More than almost any other game in recent memory, 2011’s Sonic Generations is built on the altar of nostalgia. For a classic character like Sega’s once-proud mascot, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unlike Mario, the years have not been all that kind of to Sonic — the blue blur has seen more gimmicky and flat-out poor re-inventions since he left the 16-bit era that it’s almost a wonder he’s still around. Which is why it makes sense that the company is returning to the well once more.
And yet Sonic Generations, developed and released for Sonic’s 20th birthday and starring both the rounder, cuddlier classic Sonic as well as his gangly contemporary 3D-era counterpart, arguably remains the best game in the oft-beleaguered series since its glory days on the Genesis. At its best, it’s fast, controls tight in all the right ways, and brings back a taste of the past. In short: it has all the design qualities that fans had been asking for (and have continued to ask for) for years.
Five years on, it’s now Sonic’s 25th anniversary, and once again Sega is unveiling a new game in the series to mark the occasion. For the brief teaser released during the hedgehog’s Comic-Con birthday event, it looks like Sonic Team’s new, untitled project will follow in the footsteps of Generations, starring both classic and new Sonic once again; Sonic Mania, a new 2D reimagining of the Genesis tiles, looks great too. With these in mind, it’s a good time to revisit Generations itself, tailored for fans that grew up with the series from its earliest days.
Even now, years later, it feels like the impossible: Sonic Team giving hardcore followers the classic experience dedicated fans had wanted since the series first went 3D with the Dreamcast’s Sonic Adventure in 1999.
Of course, Sega had already tried this with Sonic 4, an episodic attempt at bringing back an old-school, 2D flavor that debuted in 2010. The first game went over well enough, despite its 2D design mixing some of Sonic’s modern abilities in, like the homing dash.
Still, as a whole the two-episode series (a planned third installment was cancelled) was considered inconsistent at best and uninspired at worst. Considering Episode II was released a year after Generations, 4’s regression felt all the more glaring.
A remix of Sonic 2’s classic title screen theme, instantly familiar to longtime players, is the first thing that greets you at the start menu. From there, you’re thrust into a beautiful recreation of the original game’s Green Hill Zone in 2.5D, complete with its classic, catchy stage tune.
It’s fun from the very start. The platforming, the sound, the visuals, the fact that it nails the speed — this is retro gaming bliss, remade for a modern audience.
Then you get to the story bit, where modern Sonic is appropriately being thrown a surprise birthday party with all his modern friends, including some of the forgettable ones from the post-Dreamcast years. Suddenly, a giant dark matter-looking monster appears and snatches all his pals, dragging them off through portals in space-time.
Naturally, Sonic gives chase and the player is given a chance to play a modern re-interpretation of Green Hill the same way you might have in the lightning-quick day stages of Sonic Unleashed, with all the inline grinding, flips and propellant level bits rocketing you, almost on-rails at times, through a stage where the only way to go is forward.
Like pretty much everyone else, I’m less enamored with the modern Sonic segments, and at times they still can suffer from the brick-wall flaws of momentum-breaking design that happen when you time a jump just slightly wrong or accidentally careen into a wayward enemy on a breakneck straightaway.
But they’re nowhere near as bad as some of the other 3D iterations of the series particularly the reviled Sonic 2006 or the Dreamcast games, which, let’s face it, suffered from cameras that would make you want to break your controller. The premise of hedgehog and hedgehog teaming up, giving players a little bit of the old as well as the new, made the inclusion necessary. Its just the pattern of the game, as you travel through a selection of curated environments from across the series’ lineage.
Next up, classic Sonic is off to the Chemical Plant Zone, the beloved second stage of Sonic 2. Again, the music is a powerful drug here, and seeing the space rendered with such care with small 3D flourishes is a delight, as is the remainder of the game whenever you’re playing as the classic, endearingly mute (because he didn’t talk on the Genesis, get it?) original hedgehog. Soon Eggman shows up in another nod to the second game; it’s just one of many bits of fan service, furthering the goofy plot as the two Sonics (and Tailses) meet for the first time.
Where Generations missteps slightly is in encompassing the full range of Sonic’s somewhat checkered past, including levels from Sonic 2006 and other less noteworthy times. You have to take the good with the bad, I guess; it wouldn’t be fair just to showcase what could’ve just been a sort of remake and celebration of the original games from the Genesis.
The old-school Sonic versions of more forgettable levels like 2006’s Crisis City and Seaside Hill from Sonic Heroes are still great from a gameplay perspective. Modern Sonic’s parts are fun too, if slightly less so. Either way, you likely won’t have the same glee as with Green Hill, Chemical Plant ,or Sonic & Knuckles’ Sky Sanctuary, though.
In a way, Generations is so obsessed with recapturing the past that it doesn’t ever take the time to think about its future, and, outside of the rare good newer games like the gimmicky but still well-designed Sonic Colors, it’s something that Sega perhaps still hasn’t quite figured out.
Before this year, Sonic had hit such a slump that following the dismal reception and equally terrible sales of 2014s Sonic Boom: Rise of the Lyric, Sega’s CEO pledged to re-commit to quality games in order to win back the trust of longtime fans. Welcoming back classic Sonic with open arms is a great first step.
While Generations had its flaws, it stands as a pinnacle entry in the HD era, and absolutely worth revisiting. With any luck, the new games coming in 2017 will bring back some of its magic, which has been sorely missed in the series for so many years. For once, the odds seem pretty good.