Stop and imagine, if only for a second, a world where Sonic the Hedgehog is still great. He’s still the speedy, arcade lunatic, synonymous with pure platforming fun. The true rival for Mario. There never was a time when Sonic tried to venture awkwardly into the z-axis, he never fell awkwardly in love with a human girl, there were no fights with medieval myths and he was never, ever a werehog.
Time travel is the central story motivator in Sonic Generations, and it’s impossible to miss the symbolism in a franchise that longs for better days. Sega have been milking the dead horse of Sonic the Hedgehog with a big money stick for 20 years, with most of the recent attempts quivering between horrible and mediocre. This time around, Sonic and his collection of amiable anthropomorphs are having a picnic when a gigantic purple thing comes out of the sky, kidnaps everyone and sucks all the life out of the world. It soon becomes clear that Sonic has been sent back in time. Mainly because there are now two Sonics (and two Tails, but nobody cares).
Generations lets you control both the hedgehogs: the modern version with his lanky legs, green eyes and super-cool attitude; and the mute, younger Sonic with his flatter shading and rotund torso. I much preferred fat and silent Sonic, mainly because his counterpart never shut the hell up. They each play very different versions of the same levels, Classic Sonic entirely from a 2D perspective, and limited to spinning and jumping attacks; Modern Sonic from a mix of 2D and 3D angles.
Flipping between hogs at will, you can explore a hub world composed of nine different zones that represent familiar points in Sonic history. Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant will instantly flood some brains with childhood memories, as might locales like Knuckles’ Sky Sanctuary, along with more recent areas like Planet Wisp from the not-too-shabby Sonic Colors. Each location is lovingly crafted with the usual lengthy highways, loops, jump pads, speed bumpers, floating blocks, falling blocks, gaps and grinding rails that one expects from the series. It’s not really a Sonic level unless you can’t tell what’s going on. The levels have some areas of decent challenge, especially if you’re the sort to try and perfect your jumps and reach every little secret area. Sadly, the controls do lag a tiny bit at times, particularly with jumps. And that can be murder.
As both Sonics complete a zone, the once-white void will slowly begin to fill with colour, which nicely represents your progress towards restoring order and delicious hot dogs. Progress is its own reward, as well, because Generations is a positively lovely looking game. All the environments are teeming with life and colour, making it rather easy to start staring at the scenery and forget there’s a bloody great big hole in front of you. There are waterfalls and factories and shimmering white beaches. Giant fish chase you through natural cave formations. During the course of a level you might hang from the bottom of a helicopter, ride a skateboard through city streets while a jet-powered truck tries to crush you or bounce gleefully off the nose of a friendly killer whale.
When you complete three zones, challenges will open up around the area. These challengers are all alternate versions of the levels they hover above, each with unique twists. Some are simple races against your hedgehog double, while others force you to chain power-ups together to cross obstacles or team up with (or against) Sonic’s friends to collect items or cross areas. The challenges seem to be trying to offer something different to the normal levels, the problem being I never asked for that. The levels are great, and being forced to do them when I just want to go really fast reminds me quickly of why I usually avoid modern Sonic titles.
You need three boss keys to be allowed to fight the boss in each area, and the keys can only be unlocked by playing a few of the challenges. Sonic Team have only really added this one very new thing to the very simple Sonic formula, and it’s the worst part of the game. Take note.
When you’re freed from these challenge shackles, however, everything is golden. Even if it was just the standard levels plus bosses, Generations would be a fantastically entertaining game. It really does feel like I’m 10 years old again and playing Sonic on my cousin’s Mega Drive. I was actually reminded of how good it is to simply play a game for the fun of it, and not for any sort of deep and meaningful experience. As you play, you’ll also unlock various artwork and music from the two decades of going really fast, which is a welcome addition and an incentive for replaying and perfecting levels beyond the leaderboards. You can even unlock the original Sonic the Hedgehog game in full for your playing pleasures.
Generations isn’t going to get any awards for pushing the limits. The majority of the game is various versions of the classic Sonic gameplay you’ve come to love and loathe, and the newer ideas bring nothing good to the party. But that’s the point. Sonic has never been a complicated idea: you’re a hedgehog, you have attitude and you go really, really fast. Tacking more and more extra ideas onto that has always been the reason newer Sonic games haven’t measured up. Here we have a game that, for the most part, just lets you run and jump and bounce off the sides of skyscrapers. And it’s very fun. Now if only someone will remake that old Aladdin game.