Filled with fanservice, yet flawed, Generations sets a high note
To say that Sonic has seen better days is as overstated as it is obvious. While 2010's Sonic Colors showed that Sonic in three dimensions wasn't an entirely lost cause, the title's odd Wii exclusivity didn't help expose that to more gamers heading into 2011, Sonic's twentieth anniversary.
Right from the outset, Generations plucks you back into an HD facsimile of the old "classic" version of Sonic, absent a homing attack or any of the more esoteric power ups Sonic has gained since the Genesis titles, in the middle of a recreation of the very beginning of this twenty year saga: Green Hill Zone.
It's gorgeous, fun to play, and reminds the player why Sonic got so big in the first place. There's just something fun about going fast, flying through levels in a kind of controlled chaos. Then the level ends and you're greeted with a cutscene reminding the same player of everything that's gone wrong since. A dozen or so friends, each more forgettable than the last, have gathered to wish Sonic a happy birthday. The sheer cruelness of jumping from that happy nostalgia-filled level into the nightmare of Sonic Present tears open a hole in the very fabric of time, banishing all Sonic's many friends into oblivion.
If it were me, that's a happy ending right there, but since that's the premise of the game, Sonic has to save them. I guess.
Generations proceeds to guide you through a variety of stages based on some of the more memorable levels in each of the major Sonic games over the past two decades. Each Zone, fittingly enough, is broken into two Acts. In Act 1, you play as the classic Genesis version of Sonic, in a 2D version of the level. In Act 2, you play as the modern version, as seen in Sonic Colors and the daytime stages of Sonic Unleashed. That is, a hybrid of 2D and 3D play styles, with all the various perks and power ups Sonic has gathered over the years.
Amazingly enough, both sides of the coin play very well in general. Unfortunately, as always seems to be the case in these titles, the Modern stages can glitch out occasionally and kill Sonic if you don't play the level just right. These issues were rare, but they happened enough in my experience to put me off a couple stages. The Classic stages were, on the whole, more polished, though weirdly enough the Modern stages were generally more fun to play when working correctly, with both offering the kind of multi-path branching Sonic used to be known for.
But the key to the experience is less the fusion of classic and modern flavors of Sonic and more an almost inordinate amount of fan service. The levels, ranging from Sonic 2's Chemical Plant to Sonic Adventure 2's City Escape and Sonic Unleashed's Rooftop Run, are brightly reimagined -- no matter how recent -- and a blast to play in either variant. Even sprinkled in these areas are references and mechanics from other Sonic levels of old, and semi-optional challenge versions of the levels offer unlockable music and concept art.
Normally those types of extras are more or less meaningless, but an interesting feature in the game lets you apply any unlocked music track over any level, boss, or challenge stage. As music has been a high point of the Sonic franchise despite its many failings over the years, this was a welcome bonus, though the remixes of the classic level themes are fine to listen to while playing. Still, I got a kick out of having Sonic race through a level to the tune of "Sonic Boom."
This game gets so much right, but it seems that a catch is always in the cards with a Sonic title. In Generations' case, it's a series of really tiresome boss battles. Sonic has had its duds of bosses before, but almost every single one falls flat in this game, with really just one exception. For a franchise that usually gets these parts right, the final boss was definitely a disappointment.
The other disappointment lies in the game's utter lack of any type of special stage. As a nostalgia-tinted package for a series that has by and large made a point of hidden levels, to not even reference their existence was the one glaring hole in a game that mostly gets it right when it comes to paying back the fans.
Generations is also not a terribly long game. It can be beaten in about 4-5 hours, depending on player skill. But, as with many Sonic titles, the game derives replay value with attempts to master the levels, beat the challenges, and collect the hidden items in the levels. Clearing the game 100% will take many hours beyond the initial 4 to 5. As such, it's hard to recommend the game to someone who wouldn't want to put forth the time to get better at the levels and play the different challenge variants.
But if you were once a fan of the legendary blue blur, even if you've since fallen off the track, this is a game that gets Sonic right. It definitely has its flaws, but Generations is worth a look for that alone.