I slid Sonic Generations into my Xbox 360 with sweaty palms. I was nervous. The bitter disappointment of Sonic Colors was fresh in my mind, and I recalled with a heavy heart how to this day I can’t walk past the box on GameStop’s markdown rack without bursting into tears. Sonic, my little blue darling, you were all that was good in the world when I was a child… How could you have fallen so low?
The horrors of the 2006 PlayStation 3 game Sonic the Hedgehog are forever etched into my memory — you know, when Sonic went from quirky cheesy dialogue and off-the-wall physics to that whole “when a hedgehog loves a woman” nonsense that had us cringing with disgust. Sonic’s rapid ascent to stardom had gone from hectic unsure loop-de-loops to a rapid downhill sprint. I was sure our beloved hedgehog would be retiring his red sneakers anytime now… And yet here we are at the end of 2011, and they’ve managed to crank out another game.
Generations is a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey adventure of sorts in which players can choose to play as either modern Sonic or his classic incarnation, or Doughnut Sonic. The game opens on Sonic’s friends throwing him a surprise party, complete with a chili dog with a bow tied on it for a gift. The opening scene, I should note, draws heavily from the Sonic the Hedgehog comic book series — several characters that Sonic must save throughout the game made their original debuts through the comics and have not made big waves in the games, such as Vector and Charmy. This was a nice touch on SEGA’s part, calling all parts of Sonic’s history to the front lines for the plot of Generations.
As the party starts, a mysterious new enemy, the Time Eater, rips open the skies and sucks Sonic’s friends through various glowing portals, dropping them in different locations scattered throughout the series’ history. These locations have been thrown into a strange dimension called White Space, where everything is…wait for it…white. That is, until Sonic beats a level and restores color to the area. After rescuing BFF Tails, the pair encounter the younger classic versions of themselves.
The two Tails and the two Sonics must set time to rights and defeat the Time Eater along with whoever in controlling him (any wild guesses?). Predictably, the two Sonics harness the power of friendship to transform into Super
Saiyans Sonics and something something sunshine and rainbows. You know the formula by now.
While Sonic Generations has some really cute concepts (yes, “cute”), the game only serves as further proof that the team behind Sonic isn’t trying to do anything new. Yes, the game makes you feel like you are five years old again, and that somehow a little blue hedgehog really can save the world, but the game goes beyond nostalgic fan service to being just plain dull. Series like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy thrive on including certain elements consistent to all games, like weapons and creature and Cids, but Generations tries to take as much as possible from every Sonic game and smash it into as little space as possible, much like what the Time Eater itself is doing.
The game itself starts out strong, wasting no time in getting the player into the driver’s seat and diving into the beginning levels at a clip. The levels are taken from Sonic’s 20 year history, from the Genesis to the Wii, featuring both side scrolling stages navigable with classic moves and 2D/3D mixes from Unleashed and Colors. All levels can be played either classic-style with Classic Sonic in 2D, or as Modern Sonic in 3D. However, the game is certainly not just a retro-style collection — as far as the fan service does go, the game is a fun revival of what we now consider “old school” in the coolest sense of the world.
The allure of Sonic is simple: players like to go fast. Sonic Adventure took the plunge into 3D with more complicated levels and camera angles, and many argue that this is where it went downhill. Maybe Sonic was never meant to be enjoyed in 3D. It’s harder to go fast with the added depth. You can miss. You can fall into lava. You can get bumped by an orca whale. There are too many variables to keep track of, and sometimes this is mind-boggling. The levels in Generations frequently switch between the two, and if you’re not quick enough with your fingers you could find yourself back at the beginning before you can blink. The shifting camera angle looks pretty freaking sweet, but adjusting to it is a pain. It doesn’t change the experience, and these sequences often limit the player to simply pressing one button repeatedly to jump on things and get ahead.
After restoring color to, or “unfreezing,” a level, a set of additional challenge levels become available. Players are given a goal to complete, such as collect a certain number of rings, collect Red Star Rings, or executing a certain skills, in order to win the challenge in a specific course and collect Unlock Keys. Three Unlock Keys open a boss battle that in turn advances the story. Some challenges are races or battles against past rivals, including Metal Sonic, Perfect Chaos, and Shadow the Hedgehogs. Winning these challenges grants you a Chaos Emerald, and collecting all seven allows you… you know. Do that thing.
I understand that Generations was meant to unite Sonic‘s two distinct gameplay perspectives, and it does so, but in no intuitive way. The levels are fluid and beautiful, but the switch in depth and the controls sometimes feel clumsy. The physics of Sonic have always been a little on the nutty side, and while I do respect their iconic status and place in Generations, the use of them alongside surprise twists in depth often masks a jump that should have been meticulously calculated as a simple button-masher. This trip into visual crazytown resulting in more than one unfair death and one controller victim to my rage. Decisions that once upon a time could be assessed in a second or two now need to be absorbed in a blink. The 3D camera often won’t let you see what’s up ahead, and unprepared you must make a leap of faith that may or may not result in fiery/watery death.
What should have been the solidifying glue between these stages are the boss fights, and these have woefully fallen short of what they should have — and could have — been. They are few and far between and poorly executed. I should mention that I did not know how to beat them — the game gives you absolutely no instructions for boss battles, relying heavily on the intuition of gamers who have played Sonic before. I played this game alongside my fourteen year-old brother, who has never picked up a Sonic game in his young life, and his frustration at lack of direction was absolutely heartbreaking. No game should lay instruction on the shoulders of its fanbase, trusting veterans are either playing the game or guiding the young’uns through it. We eventually settled with a trial-and-error mode of completing boss fights, which had me almost as aggravated and ornery as the ol’ Eggman himself. There are long stretches of time in which no action can be taken as Sonic and friends try to learn the boss’s weakness or a special attack or speed through a section of the race track that seems like it was designed at random.
The lack of instructions permeates the game’s home world as well. Each stage sits by itself in White Space, surrounded by floating gateways that Sonic can reach by jumping on springs and floating platforms. This makes completion progress tedious to track. You also get unlockable music and artwork by ringing the bells on certain gates and catching the music notes that subsequently fall out of them. I had no idea this could be done until I rang a bell for sh*ts and giggles. By the way, you better really want these songs and artwork because the notes fly out and away from Sonic before you even realize they are there, and after 20 seconds they disappear entirely.
The icing on the cake of every Sonic game is the final boss, and I reserved my judgement until the very end, until I had beaten the final boss. I wanted to give Sonic one more chance. I want it to be a cataclysm. I wanted something original, something exciting, something that rang the same chords celebrating the passage of time, the growth of Sonic, and the achievements of the series. I wanted too much. The final boss fight — which provides the most clever, hilarious dialogue in the entire game — consisted of Sonic and Doughnut Sonic… again, do I really need to explain? It’s all about the formula people — the unsurprising, bland formula. There was no instruction and my gamer intuition failed me on this one — I didn’t know how to close the distance between me and my opponent, how to attack, how to combine the two Sonics’ powers like I was apparently supposed to. And when I did the game was suddenly over and it was sunshine and rainbows.
I wanted to like Sonic, I really did. As Sonic bids his younger self farewell, he shouts, “Enjoy your future, it’s gonna be great!” I wish that was the case, Sonic, but darling, I’m not so sure. You’ve been a little campy and weird since Sonic Adventures and after the 2006 game I just about gave up on you. Generations does a wonderful job of taking what has worked and what is loveable about the series and packing it together in an enjoyable way, but the game tries to do too much in too little time. The layout is poor and spinning camera and suddenly depth change made me die needlessly far too many times.
The earlier levels — about the first half of the game — are wonderful, but as it wears on things just fall apart. From story to boss fights, the game is not as tight as it wears on, and the whole thing is unraveled by the time we finally see Eggman. For what it tried to be and for the homage to the Sonics of my childhood, I will recognize what greatness the game does hold. But the replay value is only for the perfectionists, those who need to get S on every level, and those who love Sonic too much to let him go. I did enjoy Sonic Generations, but I tried only for as long as the game did.