Sonic Generations Review

When in doubt, look back to the past… which may just be an alternate dimension that simply resembles the past… this series is weird.

Sonic Generations Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega

As the name implies, Sonic Generations was meant to function as the series’ 20th anniversary title to celebrate Sega’s ability to continue functioning as a business long enough to routinely push their mascot.  But with the series being in a very… odd place back in the late ots, Sega decided that the best way to appease fans would be with an ambitious crossover title that sought to bring back the 2D stylings of the classic games and blend them with the, by then well established, staples of the modern 3D titles.  So naturally the game centers around Sonic and his buddies getting sent into a place devoid of time where he and his younger, classic-er self, must traverse through various levels iconic to each of the prior 9 mainline titles, and ultimately foil the plot of Dr. Eggman.

It all serves as a means of allowing this temporally fluid crossover to function, and pays little mind to characters other than Sonic, Tails, Eggman, classic Sonic, classic Tails, and classic Eggman, with the rest being reduced to, quite literally, background characters.  But it manages to do everything it needs to in order to justify its premise, and does have a few amusing interactions throughout its story, namely centered around the banter between Eggman and his past self. Sure, it could have been this winding continuity-laden epic, but instead the vast majority of the developers’ resources were devoted to making this game the best it could possibly be, and I’d say that they did a pretty damn good job.

Before getting into the two styles of gameplay here, it is important to acknowledge this game’s vehement and initially perplexing stance to focus on creating a total of 18 regular levels, 9 classic and 9 modern.  A move that evidently was made to prioritize stage quality over quantity, avoid the need to indulge in tired gimmicks, and a level of design and visual polish that I find to be lacking in every other iteration of the “Boost” style of gameplay, from Unleashed to Forces.

Mind you, this does not mean that I find all of these stages to be particularly enjoyable.  Both renditions of Crisis City are visually ugly meshes that feature numerous isolated instances of frustration.  While both versions of Planet Wisp place heavy emphasis on Wisp powers that are not very fun to use, and exist within overly elaborate environments that requires many repeat playthroughs to get a handle on.  But when the game does work properly, and the stages are able to cater to the core strengths of their respective gameplay stylings, the end result is suburb.

Starting with Classic Sonic, jumping right into the game without refreshing my memories of Mania or the easier Genesis games, I immediately could tell a difference in how this rendition of Sonic moves, jumps, and accumulates speed, in a move that I know some people found very alienating when this game was first released.  Personally, I do like the more immediate accumulation of speed and general physics applied in Generations over those titles, and feel that they make Sonic a more enjoyable character to control.  But what really makes this incarnation of the character shine is the levels he’s placed in.

My biggest grievance with the 2D Sonic games is the matter of visual clarity, as their high speeds, large sprites, and busy backgrounds can make it difficult to progress with a degree of grace and ease, and routinely led to unwanted deaths, setbacks, or general frustrations  because I felt as if I was not given an obvious enough cue to perform an action within a set time. However, by making the jump to fully 3D environments, and utilizing a camera that zooms and scales, Generations manages to circumvent this issue beautifully.  It all amounts to an experience where, whenever I screwed up a jump or failed to see something important, I could only blame myself for failing to perform… and then I would immediately restart and try it over again.  Because most levels are pleasantly short, and the added visual spectacle seen in most ‘ideal paths’ serves as its own reward for quality performance.

Then there is the matter of speed, something that I find is far easier to get a handle on here over any other 2D game in the series.  The way the levels accommodate classic Sonic, their abilities, and their overall momentum does wonders to make controlling this character, and playing through these stages, more enjoyable.  None of which is at the cost of linearity or deemphasized platforming either, as the broadly defined ebb and flow of these labyrinthine environments is largely comparable to what was seen before, but with a bit more flair, easier to circumvent obstacles and more clear opportunities to dash through the danger with a degree of comfort and confidence I found to be lacking in the more classically styled 2D games.

As for the modern 2D and 3D hybrid “Boost” stages, this title marked Sonic Team’s third attempt at using this gameplay styling, and while many stages seen in Unleashed or Colors were… rough around the edges to say the least, the limited quantity and mechanical scope of Generations allows for the quality to be far better concentrated, and the level of polish and intuitiveness on display here is very impressive in comparison.  The stages wonderfully achieve their objective of representing high octane platforming thrill rides, boasting a high level of visual bombast or general beauty, and an ample amount of visual cues that, in most instances, keep the player informed of hazards so they may properly avoid them.

The end result is a euphoric and exciting experience that really does illustrate the merit and benefits found in this gameplay style over alternatives, and makes for a series of stages that I would happily go through again and again, if only to see if I could do things a little bit better and faster.  Which is something that does require a good deal of mechanical understanding, restraint, and generally good reflexes, as while these stages could be over simplified by emphasizing specific sections where the player simply needs to boost in order to win, the boost mechanic does require more than a modicum of care in its application.

While boosting can help the player build speed, access new areas, or decimate enemies, it can just as easily send overzealous players back to an earlier point in the stage, down an undesirable path, or into a bottomless pit adorned with a clearly labeled warning sign.  Yes, there are still certain things that this gameplay style does not do particularly well, such as directional precision jumping without the aid of the homing attack or… walking and not running. But whatever merits there are to this gameplay style, which may or may not be carried forward in the next mainline title, can be found within the good levels, i.e. most levels, of Generations.

Yet for as good and as fun as these two gameplay styles are, Sega very clearly felt more than a little concerned about putting out a title that could, just focusing on the main stages and bosses, be cleared in about 2 hours, so they opted to fill this game with an assortment of optional content.  A move that raises concerns as, with the possible exception of Sonic Adventure 2, the extra or bonus content in Sonic games… kinda sucks.  The special stages are often a source of frustration more than anything else.  Red Rings have plagued me, as I feel the need to scour each stage, and consult video walkthroughs, in order to find them all before I am comfortable moving onto the next level.  And for as good as Sonic Generations is, the bulk of one’s 100% playthrough, something I did twice before and did not even attempt this time around, is spent on the 90 challenges that unlock concept art, music, and bonus skills… that I forgot to mention earlier.  They are a small yet novel feature that I would actually like to see return, as they allow for Sonic as a character to be customized and improved as per the player’s preference.

Anyways, the challenges in Generations can be placed in 3 general categories that I feel the game has proportional quantities of.  Enjoyable and or creative challenges that introduce a new concept or are just fun to go through.  Nondescript and overall standard challenges that are, broadly speaking, more okay than anything. And finally challenges that try to introduce something cheeky and clever, but in doing so they give way to some exceptionally frustrating segments that border somewhere between rough and downright awful.  I have no idea how I managed to get an S rank in that one Espio challenge with the poorly implemented grapple feature, but I did… twice, and if I were to dwell on memories such as that in my final assessment of this game, or try and do all 90 challenges for a third time, I might end up finding Generations to be more middling as a whole.  

Or in other words, if I were to assess Generations with the missions as a core part of the game, then I probably would not care for it all that much, but the same could be said about other Sonic games I’ve praised.  I were to try to get all the Emblems in Sonic Adventure 1, I’m sure that I would not have a very good time, and doing so in Adventure 2 is a goldarn nightmare (especially the kart missions).  Some might view this fixation as a form of arbitrary favoritism, but I still stand by what I said in my other Sonic reviews, where I compartmentalized the bonus content into its own section, and by-in-large viewed the ‘main’ portion of the game separately.  Also, collecting Red Rings, getting S-ranks, or getting collectibles that are necessary to unlock the final level of the game is far different than completing separate and optional challenges or missions.  One of them involves engaging with the main content on a more intimate level, the other involves delving into clearly divided extra content.

Presentation-wise, with the HD framework already established and well proven, the challenge imposed on the developers lied with visually revising and reimagining familiar and iconic locations from the series’ past, and capturing and expanding their overall identity, and making them work in a fast-paced 3D setting.  Which, I feel they did marvelously. Every stage has a unique visual identity, the level of detail on display here is staggering at points, and the fan service factor is immensely palpable, with each and every stage being adorned with a level of glowing affection… Except for Crisis City of course, but that’s mostly because it’s based on New York but with 8,000% more lava.  Mostly due to aesthetic departures in later titles, I still consider this to be the best looking 3D Sonic game, with everything being crisp, vibrant, and consisting of an art style that has aged very well.  I mean, for as much as something can age within 8 years.

Shifting to the soundtrack, the scattering of new renditions, remixes, and updates to the existing tracks only goes to emphasize how consistently good this series music has been, and continues to be, but my absolute favorite feature of this game is the inclusion of select tracks from other games in the series, namely the vocal themes.  This is such a minor and fringe feature, but being able to go through obnoxious bonus missions while listening to the Race To Win, doing doppelganger races while jamming out to Super Sonic Racing, or going through Chemical Plant Zone while enjoying What I’m Made Of (because why not), does an amazing amount to extend the replayability and fun factor of this game.

If I were to surmise the entire mainline Sonic series in a single statement it would probably be something along the lines of: “When it works, it’s great.  When it doesn’t, it’s not.” While Generations certainly does not manage to work properly all the time, with a few subpar levels and many subpar challenges, it manages to deliver on heights the series was only able to reach in more isolated instances, and retain that high note across two different gameplay styles, and a respectable assortment of finely designed and crafted levels.  It delivers on just about everything, beyond a stupidly entertaining story, that I could ask for in a Sonic game, and represents what could have been a promising new era of polish and quality for the series.  But then Sonic Lost World, Sonic Boom, Sonic Mania, and Sonic Forces happened, so everybody’s back to thinking that Sonic should be defined by classically styled 2D games.  Regression is dope, yo.

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