It's strange, really.
Whenever I'm not playing Sonic Generations, I can — as a fan of Sonic games since that fateful day in 1991 — easily come up with a laundry list of problems and nitpicks that keep it from being perfect.
From premise to execution, the story is the absolute worst I've ever seen out of this series, even counting the games that had no real story of which to speak. The (mostly) charming extended cast is almost ashamedly shoved to the side when many of them could easily have been redeemed by simply turning them into novel variations of Sonic's move set — Sonic 3 & Knuckles-style — and made playable, thus giving the game some welcome extra legs. While highly polished, it still contains quite a few mildly annoying platforming bugs. It omits stages from the fringe console titles (i.e., Shadow, Riders, and the vastly underrated Secret Rings & Black Knight). Worst of all, there is still no two-player co-op or competitive stage racing, despite the classic games and/or less powerful portable systems sporting both for years now. This is all just off of the top of my head. For a supposedly comprehensive anniversary game, there are quite a few deserving guests of honor whose invitations were simply never sent.
And yet, to solve my constant-nitpicking problem, all I simply need to do is boot up Sonic Generations, at which point it slaps me across the face and tells me to stop being such a baby. To heck with story and fannish frills. There are over 100 obstacle courses waiting to be stylishly conquered at super speeds. Stop whining and play.
Such is the power of Sonic Generations, a game whose strengths come from starting with a lean and mean base design, then sprinkling in many references and homages for longtime fans. After three anniversaries of questionable quality (the fifth was marked by Sonic 3D Blast, the 10th by Sonic Adventure 2, and the 15th by the ill-fated 2006 reboot), it's wonderful to finally get a celebratory Sonic game that gets it right. Sonic Generations aims to cram the entirety of Sonic the Hedgehog's career on a single disc — a lofty goal, but one that it mostly pulls off, with style to spare.
On Sonic's 20th birthday party, a gigantic purple blob known as the Time Eater appears out of nowhere and kidnaps Sonic and his friends, flinging them across time and space to the sites of most of Sonic's greatest adventures. To set things right, two Sonics — the potbellied Classic version of the past and the leaner, lankier Sonic of present, Modern times — must combine their powers as they run down memory lane.
Half of the game therefore showcases Classic Sonic — strictly two-dimensional, one-button, start-to-finish gameplay, reminiscent of the 16-bit days. Mind you, he doesn't still exactly control 100% like he did back on the Sega Genesis — gaining momentum by constantly rolling down a quarter- or half-pipe is still a no go — but he's 90% there in terms of control and physics, and 110% there in terms of adorable. With one exception, which will be mentioned later in this review, seeing stages from Sonic's latter days being given the 16-bit treatment is a refreshing and relaxing godsend. I've always wanted to see the return of one-button Sonic gameplay, and it's finally here.
The other half of the game showcases the Modern Sonic play style birthed in the Daytime stages of Sonic Unleashed and has since gone on to critical acclaim. While Classic Sonic is instantly accessible, Modern Sonic is conversely not someone to mess with. He goes at 300mph. He does air tricks. He has built-innitrous and comes complete with swooping camera angles. He punishes the skill-less, the slothful, the people who keep trying to play the Sonic series as if it's a blue Mario. Unlike Classic Sonic's simple and clean mechanics, Modern Sonic's boost- and cancel-heavy style is in no way easy to master, even on the easiest of his stages, partially due to how quickly he plays. However, the senses of speed, exhilaration and adrenaline that come from Modern Sonic mastery more than justify the skill required to keep him under control. Spend enough time with him, and even the greenest of Sonic players can eventually ace a stage while looking as cool as ice.
These gameplay styles are split across nine stages picked from Sonic's console history: three from the Genesis era (1, 2, Knuckles), three from the Dreamcast (Adventure, Adventure 2, Heroes) era, and three from Modern times (2006, Colors, Unleashed). They're pretty much the most recognizable ones from the represented games, and it's great to see games that were train wrecks in their original releases — hello, Sonic 2006 — get a second chance to shine. To top things off, three of Sonic's greatest bosses and three of his peskiest rivals show up to challenge him as well. The fights against Metal Sonic, Silver and Shadow the Hedgehog are extremely cathartic for longtime fans, and the huge challenges from Sonic 2's Death Egg Robot, Sonic Adventure's Perfect Chaos, and Sonic Unleashed's Egg Dragoon are both awe-inspiring and fun to relive.
Given Sonic's speedy gameplay, however, just having these stages and bosses present means players should end up finishing the main campaign in about four hours. This is where the Missions and Red Rings come in. There are a total of 90 missions, some involving Sonic's friends in homages to classic games (Yoshi's Island and Bionic Commando come to mind), others involving racing staff ghosts, and still others involving playful challenges inspired by Sonic gameplay styles from the past (the boarding and running-on-water stages are especially fun). There are also the Red Rings hidden in the main stages to encourage players to explore every nook and cranny as both Sonics to find them. Ample rewards await players who take up all of these challenges in the form of new powers, which can be added to either Sonic's play mechanics to make old stages new again. These powers are hardly throwaway, but they're also hand-picked from Sonic's rich game history. Prepare to relive the fun of using the special elemental shields from Sonic 3, give Classic Sonic the Homing Attack, give Modern Sonic unlimited boost meter in exchange for one-hit death (one of my favorites), allow either Sonic to stop on a dime, or even endow the time-slowing skill from Secret Rings. There are dozens of these, and they're great for playing around in stages, exploration, or for finding the best combination for the fastest times.
The other reward for tackling these Missions and Red Ring challenges is music, and here, we're going to have to back up a bit and talk about aesthetics. This game is beautiful. It is Sonic the Hedgehog in lovingly crafted detail, with polish absolutely everywhere. This is not hyperbole; just look at it. I'm linking to a video because if it were up to me to describe, all you'd get would be childish babbling.
However, for all of this game's visual quality, it's the aforementioned music that steals the show. Sonic music has always been the one series constant; even his lackluster games have stellar soundtracks, and Generations brings a buffet of them under one roof. Sonic music can drastically alter the mood of an entire game or stage, and Generations allows players to assign any unlockable music track — of which there are roughly 50 — to any stage, mission, rival fight or boss fight they wish to create their own dream mix. Want to use Sonic Rivals music as you race staff ghosts, or use 16-bit music for the entire game? Now you can. Even with all of Generations' assets, the soundtrack is arguably the real star.
All of the described challenges and rewards gives Sonic Generations infinite replay value, makes it worth every penny for any platform, and something to keep in your library forever. Even so, not all is perfect. Aside from the petty fannish nitpicks I outlined above, there are a couple of genuine flaws with this game that mainly occur in its latter portions. First off, the Sonic Colors homage, Planet Wisp, is not fun to play. True, the last stage of a Sonic game is naturally supposed to be challenging, but Planet Wisp avoids genuine challenge and goes straight into boredom and frustration by turning that game's gimmick — the Mario-power-up-esque "Wisps" — into lock-and-key puzzles as opposed to the mobility enhancements and exploratory aids they were meant to be. The effect is that it makes the sheer genius that is Sonic Colors look bad to anyone who hasn't played it up to this point. If you're one of those people and otherwise find yourself to be a fan of Modern Sonic's play style, then I implore you to get a Wii (they're cheap now) and play Colors. It's nothing like its Generations counterpart — it's actually really good.
The other huge flaw is that, for all of this game's accomplishments, its endcap — the Time Eater final boss — is utterly atrocious in design. I'm not sure what went wrong here, but it's hard to keep track of rings, it takes forever to get to the boss to hit it, and the constant chattering from Sonic's friends isn't helpful. It's a 10- to 20-minute chore that leaves a bad taste in any player's mouth after the other stages. Having it come directly after Planet Wisp doesn't help, either. Still, all of this is about the worst it ever gets, and the sheer amount of high-quality content on display otherwise dwarfs these gripes.
Bottom line: If you are or have ever been a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog during the series' two-decade history, then this is your game. Sega made this for us. If you've been away from Sonic for a while or have been wondering what he's all about, then this is actually a great game to start with, as it features the two best-playing versions of Sonic in the series, along with his greatest stages, all in one place. Play it however you can, even if you rent it, but whatever you do, don't call it "short" or "over quickly." There's enough game here to last potentially ages.
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