Sonic hasn’t had it so good since Sega dropped out of the console market. What was once a franchise that spawned some of the best games on their respective consoles soon nosedived into rushed out titles that seemed to forget what actually made the games fun in the first place. Last year developer Sonic Team vowed to change the blue hedgehog’s fortunes by focusing on creating much better titles for fans who may have lost faith in the gaming icon. With Sonic Colors and the console versions of Sonic Generations it appears they are making good on that promise.
Sonic Generations for the Nintendo 3DS offers a simpler take on the console versions of the title. The concept is the same however as players make use of both Classic Sonic and Modern Sonic as they speed through various redesigns of courses throughout their history. This conceit is strung together with a fairly minimal plot featuring a villain called the Time Eater creating time holes causing both Sonics to run into each other. Truth be told, I’d rather the game didn’t feel the need to shoehorn in a story, but fortunately the simple cut-scenes are skippable so there’s nothing stopping players from jumping straight into the action.
The game essentially serves as an interactive history of the Sonic franchise. There are seven main stages split into two levels each; one for Classic Sonic and one for Modern Sonic. The first few levels, based on the classic Megadrive levels are by far the most entertaining to play. As the game progresses however, the charm and personality of the stages quickly fades away as we progress into stages inspired by the newer entries of the series. A third level in a stage is a race to collect a Chaos emerald before the time runs out. These races are presented with the camera behind Sonic as he sprints to grab the emerald, and the player must avoid various obstacles and collect balloons to increase Sonic’s speed. I actually felt that if the Modern Sonic levels were presented in this way the actual core idea behind the game would have made a lot more sense. Instead, Modern Sonic runs along a second side-scrolling level, albeit with occasional camera movement and this style of gameplay does little to differentiate itself from the Classic Sonic levels.
The central gameplay concept sounds like a decent idea, but the actual execution is somewhat uninspired. The modern styled stages are also basically side-scrollers, albeit with a slightly different camera angle. To further blur what little distinction there is between the two different "styles" Classic Sonic gains Modern Sonic's homing/speed burst, essentially making the two supposedly different takes on each stage interchangeable. The exploration of a title like Sonic Adventure is absent, and it's quite staggering how Nintendo managed to create a game that combines old and new elements to great effect in Super Mario 3D Land when Sega seem to just reduce all of the modern aspects of recent Sonic games onto the same 2D plane as the classic titles. Admittedly the console versions do feature a different playing style and camera system with the two different Sonics, so the simpler presentation is presumably Sega's way of making the game less graphically intense and more portable-friendly.
There are a few boss stages as well in which Classic Sonic will participate in a race while his younger incarnation will fight in a more traditional battle. The racing stages are a lot more challenging than the battles, which are mainly won by abusing Sonic’s homing ability to defeat the enemy. There is a little added replay value to be had trying to get a higher rank on each stage and unlocking various challenges such as completing a selected stage without running into any enemies. There's also a rush mode in which players can speedrun through levels, although it's basically the same as playing through the levels regularly, with only the benefit of online leaderboards.
Also included in the game is a multiplayer mode in which players can race others through the courses both through local play and online. Whilst the mode is a good idea, the presentation of the online version does slightly hamper the experience. Rather than seeing the other player, the game shows a small star in place of the character. The lack of interaction between the two players makes the mode feel more like a Ghost race from a Mario Kart title rather than an actual versus mode. The game runs smoothly online in 2D, but playing in 3D did occasionally cause frame-stuttering and at times the connection was lost altogether. Despite the technical and presentation misgivings, the mode is quite a fun addition to the game for occasional goes yet even with the ranking system in place I doubt most players will continue competing for as long as more dedicated multiplayer based games.
The game does look nice otherwise featuring bright, sharp detailed visuals. The 3D effect on this game isn’t as subtle as other 3DS titles and I did feel the need to turn it off almost instantly, but in 2D the game looks great. All of the courses do a great job of both paying homage to the original versions as well as looking good on their own terms and the characters are all smoothly animated. The soundtrack features the familiar Sonic tunes and are as catchy as always for the most part, whilst the limited voice acting in the cut-scenes tended to grate a little.
In the end Sonic Generations doesn’t live up to its potential. Whilst it’s a far cry from the worst Sonic title ever made, it is for the most part quite uninspiring. The interesting premise isn’t explored in any interesting way and its highlights are essentially rerunning through Sonic’s glory days. The console versions are far superior in that the level design for the two different modes of play are substantially different, whereas on the 3DS version it essentially feels like players are running through the same level twice. Overall the game is pretty fun in parts, but its brevity and lack of real replay value are a let down. It’s not the best game of the 3DS’s holiday season library this year, but Sonic fans will likely get a kick from revisiting classic levels.