Firehawke got me the Steam version of Sonic Generations as a Christmas present, which I appreciated, though I didn’t have any faith or confidence going into it. You can only fool a fan so many times after all, and the 8 GB download just screamed “this is gonna suck”. HOW many mediocre games has it been by now? Where’s the grand comeback people like me have been waiting for all this time? It hasn’t been Sonic Unleashed, maybe it could have been Sonic Colors but it wasn’t, it hasn’t been Sonic 2006, it COULD have been the Sonic Advance series if the sequels had only refined the formula instead of borking it up, and it definitely hasn’t been the Sonic Rush/Rivals series either.
Before I share my opinion of the game and of the series in general, let me provide a bit of background because Sonic is actually an important figure in my life. I was a Sega kid growing up in an era where Sonic was arguably better than Mario. He was more stylish, his cartoons were way better, he had personality and distinct flaws that were reflected in his games; heck, Sonic 3 and Knuckles I had memorized down to a science. Now that I’ve grown up though, well… I do not consider myself a Sonic fan in the same way I do not consider myself a “brony” just for enjoying My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and history has born this out as a wise position to take.
To its credit, Sonic Generations is full of promise, begging you with all its might to believe. It looks beautiful, sounds beautiful, is thoroughly ambitious and creative, and overall is most definitely the best modern Sonic game to date. Classic Sonic is excellent, though he encounters some unnecessary problems as he progresses through eras, and even though I hate Modern Sonic’s emphasis on speedspeedspeed, I actually warmed up to him in this game, unlike in Sonic Colors. His levels are fairly competent, surprisingly varied, and actually pretty enjoyable when you become accustomed to them, but I also feel that his flavor of gameplay is about as good as it’s ever going to get in any game. Obviously Sonic is supposed to be about speed, but when his heavy focus on that always, without fail, turns out to be a liability in some fashion, is it really worth pursuing like that?
And that’s just one reason why Sonic Generations is definitely NOT the legendary “return to form” that many have whispered of. Even more damning is how it has the same problems as Unleashed, Colors, Sonic 4, and every other modern Sonic game. It has collision detection errors, places where you can get trapped and have to restart, cheap and nonsensical deaths (A crushing pillar isn’t instant death, but an underwater mace is? WHY?!), basic control issues like how curling into a ball and rolling down a slope slows you down, and other miscellaneous glitches that accumulate into serious problems that hold Sonic back.
A number of these issues are softened when you unlock the Super Sonic skill, which is very easy to get. Playing as Super Sonic gives you more freedom to explore the diverse stages without as much risk of incident, letting you play around, enjoy yourself at your leisure, and get all those accursed S-Ranks, yet even this is a glaring flaw in its own way. If the only way to make your game thoroughly enjoyable is to make the player invincible, that means something is seriously and fundamentally wrong with your game.
I’ve often pondered why this is, why Sonic has the same issues every single time while his old rival Mario doesn’t, and I believe the heart of the problem has to do with opposite design philosophies. The impression I’ve always had is that Mario just does whatever he feels is fun in his games and everyone loves him for it, while Sonic games seem to be designed to show off how awesome Sonic is, thus he suffers for it.
Granted, the Sonic Adventure games did a better job at balancing things, and that’s not merely the nostalgia filter speaking. The level designs allowed you a little more room to catch your breath and were aided by all the upgrades Sonic and Shadow got, like the Light Dash, Bounce Bracelet, and Flame Ring. Heck, even Sonic Heroes got it right in a way by giving you three play styles to swap between on the fly. Even though Heroes was when the level design started to dip [even further] for various reasons, it at least remembered to give the player freedom, choice, and variation so you could race through levels or take time to enjoy their intricacies depending on your preference. Following that era though, you no longer see a Marble Zone after every Green Hill Zone, to put it figuratively.
Sonic games have really been trying to impress with speed, and that’s a bad design choice because not only does it sell his potential short, but there are a lot of practical problems with controlling fast things. High speed makes a player more prone to accidents, resulting in incredibly frustrating trial-and-error gameplay. It leads to situations where the player may be forced to keep running even if they can’t see what they’re running toward, leading to cheap deaths like running smack dab into a highway support pillar and plunging into the sea while fighting Perfect Chaos. I’m not a big fan of boost pads copiously scattered around levels too or other gimmicks that try to compensate by keeping the player on rails. Once in a while is fine, but isn’t the Spin Dash basically a portable boost pad? Why not use things like that to give the player the freedom to set his/her own progress rate instead of forcing them on and on?
I don’t really buy into Modern Sonic’s boost system either because it feels like a replacement for the basic spin attack, except it’s worse because its use is limited by a meter. The main thing that’s always made me want to enjoy Sonic’s sense of speed is the ability to curl up into a buzzsaw and tear through anything in my path. That allows me to build up ridiculous speed on slopes, use the gathered momentum to blast through levels, and be safe while doing so. When I’m just running though, I’m completely vulnerable and that makes me want to slow down. If boosting made Sonic curl into a cannonball of death and allowed you to coast in that form after releasing the button, it would be much more amicable. Instead, though the boost system is learnable and workable as-is, it requires too much adjustment and level layout memorization to be the meat and bones of a quality Sonic game. Besides, I personally suspect that the boost system is actually a crutch for loose physics.
As if that wasn’t enough, all of this is made worse by Sega’s lackluster play testing. The only promises Sega has ever made about Sonic’s future is that it involves slippery controls and levels that will always be rough around the edges.
I think I’m just gonna go ahead and make a bold declaration: Modern Sonic is a dead end. Even if Sega were to rub out all the bugs in a Modern Sonic game, they’d at best be able to make a nice game with him, not an awesome game on par with Mario’s efforts and not even something with the soul of the comparatively basic New Super Mario Bros. series. Delivering a mind-blowing speed experience requires sacrificing too much of everything else that makes a game great, especially one of the platforming genre, and even if it can be made to work, it will only ever appeal to the hardcore fanbase instead of broadening the audience. It will only ever be niche instead of earning Sonic the fame he once had.
HOWEVER… there is one place where Modern Sonic’s gameplay would fit perfectly: the Special Zones.
Special Zones are the one part of a Sonic game that can get away with mastery through trial-and-error because you often get dozens of chances at them and your reward for finishing them all is the ability to break the difficulty curve over your knee. I wouldn’t mind so much if the camera threw me off course in a Special Zone because it’s not like it would kill me there, and you gotta expect some pattern memorization when trying to earn the privilege of being nigh invulnerable. Why not even expand upon the Special Zones too? Have all seven of them come in 2 Acts or more, maybe explain them as the Chaos Emeralds’ attempts to protect themselves by creating alternate dimensions to hide in, and have a form of Chaos as the boss at the end of each one?
Heck, I’ll even be extra generous and say that maybe breakneck speed Sonic could work in the main game if it was an alternate play style you could swap to with a single button, like in Sonic Heroes. Imagine if Sonic had a “Sonic” groove and an “Adventure” groove; in the former he could control like a car and be able to power slide around turns, do quick-step dodges, and reach his highest land speed, while in the latter he’d have comparatively much lower top speed, giving you the extra control you need for tricky platforming and the agility for Mario-style acrobatics. Like a car, Sonic could have two “gears” to shift between, allowing for better control overall without sacrificing anything one way or the other.
Not many people seem to make a distinction between speed and agility, but for Sonic I think it’s essential. Focusing on agility over speed allows a character to be fast without the risk of turning the whole game into one of those highly unplayable Mach Speed sections from Sonic 2006. Remember the Insta-Shield in Sonic 3? That added to the game’s sense of speed in an innovative way; with split-second timing you could take out any enemy in the game with it, regardless of its defenses. The Light Dash from the Sonic Adventure games was similarly brilliant in concept, though it was sadly a bit finicky at times and borderline impossible to use with a Lightning Shield. Still, focusing on agility and timing like that allows you to make a fast-feeling game by adding control instead of sacrificing it for a wild rollercoaster that either plays itself or demands psychic reflexes. Heck, it could allow you to have your cake and eat it too, just like in Sonic 3 and Knuckles, the most epic game in the franchise to date!
I have absolutely zero faith in Sega’s ability to pull off something like this anymore though. In particular, the Groove system I outline is something they should only attempt AFTER Sonic finally “returns to form”.
To summarize: speed is Sonic’s shtick, but there’s a time and place for everything. Turn the breakneck speed levels into Special Zones and focus more on adventure, exploration, and agility over raw speed for the main game. Oh, and MORE BETA TESTING, PLEASE. This is what must be done if Sega really wants to pull Sonic out of his rut and KEEP him out, which I suspect they don’t actually want to do since even today they’re sort of an anti-Nintendo.
I recommend Sonic Generations because there’s a lot to like in it, but keep in mind that the Genesis trilogy of Sonic 1, 2, and 3 & Knuckles is still the gold standard for the series after all these years and there’s no reason to believe this game will be the start of a new quality streak, which feels exasperating at times because Mario has broken his own mold over and over again. What I really want to see is a Sonic game that’s as good as a Mario game again, so for people like me, I doubt the Sonic Cycle will ever be broken.