Sonic the Hedgehog: Old Meets New

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In 2011, Sonic turned 20. 1991 was a big year for the blue blur: he had his first ever public appearance in Sega’s arcade title Rad Mobile, then later in the year thrilled console gamers on both 8- and 16-bit Sega platforms with his first full adventures.

Naturally, such a significant anniversary needed to be celebrated — particularly since poor old Sonic had put up with plenty of resistance from press, public and even his own fans over the years. But how to go about it in a way that would please as many people as possible — or at least attempt to?

By acknowledging both his past and present, of course. Enter Sonic Generations.

Development for Sonic Generations began after Sonic Unleashed was completed, so ideas for it were being thrown around at the same time as Sonic Colours was being produced. While Colours was to be its own original game, Generations was intended to provide a high-definition re-imagining of the series as a whole — and alongside it, longtime Sonic Team collaborator Dimps was to put out its own separate 3DS installment celebrating Sonic’s portable history. The latter is beyond the scope of what we’re talking about today, so we’ll be focusing on the version which emerged for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Windows.

Producer Takashi Iizuka told Japanese publication Inside Games (translated by Destructoid) that he wanted to make “a game that incorporates memories from all 20 years into one package; recreating the old games with the latest technology, and trying to create an experience that will allow you to enjoy how you played originally as well as provide more surprises when replaying.”

Iizuka also noted that there were two distinct camps of Sonic fans — those who preferred the older 2D adventures, and those who had come to the series more recently with its 3D installments. His intention with Generations was to incorporate elements of both styles of play, but also jokingly acknowledged that crossing over between the two of them was “crossing a taboo”.

It’s actually not quite so wild a difference as you might think, however; while the “Classic Sonic” stages in the game do remain resolutely in 2D, despite the actual route through the level sometimes providing the illusion of 3D by going “around corners” and suchlike, the “Modern Sonic” stages follow the mould established in Unleashed and refined in Colours in that they change seamlessly between 3D and 2D action.

The 3D sections, for the most part, tend to involve high-speed racing-style action (including the “Boost” function that has been present since Unleashed) along with extreme sports-style stunts — there’s a new “trick” system in Generations that allows for quick recharging of Modern Sonic’s boost bar — while the modern 2D sections unfold much like Colours, incorporating environmental puzzles, the series’ traditional momentum-based platforming and often use of Modern Sonic’s homing attack for traversal as well as combat.

Generations’ choice of levels was based on both a poll of Sega’s employees and an Internet survey. The most popular stages ended up being those that were incorporated into the game — ultimately we ended up with three from the classic 16-bit era (Green Hill Zone from Sonic 1, Chemical Plant Zone from Sonic 2, Sky Sanctuary from Sonic & Knuckles), three from the Dreamcast/PlayStation 2 era (Speed Highway from Sonic Adventure, City Escape from Sonic Adventure 2 and Seaside Hill from Sonic Heroes) and three from the “modern” era (Crisis City from Sonic 2006, Rooftop Run from Sonic Unleashed and Planet Wisp from Sonic Colours). Each of these consist of two Acts: one for Classic Sonic, one for Modern Sonic, and each has its own unique remix or rearrangement of the stage’s iconic music rather than simply reusing the original soundtracks.

One of Iizuka’s aims for Sonic Generations was to make it highly replayable. To this end, the game eschews the exploration-based Red Star Rings system of Sonic Colours and instead incorporates a form of “challenge mode” once all six of an era’s Acts have been completed for the first time. Each zone has five challenge Acts per Sonic, covering a wide variety of gameplay styles. Sometimes they’re a straight speed challenge, simply tasking you with completing part of the level as quickly as possible, but at other times they offer very interesting, unique mechanics, and they provide an ideal opportunity to test your skills to improve your times, scores and grades.

Some of the most enjoyable of these challenge Acts involve Sonic’s friends. While you don’t get to directly play as any of the other characters throughout the game, certain challenge Acts provide you with the opportunity to use another character’s special ability to help you traverse the level. In one, for example, the enemy robots standing in your way have shields and can only be defeated by first using Rouge to distract them by firing sex at them; in another, there aren’t nearly enough safe platforms to walk on, so you’ll have to enlist the help of Charmy to create temporary whirlwind platforms to carry you over obstacles and hazards.

One of the nice things about Sonic Generations is that you don’t have to play all of these challenge Acts to complete the game; in fact, you only really need to complete one per zone in order to unlock the boss who guards the way to the next area. This means that you can complete the game — including gathering all the Chaos Emeralds, which are essential to open the way to the final boss in this particular installment — while only seeing about a third of all the things it has to offer. And don’t feel like the challenge Acts are just an excuse to recycle the same content from the main Acts to pad out the total game length, either; in many cases (particularly the “Friend” challenges), they’re unique levels that just happen to be set in the same scenery.

Gameplay-wise, then, Sonic Generations provides a suitably varied yet nostalgic experience that, in its Classic stages, feels like a solid update of the original Sonic formula — complete with multiple routes to success — while its Modern stages are authentic in their emphasis on a combination of sheer spectacle and speedy, snappy, stylish platforming.

The importance of presentation in a game like this shouldn’t be underestimated, however. If you’re attempting to trigger feelings of nostalgia for a 2D pixel art-based game but making use of a modern 3D engine to do so, you’d better have a solid understanding of what made that source material great — and how it can be suitably updated to a modern visual style without sacrificing its original “feel”. To this end, zones such as Green Hill incorporate many of their immediately recognisable visual characteristics, such as the checkerboard soil, striped grass and vast expanse of water in the background.

Arguably a more interesting challenge for the developers was taking zones that were originally 3D and converting them to play in 2D for Classic Sonic. Speaking with the UK’s Official Xbox Magazine in 2011, Iizuka noted that this was one of the most difficult aspects of the game’s development, since the defining features of many of the stages in question were designed to work in 3D.

Consider the original City Escape’s truck chase in Sonic Adventure 2, for example; sure, the team could have had a truck slowly advancing on Sonic from the left edge of the screen, perhaps combined with some sort of auto-scroll mechanics, but instead they chose to maintain Classic Sonic’s 2D gameplay while having the truck harass him by bursting out of the background at inopportune moments. This made for a much more dramatic experience, maintaining the 2D gameplay style while simultaneously incorporating modern elements that simply wouldn’t have been possible on older hardware.

And that’s a key thing to note about Sonic Generations, really; it’s not trying to completely recreate the experience of an old Sonic the Hedgehog game in the same way that the more recent Sonic Mania is. It’s trying to be a modern Sonic game that simply acknowledges and celebrates the series’ past.

One of the most amusing ways in which Generations does this from a presentation perspective is how it distinguishes Classic Sonic and Modern Sonic. Modern Sonic is how we’ve come to know him since Adventure: brash, confident, overly impulsive, a bit dorky, obsessed with chili dogs, thinks he’s cooler than he actually is but nonetheless has lots of friends. By contrast, Classic Sonic is short, dumpy, completely alone (aside from Classic Tails, who shows up a little later than his friend, in a nod to the fact Tails didn’t appear for the first time until Sonic 2) and totally mute — but he doesn’t seem particularly bothered by any of this. There are plenty of enjoyable comedic moments between Modern and Classic Sonic where the former is trying to make some sort of cool speech, and the latter just shrugs silently and charges into battle without him.

This actually brings up a good point about Modern Sonic in general, and how he manages to continue to make the “dude with a ‘tude” thing continue to work even though we’re now long past the 1990s when this sort of thing was popular.

Play a modern Sonic game — including Generations — and one thing you’ll notice is that Sonic never says anything during levels, aside from an occasional “woohoo” or “yes!” upon completing a trick or reaching a checkpoint. This allows the player to focus entirely on the mechanical aspects of negotiating the levels as well as the more spectacular visual elements where appropriate; it minimises distraction and also helps prevent the character from becoming annoying. Compare and contrast with a lot of modern Western games’ tendencies to have their heroes and heroines cracking wise at every vaguely interesting thing that happens during gameplay; a habit established back in the days of Duke Nukem 3D that has only gotten worse since then!

We can also look somewhat more broadly at the overall game structure in modern Sonic games in this way, too: there’s typically an extremely sharp demarcation between “plot” and “game”. In other words, we only really get a feel for Sonic’s personality in the “plot” sequences, which tend to be rather short and snappy and, especially in Colours and beyond, genuinely amusing.

In many cases, the “plot” side of things doesn’t even mention the “game” side of things, even when things occur during levels which you’d think someone might want to comment on. Generations is a bit of an exception to this, particularly in its early hours; upon completing the Chemical Plant zone for the first time, for example, Modern Sonic and Tails both comment on how it seems somehow “familiar”, with the latter noting that the purple water makes him feel “uncomfortable”. This is a reference to both the notorious panic triggered by Sonic’s traditional “you’re drowning” music, and the fact that a computer-controlled Tails would typically repeatedly fling himself into bottomless purple water-filled abysses in the original Mega Drive version of Sonic 2.

In some ways, this lack of acknowledgement of what occurs during the actual levels of modern Sonic games is firmly in keeping with the personality the writers have established for Modern Sonic up until now. Adventuring, saving the world and defeating Eggman have almost become passé for him at this point; one of his most frequently heard lines in the more recent games is “that’s just what we do”, typically in response to someone thanking him for his efforts with adoring incredulity. Dashing at supersonic speeds through geographically and physically improbable environments? Defeating mythical creatures? Bringing down flying fortresses? All in a day’s work.

In fact, “all in a day’s work” is pretty much a solid summary of what Sonic Generations is all about. It doesn’t really do anything completely new for the series on a grand scale — we’ve seen all its component parts several times across numerous games by this point. Where Generations distinguishes itself, however, is in combining all these elements together into a single game, and in providing a pretty comprehensive celebration of Sonic from over the years — rather pleasingly including some of its installments with less positive critical receptions such as Heroes, Unleashed and 2006.

While part of Sonic the Hedgehog’s public-facing presence — specifically, its English language Twitter account — has become known for its snarky, self-deprecating and at times disappointingly embarrassed tone when it comes to acknowledging these less popular parts of the blue blur’s history, Sonic Generations demonstrates that the people actually making the games understand what has made Sonic great over the years, and how these underappreciated installments remain an important part of the series’ history and continued evolution over the years. Yes, even Sonic 2006, which I’ll state once more for the record is nowhere near as bad as the Internet likes to make it out to be.

But I digress. Sonic Generations is simply a great Sonic game in its own right, regardless of how familiar you are with its original source material. Go in with a full understanding of everything that has come before, however, and I defy you not to be in nostalgia heaven from start to finish while simultaneously enjoying the good things that modern Sonic has brought to the table.

A fitting birthday celebration for the spiny one, then, but by no means the end of his story!

More about the Sonic the Hedgehog series

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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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