Sonic Generations
by Polly

Hey guys, you know what sucks? Sonic games.

For the better part of a decade, Sega has just never seemed to be able to make up its mind about its 90's flagship series and its place in the gaming world. What is a Sonic The Hedgehog game, anyway? Who is this franchise for? Since Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, Sega and Sonic Team have been trying to answer these questions with countless unfocused, middling to terrible sequels and iterations that sell well enough, but lack the AAA quality that their 90's predecessors maintained. The series has become a bit of a joke to many with its hyper-focus on playing as dumb side characters rather than Sonic, ridiculous stories showcasing creepy-ass furry fanfiction, and just... well... really shitty quality games that are either only half-finished or buggy messes not worth the effort required to play them. There's no other way to put it. The Sonic series just didn't have much of an identity anymore, and couldn't be taken very seriously by its fans or the casual observer.

In late 2010, Sega surprised everybody with the release of Sonic Colors, a game that itself had been fairly iterative on certain design choices found in Sonic Unleashed released a year prior. These improved mechanics dealt mostly with speed, homing attack accuracy, and platforming, and NOT idiotic werehog nonsense or reliance on playing as side characters. Despite some spotty camera work, uneven difficulty, floaty physics, and sometimes sloppy stage design, Sonic Colors was a pretty damn awesome game top to bottom, and garnered the series a bit of renewed good will and faith from gamers and critics alike. The hedgehog's newfound grace paved the way for folks to be excited again (though most like myself remained only "cautiously optimistic") about what gaming's most famous blue pin cushion might be getting into next when Sonic Generations was first unveiled. Still, even the slightest bit optimistic, I'm sure a lot of you out there are just like me in that you waited or are still waiting for this game to take a dive in price before slapping down the scratch for it. So, even at the ludicrously reduced price of $10 that I paid, was Sonic Team's 20th anniversary blow-out worth the price of admission?

Appropriately, Sonic Generations' story begins with a surprise birthday party for Sonic being held by all his dumb friends nobody cares about and we all wish would die in some sort of horrible chemical fire. The festivities don't get too far underway, thankfully, before being interrupted by a strange otherworldly creature who somehow splits the fabric of time and space and drapes the land into a vast white nothingness. These events lead to modern-day Sonic teaming up with classic Sonic to save his dumb friends (whose decapitated heads impaled atop rusty pikes we'd all love to march around the town square with) and restore the flow of time and space, thus returning color to the world.

It makes about as much sense as a Sonic story needs to, and takes the same Saturday morning cartoon approach to writing that Sonic Colors did, making it in no way embarrassing to try and watch, and actually fairly clever. The characters and dialogue are genuinely funny throughout because the story doesn't take itself very seriously, yet at the same time is very self-aware of what it is, with a lot of knowing winks and nods to the series' history. It's the little touches that go a long way toward making the game's story fun, such as classic Sonic not being able to speak, everyone confusing the two Sonics, and Tails not recognizing Green Hill Zone, but being familiar with Chemical Plant among the most memorable. Both Colors and Generations prove that we can have story in a Sonic game and not be faceplaming the whole time or wanting to barf till our eyeballs popped like we would be with Adventure or the dreaded Sonic 2006 and the ill-conceived Shadow The Hedgehog.

Generations is a game that seems almost hell-bent on making everybody enjoy it. From long-time fans as far back as the Genesis era to the folks who stuck with Sega's troubled hedgehog through his dark years, it wants everybody in on the fun. It's a dangerous design decision that could have easily spread development too thin, leaving every part of the package lacking in quality, but Sega took that gambit and I'm happy to say it paid off. Generations is...hold on... Are you sitting down? Alright, good. ... Sonic Generations is actually really damn fun. No matter which era of Sonic you prefer and how you like to play these games, there's bound to be a lot for everybody to enjoy here.

What makes Generations work so well is its sheer amount of balance. You'll spend an equal amount of time playing as classic Sonic and modern Sonic, both of which control as close to perfect as they could get (save a wonky camera position or two throwing off jumps). Both Sonics have a very distinct feel, yet control similarly enough that the transition isn't jarring in any way. Both are similar enough to make gameplay consistent, yet different enough to not feel dull and monotonous.

This theme of near perfect balance and cohesion also carries over into level design. Classic Sonic games tended to focus on pinpoint platforming, exploring huge maps for alternate routes, and bursts of speed sprinkled in to give the genre a little bit of zazz. Modern Sonic games have a tighter focus on break-neck speed, twitch reflexes, tight linear paths, and an overabundance of spectacle with crazy camera angles and scripted events. Generations brilliantly toes the line separating both styles of Sonic, with the crazier aspects of modern Sonic level design blending themselves seamlessly into classic Sonic's stages, and slower, more methodical and precise platforming situations in modern Sonic's areas. While it may seem to strip the identity of each playstyle away a bit, it helps to create a consistency that keeps the experience smooth, and has the added bonus of jiving well with the game's overall story of worlds colliding. "You got your peanut butter in my chocolate..." and all that.

Both Sonics can also be powered up to a limited degree with various skills which can be purchased at various points in the game. These simple tweaks include button-press access to shields, starting each life with ten rings in reserve to prevent immediate death, making dropped rings hang around longer, and an infinite Boost gauge. Each Sonic has his own skillset that you can customize, which can help if you're struggling with any particular stage, but the entire power-up system can be ignored and you likely won't face too many set-backs. It's really about the only part of the game that can feel a tad extraneous to seasoned Sonic players, but at the same time I can understand it being useful to players who may have less skill or are having trouble clearing challenges.

The game's stages span the three eras of Sonic The Hedgehog's existence: Classic, Dreamcast, and Modern, with each act of the game containing three zones from each, a boss battle, and a rival battle. Given the series' history, the choices made for the areas that appear in the game may not suit all tastes, and initially may seem a bit too heavy on first stages and city-style themes, but again, the real fun is in seeing them re-imagined in ways never expected, such as modern Sonic tearing up Chemical Plant or classic Sonic running through the hellish Crisis City. The areas are paced out well enough through most of the game, save for the back end, where the final two areas feel a bit too slow and puzzley, making the climax fall a little short. Boss and rival battles aren't terribly fantastic either. There's a little too much scripting going on and not enough gameplay that feels like it's focusing on the game's strengths. In particular, there's only one boss encounter where you can actively switch between classic and modern Sonic as it plays out, but it feels like an idea that was shoehorned in, when it could have been an excellent feature used for all the boss battles (hell, even normal stages for that matter) had there been a bit more thought put into it.

Simply ploughing through each zone isn't going to be enough to finish off the game, though. Once you've ran through each area with both Sonics once, a set of ten challenges then opens up for each, containing five unique missions for each Sonic. To complete each act and face its final boss, you must complete at least one challenge per zone to collect a key that opens the boss door. Normally side missions and challenges like this are a terrible idea. They're usually under-developed, not fun, and made only to pad out the play time. Generations' approach in making nearly all of them optional is a fantastic way of handling the extra content, because it lets players get as much as they want out of the game without being penalized for wanting to rush through it. It's easy to wanna chew your way slowly through the challenges, even after you've completed the main game due to how compact everything is. Booting the game up and firing off a quick challenge or two makes the whole affair easy to pick up and put down, which adds a nice layer of replayability on top of the normal time trials most Sonic games provide by default.

I'm usually the last person to say so, but the extra missions and challenges in Generations are actually a crap load of fun. If you decide to stick around and try to finish up all the challenges in an area, you won't simply be grinding away at the same stage you'd just played until you're bored to tears. There's a whole lot of variety in the challenges for both Sonics ranging from standard doppelganger races, using specific power ups or partner characters to achieve specific goals, playing musical Pong, and trying to juggle a goal signpost all the way to the end of a stage. Nearly every challenge has a unique level layout and scenery changes that can keep plugging away at the same zone fun for a while. More than once I found myself finished with the challenges in a stage and not even realizing I'd played all ten! Completing challenges is also rewarding, providing unlocks for a variety of bonus content including artwork and games' original stage themes (which can be applied to any stage in the game!), as well as power-ups that each Sonic can purchase and use.

Sonic Generations' visual package will likely surprise no one who's played any game in the series in the last twelve or so years, which is fine because it's a look that has some staying power due to being so stylized. Sega has crafted an aesthetic that is uniquely their own when it comes to the use of vivid colors to paint large sprawling natural landscapes mixed with a sleek, clean, and pristine presentation for its sci-fi elements. It's a look that has endured since the Dreamcast era and is instantly pleasing to the eyes, especially when cinematic camera angles get worked into mix. Being that Generations is meant to be a bit of a "Best of" compilation, Sega did have free-reign to be a bit lazy when it came to re-using a lot of older art assets such as enemy models and stage obstacles, but the re-worked stages themselves are meant to be the real stars here, and it's exciting seeing older zones (especially the Genesis-era stuff) interpreted in an all new way. I found myself replaying certain stages over and over again just to take in all the details, and the last time I did that in a Sonic game was Sonic 2 all those years ago. Pretty as it is, the console versions of the game do exhibit a bit of strain under all that eye candy, running at only 30 frames per second and hitching up every now and then, however the PC release (which I'd highly recommend going with) maintains a slick as hell 60 frames per second at all times, and never gets bogged down by what the game throws at it.

Similarly, the audio department is comprised entirely of old sound effects from the Genesis and Dreamcast eras and new re-imaginings of familiar and, dare I say, iconic musical themes. Over the years, most of us have likely heard Sonic music remixed, arranged, and beaten to death so much that this package had to really come through with something good in order to surprise or really stand out. For the most part, it does. Those old familiar themes get chopped up and put back together with just the right amount of tinkering so that they're still recognizable and as infectious as ever, yet refreshing due to a change in style, tempo, or arrangement. The sound design is also surprising, considering they didn't have to do much, but great audio effects such as background music getting muddled underwater and being phase distorted when Sonic boosts, and how the overworld music dynamically shifts between zone themes on a proper beat are the cherry on top of the birthday cake that really emphasize just how much thought and care was put into the game's production to make sure Sonic's 20th was damn well worth celebrating.

It would be easy to look cynically at Sonic Generations and dismiss it as only playing on the nostalgia of the fanbase for a quick buck or two. From a business standpoint, that very well may have been the case, but even then, one would have to unfairly look past the fine work that clearly went into crafting this veritable celebration of everything good that the series has ever brought to the table, past and present included. Sonic Generations is the game that Sonic fans such as myself have been waiting on Sega to make for years, yet it's still appealing enough to please the younger set who didn't grow up in Sonic's heyday. It's by no means perfect, but it's the closest Sega has come in a good god damn long time. That said, Sonic Generations is an invitation you should most definitely RSVP to. No need to worry about bringing anything to the party other than a willingness to have fun with an old familiar friend.

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