Happy Birthday Sonic!
He's twenty years young, and judging by the latest instalment of this apparently never-ending series, he's got a good few games left in him yet. Sonic Generations is both an homage to the original Mega Drive Sonic the Hedgehog, released in 1991, and the suggestion of a possible future for the interminable hedgehog where 2D and 3D live happily together.
3D has always been a bit of a problem for Sonic. Resplendent in 2D - fast, varied, interesting with tons of replay value - the hedgehog struggled to follow his great rival Mario into the third dimension, hoodwinking critics with the Emperor's New Clothes of Sonic Adventure on Dreamcast before settling into a pattern of unsatisfying 3D platform games that threw you into bottomless pits every ten seconds and tried to tell stories instead of just spin-dashing.
SEGA has pulled itself together in recent years and gotten Sonic back on track, though, most notably with last year's Wii exclusive Sonic Colors, and Generations continues that trend. Using the conceit of a nasty time-travelling new enemy who has disturbed the course of history, it gives you control of the original 2D Sonic and his 3D counterpart in the same game, switching you between 2D levels and 2D/3D hybrids.
This allows the developers to emphasise the best elements of the series - the incredible speed, the precision platform sections, the variety in level design and the many hidden sections and alternative routes that will keep you coming back - while reducing the frustration associated with bottomless pits, running out of lives and losing control of your character into occasional frustrating footnotes. They're still issues, but you don't encounter them anywhere near as much as you used to do because most of the game is in a format that you actually like.
Magical Mystery Tour
Since this is a magical mystery tour through the series' history, SEGA has also gone through and picked out some of the best settings of the last twenty years to use as the basis for each of the levels. You start off in the familiar Green Hill Zone, but before long you're in Sonic 2's Chemical Zone, Sonic Adventure 2's City Escape and even Sonic Colors' Planet Wisp.
The action is relentlessly colourful and engaging thanks to the many context switches, meaning that you can be racing up the side of a gigantic, sky-scraping clock tower and then leaping into an airship one minute and trawling through a factory riding platforms and using rockets to boost through loose metal plates five minutes later. Nothing outstays its welcome, save perhaps the Crisis City levels, brought in from the disastrous Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 release. (Honestly, as if that awful game hadn't suffered enough.)
Shop For Skills
As well as straightforward Sonic levels where you just aim to get to the goal without losing all your lives, Generations has you heading back through the various Acts trying to fulfil mini objectives, like rescuing a bunch of cute critters or outrunning Knuckles, so that you can unlock Boss Keys, which predictably need to be used to tackle the few boss characters who block your path between Zones every hour or so. The challenges are many and varied, although sometimes more trouble than they're worth.
Another new idea thrown in for this celebratory release is the Skill Shop, where you can spend the points earned by completing levels on gameplay modifiers like an instant brake or higher top speed. In a nice touch, you can also unlock an in-game Mega Drive controller, which you can plug into an in-game Mega Drive and play the original 1991 Sonic the Hedgehog in its entirety. It's still awesome.
Sonic Generations is a return to form for the hedgehog, then, although it still suffers from many of the same old problems in places. The jump is slightly laggy, the bottomless pits can be infuriating and it's also too short - over in just a few hours if you speed through the Zones and do the minimum of challenges. It's great fan service for die-hard Sonic fans, though, and a great choice for the kids this Christmas as well. Sonic may not be the all-conquering gaming hero he once was, but he's pretty good value for this twentieth birthday party.
- Lovely new 2D Sonic levels.
- Wonderful tour of hedgehog history.
- Unlock the original Mega Drive game.
- Slightly laggy controls spoil the party.
- Bottomless pits. Just stop.
- Only a few hours long.