It's The Best Sonic's Been in a Long While, But Does that Matter?
Sonic Generations is the best Sonic game to come out in a decade, maybe even in two decades. That statement may not mean all that much since Sonic’s brand has been known to be disappointing after Sonic Adventure 2.
I admit, that judgment wouldn’t be fair to many Sonic fans who enjoyed his outings in the Sonic Rush games, Sonic Heroes, the Wii Sonic & ____ games, Sonic Unleashed, and Sonic Colors. I’m not the best person to judge Sonic as a franchise since I haven’t played any Sonic game beyond Sonic 3D Blast, other than Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), a tiny bit of Sonic Heroes and a PSN demo of Sonic 4: Episode Two. Of all the Sonic games to come out in recent years, I drool a bit when I look at gameplay of Sonic Colors. But since I haven’t played that, I’ll only stick to what I know and what I’ve played.
I actually really enjoyed Sonic 3D Blast though it doesn’t have a Sonic feel to it at all. It’s a charming game but most people will go ahead and say it’s not even a real Sonic game. Sonic Heroes was kind of alright but I found it to be riddled with way too many cheap deaths and so couldn’t stomach it after about an hour of it. That’s a shame cause I found the mechanics of using three characters at once pretty cool. What little I played of Sonic 4: Episode Two did not impress me at all. The physics felt really awkward. And Sonic 2006? In my mind, it’s not only the worst Sonic game I’ve ever played, but it’s pretty much the worst game I’ve ever played. That most likely means I haven’t played enough horrible games, but I’m fairly certain, even if I have, I still wouldn’t be able to say anything good about that failure of a game, I mean, other than the game’s soundtrack.
So that brings me to Sonic Generations. It’s the best Sonic game I’ve played in a long, long time. In fact, I think I like it more than the original Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis. I know that’s probably blasphemous but I played through the very first Sonic game again - since it’s available to play in Sonic Generations - and I have to say it hasn’t aged as well as I thought it did. I always disliked the rotating pinball thing or whatever the special stage is in the first game, and I had forgotten just how many slow dragging moments there are in the original Sonic. Marble Zone in particular has those sequences where you have to push a marble block onto a river of lava and slowly ride it across. Pretty tedious if you ask me.
Anywho, enough of me talking about other Sonic games and being blasphemous; I’ll talk about Sonic Generations, which turns out to be a well-crafted homage to the previous 9 main Sonic games released in the past twenty-five years. Twenty of those years were rather cruel to Sonic and his friends, but despite that, as I played through this game, I really came to appreciate all the interesting ideas Sonic Team had thought up of in the past.
I got reacquainted with Sonic 2006, and I didn’t vomit. On the contrary, I was bobbing my head to the tune featured in that game’s level Crisis City Zone. It was a horrible, horrible game, but it did have a great soundtrack, no denying that. Crisis City was running and jumping across highways and skyscrapers torn apart by a volcanic storm with lava monsters scattered about. It’s a pretty neat concept if you think about it. In the classic version of the level, the storm constantly pushes Sonic backwards, making platforming a bit more challenging.
It’s rather genius the way Sonic Generations pays homage to both the 2D beginnings and the 3D outings of Sonic by presenting two different Sonics - the classic Sonic and the modern Sonic. The game’s story explains this split and from there you play the game in two different ways. The “classic” levels achieve what Sonic 4 and Sonic Rush attempted to do, and actually succeeds, with visuals that are so lush and colorful, and with the speed and physics that was only ever captured by original Genesis titles, particularly Sonic the Hedgehog 2. All the “modern” levels have sequences in which the camera rotates and you’re moving Sonic like in a 2D sidescroller but for the most part, the camera stays behind or above Sonic so that you can control him in three dimensions. The modern Sonic levels are a mish mash of wild ideas, feeling like a racing game at some parts, and other times like a 3D platformer, a 2D sidescroller, or a mini-game mode.
In this way, the homages are fairly accurate. As you’d expect, the homage to Sonic 2006 - Crisis City level - is the worst in this game, especially the modern version. The level is actually fun and playable this time, but the same problems that plagued the 2006 title exists here, even if barely. The controls are loose and unpredictably unresponsive on a few segments, the camera angles are abrupt and jerky, and hit detection is off. There’s like a .01 milisecond delay to you hitting the jump button and while that delay can be felt in other levels as well, in Crisis City it’s too painfully noticeable. It’s my least favorite level for the classic Sonic as well. The wind blowing you in the opposite direction is a neat idea on paper, but in execution, it’s annoying, especially when there are so many ways to fall off a ledge to a bottomless pit.
That’s the worst of it though and even that worst part for the most part - and I can’t believe I’m saying this - is quite fun. This game does more than tickle your nostalgia; it’s expertly designed.
One of the things I liked most about Sonic games is that their levels are multi-tiered. The highest routes are usually the best ones, but make some platforming mistakes here and there and you’ll keep moving forward, just on a lower plane, with different challenges to overcome. That philosophy applies to all the levels featured in this game, and the hidden collectible red coins are placed on the top-tier courses. So while there are only nine main levels in this game, they’re still pretty fun to play over again and see what courses you end up in.
All the popular ideas are in this game. You do the loop-de-loop in Green Hill Zone; run over water and jump over rotating blocks; bounce over clouds; get bumped by a killer whale and ride a car on rails; skateboard down what feels like a comical version of San Francisco; and even turn yourself into a pink spike to scale up walls. Maybe modern Sonic games played horribly but I don’t think you can claim that they weren’t creative.
Especially creative are the extra challenge levels. Each Stage features five challenge levels for each Sonic. These include the basic things like getting to the end of a modified segment of a stage before time runs out to pretty unique challenges like finding spots for Knuckles to dig for gold. I enjoyed almost all of these challenge stages. Each stage features a plethora of cool ideas and these levels flesh them out even further, often featuring other characters in the Sonic universe. There are quite a number of awful challenge levels though. My least favorite one and the one I found to be most frustrating involves that crocodile character throwing music notes at you and you have to use your homing attack to bounce it back at him. The camera and controls are far too unwieldy to complete that level the way you want to.
There’s a staple challenge in each stage. Expect every stage to have a “doppleganger challenge” in which you have to finish the stage faster than the other computer-controlled Sonic. So if you selected classic Sonic, you’re going to be playing the classic version of the stage and trying your best to beat the stage before modern Sonic does. I really didn’t see the need for this inclusion since it’s an exact repeat of the main stage. Also, on some of the stages, these challenges feel unfair. The other Sonic can be far too perfect in his actions.
What makes Sonic Generations especially awesome is its graphics and its music. I feel there’s always been this upbeat charming quality about the visuals of all Sonic games, even when it takes place in a more realistic setting like an urban city. Even back to the Genesis/NES days, I’ve much preferred the colorful sophisticated environments of Sonic to the simple and cartoon style look of Mario levels. In Sonic Generations it’s all in 3D and it’s glorious. The awesome visuals make me wish there were more stages in Sonic Generations, preferably the zones featuring snow or set inside an ominous flying fortress. I can just imagine playing Sonic Generations version of Ice Cap Zone or Flying Battery Zone (and with that music!) and that makes me smile, real wide.
It’s just too bad these nine stages and the forty-five short challenge levels are it. I realize the developers chose to pick just one Sonic zone out of each of the nine Sonic games but still I’m left longing for more. If not more stages then at least a lot more boss stages. There are just four main boss stages and two final bosses to beat, and only one of them is fun as that’s the only one played in the classic 2D way. Other boss battles are more of racing set pieces and feel really awkward, especially the very last boss. I really hated the last boss fight. Sonic games had boss fights in which he’s flying as Super Sonic fighting before, and those were awesome. The one in Sonic Generations just sucks. The horrible and looped voice acting only makes it worse.
One thing I can kind of overlook but still is rather lackluster is how you can buy new skills for Sonic and equip them. The most important skill in my opinion is the one that makes Sonic move faster. There are some cool skills, but the huge downside is that it costs points to equip a skill and Sonic only has 100 points. It’s only 100 points because most of the skills cost 40-70 skill points to equip. That means you can really only equip one skill at a time. Adding to that bad design, these skills can only be equipped by running all the way back to the first section of the hub world and using a really clunky menu interface to buy, customize, and equip skills. This part of the game can easily be overlooked since skills don’t add too much to the game but nonetheless, it’s something Sonic Generations could have gotten right, but didn’t.
With all its shortcomings and the I-wish-it-did-this-insteads, Sonic Generations is the best designed Sonic game in two decades. It looks beautiful, it sounds so charming, and it plays so well. The game is a bit too fast and too sloppy at times, sometimes forgetting that what makes Sonic great is awesome platforming ideas and not just his speed, but if you’ve been nothing but disappointed by Sonic in the past and yet still wish he was cool, here’s a chance to salute the blue blur in all his glory. May Sonic remember this homage and start being great again.