I haven’t been keeping up on Sonic news. Is the Sonic Cycle still turning? Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was certainly lamentable, and while Sonic Colors was bad I definitely had a bit of fun with it. Enough fun, in fact, that I didn’t mind picking up Sonic Generations when it was released last year. I had more pressing games on my plate at the time, though, so I didn’t do much with it other than burn up the levels and see the end credits. I didn’t bother writing a post about it because I didn’t think I’d have anything to say that I hadn’t already said about Colors: “Sloppy and dumb, but good clean fun.”
I think my initial assessment of Generations was incorrect. I’ve spent the past three days digging back into it, and I’m convinced the game is legit good. Colors was a hot mess that reached into your brain and plucked your Pleasure Neurons so fast you didn’t have time to notice that the game was a jumble of dumb ideas and poorly-designed stage layouts. Generations is a quality game that adequately celebrates the history of a beloved gaming mascot without overreaching its station.
Once in a while I get a sudden, powerful urge to play some goddamn Sonic. I’m not what you’d call a “Sonic fan”, but I do have some nostalgia for the old Genesis games, and I like to revisit them from time to time. Here’s what happened last time the urge struck me. I reached for Generations this time because I had left a so much of it unplayed. Lots of little challenge levels still to go, lots of stuff to unlock, lots of red shinies to find. I was expecting to be sated after maybe an hour or two of running around Chemical Plant, but when I glanced up at the clock I realized I’d been playing for six hours. Yikes.
(Incidentally, the reason I reached for Generations and not Colors is I have no desire to play with the Wiimote what I can play with a sensible controller. I wonder if, subconciously, this is why I haven’t gone back to replay either of the Mario Galaxy games.)
Part of what makes Sonic Generations so good is its structure. There are nine zones, each nicked from one of the nine games chosen to represent Sonic’s illustrious vidjamagame history. Each zone is broken into two acts. Act 1 is “classic Sonic”, and plays just like the old Genesis games. This version of Sonic has a spin dash, but no homing attack, and is confined to a 2d plane. The gameplay focuses on precision platforming amidst lots of moving parts, interspersed with speeding segments. It’s very important to make the distinction between “classic Sonic” and “modern Sonic in 2d”. There is no boosting and no daisy chains of monsters to zoom off of. The stages are not structured like roller coasters, and you do not earn points by doing tricks. They do not work off of Sonic 4’s abysmal physics. They are HD versions of Genesis levels, with all the glow and grime that statement entails.
Act 2 is “modern Sonic”, which means the gameplay was lifted from Colors, more or less. Modern Sonic games are split up between 2d platforming sections, 3d ride-the-line sections and gimmicky sub-games where the player is expected to perform some weird, un-Sonic-like action. I haven’t played a modern Sonic game outside of Colors, but judging from reviews and comments and gripes dating back to the Dreamcast days, I get the sense that the third thing has done the most work to tarnish Sonic’s reputation. Before I delve into that I will simply say that the modern-style 2d segments are quite fun (and, as mentioned, distinct from the classic-style segments), and that the 3d segments are cleanly designed and have good flow. This contrasts with the 3d segments from Colors, which flowed about as well as a tangle of Christmas lights.
It’s the gimmickry that always made me shake my head. Whenever I would read about how Sonic games made you play as characters nobody cares about, two thoughts would occur to me. First, knowingly plays a Sonic game to spend half the time as, say, Bigs the Cat? Isn’t Sonic kind of the bloody point of the thing? Even in the old games, Tails and Knuckles were just Sonic clones. The core gameplay didn’t change with the color of your spinning ball. And second, doesn’t it mean the developers are spending resources on non-Sonic stuff that could be better used to polish up the core gameplay? The old Sonic games were good because they were tight. The ideas behind that early gameplay were so simple that you couldn’t help but build to their strengths. Dumping more and more concepts into the pot couldn’t possibly improve the flavor, and years of poor review scores seem to bear this out.
Colors handled its gimmickry by shelving the hangers-on and instead giving Sonic temporary abilities in the form of alien gumball capsules. Pick up a pink one and you can roll along walls and ceilings. The brown one, and you can drill through the ground. These were different enough to shock you out of the standard Sonic gameplay, and just frequent enough to annoy you when they popped up. They added something to the game, but I can’t honestly say they were fun in and of themselves. If the rest of the game had been the same quality as Generations they would have bothered me more.
Generations solves the problem by cleaving the gimmickry off into stand-alone challenge levels. Ten for each zone — five each for classic and modern Sonic — in addition to the two complete acts. These levels have you practicing new moves, using new items, or teaming up with one of Sonic’s friends to complete a unique challenge. This last thing is handled rather elegantly; rather than assuming direct control of a character you don’t care about (because s/he isn’t Sonic), you simply push a button to summon them and activate their special ability. These challenges vary wildly in quality and composition, but in the end they succeed in exactly the spots where former Sonic gimmickry failed: they’re short, they don’t break up the main levels, and they’re optional. A player who just wants to make Sonic run and bounce and swing doesn’t have to pay Charmy Bee so much a a sidewards glance.
There are minor bits of gimmickry in the main levels, but only to the extent that gimmickry was also present in the game the level was originally lifted from. City Escape has skateboarding segments because it wouldn’t be an accurate re-creation of the Sonic Adventure 2 level if they’d been excluded. Planet Wisp works in the magic powers from Sonic Colors by including only one of them: the orange rocket. Which, as it happens, is the most intuitive and most satisfying ability from that game. These decisions were made very carefully, to bring the flavor of the original levels to life without straying overmuch from the core Generations gameplay. At no point did someone point to a section of Sky Sanctuary and say, “Right here, we need the player to be Knuckles and punch through a bunch of walls.”
In addition to the challenges, each act has five red star rings to collect. Hunting these doodads is what caused me to really notice the thought that went into the design of each level. I have never had a high opinion of the exploration aspect of Sonic games. I’ve played four of the nine games represented in Generations, and all of them struggled with the duality of hiding secrets in stages you’re supposed to memorize and then blaze through at top speed. I did scour every level of Sonic 3 & Knuckles searching for the hidden bonus stages, but methodically climbing every wall and flying over every loop doesn’t trigger fond memories. Meanwhile, the stages in Colors were so chaotic that I couldn’t imagine being able to define their boundaries, let alone find the hidden whatsits. But man, hunting for red rings in Generations brought me to that same warm, happy place as hunting for DK Coins or walled-up super missiles.
The first reason is so simple I can’t believe it never occured to me in previous Sonic titles: there’s a built-in hint system. One of Sonic’s buddies is stationed outside of every zone entrance, and talking to them reveals the location of one of the red rings. I don’t mean they give you a vague clue; I mean they outright tell you, “do this, like this, at this spot”. The levels are big enough that the hint still requires some interpretation, but varied enough that when Espio mentions “the second wall-jump” you will know just what he’s talking about.
Of course, half the challenge is in the execution. These are still Sonic levels, which means you’ll spot an alternate path 0.2 seconds after it’s too late to take it. This was a major problem in the Genesis games because you couldn’t replay finished levels, so only expert players who have the whole game memorized will get everything on a normal playthrough. Colors allowed you to replay stages, but they were so scattershot that even if you noticed a path you might not be able to take it consistently. This is the second thing Generations did to make the treasure hunting fun. Each act is pretty big, but breaks down into individual sections. Within each section there are generally two or three paths to take, but the paths converge at the start of the next section. There are no situations where missing a crucial jump on the first rail grind locks you into an unrewarding bottom route for an entire act. If the area you need to search is 80% of the way through the level, you can play that first 80% as sloppily as you like. And if the area you need is right up front, you can pick “start over” from the pause menu to restart the level immediately, without having to kill yourself or finish the stage.
(One caveat: restarting uses up an extra life, and the game doesn’t let you do it if you’re on your last life. That’s stupid, but in that case dying and restarting with a full stock is functionally identical and still takes less time than finishing or exiting the level. I would have preferred a “restart from last goalpost” option, myself.)
I did begin the process of collecting red rings in Sonic Colors, but I gave up after a few stages. Collecting anything as small as a red ring is tricky even in a slowly-paced 3d game, and that problem is compounded in a game about high speed and bad controls. Remember painstakingly aiming the cannons in Super Mario 64 to collect airborne stars? Yeah, like that, except the object you’re aiming for is half the size and your dude moves five times as fast. I expected Generations to be just as hostile, but it’s not. Half of the red rings are in the classic acts, after all, which means nice friendly 2d platforming. The majority of the red rings in the modern acts are in line-following sections where Sonic’s position is fixed. The challenge is to find and land on the grind rail in the first place, and then the ring is situated at the end. I think of thirty-five modern red rings I’ve collected so far, there have only been two that were ruined due to shoddy 3d controls. One was halfway through a weirdly-angled jump; the other was in a sidepath during a chase sequence that I managed to keep running past. While annoying, I don’t think either took me more than three tries to finally collect.
In addition to clearing challenges and finding hidden shinies, you have the challenge of scoring S-Ranks in eact act. I’ve never been good at completing Sonic stages super quickly; I simply don’t have the reflexes for it. However, by the time I’d collected all five rings in an act I knew the stage well enough that S-Rank was well within my reach. It helps that the time requirements for S-Rank are actually achievable by mere mortals, rather than only speedrunners and YouTube gods. (One of the reasons I’m no longer on speaking terms with Mario Kart.)
The game does have two blemishes, one rather nasty, and one merely perplexing. The boss fights are all rather bad, not for being too difficult or poorly-designed, but merely for lousy conveyance. Sonic boss fights usually involve lots of running, and the goal is to figure out when during the chase you can strike and deal damage. I don’t think there is a boss in the game I didn’t learn to damage by accident, and it was usually obvious what I had to do after I stumbled into the solution, but that doesn’t quite make up for the twenty boring minutes of running and dodging I had endured. The final boss in particular was inexcusable. All of Sonic’s friends chatter constantly throughout the battle, but not a single is even the slightest help. There is no feedback whatsoever that anything you’re doing works. Actually, there is quite a bid of feedback that doing the right thing doesn’t work, because you have to do it for a very long time for it to have any effect. You will be stuck on this fight for ages, but I guarantee you it won’t be for lack of ability to spot incoming homing shots. Christ.
Then you have the game’s skill system. Both Sonics can complete challenges and collect red rings in order to make new skills available at the in-game shop. These skills can then be equipped in sets, either amplifying what the Sonics can already do or giving them new moves altogether. For example, the elemental shields that defined Sonic 3 & Knuckles‘s gameplay are all upgrades you buy in the store. The problem is, each upgrade has a point value, and Sonic can only equip 100 points worth of upgrades. Most of the truly unique ones — the ones that really change the way the game is played — cost 60 or 70 points. So you don’t get to really customize your Sonic so much as you equip one cool skill and then a couple of less essential nickle-and-dime ones. Faster running speed and an extended boost gauge are helpful, but you don’t really notice them as you play. Some are just flat out pointless; I rolled my eyes pretty hard when the red rings from Seaside Hill earned me faster wall jumps. Plus, the interface to customize and equip skill sets is clumsy as all hell, which is pretty strong disincentive to experiment with different combinations in the first place. Oh, and you can’t bring skills with you into the challenge levels, where they would be most useful. This feature feels like it was tacked on to an otherwise completed game. I won’t say it added nothing to the experience, but it could have used a bit more simmering.
One other little hiccup is the zones themselves. The selection of them, I mean. I guess this was a hard judgment call; there’s only room in the game for nine zones, and there have been way more than nine Sonic games. Wat do? They tried to break it down into three separate “eras” of Sonic: Genesis, Dreamcast, and… uh… everything-since-Dreamcast. A noble effort, but it doesn’t really jive with the two-Sonic-style the game is designed around because the Dreamcast games aren’t appreciably different from the modern ones. Not in the same way the 16-bit games are different, I mean. Since you control two Sonics, this splits the game 3-6 in favor of modern levels, which didn’t sit well with me. I mean, I can understand why you’d want to count Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles as a single entity. And I get why you might want to just forget that Sonic 3D Blast exists. But Sonic CD wasn’t worth its own level? Did we really need an urban level from each of the Sonic Adventure games? Then there’s the troublesome modern era, where no matter which three games you pick you’re going to be stuck with two bad ones (plus Colors).
I realize that this is highly subjective, and that no two Sonic players are going to be able to agree on which nine zones should have made the cut. However, one of the primary goals of Generations was to celebrate Sonic’s 20th birthday, and it does that by first remixing your very fond Genesis memories and then gradually mangling them with visions of Sonic ’06 and Sonic Unleashed. It’s like the series is degrading in front of you in real time. Maybe they could have mixed the stages up a little? Start out with an easy, forgettable zone from Sonic ’06, and place Sonic 1‘s trickier (and far superior) Star Light Zone towards the end? In any event, one thing Sega and I apparently agree on is that Sonic 4 doesn’t deserve to be celebrated to any extent. Heh heh.
Let’s see, what else. Oh! Music! My god, the music in this game is awesome. Each zone is comprised of three remixes of old tracks: a retro-style song for classic Sonic, an updated song for modern Sonic, and a short orchestrated loop for the level select screen. In addition, clearing challenges and collections nets you more and more songs for your jukebox, which can be played during any level. I tell you, laying the Marble Zone music over Crisis City Act 1 was sublime. (Yeah, yeah, Lava Reef would have been better. But I haven’t found it yet.) And all those old, bad, cheesy vocal tracks? The awful poppy buttrock you can’t help but love for being so damn upbeat? They’re all here. Setting the final boss to Super Sonic Racing makes the fight almost halfway tolerable.
I don’t think I need to mention the story. Whatever melodramatic nonsense Sonic Team thought their cartoon hedgehog needed, they’d gotten it out of their system by the time Colors rolled around. There are a few cute scenes with most of the cast, but you can ignore and/or skip them. Just like the old good Sonic games, Generations is all about the levels.
I feel pretty good about recommending Sonic Generations. I don’t know if it broke the Sonic Cycle, or just made it wobble a bit, but it is a damn fine game and a worthy celebration of the highs and lows of one of gaming’s most tumultuous series. If you’ve been holding off on playing it for fear it’s as disappointing as the last dozen games, you needn’t worry. It’s $30 on Steam, maybe less if you find it used at GameStop, and that’s a fair price for equal helpings of nostalgia and solid, speedy gameplay.
As for me, I’ve got six more red rings to find in Rooftop Run, then it’s off to Planet Wisp. Wish me luck.