Sonic Generations is a fitting celebration of the blue blur's legacy. We imagine somewhere deep inside Sonic Team's Tokyo headquarters there's a whiteboard packed with diagrams, text and flowcharts. Written at the head of the whiteboard in bold, red marker pen are the words 'Breaking The Sonic Cycle'. Venture into any Sonic thread on any internet forum and you'll read of the legendary meme, which pertains to the psychological cycle in which Sonic fans gets excited for a new release in SEGA's banner series, only to be let down by the time the game releases.
Sonic Generations — SEGA's celebratory release designed to mark the 20th anniversary of its mascot's first appearance — breaks the so-called 'Sonic Cycle'. Emphatically. This is a fitting tribute to the legacy of a great video game character, and also a loving piece of fanservice that not only resurrects what was great about 90's era Sonic, but also manages to steer modern Sonic in an enjoyable direction too.
While hardcore Sonic fans would point to last year's Sonic Colours as an indication of the Usain Bolt-beating hedgehog's true return to form, Sonic hasn't had much luck on PlayStation 3. The system launched with the borderline broken Sonic The Hedgehog way back in 2006, and has since played host to the promising Sonic Unleashed and Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1. Both titles fell victim to the 'Sonic Cycle', staging exciting debuts before quickly disappointing almost everybody that got sucked into the hype.
Sonic Generations is the best Sonic game to appear on PlayStation 3, and arguably the best in the series for a long, long time. Its self-referential humour mocks those elements that fans have cringed over on message boards, and its nostalgic re-imagining of famous Sonic zones makes it a tour-de-force for those that have grown up playing SEGA's premium platforming series.
Even if you're a newcomer or someone that's managed to avoid Sonic these past few years, this is a landmark piece. For the first time in years, Sonic Team's managed to craft a release that not only emphasises the appeal of Sonic games, but also accurately translates that sensation into a series of stunning three-dimensional environments.
The plot, as you might imagine, is mostly nonsensical. Upon celebrating his 20th birthday — with a chili dog and friends — Sonic and co. are sucked into a time hole that sees him reunited with his former self in a timeless dimension. Using the conceit that Sonic can run really fast, Sonic Team set up a plot in which classic Sonic and modern Sonic must sprint through a selection of former stages in order to bring time back to the world and defeat a nefarious foe. We're not going to spoil anything here, but you can probably guess who the main antagonist is.
It's all flimsy exposure for an ultimately brilliant structure, but that's okay because Sonic Team handles the nonsense with its tongue firmly placed in cheek. While Sonic's ill-fated friends return — a key component of the 'Sonic Cycle' — Sonic Team made the dialogue as downright ridiculous as possible. For the first time ever, it feels like the developer is in on the joke, and it's satisfying in the way it subtly ridicules its own silly cast. One exchange sees a key character query, "Who are they?" in reference to all of Sonic's irritating friends — to which a prompt shrug summarises the sentiment of Sonic's entire fanbase.
If you still absolutely can't stand the "too cool for school" mentality of Sonic and his crew though, SEGA's included the original Japanese dialogue on the disc, allowing you to switch to a less grating set of voice actors while keeping English subtitles on screen. You'll miss out on some of the subtleties in the humour, but at least you won't have to put up with voices that sound akin to fingernails scratching a chalkboard.
The game takes place in a minimalistic hub world dimension known as the White Space. This alternate landscape plays host to each of Sonic Generations' zones, and provides a small sandbox which you can explore. Within this hub world you can switch between Classic and Modern Sonic, both of which are privy to unique movesets and adapt the kind of action you'll engage in during each of the game's nine stages.
Each stage has two acts, one for Classic Sonic and one for Modern Sonic. The Classic Sonic stages are traditional, two-dimensional platforming affairs similar to the character's early adventures on Mega Drive. The platforming feels convincing and familiar, with the same physics that made the character's early outings such a success. Those that played Sonic The Hedgehog 4 will be all too familiar with how poorly the game replicated classic Sonic's core abilities — but that really isn't a problem here.
Surprisingly, however, it's Modern Sonic that's the star of the show. Make no mistake, the familiarity of the level design and the quality of the action when playing as Classic Sonic is spot on, but because it's taken SEGA so long to produce an enjoyable set of three-dimensional Sonic stages, the Modern Sonic components of Sonic Generations feel like something of a revelation.
Here the action is fast, fluid and white-knuckle exciting. Stages twist and turn as Sonic dashes into the foreground and background, a sentiment that conveys the chaotic structure of Classic Sonic stages while keeping you in a three-dimensional viewpoint. Sonic Team's not afraid to fix Modern Sonic to a two-dimensional viewpoint when necessary, but the thrill of these levels can be best observed when sprinting down a hill from a third-person perspective, holding down Square to boost into enemies and switching between lanes with the shoulder buttons.
There's enough dazzle and set-piece action in these acts to overlook the moments where it feels like the game's running in auto-pilot, and the level design is layered enough to force you into multiple playthroughs. Hidden red coins — on both Classic and Modern Sonic stages — as well as online leaderboards enhance the replay value, and while the stages are short, they're the kind of things you'll want to play over and over in order to earn higher ranks, better scores and shorter times. Even when you've done everything, the levels are so fun you'll just want to play them again for the sake of it.
There are hints of the issues that have plagued three-dimensional Sonic for the past ten-or-so years, but nothing that's truly problematic. The camera can sometimes be a bit sticky — we encountered one instance of Sonic falling through the ground — and the framerate in particular can be extremely problematic during moments of sheer craziness. but that's perhaps a flaw of the aging PlayStation 3 hardware and a testament to Sonic Generations' ambition.
It's a shame that the game doesn't shoot for 60 frames per second, but seeing as it barely manages to maintain 30FPS it's probably for the best. Sonic Generations is a visual spectacle whether you're playing as Classic or Modern Sonic, with scenery convincingly crumbling around the character and huge background set pieces taking place at every opportunity. It's a real treat to look at, and includes full support for stereoscopic televisions. It's just a shame that Sonic Team couldn't maintain the spectacle without dropping frames, as it kills the sense of speed somewhat.
The image can also look a touch blurry, perhaps a result of running at a sub-HD resolution, but really these are just nit-picks with what is otherwise a breath-taking visual experience. Seeing classic stages such as Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone re-imagined in three-dimensions is a genuine treat, as is seeing formerly three-dimensional stages re-done as though they were classic Mega Drive Acts.
The nine-stage strong roster spans Sonic The Hedgehog — the good one — through to Sonic Colours, and is generally pleasing. Sonic Unleashed's Rooftop Run is well represented, and even 2006 travesty Sonic The Hedgehog manages to produce an impressive stage in Crisis City. The game is a celebration of all things Sonic, and those that have invested in the original releases will get a lot out of the re-imaginings and rearranged orchestral scores.
Of course everyone will have their favourite levels that they wish would have been represented. We personally would have liked to have seen Oil Ocean Zone, and it certainly makes a convincing case for a sequel of kinds. SEGA has said that Sonic Generations is a one-off, a spin-off piece designed to celebrate Sonic's anniversary. Given the critical and fan reaction, in addition to the probability of impressive sales, we're curious if SEGA's arm will be twisted into producing a Sonic Generations 2 of sorts, though.
The game's structure sees you tackling each of the nine zones as Classic and Modern Sonic in order to return life back to the world. You'll traverse through three eras — the Mega Drive era, the Dreamcast era and the modern era. Upon completing three stages in each era, 30 challenge zones are unlocked. These take existing stages and spin different rules into them — one sees you using Tails to fly across impossible ledges, another sees you racing against other characters. These stages add massive amounts of replay value to the game, and while some are significantly more enjoyable than others, include some nice alternative mechanics to shake things up.
Completing challenge stages also unlocks access to the various boss fights in Sonic Generations, which are unfortunately one area in which the game falls flat. Repetitive solutions and cheap deaths can become a particular source of frustration here, especially in the game's concluding stage which is a particularly poor summation of the experience. You'll also find mini-boss fights along the way. These 'rival' battles are reminiscent to the Sonic Rivals games that popped up on PSP, and see you fighting against some of Sonic's most famous adversaries — Metal Sonic, Shadow and, erm, Silver? — in a slew of more enjoyable chase sequences.
Along the way you building up a directory of concept art, classic soundtracks and game videos to watch. Sadly, none of the old Japanese commercials are included. You'll still have to dig out your old copy of Sonic Jam on the SEGA Saturn to enjoy those. You also earn experience points which can be spent on various perks a la Call Of Duty which can be applied to different 'loadouts'. These give you bonus features, such as the ability to brake more quickly or rescue more rings once hit, and allow the experience to be personalised to your specific taste.
It all culminates in a game that not only celebrates the history of Sonic, but also steers the franchise in an exciting direction. Classic Sonic is undoubtedly fun here, but it's Modern Sonic that steals the show. Sprinting through a three-dimensional Green Hill is a real thrill, and it proves that Sonic can stay fun and faithful on the modern generation of systems.
It's unfortunate that the game hits a bum note during its boss fights, opting for frustrating and cheap encounters rather than memorable set pieces. But that and a variety of small technical issues are the only blemishes on this otherwise outstanding, and surprising return to form. It's fitting — and somewhat heartening — that a celebration of Sonic's legacy should ultimately steer the series back to brilliance. Sonic Generations doesn't just break the 'Sonic Cycle', it goes one step further, culminating in the blue blur's best outing in years. A must play.