Retro Review: Sonic Generations

To say that the Sonic franchise has had its ups and downs would be a wild understatement. From legendary beginnings to miserable 3D titles, the series has been both praised and lambasted for its sense of inconsistency. Some games change the formula with new gimmicks and fresh gadgets to add variety. But the lack of polish and innumerable game breaking bugs that plague some recent titles draw a fair number of detractors.

In the middle of all this is Sonic Generations. Released in 2011, the game was a celebration of Sonic’s twentieth birthday. After Sonic Unleashed, a game that literally was half good and half bad, fans were excited but cautious. Sonic Colors was well received, but the last time we celebrated Sonic’s birthday, the worldwide laughing stock Sonic the Hedgehog, commonly referred to as Sonic ’06, was released. Unlike that unfinished and unplayable mess, Generations was (and still is) proof that the blue blur has something to offer to the 3D gaming world.

As a celebration of the franchise, Generations takes levels from previous games and builds itself as a greatest-hits compilation. At the same time, the levels are built from the ground up to give a breath of fresh air to the player and to become a new game. While there wasn’t nearly enough room to include one level from every game in the franchise, highlight levels are found from every major release. The game isn’t even afraid to shy away from its weaker titles, Sonic ’06 and Sonic Heroes.

Whether you’re a traditional Sonic fan, someone who loves the strangely convoluted lore, or a complete newcomer to the franchise, this game has something for everyone. The nine main stages are divided into two acts: One side-scrolling act where you play as classic Sonic, and the second is an amalgamation of 3D platforming, speed, and 2D side-scrolling fun where the player controls modern Sonic. When stages are completed, there are a large number of challenges to take part in. Each adjusts the level to fit new challenges, with some even adding new mechanics and level design to make for an awesome amount of re-playability.

Mechanically, this is probably the most complex Sonic game yet. Classic Sonic stages handle extremely well, with tight controls and focused level design not seen since the ’90s. Modern Sonic levels are where the bulk of the complexity come into play. It feels as though new mechanics are introduced at every other stage. Wall jumping, Wisp power-ups, slamming, and balloon-hopping all come into play. Once the player first sees them, without needing to be explained what to do, these features become almost as second nature as running.

Modern Sonic levels are where a good deal of frustration can occur, however. Fitting since no 3D Sonic game is without a great deal of faults. There’s a lack of polish that hovers above this game like a looming storm cloud ready to burst. Some walls will break, some auto-lock targeting will break, some wall jumps will break, and sometimes the game just breaks. These interruptions are nowhere near frequent as in previous titles, but Modern Sonic’s flow can be hampered by instability at times.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the game’s boss fights. The Egg Dragoon fight has Dr. Eggman constantly switching phases, sending Sonic from 3D to 2D and vice versa quite rapidly. After the 2D section, during the transitional part of Sonic’s run, Eggman will often throw bolts of unavoidable ice that always makes the player crash. Speed ramps appear and disappear in front of the player’s eyes, and there are also points in the fight where Sonic’s homing attack will not lock on to the Egg Dragoon.

Unfortunately, this game has its fair share of bugs. As a counterbalance to said bugs, Generations is fairly forgiving. Losing all your lives doesn’t send you back to the beginning of the game or even far back enough to be a grinding issue. The stage in which you lost your final life will need to be replayed from the start; however, this would only be an issue if the stages weren’t so darned fun. By the time the player’s frustration subsided at the bugs or at their own mistakes, they would replay the level and realize just how charming the game can be. The vibrant colors, the striking soundtrack, and the clear love and care built into this game are enough to win the player over.

On top of that, the level design is perhaps the best it has ever been in franchise history. Speed is emphasized often, and the game has a wonderful sense of the blue blur’s signature feature, “gotta go fast”. When the levels slow down and focus more on platforming, there are so many ways to tackle obstacles. Branching paths and fun enemies litter the playing fields, and with the massive number of collectibles scattered throughout the game, there’s always a desire to explore.

Despite the game’s occasional clumsiness, the gameplay is responsive and fun to control with a large amount of re-playability. There isn’t much to say on the story: Eggman finds a way to control time and space to create a world without Sonic, and the player has restored color and life back to the universe by replaying his history. It’s a loose binding on the developers’ desire to create this greatest-hits compilation, and it works. The level design was clearly more of the focus, and that formula is what brings the best out of Sonic the Hedgehog.

In a few years, Sonic will come to his thirtieth birthday. Fans can only hope that the missteps of Sonic Lost World and Sonic Forces won’t hinder the future of the franchise. Much like how Sonic had to rebuild the world, Sonic Team is at a major crossroads. Sonic Mania proved that there is still a great love for the franchise back in 2017, but Sonic Team didn’t make that game. If they focus all of their creative efforts on something that can hold a candle to Sonic Generations, then perhaps 2021 can be a massive turnaround for this franchise. Again.

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