Sonic game after Genesis brews as disappointment and eventually becomes sympathy, mostly for the branded custodians at Sonic Team. They can’t seem to please anybody, can they? Oh, Sonic’s jumping feels wrong. The momentum is messed up over here. It’s about exploration, not speed! Guys, the physics of my anthropomorphic blue hedgehog is inaccurate within this segmented fantasy landscape! Even when they make a game — well, let’s say half a game — dedicated to capturing Sonic as he was, before vocal chords and a third dimension, they still can’t win. Why?
The quest begins with side-scrolling tributes to memorable Genesis-era stages as classic Sonic. These levels rekindled the magic of being a wide-eyed kid seeing Sonic’s world for the first time. Platforming is slightly tighter than in Sonic 4, which makes landing precise jumps easier. Tearing through loop de loops in Green Hill and bouncing across clouds in Sky Sanctuary are among my favourite Sonic moments, and they translate perfectly. Unfortunately, the good times fade when Sonic begins cruising through 2D versions of levels from post-Dreamcast Sonic games. Traversing the burning ruins of Crisis City from the awful 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog reboot is an exercise in frustration packed with unfair drop-offs and annoying gales.
The 2D levels feel as close to the original Genesis games as ever, and their use of old-school moves and physics was a smart call. But even the 3D takes on Sonic’s oeuvre do the franchise justice, as they avoid most camera-based frustrations of early 3D editions. The two takes on nine different stages actually benefit from being based on the same template: seeing a 2D version of a modern enemy or hearing an updated version of Green Hill Zone’s iconic theme makes you want to try both stage types.
After each of the worlds has been restored by playing both acts, five challenge maps open for each world, each playable as – and completely different as – either Sonic. New Sonic has friends along to help, Amy helping him jump with her hammer, Knuckles digging for treasure, and (shudder) Cream providing a limited number of rings in otherwise ringless levels.
These are 90% optional – you only have to play one of each of the world’s 10 challenges to grab the boss keys and move on, but they’re also where you’ll go to get your money’s worth, when your relatively short minimum obligations end.
But when you put the past to one side and look at the new game in isolation, there are essentially two games on show here – and I don’t mean the classic/modern divide. The first is the one that stumbles on the things that Mario does so well. The attractive yet haphazard experience ridden with missed platforms, unexpected deaths and awkward low-speed movement in 3D space.
Then there’s the other game. The one that’s cruising by on the grind rail above it all, pulling tricks through bonus hoops with stars in its wake, locking onto secret ziplines and waiting for the split second where Sonic completes an aerial somersault to face the next platform before boosting away for another S grade. The one that’s everything fans have wanted for so long. You can guess which one I’ve been playing.
It feels refreshing to be able to say that Sonic is good again. His upward trajectory over the last year continues and he’s only gaining momentum. Sonic Generations is largely a game for the most hardcore of Sonic fans, but for the millions who have fond memories of narrowly dodging spikes, grinding on rails, or even that time he was a pinball, Sonic Generations is a game made for you.
My suggestion? Find a friend that likes the Sonic you don’t.