Poor, poor Sonic. Ever since his first foray into the third dimension he’s been in steady decline, with long-time fans clamoring for a return to his 2D roots. They conveniently ignore the fact that the blue blur has been in several great 2D games on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS, instead asking for a “proper” numbered entry in the series. They got that last year with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 and many still moaned that it wasn’t good enough (it was).
One year later and we have not Sonic 4: Episode 2 but Sonic Generations, which promises to combine the best that the Sonic of yesteryear and the Sonic of today have to offer. It’s a goofy idea, but a company’s flagship character only turns 20 years old once so we’ll roll with it. Can the combined forces of Classic and Modern Sonic be enough to carry Generations as the anniversary celebration that one of the most iconic characters in video game history deserves? Well …
Let’s start with the game’s story, if only to get it out of the way. Sonic is celebrating his 20th birthday at a picnic with the stupid, awful friends that he’s collected over the years when the inevitable happens — a dimensional rift opens in the sky, and a creepy dark figure comes down and takes all of Sonic’s pals with it. The same happened on my 17th birthday, so I know how bummed Sonic was. Anyway, he’s knocked unconscious in the process and awakens in a whitewashed world featuring gates to strangely familiar places.
As it turns out, this place serves as a hub to the game’s Zones, and speeding through both Classic and Modern iterations will restore their color while also pulling Sonic’s friends out of their frozen limbo states. The story is outrageously silly, which isn’t terribly surprising; in a game in which Sonic works alongside himself to battle two Robotniks it’s far from egregious. There are cute little touches throughout, such as Tails being completely unfamiliar with the original game’s Green Hill Zone (a game he wasn’t in), and there are a few chuckles to be had as Classic Sonic pantomimes rather than speaks. Classic Sonic being mute is strange, though, as Classic Tails is also in the game and speaks with the same voice he had in the original Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon. Was Jaleel White not available or asking for too much money? Oh well.
No matter how ridiculous the story, all that really matters are the game’s mechanics. You take on three Zones at a time with a boss in between each set, and each Zone is divided into one Classic Sonic Act and a Modern Sonic Act. The two play styles are obviously distinct, yet surprisingly similar. Classic Sonic only has one move besides running and jumping (the spin dash) and his levels are, of course, fast-paced sidescrolling affairs. He plays much like he did in his heyday, although it’s still not an exact match — he’s a little more slippery here than he was in his 16-bit games and can make slower platforming inexact. Still, it’s much closer than Sonic 4 came last year, so it should be chalked up as a win in anyone’s book. Meanwhile, Modern Sonic is also about moving quickly, although he’s generally moving forward in a 3D space. When done right these levels are great fun, but when he’s not zooming around and guided by his lock-on attack his movements become very imprecise and the simplest jumps become more stressful than they should be. Modern Sonic’s levels also occasionally have 2D segments that work surprisingly well, but Modern’s floatier feel and lock-on ability distinguish him from the Classic levels.
A platforming game is nothing without good levels, and Sonic Generations is all over the place in this department. In Sonic Team’s selection of old and new, the divide technically goes like this: three Genesis/Mega Drive worlds, three Dreamcast worlds, and three current-gen worlds. You quickly realize that the actual divide then becomes 3/6 in Modern Sonic’s favor, and it’s a part of one of Generations‘ biggest downfalls — there’s not enough Classic Sonic in it. It’s a strange thing to say, as there are 9 total levels for each Sonic to traverse, as well as 45 challenges each, but it’s the truth. Seeing Chemical Plant Zone in HD is a treat and the modern levels that are included are great, but why not recreate a couple more 16-bit worlds? We don’t really need 90 different challenge levels that are essentially tweaked, small portions of the main levels, do we? I would think that someone at Sonic Team has a soft spot for Ice Cap Zone, but I guess not. Then there are the boss and “rival” levels — one boss and one rival (Metal Sonic) revolves around Classic gameplay, while Modern Sonic gets two bosses and two rivals (Shadow and Silver). In a 20th anniversary celebration more reverence is paid to a version of Sonic that’s fresh in gamer’s minds, and with a plethora of potential Classic Sonic levels to choose from the tiny morsel presented here is inexcusable.
Equally erratic is the actual design of the game’s levels. Modern Sonic haters would no doubt assume that that all of his levels suck and that Classic Sonic’s are the best part of the game, but it’s really a mixed bag. Some of Classic Sonic’s levels are brilliant — his Green Hill Zone Act is a near-perfect level — while later Acts are plodding, drawn-out affairs that can become abysmal 10-minute wars of attrition. The same goes for Modern Sonic, where some levels provide easy fodder for his detractors and others offer some of the most fun and exciting parts of the game. The aforementioned challenge levels are no different, where some of them offer great twists on the best parts of the game, while others are maddening wastes of time. In either case, there are simply too many of them (ninety!) and I’d rather have real levels in their place.
The most consistent part of the game is in its presentation, which is thankfully excellent. Sonic Generations benefits from the hedgehog’s history of colorful games, and they’re more vibrant than ever. It’s great to see classic Zones and enemies redone in HD, and hearing modern instrumentations of classic 16-bit music is extremely gratifying. The original Sonic the Hedgehog is also unlockable, which is a nice bonus. Overall, the overarching “Happy Birthday, Sonic!” theme will warm the hearts of long-time fans, even if the level selection doesn’t necessarily reflect that sentiment.
Sonic Generations tries to combine two different worlds in one package, but it never quite hits its mark. Sonic Team is certainly on the right track, and if they were to flesh out either Classic or Modern Sonic then they could very well make the hedgehog special again. By juggling both versions, though, they end up tripping over their own feet and the game suffers as a result. It’s certainly worth a rental, especially if you’re looking for a break from the buffet of overly serious AAA titles on the market right now. Otherwise only the biggest Sonic nuts will find it worth the full purchase price.
FINAL GRADE: C+