Having spent quite some time with Sonic Generations, I think I’ve put my finger on just where the series has gone a cropper: bullet points.
As gamers, before we hand over £40 for our game of choice, we partake in something tantamount to bullying; demanding that if the developers ever wish to take our cash that innovation and new shiny buzz words need to be latched on to our favourite games. They sit proudly on the back of the box, one after another, each promising us a bigger and better experience, bullet point after bullet point. For some franchises this is fine, the FIFAs of this world seem to thrive on it; someone like Sonic, however, hasn’t faired so well. We’ll give him a two-tailed fox, but after that each extra addition clogged the series until here we sit twenty-years later with the obligatory what-happened-to-Sonic opening statement.
Generations does away with all that. There are no werehogs, no magic lamps, no firearms, and, gratefully, no human love interests, restoring Sonic back to a position where he has nothing but the purity of platforming. He can run, jump and spin, and that’s all he needs to get by.
Or rather, both of them can run, jump and spin. A maniacal, floating, purple enemy known as the Time Eater has sucked up both the podgy 2D Sonic of yesteryear and the smug 3D Sonic of today and has deposited them in a world where colour and time has drained away. There reside blanched versions of levels from throughout the whole of the blue hedgehog’s timeline, each caught in a strange limbo which hides away one of Sonic’s many chums. Setting aside any possible paradoxes, the pair resolve to bring colour back to the land, find their friends, and defeat the Time Eater.
Each level has a 2D and 3D variant, allowing you to sample the best of both worlds. Yet, stripped of the superfluous mechanics that has blighted a good many of Sega’s mascot’s outings, it’s easy to see just how the speedy sprite made a name for himself. From looping the loop in the quintessentially Sonic Green Hill Zone to running full pelt along the undulating, toxic pipes of the Chemical Plant, fond memories rush back. Nostalgia needn’t be a factor either as these are no quick remakes, instead they are newly created levels inspired by the past. Most prove successful in their transition from the flat world of the Mega Drive to the polygon rich world we live in today, marrying speed, traditional platforming and the need for sneaky alternate routes.
Many will seem sprawling labyrinths the first time you dash through but as each route intertwines with the others it’s not so much about picking the right one but the quickest one. Nail each jump and you’ll be rewarded with a swift journey through the level, bypassing platforming speed bumps and cruising to the finish. Miss the jump and though your experience won’t be fast, you’ll definitely get to see more as you work your way back up through the maze until you are once again in sight of the fast lane.
At times it does seem a little too fast though, with the visuals lacking the crispness or camera movements required to take everything in at breakneck speed. Old Sonic may have had his world rounded-out, but at full-pelt, jumps and springs are gone before you’ve had a chance to react. As levels progress and become more obstacle strewn this becomes less of an issue, but early sprints do feel as though they require as much muscle memory as they do twitch-reactions.
New Sonic handles speed far better. Although quite happy to dabble in a bit of side-on action too, when he hits his stride the camera tucks in behind him and does its best to keep up. Showcasing his pace, the action turns into a slot-racer, with dabs on the shoulder buttons flicking Sonic left and right. This may sound controversial, complementing the precise movement of the analogue stick with an easy option, but such is the reaction required that it’s a welcome addition when dashing back and forth across lanes.
In quite a reversal from its flatter companion, it’s when the 3D sections slow down that the flaws begin to show. Platforming in an extra dimension requires far more assistance from the camera and Generations is not willing to offer any. Certain tricky sections, usually when trying to navigate back to the fast lane, seem to have the camera stuck on a preset path, insisting on moving or changing angles at the most inopportune moments. During large open sections or when trying to lock-on to enemies this is barely a niggle, but when balancing on walkways no wider than Doctor Eggman’s belly then a sudden shift can prove fatal.
Most of the levels are well constructed and considered enough that such experiences happen infrequently. Each offers their own set of baddies and trademark obstacles to overcome, from the swinging robot arms of Planet Wisp to the runaway truck contained within City Escape. Indeed, seeing old Sonic and just how he handles that first cross-over into the world of the Dreamcast is something decidedly odd, as if a fourth wall has been broken down, and yet it is handled wonderfully.
Not all domains stand up to scrutiny, though. The game is frontloaded with the best of the levels whilst the last three are a definite mix bag. Crisis City in particular, stolen from the 2006 version of Sonic the Hedgehog, is one that I will never be setting foot in again.
With both new and old Sonic, these minor flaws do little to detract from the experience. Sega have gone to great lengths to ensure that each one plays to its own strengths and possibly the inclusion of both have stopped the other trying to shoehorn in unwanted extras that would only detract from the purity of experience.
As each level is conquered and coloured, a number of challenges are unlocked. With the vast size of each of the levels, the chance to be shown an area you may have missed is a welcome one. Sonic can be tasked with anything from a freeing trapped animals from Eggman’s capsules, racing against his older/younger self, using Tails to help him cross a divide, surviving on just a single ring, and many other variants that extends the life time for those who aren’t content with beating their previous time through the environment.
On a more practical level, completing these goes some way to unlocking boss battles. Collect enough and a gateway will open, sucking through our hero as he faces down a huge enemy. Sadly, although the enemies may be huge, the battles themselves are uninspiring, usually involving navigating an arena until you’re in such a position as to execute a rudimentary quick-time-event. Although many of Sonic’s nemeses have had predictable attack patterns in the past, there used to be a knack of getting in and bopping them a few times before having to retreat. Here with the QTEs it’s so prescribed that the victories feels very hollow.
Such battles won’t be what keep you interested in Sonic Generations and it is the return to basics that has done both 2- and 3D Sonic the world of good. Marred only by my general misgivings of modern Sonic’s suitability to open worlds and occasional drop in standards in level design, developers Sonic Team have gone along way to atoning for years of animal cruelty. The classic levels sit extremely well with the more cinematic and showy modern incarnation of everyone’s favourite rodent, and it is that separation that has allowed each to play to their strengths.
As for bullet points, if Sega still feel compelled then may I suggest: simplicity is the key. Hopefully a lesson they will remember for the next 20 years.