Embracing Sonic's heritage has never been easy for Sega. 2006's Sonic the Hedgehog was conceived as a fifteenth anniversary reprise for the franchise, but birthed stillborn with little regard for Sonic's past (or functional gameplay). Sonic Unleashed did a better job of celebrating Sonic's speed by finally offering a reasonable means of controlling him in three dimensional space, but also burdened players with those infamous werehog segments. Sonic 4, delivering crass reproductions of casino nights and green hills, was as close as Sega was willing to bring back classic Sonic without literally remaking every Sonic game. And here we are, with Sonic Generations, a game that, almost literally, remakes the better parts of every Sonic game.
Generations seeks to repair the division between Sonic's illustrious 2D Genesis days and sloppy - but still wildly popular - 3D modern incarnations. Nine levels from most of Sonic's biggest games have been reinterpreted in both 2D and 3D. Act 1 of each level is confined to two dimensions and reserved for the charming, pot-bellied Sonic we fell in love with in the 90's. Act 2 more closely follows Sonic's recent 3D outings with a taller, talkative, and slippery Sonic. Its genius, really; half of an level openly mines nostalgia while the other half offers a parallel response from a different perspective. Better yet, through the lens of modern hardware, every single zone looks beautifully rendered and wildly detailed.
Sonic Team's level selection knocks off a few prerequisites but flashes plenty of risky choices as well. Sonic the Hedgehog's Green Hill Zone was a given, but plucking Chemical Plant and Sky Sanctuary from Sonic 2 and Sonic and Knuckles, respectively, must have been the product of a dozen drawing board arguments. In a way they're both a really smart choice. Chemical Plant isn't a theme (like Casino Night) that Sonic has been forced to repeat in a Groundhog Day like hell for the last decade, and it also boasts those iconic switching arches, shifting cube snakes, and malevolent pink water. Sky Sanctuary functions along the same lines; its muted color pallet and fleeting serenity stood out at the time, and more so now that modern Sonic titles have left little room for subtlety.
Sonic's adolescence is relived with Speed Highway from Sonic Adventure, City Escape from Sonic Adventure 2, and Seaside Hill from Sonic Heroes. Speed Highway, in particular, is a bold choice, especially with its selection over Emerald Coast and its celebrated whale chase. In the end I suppose Speed Highway's setting, with Sonic running from police on roads and through buildings, served as a better means to demonstrate his unavoidable haste. City Escape, complete with its San Franciscan down hills, maniac tractor trailer, and goofy music, was the obvious choice from Adventure 2. I doubt anyone cared much what was pulled from Sonic Heroes but Seaside Hill is relatively inoffensive.
And then are the more recent levels. I suppose Sega couldn't get away without acknowledging Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, which is why Crisis City makes an appearance. Admittedly the flame soaked highways and crumbling buildings fare better under Generation's 2D control scheme, but if Generations was supposed to be an exercise in nostalgia then I'm nearly positive better levels could be found in Crisis City's place; no one wants to be reminded of Sonic 2006. Rooftop run is a great level from Sonic Unleashed and thankfully leaves the werehog nonsense at the door. Planet Wisp, pulled from the Wii's unusually impressive Sonic Colors, is the surprise of the bunch. Lush foliage and purple rivers do well to compliment a rusted industrial jungle, and you even get to employ a couple Wisps along the way.
In what feels like a concession to modern game design, Sonic can also equip skills. Bought from a shop and governed by an inherent amount of points, Sonic can allocate a handful of skills into sets for each level. Some are available at the beginning of the game and others must be earned. Athleticism allows Sonic to run normally under water, Power Brake gives Sonic the ability to stop instantly, and Auto-Gauge will fill up Sonic's boost gauge. I avoided all of these on my first run through Generations, but I will concede that employing a few, specifically the elemental shields, were good for some cheap thrills afterward.
Character control was typically the culprit behind Sonic's unintentional exercises in frustration. It's a double edge sword; Sonic needs to be the fastest thing around at a moment’s notice, but also requires the capability for light platforming and occasional precision movement. In the 2D levels Sonic actually behaves admirably. His build to acceleration is well paced, and next to the spin dash there aren't any extraneous control options or crazy camera angles to get in the way. Sonic Team even had the confidence to eliminate his homing attack (though it can be equipped later as a skill), which was major crutch in Sonic 4.
The 3D segments benefit from years of refinement, but can still ease into a frustrating mess. Complexity is added in the form of the familiar lock-on attack and boost, but the main obstacle to overcome remains Sonic's general movement. Incorporating the Sonic Unleashed's shoulder button path switching is a godsend for Sonic's high speed movement, but low speed control can still create some navigation mistakes and feedback problems. I found myself botching jumps or slowing down unexpectedly, resulting in several sections that seemed to force trial and error over intuition and skill. "Well, it's better than it has been" isn't the highest compliment one can pay, but in Sonic's case, where faulty control was source of incapacitating rage and frustration for years, Generations ain't half bad.
Level design is consistent with Sonic's usual challenges. Multiple paths spouting off into different directions are a given, but their visibility seems a bit better in Generations. In Chemical Plant's second act, for example, those huge pipes off to the side aren't simply decoration - you can actually hop over and use them to get someplace new. It seems most every path eventually bottlenecks into a few familiar landmarks, but they always open up again before finding the same endpoint. Better yet, level-specific devices from past games pop up in unexpected places. Marble Garden's spinning tops, for example, appear in Sky Sanctuary, and Emerald Hill's signature corkscrew ramp makes a cameo in Green Hill Zone.
If there's one area where Generations falls on its face, it's the boss fights. Each of the game's eight bosses allude to ghosts of Sonic's past, but most also lack any sort of real challenge. The faceoff with Metal Sonic on Sonic CD's Stardust Speedway gets a pass for replicating a cherished moment from a beloved game, a luxury not afforded to similar confrontations with Shadow and Silver who, even with Omochao's irritating tips turned off, are all too thoughtless. The last boss in particular is a complete waste, as it not only arrives with endless annoying clips from Sonic's friends, but also tasks the player with a myriad of options when you only really need to do one specific action to claim victory. For the strength of Generation’s levels, it's disappointing to see so little attention given to what should have been its biggest, most bombastic moments.
Eighteen acts can be cleared in less than five hours, but challenge rooms haphazardly spread throughout the hub world extend Generation’s clock. Ten for each level task the player with challenges like beating a ghost Sonic in a race, freeing animals from Eggman's capsules, or clever usage of Sonic 3's shields, among others. For each level there are also two challenges that involve some of Sonic's friends. Breathe a sigh of relief because you're not forced to play as them, though some offer some neat abilities. Summoning Espio gives Sonic a Bionic Commando like hook shot, and Rouge can use her charms to hypnotize enemies. Some of the challenges are half baked and infuriating, beating Vector's beats comes to mind, but in general the challenges provide a welcomed change of pace.
Extras and unlockables also provide a reason to stick around, and Generations has a ton of them. Beating a level or a challenge always unlocks a piece of artwork or music track from Sonic's past. Musical numbers can also be applied to any level, and celebrate a considerable amount of diversity. The museum music from Sonic Jam (itself a Sonic 3 file select remix), Super Sonic Racing from Sonic R, Door into Summer from Chaotix, and Diamond Dust from Sonic Blast being particularly surprising. It's also worth mentioning that most every piece of music has been remixed or updated with proper instrumentation, owing to the sense that Sega understood the importance of high-end production in Generation's audio presentation.