Back in 1997, Sega released a Saturn compilation of its previous Mega Drive titles, called Sonic Jam. Framed by a full 3D hub world, the player could explore in order to access both the games and a significant amount of bonus content, Sonic Jam broke the mould for retro collections at the time, and continues to be upheld as a shining example of how to celebrate a classic series. But with Sonic Generations, Sega may finally have raised its own bar.
Sonic Generations isn’t a retro compilation, of course. It’s actually more sophisticated than that. It’s an interactive celebration of Sonic’s entire 20-year career and is without doubt the finest tribute any game character has received to date. Sonic Team cleverly acknowledges that videogames, by their nature, are interactive and asks why not celebrate an anniversary with a game itself. This isn’t a publisher slapping a 20th anniversary logo over the packaging; it’s a full game that takes in the length and breadth of Sonic history and remixes it into a cocktail of playable nostalgia.
Timelines collide in Sonic Generations in ways that will appeal to the fond memories of any player who’s been there from the start. Some examples… Sonic is chased by a giant mechanical fish from his Mega Drive debut, but in a style reminiscent of the iconic whale chase from Sonic Adventure. After revisiting Green Hill Zone, Sonic remarks that it feels awfully familiar, while Tails comments that he’s never seen it before, which, having debuted in Sonic The Hedgehog 2, he hasn’t. And late in the game when Tails meets Sonic’s long-time rival he calls him Dr Robotnik, only for Eggman to shout ‘Nobody calls me that any more’.
This isn’t a game that’s made just for those who regularly dust off their Mega Drive though. From the moment the story begins, with Sonic and all his furry chums enjoying a picnic together, it’s clear that this is a game for all Sonic fans, both retro and modern. And it’s remarkable that Sonic Team manages to serve both audiences equally, without denigrating either era. Previews have made a big deal of the existence of both the original 2D era version of Sonic and his modern, edgy, 3D era counterpart, but when you get your hands on the finished game you realise that this distinction isn’t so straightforward. You can choose to play as either Sonic, and each gets his own version of every playable zone, but those zones are neither strictly 2D nor 3D. They’re a true blend of styles that make excellent use of modern technology to re-present familiar locations, and though one does lean slightly closer to a side-scroller and the other to on-rails headlong rushes, the distinction has more to do with the handling model of each hedgehog.
Classic, chubby, Sonic is built as close as possible to the way you remember him in the Nineties. Complete with his Spin Dash move from Sonic 2, he’s a one-button character that runs along, jumping on heads and platforming upwards as much as he takes on loop-the-loops. He’s billed as a beginner’s character and his more considered pace may seem odd to players more familiar with his blisteringly fast modern equivalent.
Modern Sonic, meanwhile, is presented as a character for expert players – though you do have to play all his stages to complete the game – and this is largely because of the greater number of moves at his disposal. A much faster character due to his boost ability, modern Sonic can also use his homing attack to take on enemies, as well as cross gaps by combo bouncing from one enemy to another, and will gradually unlock more abilities as you progress through the game. Also able to slide dash under narrow gaps, stomp blocks from above and perform the Lightspeed Dash through a line of rings, he has a wide array of moves that demand much more skill and timing.
Sadly, it’s the added complexity of modern Sonic that’s responsible for the lowest points in Sonic Generations. Traditional platforming sections play perfectly while Wii-style running and grinding are fine, but get into an area that plays like those games from the first half of the last decade and it can all go a bit wrong. Mistime a lock-on attack and you could send Sonic hurtling into a bottomless pit. Move in a way that causes the camera to get confused and you could unintentionally run Sonic off in the wrong direction and, again, drop him down a bottomless pit. Perhaps this is Sonic Team fastidiously celebrating every era of Sonic, including his troublesome adolescence, but we doubt that, especially with no Werehog in sight. Instead, this is just another example of Sonic Team coming close to greatness but not getting it quite right.
Aside from those missteps, however, Sonic Generations is a genuine delight. Sure, we could do without the need to complete three challenge levels before being allowed to move on to the next series of proper stages, but with a whopping 90 of such levels on the disc there’s at least a ton of extra playable content here for those that fall in love with Sonic Generations. Those who are just along for the main ride will find it’s one of the best Sonic games in recent years. The dichotomy of play styles breathes new life into favourite stages as they’re re-envisioned and redesigned for Sonics they were never originally intended for, while some genuinely imaginative and exciting level design recaptures that core thrill – of rolling a hedgehog around a colourful fantasy world – that endeared so many to Sonic two decades ago.