Revisiting two decades of games, Sonic Generations is pitched as a celebration of Sega's previously pudgy mascot and the timeless appeal of blue skies, checkerboard loops, and things that go "boing." But much like the one Sonic receives in the opening, Generations is closer to a lame birthday party that you attend out of courtesy.
That feeling you get from playing every Sonic game after Genesis brews as disappointment and eventually becomes sympathy, mostly for the branded custodians at Sonic Team. They can't seem to please anybody, can they? Oh, Sonic's jumping feels wrong. The momentum is messed up over here. It's about exploration, not speed! Guys, the physics of my anthropomorphic blue hedgehog is inaccurate within this segmented fantasy landscape! Even when they make a game -- well, let's say half a game -- dedicated to capturing Sonic as he was, before vocal chords and a third dimension, they still can't win. Why?
The first clue is that someone at Sega believes a return visit to Green Hill Zone must be hermetically sealed within canon by an inane time-travel plot, complete with the obligatory scene where classic and modern Sonics think they're looking into a mirror. (It's okay, Sonic's friends are also too stupid to tell them apart.) It's really not worth going on about a plot in a Sonic game (and this one, at least, attempts self-deprecation), but it's one of the loudest groans emanating from the creators, spanned like a bridge between nostalgia and an annualized grind. And we just keep walking over them, back and forth.
Even as a compilation of sorts, Sonic Generations is weirdly, equally reverent of Sonic's entire career. Only a third of the main levels are spent on material from the cherished Genesis games, with the last two thirds going into Sonic's Dreamcast games (fine), Sonic Heroes (alright then), that one with the werehog (...), and the disastrous 2006 game (what?). We even go back to a level from Sonic Colors, which came out way back in LAST YEAR. This is like a three-disc Michael Jackson Greatest Hits album, featuring two discs of post-mortem silence.
Let's give it the benefit of the doubt, though, in showing more wisdom than Hollywood and remaking stuff that perhaps wasn't well made to begin with. 2D Sonic's spin on Crisis City, the level chosen from Sonic the Hedgehog, stands out as one of the best reboots in the game. And it's not good because it's old Sonic -- it's a well-paced dash across a crumbling cityscape, demanding sure-footed, honest-to-goodness platforming and rewarding concentration, confidence and agility within a variety of layered paths that take you through a tunnel, or across a sequence of cars thrown into the air by a fiery tornado. Now we're talking!
Then you get to Act 2, which is the modern Sonic interpretation of the same environment. Apparently, Sonic Team's pretty staunch about historical authenticity, because Crisis City is probably the most wretched, buggiest level in the game. Technically, it's a classic: clipping through platform edges, arbitrarily failing to stick on certain surfaces, lock-on attacks that randomly miss and fling you to your doom, and a Sonic that still (STILL) handles like an oversensitive go-kart on ice.
This tug-of-war between two Sonics, approximations of the good old shit and the same old shit, dominates Generations. There are moments where the nostalgia kicks in and it feels like Sonic Team truly gets it. Sky Sanctuary is a wonderful reinterpretation of the Sonic & Knuckles level, with appearances from its most memorable gimmicks like the vine lifts, teleportation orbs and the climactic dash up a crumbling cylinder. Even the modern Sonic version works, restraining its obsession with speedspeedspeed long enough to let you bounce off clouds and participate in a way that doesn't feel perfunctory -- though this can't be said for all of modern Sonic's levels, which still resort to the uncontrollable ricochet roller coaster far too often.
Inconsistency is most frustrating when the Sonics disagree on the same environment. Chubby Sonic's run through City Escape (Sonic Adventure 2) becomes an exciting climb up scaffolding as a giant truck barrels in and out of the screen, destroying potential platforms, whereas the less rotund Sonic gets a boring chase in which you hold down boost a lot.
The technology in Sonic Generations shares in the inconsistency, with stumbles in framerate proving especially deleterious to controls. The dash down the skyscraper in Speed Highway is a mess, for example, running worse than it ever did on the Dreamcast. The sluggish framerate also harms the side-scrolling segments, which can appear blurry on LCD screens and make it difficult to discern the nature of incoming dangers. It almost makes one pine for the humble CRT.
You'll get through the main levels in about 5 hours, which has prompted Sonic Team to pad out the game with collectable memorabilia, bonus skills, some insipid bosses (with the exception of the final one, which is a jaw-dropping mess) and challenge acts. These challenge acts offer curious tasks and challenges within previously visited environments, and offer the best indication that if Sonic Team isn't attempting to emulate an old Sonic game, or putting another "modern" Sonic on the conveyer belt, it has no clear idea of what it's doing.
A few levels are inoffensive and sensible (like a race against the other Sonic, which the game unflatteringly calls a "doppelganger"), some are clever re-appropriations of old items, such as a bouncing minigame in Sonic 3's bubble shield, and some ... well, let's get a show of hands. Who wanted to battle a terrible camera while jumping on musical notes launched by Vector the Crocodile? Who wanted to collect chao in a race against Cream the Rabbit? And who wanted a return of Knuckles' treasure hunts?
Ironically, the questionable inclusion of a level from Sonic Colors highlights what Sonic Team can accomplish if it attempts to break away from a formulaic back-and-forth with the hedgehog's vocal fans. Last year's Wii game was no bastion of originality, but with some inspiration from Mario's powerups, it did something new and successful within the context of Sonic's tragic trajectory.
Compared to Colors, Sonic Generations is a weaker, above average effort. Even taken as fan-service, the game's wavering quality, apparent lack of creativity and meandering filler feels like it's stalling until next year's birthday, and next year's game. Sonic Team would have been wiser to truly reflect upon this 20th anniversary. Remember: When you're at a birthday party, it means you're one year closer to a funeral.
This review is based on an Xbox 360 retail copy of Sonic Generations provided by Sega.
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