Sonic is 20 – A look back through two decades of cool blue
I wish I could meet the Sonic Team someday. I’d like to think I could ask them some tough questions – ‘What the hell was Sonic Heroes?’ being one of them. Truth is, I’d probably revert to a giggly little boy again.
I grew up with Sonic – starting off not quite the 20 years ago that Sonic has been around (19 years I have followed Sonic). My first proper console was a Sega Mega Drive that came with Sonic 2, still considered by many to be the best Sonic ever. Yes, I was a Sonic kid, none of this Italian plumber crap. He even had a nerdy wee sidekick in the form of Tails! What more does a young computer and video game nerd need? I even watched the (many) TV adaptations! <3
Pretty soon, I amassed the other Sonics, 1, CD, and of course the utterly fantastic 3 + Knuckles. Even the ill-fated 3D! It’s hard to say exactly what about them does it for me; perhaps its the feel of a great jump when moving at high speeds? Maybe the cute, anthro characters? The villain? Who can say. But I’ll tell you, 1, 2, 3 + K… I played the shit out of these games – to the point I could actually do some of the levels with my eyes closed (not even kidding). Particularly 3, where the ‘big rings’ to get the Chaos Emeralds (and thus transform into the epic Super Sonic) were hidden in the levels. I found them all – every hidden area and route. I wanted Super Sonic potential by the time I hit Marble Garden Zone. And, in case anybody asks, yes I do have them on emulator all over the place, and SEGA you can bite my ass before you even think of suing, as the number of times I have BOUGHT all the old-generation games is shocking. I STILL have them on my working Mega Drive. I also have them on… PS2 (Mega Collections and +), iPod Classic, Xbox 360 (Ultimate Collection), Wii (virtual console). So don’t even THINK about complaining!
OK, so if you aren’t a Sonic fan, that last paragraph descended into babble. If you are, you probably know what I’m talking about. Unfortunately, after this peak, something went wrong at Sonic Team. A beta (still available around the ‘net) for Sonic 4 shows interesting gameplay where Sonic and Tails are tethered together and it honestly looked like it could have been really awesome. Unfortunately, this was shelved as the Mega Drive was reaching end of life, and SEGA wanted next-gen type Sonic development. They did, however, use the concept in the Sonic spinoff game, Knuckles Chaotix, for the commercially failed 32X add-on.
It would be 1998, 4 years after 3 + K, before a new platformer-type Sonic game would emerge (3D and R don’t count). Sonic Adventure was a technically good game, but somehow, in the transition to 3D, the magic was lost. Strange concepts emerged, such as having a human world setting. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t quite the same game I knew and loved. Whilst Sonic Adventure 2 was extremely fun with a great soundtrack, the same problem emerged – 3D felt wrong.
Sonic Advance was a boon to me – taking the game back to a 2D sprite based system felt like the old Sonic. I enjoyed these a lot and they had a few sequels. Generally in fact, Sonic on portable consoles seems pretty good, and I wonder if this has been because (until recently) it FORCED the game to be 2D again. And therein lay the answer – I think Sonic Team went to 3D because they felt they had to, unless it simply wasn’t an option. And, I don’t get this at all. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should (I draw parallels to the later MegaMan X-series – in fact there is a very similar progression; great 2D, poor 3D, great 2D portable, back to great 2D console). Unfortunately, even the later portable Sonics became corrupted by silly story concepts that were, frankly, unnecessary.
It’s very simple – Sonic is blue, cool, and moves fast. He didn’t even need to speak until much later! Sonic explores jumpy platform levels, some of which might have a few interesting mechanics, like slot machines and flippers. Throw in some shields and items, preferably with interesting and unique abilities. Add Super Sonic to go even faster. Add interesting boss battles, preferably with the final one being very damn difficult. Anything more – a distraction, for the most part.
We move on once more – to the PS2 generation, where only one offering in the form of Heroes. Less said the better really – again ruined by a silly mechanic that wasn’t necessary, and more characters than you can shake a stick at. PS3-generation, and the plainly titled ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ had potential, but was let down by bad clipping glitches and a silly new character. At this point, I admit kinda giving up – I didn’t go near the Wii offerings due to bad reviews, not wanting to erode my memories further. I hear that in fact, Sonic Unleashed wasn’t bad, interesting since it sounds like it shares a lot with Sonic Generations in the form of 2D and 3D levels (so I might have to give it a try sometime after all – let me know in the comments!).
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 emerged for Xbox Live Arcade and PS3 network in 2010 – an episodic take on Sonic and designed as a direct sequel to Sonic 3 + K. I was excited. It promised a return to 2D and a dropping of all ancillary characters. Given how much I loved 3 + K, I really wanted it to be good. And, actually, it was. Just not quite good enough. It felt half-done, the levels didn’t seem as vibrant as the Mega Drive levels despite the HD graphics. Perhaps because of the episodic nature or perhaps it was the loss of little things like the Super Sonic function and the level routes – I never felt encouraged to explore alternate routes. And, like all episodic games, episode II is STILL in development. It is almost 2012! You aren’t Valve, SEGA!
Finally, we arrive at the main item in the article. Sonic Generations – yes, Sonic is 20. Sonic Team, can we have more of THESE Sonic games please?
Sonic Generations starts with a simple premise – time has been broken and as a result, there are two Sonics, the modern one, and the classic one. Also, the time mess has brought all sorts of levels from all over the Sonic timeline together. Exploration and retrieval of the Chaos Emeralds is required to fix the problem. Also, villain.
Yes, the storyline seems stupid. But strangely, it isn’t, because the game pokes fun at itself the whole way, little lines the characters throw out that are fan service and joke rolled into one. The levels are based on levels from the past, but there are so many changes and conversions it’s not at all laziness. Act 1 of every level takes place using classic Sonic, who uses only 2D-style (yeah, technically the rendering is all still 3D, but it works this time) and only has his whizz-attack and special Sonic 3 shields. Act 2 uses modern Sonic, in a 2D / 3D mix, and who has his new homing attack and boost abilities. Bosses are infrequent and are mixed between the two (and unfortunately are a little too easy :|).
There are a good number of Zones, 9 in all, and after completing the Zone, you get to perform a set of challenges for that zone, 5 for each Sonic per Zone. Crucially, these are all different, with some being races against a CPU doppelgänger, some involving the various companions from Sonic, and others just plain unique. They are genuinely quite fun, and really up the replayability. And, of course, you are timed and ranked in all of them, for extra competition.
The Zones are well mixed, including some great old favourites of mine (Sky Sanctuary! Chemical Plant!). And, there are remixes of all the music, so playing Chemical Plant as classic Sonic you will hear a remixed but still very classic Chemical Plant tune, and as 3D you will hear a mixed up version. And, through challenges and ‘red rings’ in the Zones, you can unlock loads more old tunes and listen as you play. It really brought me back, and made me feel like I was playing the Sonic I loved again.
There is included Xbox Live (and I assume PSN) capability in the form of time rankings and ‘how far can you get in 30 seconds’ modes, which are interesting but I don’t think will see heavy use. Friend time comparisons are, as usual, available, as is the ability to see the markers indicating your friends’ 30 second positions. I managed to get a very respectable 3482nd rank worldwide in Zone 1, Act 1, considering how many users there are!
I’ve touched already on the bosses, and I really would have liked a little more challenge in this regard. They are all a bit too easy, including the final boss. What happened to the frustrating but ultimately so-satisfying moments against Sonic 2’s Death Egg robot? Or am I just remembering it as more difficult because I was, like, 7? (Probably :P). Other problems with the game are still the occasional camera-related death in the 3D levels.
But, genuinely, if you have abandoned Sonic to the pile-of-no-hope, please pick it up and try it again. Sonic Generations is honestly probably the best Sonic game since 3 + K. And that’s 16 years. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 16 years for the next good one. You did so many things well in this iteration, from focusing on gameplay, well-done 3D and very faithful 2D, fan service of old favourite levels and music, even Super Sonic! Just make it a bit harder for me next time 😀
Sonic will always have a special place with me, and whilst probably over-ranking it a little due to bias, I have to give it 9/10. I really really did enjoy it, and it took me back. And it wasn’t just rose-tinted nostalgia.
Don’t fuck up my goodwill, Sonic Team – I’d hate to have to go Were-Hog on you… (honestly, wouldn’t that make him half pig?)