Review: Sonic Generations

by Tom Ingram

The meta-story of the Sonic series hardly needs elaboration by this point. Sonic and Mario were big competitors in the early nineties; when 3D came about, Nintendo made Mario 64 and Sega made Sonic Adventure. Enough said. The Sonic games of the last twelve years have not been good by any reasonable standard, but they haven’t been wholly bad, either.

The switch to 3D was rocky, but some of the levels were excellent. Some very strange character and gameplay decisions were made—the name of Big the Cat springs to mind—but damn it, some of them worked—for instance, Tails’s robot suit, which was completely out of left field but elevated him from a useless sidekick into a character you might actually want to use. And the music—aggressively shitty turn-of-the-millenium pseudo-punk, but so catchy I still remember it after at least five years without hearing it.

They were pretty bad, but the badness was the result of marketing, mostly. The mechanical issues could have been solved within a generation if all the trappings weren’t so offensive. Rescuing them is not a matter of scrapping everything and starting over, but of digging out the good bits and rebuilding around them. Which is what Sonic Generations does. The levels of Adventure and Adventure 2 are updated, and the mechanics are rebuilt from scratch. The result is one of the most fun games I’ve played in a long time.

Generations combines old Sonic and new Sonic by means of a Time-Eater, a black and cloudy interdimensional Chernabog who messes with the flow of time. It’s a bit of an awkward plot device, but serviceable. One of the great things about the game is its return to the minimal exposition of Sonic 2. Cutscenes are mercifully short, just long enough to remind you that the characters can talk—after all, this isn’t 1992.

The stages, drawn from the Sonic games of every generation, come in two acts, one played as early nineties Sonic and the other as modern Sonic. The early stages are as good as you’d expect; there’s nothing quite like them in gaming. But what’s really surprising is the newer, semi-3D versions of the old stages and the reworked new stages. The camera is more fixed, and your movements are more restricted. This mitigates the difficulty of aiming your movement and makes it easier not to fall into bottomless pits.

This stripped-down, tightened-up version of Adventure and Adventure 2‘s gameplay takes the levels from being maddening yet strangely compelling to genuinely fun. One of the flaws of the recent Sonic games is that they were always trying to get you to play as anyone but Sonic. This extraneous clutter has been mercifully cut out, remaining only as optional minigames for those who really liked going treasure hunting with Knuckles to the accompaniment of gangsta rap.

The game isn’t perfect, though. For one thing, it’s too forgiving. Whether that is a native flaw or the inevitable result of removing the frustrations of Sonic Adventure, I’m not sure, but there’s practically no way to convince it to give you a game over. Switching between Sonics is a neat idea, but the 2D gameplay has been 3Dalized, and vice versa, enough that it’s easy to forget which one you’re playing as. This might lead you to, for instance, try and fail to spin dash into the same enemy four times in a row, losing all your rings each time. While they’ve been removed from any functional role, the other characters are still there. At this point, expecting good voice acting from a video game is a lost cause, but Knuckles’s voice especially is bad in unusual ways.

Where can the Sonic series go from here? They have a half-decent chance of repairing the damage of the past several years. Do we want them to? Generations is, when you get right down to it, a nostalgia trip. It’s fun to play, but it doesn’t add anything and always feels slightly old-fashioned. The older games had entertainment that is still unique, but I wonder if Sonic has much of a purpose these days, or if further games will, like the Mario games, simply collapse into a cycle of tugging at the nostalgia pump. I had been resigned to the series’s death. The possibility of a revival leaves me ambivalent.

But in the present moment at least, Generations is a package of good old-fashioned fun of the kind rarely seen in today’s gaming world. Whatever else may come, the Sonic team deserves a pat on the back.