Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the first games I ever played in my life. I did not play it at launch mind you, but a few years later, and I still remember, like many, being so amazed by the speed of the game. I played Sonic 2, skipped over all the other old school games and met again with the blue creature with Sonic Adventure 2 Battle on the Gamecube and the Advance series on the Game Boy Advance. To this day, I still replay those titles, and with Sonic 2, they are my favorite of the bunch.
I did finally get to play with the old sonic games at some point, and liked them too. Like many, Unleashed and the 2007 game were a disappointment, and while I liked parts of Colors, it had some pretty frustrating moments. But, that was then and we are here now, in the present, and the present is Sonic Generations and that game is looking to finally get the old school feel right. I attended a panel with Takashi Iizuka, Sonic Series Producer since 2009 who has worked with Sega since the Megadrive and Saturn era, and played many levels of Sonic Generations at Paris Games Week. I played the public demo levels, the classic (old school 2d) and modern versions of Green Hill Zone. You can get them on XBLA and PSN and see for yourself why most previews have been positive. I also got to play City Escape on consoles, both classic and modern versions of the SA2 level famous for its chase scene with a giant truck.
The classic version played just like old school games except prettier, much prettier. There has been a slight change of button layout. In order to spin dash, you don’t need to hold down anymore. You can just press the spin dash button and let go when you are ready to roll. Iizuka explained that they wanted to simplify even more the controls, so any player from any age could just pick up a controller and have fun with the game. I would argue that the old control scheme was not that difficult to begin with, but it’s not like holding down added anything special to the game. As classic Sonic, you can only jump and spin dash. The more you go up in a level, the more the game becomes a true platformer, rather than just speeding through the level in a hurry. You’ll need timing to jump on platforms and dodge missiles fired by robots. At one point you can get a power up that gives you a skateboard, which was a nice call back to original level. When jumping on a rail, Sonic curls into a ball and automatically grinds.
The platforming sections higher up were quite original. At one point, the big truck that chases us starts destroying a structure made of panels one by one. If you are fast enough, you can get to the top and be rewarded with shortcuts and speed like in the old games, but if you take too long the structure will collapse and you will be stuck with the other lower paths available. That is something else that was very good: the level has a lot of replayability, trying to figure out all the different paths (and there are many, not all obvious).
The different ways of completing a level are also found in the modern counterpart of City Escape. First of all, the intro featuring Sonic skating through town has been enhanced. There are more ramps and when jumping at the right time, they can lead you to different shortcuts that save you a lot of time on the clock. The city having very sharp corners, you can drift by holding either trigger and turning: a very simple mechanic that worked well. You also have a boost bar, which you can fill up by getting rings or doing figures in the air. Once you are done with the skating sequence, you are once again faced with different paths. Modern Sonic being who he is, he can use his homing attack skill to go higher by chaining attacks on hovering enemies or keep going on the ground.
That is where we hit the less rosy part of the game. When someone from Sega demoed the game live on the panel, he had no trouble breezing through the stage with ease, which is to be expected of someone who possibly worked on the game. However, when I had it in my hands, and when seeing other people play it, the homing attack did not always lock on, resulting sometimes in frustrated half jumps to get the game to show a reticule on a robot standing one platform higher. It could sometimes take a while, and other times the issue did not even happen. Granted the panel had the full retail version of the game, as opposed to the booths which had – I’m guessing – incomplete builds, so hopefully that problem was ironed out. Sonic will also stop at the first ledge there is, suddenly breaking its speed. A common reflex I’ve noticed with players was to jump and boost to go back into running, but he would be so fast (and usually going off the main road) that the camera would suddenly shift forward and leave the gamer kind of confused as to where to go. I think it would require some getting used to. I sometimes fell through the floor and in an instance, when being pursued by the truck, Sonic decided to stop (and the truck too). The game had not frozen. I could rotate the hedgehog around but not move for a few seconds, until the game decided to let me play again.
Another console modern level I saw was Roof Top Run, a daylight level from Sonic Unleashed (one of the good ones) enhanced this time around. I was not able to play this, but only watch it live on the panel. If you thought Sonic was fast in the past, think again. That stage was on a whole other level. Not only were the alternative routes many and not obvious, parts of the level were even vertical, as you ascend and then descend what appeared to be a clock tower. During those parts and some other, Eggman would appear and send three robots. At those times, Sonic could switch left and right between three different lanes in order to evade the lasers they were firing. The whole stage was madness, and I can only imagine how long it took the person to master it. He did, however, miss one homing attack (his first) which resulted in his death. He bowed his head in shame like Japanese do as the crowd cheered him on to finish the level. Overall Roof Top Run looked like a lot of fun, and I for one can not wait to get my hands on it.
Takashi Iizuka also showed the level selection screen, which consists of a small playable area. You can go to portals that lead to the different zones, each with a character from past Sonic games standing in front of it with a lightbulb over their head. I assume they were there as cameos, to offer help, ranging from Knuckles to Rouge to Cream to even the different members of team Chaotix. The producer also said there were many secrets missions to discover in the game by looking around the playable area of the selection screen. One of the rewards you can unlock is the full original Sonic 1 game, exactly how it was on the Megadrive. He then proceeded to show some of the stages available: Chemical Plant, Sky Sanctuary, Speed Highway, Seaside Hill, Crisis City, Roof Top Run and Planet Wisp (with all the color powers back) are just some of the levels that will be back, in a classic 2D and modern 3D fashion. In regards to Sky Sanctuary, he said that the team was very proud of the graphics there, that the zone was very aerial and they tried to respect and pay tribute to the beauty of the original stage.
I also got my hands on the 3DS version where I played the classic and modern parts of Mushroom Hill Zone. I am not a big fan of the 3DS, but I was impressed with how the different paths were layered on different depths, Sonic sometimes coming towards you and sometimes grinding in the distance. For the most part, they played like the console versions and looked great. Iizuka also added that they feature different zones, so if you don’t find your favorite one in the console and PC version, you may find it on the handheld. He then said, and I think this was a translation mistake, that the 3DS version had a street pass mode that “unlocks hundreds of playable levels”. He did not elaborate on the matter and the translator did not seem surprised by this, but I wonder how that would work out. I would not pay attention to that comment, it probably was a miscommunication between the two, or perhaps a freudian slip. Speaking of 3D, the whole game is playable in 3D with compatible 3D televisions, and it has been translated in “all the main European languages” as a gift for the fans to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Sonic. It will be out on PS3, Xbox360, Steam, and 3DS and, even with the bugs from the modern version in mind, I really can NOT wait.