Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Sonic Generations - Gotta Follow My Rainbow

Back in the days of the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive, the idea of 'Mascot Platformers' were incredibly popular. Mario and Sonic were the kings of the genre, and their success introduced many imitators; most of them nowhere near as popular. Some may have heard of Sparkster or Pulseman, but you're an odd bird if you've heard of - let alone played - Awesome Possum (You're not missing anything if you haven't).
Moving on to the era of 3D games; Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter and Banjo Kazooie had entered the scene, and Super Mario was still going strong. Sonic the Hedgehog on the other hand had changed greatly with his foray into the 3rd dimension with Sonic Adventure, a point which die-hard enthusiasts of the side-scrolling experiences claimed was the point that Sonic had gone downhill. Today mascot platformers have largely disappeared, with Mario, Kirby, and Ratchet and Clank series holding out as the last bastions. Sonic has persisted through the ages, but the general quality of his games haven't managed to quite keep up with his peers.

More recently Sonic Team have managed to pull the franchise out of its funk with the bright and charming Sonic Colours for the Wii last year, and this winter they've released Sonic Generations - an honest attempt at taking the best of what made the old and new Sonic games fun, stripping away the additional mechanics that didn't work out, and wrapping it all up in a package that will get knowing smiles from fans of any age.

The set up is a complete throwaway excuse. A purple eldrich abomination made of purple fog and gears - the Time Eater - has ripped through Sonic's timeline, turning levels from his past into grey husks. This abuse of the time-space continuum also lets the Sonic of the modern day meet his younger self; shorter, chubbier, and (maybe thankfully) mute. Together they run through select stages of all the main-series Sonic games in order to get things back to the status-quo.

What this means in gameplay terms is that the game is bifurcated - half of the game is a smoothed-out, high resolution rendition of the 2D Sega Mega Drive style; the other half a tweaked and refined engine taken from Sonic Colours. Both styles of play are all about reaching breakneck speeds and good reaction skills, but the Classic Sonic stages are a lot more straight-forward in terms of controls than the Modern variant.
While this made the Classic stages easier to complete, they also felt a little less involved to me than the Modern versions. Modern Stages add in the ability to do aerial tricks, wall-jumps, and other neat acrobatics that feel incredibly satisfying when done correctly. All stages in the game have a certain rhythm to them that aren't easy to notice when playing for the first time, but as I progressed and retried a few stages, the quality of the level design became more apparent. That's not to say that all of the levels are great - late game stages Crisis City (from Sonic 2006) and Planet Wisp (from Sonic Colours) cause many deaths due to the level pitting the game physics directly against you. Even with the rest of the game's quality, these moments will easily wear your patience thin.

Aesthetically, Sonic Generations is a real treat. Not competing to bring about super-realistic environments, the developers focused on bringing all the stages to the current generation with as much authenticity as possible - and they definitely succeed. Green Hill Zone will be familiar to many, but when I started up the City Escape stage from Sonic Adventure 2 (The first Sonic game I ever played!), seeing how they managed to capture the feel of the stage without just copying the level wholesale brought on waves of nostalgia, and the widest smile.

The boss fights against choice final bosses from the series and against Sonic's rivals are both energetic and done with more creativity than I was expecting. The final boss, however, is lengthy and rather boring; a weak way to tie up the game. Just beating the game will only take a few hours, but there are over 80 Challenge Stages split evenly between Classic and Modern Sonic. They feature some interesting variations, and many are honestly a real challenge to beat. Those who like to chase after the highest ranks and full completion will find Sonic Generation a lengthier and more complete experience. But they might see some hair loss when they come to the hardest ones.

Sonic Generations is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC (360 version reviewed). Please note that the 3DS version of Sonic Generations is developed by a different team, and may differ wildly from this version.

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