A gaming hero perfectly suited for the conditions at the time. During his most recent decade he has become something of a bad joke. A gaming hero of old constantly trying to reinvent himself in 3D. His fans remain loyal in spite of everything, and if Sega really wanted to celebrate the series they should have focused more on these fans and how they feel. Sonic Generations isn't that kind of celebration. It has more to do with nostalgia and a developer who finally seems to master its own troublesome game engine.
It's Sonic's birthday. All of his friends have gathered to celebrate and there is both cake and chili dogs, when a dark shadow interrupts the party and rips a hole in the fabric of time and space. Sonic and his friends are spread across various dimensions, and Sonic hooks up with his old self - the classic Sonic from the Mega Drive days - and together they go on a journey through 20 years of Sonic games to try and clean up the mess.
I actually had some expectations on the story. Not because I'm stupid or something, but because it is written by Ken Pontac and Warren Graff who impressed me with the script of Sonic Colours and are best known for Happy Tree Friends. Unfortunately it comes across as shallow and forgettable. Sure, they have managed to include some rather nice historical references, but don't expect anything on the scale of say Epic Mickey.
Even if Sega have tried to make the case that Sonic Generations is some kind of epic career spanning monument of one of the biggest gaming icons of all times, it seems as if Sonic Generations is happy with being a "best of" album. But, and this is important, Sonic Generations is still a good Sonic title. It's just far from a fantastic game. There are loads of problems, and poor design choices, but it's still a good game and nothing can change that fact.
After releasing Sonic the Hedgehog in 2006, the worst ever Sonic title and the Daikatana of the platform genre, Sonic Team opted to completely revamp the series. They did not really feel that the problem with Sonic the Hedgehog was the fact that it was an unfinished and poorly constructed mess of a game, but instead identified the problem as being the fact that old time fans preferred the classic 2D Sonic and more recent fans cared more for modern Sonic. It's hard to tell whether or not this division actually exists, but personally I think fans just wanted a great Sonic game. Regardless of whether it was in 2D or 3D.
Nevertheless, the result was that Sonic Team developed their "Hedgehog Engine", designed to combine 2D and 3D and thus uniting the split fanbase of Sonic. Sonic Generations is the third game to make use of the engine and two things are particularly apparent.
First of all it seems Sonic Team has finally gotten to grips with their own engine. They are not reaching and experimenting as in Sonic Unleashed and grasp both the advantages and limitations of the engine. The level design is varied, creative, and recreates nostalgic areas such as Chemical Plant Zone really well. The unfair deaths and some of the trial and error based gameplay has been trimmed down, to a stage design more based on various levels and while rewarding skilled players it doesn't punish the less skilled too hard. The challenge can be found in trying to get to the end of the level as fast as possible, something that feels just right in a Sonic game.
The second thing that strikes me is that it is more apparent than ever that the "Hedgehog Engine" is a dead-end that Sonic Team should abandon. The engine seems to just hold together thanks to a bit of duct tape, and visual delights such loops and automatic gameplay. The Hedgehog Engine represents Sonic Team's tunnel vision, where the most important part of development was wrongly identified as being able to merge 2D gameplay with 3D gameplay, and not the creation of interesting and well functioning gameplay from which levels and game world could be based upon. Perhaps a lesson out of Shigeru Miyamoto's school of game design is what's needed. There is no continuity when it comes to the gameplay in Sonic Generations, mixing up multiple times in one level alone.
It could work, if it wasn't for the poor transitions. Sonic Team wants to cover up these blemishes with visual candy such as explosions, robots and killer whales. It's nothing unusual really, we see it in celebrated games like Uncharted as well, but the difference there is that a game like Uncharted is such a great experience that we really don't care if the game plays itself for a bit.
One example is the pinball physics found in the classic Sonic titles. This is the physics that govern Sonic as he moves or jumps. In Sonic Generations these pinball physics make a return, after being missing from Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, and so far all is well. The problem is that it's disengaged at times in favour of the visually pleasing autoplay. It gives the impression of a disjointed experience, and you're not always aware of what rule set is in place at all times. One moment you're using the physics engine to build up momentum in a ramp, the next time it's all automated and Sonic runs on his own. It may sound like a small detail to criticise, but it runs through the entire experience like a bad tear on a vinyl.
That aside, Sonic Generations is still the best and most complete use of the engine and an entertaining game from start to finish. The game mechanics are broken, but entertaining enough for us to forgive the flaws. For the most part.
It is easy to notice that Sonic Team have gained a bit of fresh confidence with the unexpected success of Sonic Colours last year. Sonic Generations may not be quite as good as Sonic Colours, but it's a close call. Switching between the two Sonics makes for a varied experience, and the game comes across as fresh even if it feels as if Sonic Team don't quite know what to do with classic Sonic at all times. He plays second fiddle to modern Sonic who gets more exposure when it comes to both story and gameplay. Nevertheless, Sonic Team have created a few really nice levels for classic Sonic, and he is only really held back by the somewhat limited game engine.
It is with modern Sonic that the game really shines, and given the amount of years Sonic Team have spent trying to nail Sonic in 3D it's not surprising. It's far from a perfect experience, it's glitchy and slips into autoplay mode too often, but every level offers at least one major breathtaking moment, whether it's a nicely put together piece of nostalgia or an unexpected twist to a classic level it always hit the mark. The bosses are also pretty good, but it feels a bit cheap that you can only use one of the Sonics to fight them.
That's really the main problem with Sonic Generations. It swings from being a very rich experience to a being a rather flat and ungenerous one. The fact that each level comes with lots of varied challenges, hard modes and other bonuses gives it great lasting appeal. On the other hand there is just a handful of level in the entire game, and they are all nearly just touched up and tweaked remakes of old levels. It also fills us with rage when Sonic's best days and first decade make up a mere third of the game, while the rest of the title is more of an exercise where Sonic Team tried to repair some of the levels from Sonic's 3D titles. It feels like an odd thing to do, and it feels as if Sonic Team have a hard time swallowing the fact the most fans prefer the old games.
From an audiovisual perspective Sonic Generations is a mixed bag. It's ugly when the framerate is all over the place in levels such as Speed Highway. Beautiful when you are running through the lobby and the music switches from modern tracks to the pixelfused beats of classic Sonic. Overall, there are more rights than wrongs. There is a nice sense of speed, when the graphics are blurred and the music is muffled. Unfortunately Sonic is sometimes lost in the colourful backgrounds which causes some confusion.
My entire experience with Sonic Generations alternated with every hour I spent in the company of modern and classic Sonic. When I walk down memory lane I hear a stunning violin rendition of Door Into Summer from the 32X title Knuckles Chaotix my eyes start to tear. At other times I feel angry for it trivialising major parts of Sonic's career.
The end result is a somewhat half-hearted celebration of Sonic's career. And perhaps that's just the kind of celebration he deserves. Part good, part bad. Ten good years and ten horrible ones. But most importantly I enjoyed playing it from start to finish. I still hope that this is the last we see of "Hedgehog Engine" and that Sonic Generations marks the end of that flawed perspective on what Sonic fans want. It's time to wipe the slate clean and begin a brand new story starring the world's fastest hedgehog.