In the mid 1990’s playground squabbles nearly always revolved around which was better – the Super Nintendo Entertainment System or the Sega Megadrive. One was seen as the superior console with technically better games and a purer gaming experience but it just wasn't cool. The other was the cool kid allowing all kinds of blood and gore and fun stuff into its games. Distilling it down into the basest level, it was a fight between the console and company mascots – Mario and Sonic. Mario may well have been the superior pure platformer but Sonic was cool. A racing blue hedgehog progressing through various worlds to save his animal buddies from the robots and Dr Eggman (or Dr Robotnik depending on your age - look out for the reference to this in the game!) couldn’t fail to be cool, especially when you were able to react in time to keep you avatar moving at top speed. If you could manage this on any of the levels it resulted in such a fluid experience the exhilaration meant there was no way to describe it except for cool.
But it didn’t last long. As we moved through the years and into the noughties through to where we are now, the decline of Sonic was palpable and mirrored that of his parent company, Sega. The 2D games subsequent to his first outing lacked invention but the move to 3D was the real problem. It just never really worked out for Sonic. Mario got it right first time and set the bar for 3D platforming action. To this day Sonic in 3D leads to cries of derision from fans the world over, and even if a specific game (Sonic Colours maybe?) has delivered decent 3D blurry hedgehog action, the mud has stuck. Regardless, Sonic is still the most important figure in Sega’s armoury.
With Sonic Generations Sega have tackled this problem by fusing old with new, 2D with 3D, all in order to break the paradigm described above and deliver what they hoped (one presumes) would be the best Sonic game ever. They have gone about this by reapplying some tactics employed by Star Trek when handing over from the original crew to the next generation in the cinema. Effectively, thanks to some crazy time travelling, time altering monster, the original young Sonic from twenty years ago comes face to face with the older, talking Sonic and in combination they revisit various worlds from nearly all previous Sonics and use their own unique skills to restore life to each area via completion of a 2D and a 3D level, resulting in the collection of Chaos Emeralds (after a boss fight of some kind). Collect enough emeralds and the Sonics will be able to defeat the big bad and save the world.
As the game starts up it all seems very familiar if you’ve ever played a Sonic game, even if only the very first. The music is fantastic on the menu screen (preceded by a version of the classical cry of ‘Sega!’ as the game loads up) – as it is throughout; there’s a huge variety of tunes throughout the game picked from the vast catalogue of Sonic compositions and in every case I was humming the music within seconds. Begin a game and you have the choice of two acts in the Green Hill zone. Pick act one and you play as the original Sonic in a mostly 2D platforming level (although the camera does move around at times, you control Sonic purely in two dimensions). As you speed through the hills and around the waterfalls you’re encouraged to collect rings as always, to ensure you can survive one hit before perishing as well as aiming to get a ton and snag a whole extra life. Complete that level and you get to tackle act 2. This is when you get your hands on the newer Sonic, the one who exists today. These 3D levels are much more direct compared to the complex and clever level design employed in the 2D world (think old school platform action at its finest). The experience however is absolutely fantastic. The sheer pace and flow of the level is highly exciting meaning that when you make it to the end you can only sit down, rest for a few seconds and reflect with a simple ‘wow’. The invention and direction of the first, and all subsequent 3D levels is fabulous. You start off in typical 2D mode but as Sonic moves you pass sections which have you setup in a third-person view which really comes to the fore when you’re racing through the level looking over Sonic and manipulating your way past obstacles and enemies by employing his various moves that original Sonic can’t manage. It is a truly remarkable experience and although the changing viewpoint and design of the levels does mean you are very much on-rails at times and have no control over Sonic, it all adds up to the finest ever Sonic the Hedgehog experience.
This basic dichotomy exists throughout the game. Each world or area has two acts and you play one as each of the Sonics. If these levels were all the game had I’d be happy. As it is though, there are limited worlds. By completing the acts you restore each world to its former glory and save one of Sonic’s many friends from the past and present – Tails, Knuckles etc. Eventually challenge gates appear dotted around the world. Complete three of these and you get the keys which unlock the boss fights. Three bosses unlock the final boss; tackle the end game once you have all seven Chaos Emeralds – some gotten by defeating bosses, whilst others obtained after challenging and defeating your rival(s). I won’t spoil who the rivals are but these levels play out as mashes of 2D and 3D gaming and mini boss battles. It’s an enjoyable sideshow but seems a rather quick and easy way to get three of the requisite emeralds.
The length of the game is extended beyond mere completion by the myriad of challenge gates which exist. There are around ninety in total, each with different requirements. For example you may be asked to beat your doppelganger in a race to the finish line, or save a certain number of animals, or survive the level with only one ring. There’s a nice variety to the system put in place and at least doubles the length of the game over and above beating it. The problem is, that whilst these challenges are set in the levels you’ve played through in order to restore each world to its normal state, they can be very frustrating and not in a good way. Whilst a skilled gamer can expect to finish all of the challenges and generally feel that any slowdown in progress is due to lack of skill (the handling of Sonic is remarkably precise and ensures you always feel in complete control), rather than any cheating on the game’s part, it does lead to moments of incandescent rage. But then you try again straight away anyway. It’s not a bad thing that this happens – in fact, it will be welcomed by some as it transports folk back to when games were properly hard and you had to earn that 100 % completion. Just be wary of this though – it’s not Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins hard but it may put some off the game, especially compared to the main acts which are splendid on all counts.
There is actually an awful lot of content in this game. Aside from the main game and the challenge acts you’re encouraged to collect red rings throughout levels which can only all be found if you take the right shortcut or alternative route and if you have the correct skill. Yes, right skill. Sonic has gone a little RPG. Only a little, but as you collect points you can spend them on new skills (once available in the shop after completing a challenge or finding a ring) and picking the right ones for specific jobs can allow you to get into all the nooks and crannies a level has to find the red rings and get the trophy / achievement you’ve always wanted. Also, whilst playing through a level you’ll want to do so well that your rank builds to an A or even S rank. Again, trophies / achievements are available for this. Quite possibly the best extra time sink though is that once enough points have been acquired you can go to the shop and buy Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Megadrive (which is found in the Green Hill zone)! The entire original game available to play, within the new one, for free – that’s how to manage multiple generations of Sonics and gamers.
So, have Sega succeeded in making the best ever Sonic game? Yes, absolutely. They have taken the original premise of a classical platformer with boss fights played at high speeds and ramped it up to eleven thanks to the devious level design, funky effects and plethora of worlds. Added to this is an even better game in 3D which delivers the true Sonic experience in a new way. Granted, it’s been done before but not anywhere near this well. As mentioned previously if this was all the game was it would be a pleasure to play anyway, but thanks to the volume and variety of challenge acts plus all the extras and things to spur you on to better scores and the like if you want to, the package is embellished even further with delights. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely the best Sonic money can buy. Sega have finally altered the paradigm. Sonic Generations is a good 2D platformer and a great 3D one. It’s the best of both worlds.