2011 was Sonic the Hedgehog’s 20th anniversary year. Sega decided that such an auspicious occasion deserved a special game celebrating the series and the many changes it had seen over its two decades. You might recall that Sega had previously tried to have a big Sonic bash for his 15th anniversary in 2006, and the result was nonsensical time travel, terrible physics based puzzles, scripted loop-de-loops with their own gravitational force completely divorced from rest of the world, speed boosters that sent you clipping through the level geometry to certain death, the worst load times this side of the ZX Spectrum, and possibly bestiality. Well, fortunately Sega learned their lesson, sort of, and decided to make a game that was not outlandishly horrible. They didn’t make a game that was especially good, but not being terrible is in itself something of a rarity for Sonic ever since the Mega Drive/Genesis era came to a close. When Sonic became a 3D model and learned how to talk, he lost a lot of what made him worth playing in the first place. Now, I should mention I used to watch Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog religiously. That was something I would get up early on weekday mornings to catch on Channel 4 before school. I would tape the episodes and watch them over and over. Loved that shit. Jaleel White is Sonic as far as I’m concerned, a nasal whiner with terrible one-liners who zips around Mobius, tweening nightmarishly all the while, on his way to prevent Robotnik (not “Eggman”!) from doing some bad shit. So it’s not that Sonic talks in general, more that Sonic doesn’t talk like Jaleel White. It’s just wrong.
I don’t think 3D Sonic games have ever played well. Sonic ’06 was an extremely buggy, half-finished mess, but the core of its gameplay came directly from Sonic Adventure. Most problems you can ascribe to one are also found in the other, ’06 was simply rushed to meet the deadline for an anniversary that shouldn’t ever really have been a thing. The camera in these games is terrible, shifting from one ungainly locked position to another, and it doesn’t seem to have improved one bit with successive games. Part of the problem is they want to capture the feel of classic Sonic, where levels are multi-path rollercoaster courses full of loops and springs and hazards, so in order to highlight this the camera has to twist around unpredictably to show you “hey look, it’s kind of the same!” And while I appreciate that they remind you that they haven’t forgotten what a Sonic level looks like, I just wish they wouldn’t do it while you’re actually trying to do something that requires even a little finesse. When the camera reorients itself, there’s that uncertainty reminiscent of the old-timey fixed-camera-with-tank-controls game as to whether up is still up. Sometimes up is up, sometimes it’s the “dive into the abyss” button. This camera weirdness aside, the standard chase camera is set up in such a way that Sonic cannot both go fast and be precise. As a compromise Sega introduced the homing attack, which basically lets you hit the jump button over and over to kill everything on screen. I guess it’s a fair trade-off, the skill required in old Sonic games is directly related to course memorisation, and since Sonic no longer has the spin dash but an instant meter-based boost, the enemies are really just clusters of boost gauge refill stations to help you continue to go fast. Still, these compromises are a prime example of Sonic failing to catch up to Mario in the transition to 3D.
In addition to other compensatory measures for going fast, there are sections where Sonic will automatically run at top speed so that you can focus on dodging obstacles, but it’s pretty inconsistent as to when and why this occurs. It’s even difficult to tell when you’re autorunning and when you have to hold up on the left stick to keep moving forward. As a general policy I held up at all times, but playing around and letting off at random points indicated to me that there isn’t any discernible rhyme or reason behind the triggering of an autorunning section. Sonic zips all over the place like a mad bastard to begin with, so the only real indication that you’re suddenly not controlling him is seeing a sharp corner coming up and discovering that steering no longer works. You have to use the left and right bumpers to switch lanes like some deranged fanboy’s Sonic-themed mod of Audiosurf. This works out fine until you hit a corner and suddenly discover that, no matter what lane you slide into, you’re going straight into the wall. To tackle this problem Sonic can turn into a ball and drift around corners, but in executing this manoeuvre his speed seems to drop off like he does when accidentally walking off a cliff, so you’re caught once again between the two stools of speed and precision that 3D Sonic titles have always tried and failed to sit on.
The game contains nine levels which are split into two acts each, one of which is for Classic Sonic, while the other is for Modern Sonic. The Classic Sonic levels, for the most part, feel like the old stuff redone in 2.5D, with the occasional 3D flourish to “bring the level to life”. I don’t find this particularly offensive, but for all the purported intent of celebrating the history of the franchise, it feels an awful lot like these sections are included to rhetorically ask the player “now, isn’t 3D much, much better than this?” Nowadays if you want “true” old-school Sonic, beyond the classic Mega Drive titles 2017’s Sonic Mania has got you covered, but for a good many years Generations and the abysmal Sonic 4 were the only major multi-platform Sonic releases that offered any sort of 2D Sonic gameplay. There are those who would say that Sonic was never good, a generally popular opinion along the lines of “Seinfeld was never funny”, and that’s fine, I’ve always liked the old Sonic games but never been a superfan. The cultish furry fandom is a total embarrassment, and the vore-inclined among them probably will try to eat you through the internet for saying such things, but I can hardly get energised about other people’s negative opinions of a cartoon character. What is clear, though, is that 2D Sonic for a long time was left to rot, and it took modders from the fan community to step in and show Sega how to do it right once more, but if Forces, a quasi-sequel to Generations, is anything to go by, Sega ain’t learned shit.
Another problem with Classic Sonic in this game is that his acts for levels from the 3D games are often bullshit. Consider City Escape, the “classic” Sonic Adventure 2 opener which sees Sonic running down a series of steep San Francisco-style tram-tracked hills while being pursued by a giant lorry that is practically as fast as he is. Classic Sonic doesn’t have his younger (older?) counterpart’s instantaneous boost move that makes the lorry easy to outrun, you have to stop and charge up a spin dash to get ahead, which can lead to being instantly killed if not timed perfectly. True to the classic rules, no amount of rings will save Sonic from being crushed, drowning, or falling into a bottomless pit, and that would be just dandy were it not for entire scripted sequences like this one. With no reliable way to keep ahead, I had to rely on sheer dumb luck to make it through the act. My favourite part of this sequence comes when you reach the bottom of the long stretch of hills. You have to climb an impossibly tall set of destructible, respawning scaffolds that the lorry drives into and destroys over and over, and—unless you happen to be very lucky in where you fall during this—it hits you as well, you basically just have to mash jump and hope for the best, which I don’t consider to be a fun or exciting challenge.
When you beat both acts of the first three levels, you unlock the challenges. Beat a challenge from each level to unlock the boss door keys which, naturally, unlock the first boss. This is repeated for the other two sets of three levels. Some of these challenges are just out and out ridiculous, and you can spend a lot of time navigating the novel but sometimes confusing level select menu just to find one that isn’t retarded. Among the special stage style “collect x number of rings and get to the goal” type challenges, there are some bafflingly weird one-offs. One that stands out in particular is the “Use Rouge the Bat’s Charms to Seduce Enemies” challenge. In it, Sonic spawns Rouge from the negaverse or whatever and she throws out hearts at robots, who are then distracted enough not to hold up their impenetrable shields so Sonic can bop them. Robots. I know it’s supposed to be a light-hearted silly thing but I just don’t understand the logic. Does Robotnik still put animals in his robots? As far as I can see they don’t pop out when you defeat their walking metal prisons. Even if he does, how in the fuck is a squirrel going to get turned on by an anthropomorphic bat? It doesn’t help that the unique concept is poorly implemented. Rather than an AoE kind of deal, Rouge’s hearts move in a cone shape which is locked to Sonic’s own orientation on the screen. Rouge turns as you turn, so the wild left stick controls make it thoroughly irritating, especially when you’re being timed. I kind of wish Sega would put their weight behind a Sonic game that is out and out Japan-weird, something impenetrably bizarre like Segare Ijiri but with Sonic, rather than weird in a “supposed to be funny but actually just kind of shitty” way. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course.
Although nine fully unique levels is more or less average for a Sonic game, there are only four bosses. Aside from the final boss, which is unique to Generations, these are taken from Sonic 2 and the two Sonic Adventure games. They’re okay. The first boss is the Death Egg Robot piloted by Robotnik, the last boss of a normal run of Sonic 2. The first phase is standard if somewhat muted. Wait for him to try to squash you, run underneath him, hop on his fragile bum, repeat. The second phase spices things up, and in my view does so for the worse. Robotnik does a ground pound attack that sends you flying into 2.5D perspective, navigating series of destructible respawning platforms with bombs and activators on them. You have to lure him into punching an active bomb so that he becomes dazed and you can run up his arm to hit him. The fight can be beaten very quickly, almost Emerald Hill Zone boss quickly, as soon as you have the pattern down. The second is Perfect Chaos from Sonic Adventure, a watery lizard thing that you boost into three times. I will say that as someone who doesn’t like Sonic Adventure at all, this fight was at least interesting in that the prelude to each hit is a different short obstacle course of progressive difficulty, although the third and final course is some serious bullshit with floating platforms that get in the way of your view from the camera’s fixed position. The third and final boss recreation is the Egg Dragoon, originally from Sonic Unleashed, a game which I have never played. Being a boss that I had never seen before, I was actually caught off guard by some moves like the wall jump sequence which can instantly crush Sonic if you aren’t fast enough, although on getting to the top, even with Tails (or whoever it is that talks to you) giving hints it isn’t very clear how you’re supposed to do what it tells you to do. The final boss is a bland Super Sonic team-up reminiscent of the truly awful final fight from Sonic ’06, so while it is technically not a recreation it might as well be. For these bosses, I was hoping to see alternative fights for Modern and Classic Sonic. It would have been interesting to see how the Death Egg Robot would be handled in full 3D, or how old-school Sonic would tackle Chaos. This is both in keeping with the theme of the game, and would have made for a much more impressive, varied approach.
In addition to the four main bosses, Generations features three “rival battles” with other ‘hogs from the series’ long and sordid history. The first of these is Metal Sonic from Sonic CD, a replica of the Stardust Speedway race, sort of. You wait for Metal Sonic to attack, then when he is vulnerable, you jump up and bop him. This is unfortunately the only rival battle using the 2D Sonic gameplay, the other two are (perhaps not purely coincidentally) absolute garbage. The rival battles are by far the most difficult (read: tedious) boss-type fights in the game. The second one features gruff-voiced edgemeister Shadow in a recreation of a fight from Sonic Adventure 2. You must gather energy cores in order to charge up, and then hit him with meteors that just happen to be lying on the road for some reason until he slows down enough for you to hit him. If you don’t hit all the meteors or they don’t all hit their target, the loop starts over, and you can spend upwards of ten minutes running around just trying to get in a single hit. But the third, appropriately, is by far the worst. Silver, the time travelling telekinetic twit from Sonic ’06, throws shit at you while you run around the apocalyptic nonsense future of Crisis City, you homing attack the shit and then homing attack into him. Hit him four or five times, then he creates a Katamari Damacy ball of death while dropping shit on you, one false move and you lose speed and are instantly crushed, boosting barely makes an impact on this because there’s something like a forced rubberbanding on the death ball to keep it in camera at all times. There are no rings to refill your boost gauge in this phase either, so however un-fun the earlier phases of the fight were, the finale is about as fun as having teeth drilled without anaesthetic, only to learn that the dentist drilled the wrong one and has to start over.
I can’t speak about the console versions of Generations, but the game is poorly optimised on Windows. Framerate drops at random intervals, audio stutter, and sometimes ridiculous loading times all provide unwelcome breaks from and intrusions upon the action which, while not exactly great, is at least action. My system is not going to win any awards for power and speed compared to the latest high-end tech, but it was built well after 2011 and can hold its own running many newer, more demanding games without these problems. I installed the game on an SSD, so there should have been little to no loading time, but it often felt like I was waiting around an inordinate amount of time for what the levels actually consist of. I would have liked to have seen seamless transitions between the action-oriented hub level and the actual gameplay stages, load times masked behind Sonic running out of the hub to the level proper. It would have been a slick way to handle the issue, and while I wouldn’t necessarily expect it from an indie title, Sega has more than enough money and expertise to make things like that work, but for some reason they forever choose not to, opting instead for extremely bland loading screens which kill the momentum that Sonic should be all about. Remember the awesome level transitions from Sonic 3? How unexpected was it when, reaching the end of Angel Island Zone Act 2, Knuckles destroys the bridge, plunging you into Hydrocity Zone? Consider furthermore that the events of that game lead on directly from the finale of Sonic 2. That’s the kind of follow-through, the kind of emphasis on kinetic action not just in a given level but between levels, that modern Sonic games should be striving to achieve.
While the levels themselves can often look quite nice, especially the recreations of the classic levels, the overall feeling is quite barebones, and there is a sense that some kind of rush, though nowhere near as terrible as that behind the production of Sonic ’06, was at play in the making of this game. In the hub world, this is partly an aesthetic choice. A mystical enemy called the Time Eater has sucked up nine stages from previous Sonic games, in addition to two Sonics and two Tailseseses, and trapped Sonic’s cast of jolly idiot friends in time. Everything has had the colour sucked out of it, which is a nice way to get around having to texture things, but even without that consideration, it seems like most of the efforts went into producing the levels proper, and everything else, from the cheesy, cheap-looking friend revival sequences, to the later boss fights, have the air of neglect about them. I don’t want to blame Sonic Team for this, their story seems to ever have been one of trying their best despite Sega flexing its corporate muscle at them. All things considered, Generations is not a bad game, but it isn’t good either. It is based on an idea that has promise, but one on which it fails to deliver. While individual levels can be good the first time around, the excitement factor rapidly diminishes on repeated attempts after sudden clumsy camera movements or unclear pathing send Sonic veering off the wrong way to certain death. Memorising where and when these and other problems arise can be a real chore, and the reward for beating a level, and indeed the game itself, is not recompense enough. Really what I’ve gained from playing through Sonic Generations is a desire to get the old Mega Drive up and running again and play the real classics of the franchise, hoping all the while that I have not been bathed during my time with this game in the blinding sunlight of nostalgia.