Older, but not Wiser.
The game asks me if I’m ready. I’m not sure if I am. The first time I entered the Chemical Plant Zone, I was a child, playing on a cousin’s Genesis. I was blown away. It was weird, there was unexplained floating platforms, unused catwalks, pink water, and a mutant following me the entire time. But it didn’t have to make sense to me, because it made sense to itself. It was a level in a game that knew who it was, knew what it wanted to be, and did it’s damnedest to be just that.
I’m still bathing in my memories when the game throws me into action. I manage to get a grip before the hallway opens ends and the level begins its tricks. But as soon as the level is laid before I loose all of my senses again. Everything is there. The extraneous roller coaster catwalks, the pink water, robot spiders, balls of goo flying in arches between grates in the floor. All of the iconic set pieces from the Genesis days are back, and rendered in full HD 3D. It brings joy to my heart. It would bring tears to my eyes, but they’re already being stressed by trying to keep up with the blur that is the world I’m flying through.
Chemical Plant Zone isn’t the only bit of the past coming back to life. Green Hill Zone is as lush and ideal as ever. Watching the Death Egg rise through the crumbling Sky Sanctuary Zone gets my blood boiling for the mere thought of knocking it out of the heavens again. Oh fuck, there’s a truck trying to run me down as I hurry to escape from the city. I never even played the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog, but that lava tornado over there is really freaking sweet.
It was never even a fantasy that this game was made as anything but a wet dream for nostalgic Sonic fans. I believe that’s what the title “the game that Sonic fans have been waiting for” implied. And I thought this game was doing a great job of it. At one point, I did think that, yes. This was before they tried to let us relive our experiences with sonic games from this console generation. Without the dizzying blast from the nostalgia bomb, my vision clears, and I can see all the bullshit going on. It must stem from a place of complacency. Designers, knowing the fans will fall into a euphoric comatose at the sight of their dreams rebuilt, get to the point of “good enough is more then enough.” If you can cut the work and still get boatloads of money, odds are the work will get cut.
Maybe that’s not entirely their fault. Taking the vision of someone else and trying to build it anew is a tough job. I know, for I have tried to do just this. Before you can create, you have to study what has come before. You have to analyze it, learn what made it work, and come up with the ingredients to make it happen again. Then you start with the building. It’s at least double the work.
Unless you just don’t care. And I really wouldn’t be surprised if no one actually cared about the Sonic that exists today. Even the Sonic fans that buy these games and push for more don’t care. They care about what they remember. As long as something comes out that makes them remember, they’ll be sated. But no one cares about what came out. No one cared to work on it. And that’s what leads to bullshit. Like this staircase.
This is lazy nonsense. City Escape deserves better then this.
This isn’t something that happens when level designers care. This is something out of a dreamscape, where geometry is based on ideas and concepts, rather then on designs. They had a look they were going for, and as soon as they had it, they didn’t look back. Literally, I imagine, because you wouldn’t notice this atrocity if you constantly move forward and ignore the human instinct to explore. As soon as they could say, “Yep, looks like city escape,” they moved on. Never took a moment to improve, or to ask, “could I put something neat in this kinda boring spot?” Not even something new and innovative and different, but just something neat. Shit, they couldn’t even be bothered to consider ways to make the controls anything more then passable. And C- at best, guys.
Neat stuff was one of the tenets of the classic Sonic games. Yeah, there was a lot of, “run right, jump over spikes, maybe go through a loop,” but every level managed to mix it up. “Over here, don’t drown. On this level, ride an iceberg through some walls. Pull levers to keep the lights on and ward off ghosts. Hell, be a pinball-slot machine for a level. Why? It’s a city wide casino, baby!” Have your level idea, and find something cool to do with it.
It’s something I never thought I’d say about a game, but I think think the Sonic series needs to take notes from God of War. Make it all about the set pieces. Push it to the extreme, make it look amazing and be memorable. Instead of mashing square between set pieces, just push right or sometimes forward instead.Then add some unique gameplay bits to match the setting. And I know if that’s the plan, quick time events are way easier, but coming up with sequences that don’t gimp player agency will make the game all the better in the end. “Let’s have a sequence where Sonic is flying to catch up with the Death Egg.” “So, we’ll just make that a…doge bullets level…?” “Nah, that would be really weird to just stick in near the end of the game. If we just have Miles keep his plane constantly under Sonic’s feet the player will still have something to jump off of.”
That’s a solution they had in 1996. What happened?
Well, actually, Sonic Colors happened.
They were on the right track. The set the entire game in an amusement park, which meant that everything was a spectacle. Levels weren’t just unique, but bright, colorful, and distinctive. The game had some hooks for gameplay too. Areas introduced new mechanics in the form of the alien creatures known as Wisps. We’re already used to being a hedgehog, so in one level you learn about being a drill. The level after that lets you experience the thrilling lifestyle of a blimp. Now they weren’t all directly tied to the levels, but that’s because they were trying to crib from Metroidvania games. Each new Wisp gave you new ways to interact with levels you had already completed. Trying to be more like Metroidvania it totally a valid excuse.
From what I heard, most people were assuming that Generations was going to be building on Colors. I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but that’s not what happened. It was actually a step down in every way, save for fan-service. It picked up the old levels, it came with some gags about Tails not being in the first Sonic game, and it took on all the old characters. It had some of the Chaotix in it. Did you know they had a detective agency? I sure as shit didn’t. But Generations also dropped a lot. It dropped the interesting gameplay hooks, it dropped the vibrant settings, it dropped the competent and well paced level designs, and it even dropped a few hours off of play time. Generations even included a level from Colors. It was one of the most uninteresting levels from that game, they took out the fun bits from it, and somehow even managed to make it look worse then it’s Wii counterpart. How do you even let that happen?
In my mind there’s no doubt that Sonic Colors is the better game. No doubt that it’s the best modern Sonic game. But I know why people still tell themselves that Generations is better. It’s because of that “modern” qualifier. The modern Sonic’s pale in comparison to the classics because they can’t get away from the classics. They can’t come to terms with what they’re becoming, and refuse to stop trying to match the shadows of the giants that acme before. It’s like the series is going through a mid life crisis. Maybe this comes from developers, maybe it’s the demands from the fans. Either way, I can’t see a really great Sonic game coming out until after we sit the series down with an after school special about being yourself not giving into peer pressure.