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First of all, an explanation is due. I am, perhaps, Sonic the Hedgehog’s biggest fan, and I’m certainly not here to recount the classic “He’s got green eyes! He’s slightly taller than he used to be!” argument from the school of internet criticism that thinks everything after Green Hill Zone Act one is nothing short of blasphemy. I spent my formative years introducing myself to primary school teachers and friends, not by my given name, but as Sonic. I’m certain that the Christmas day upon which I received a Mega Drive and a copy of the original Sonic The Hedgehog will never be surpassed as ‘Best Day of My Life’. And I still have hopes of naming my first-born after the speediest and bluest member of the Erinaceinae family.
Of course, it’s common knowledge that things have gone a bit awry lately. The thing is, you could forgive Sonic for being awful when Sega were relentlessly trying to cram him into whatever clothing they thought he might fit in; an Arabian werewolf who dabbled in LARPing every other weekend. That’s not Sonic, so of course it was going to be bad. They were just trying to make a 90s icon – the kind of icon who used words like ‘radical’ and ‘awesome’ – radical and awesome again, in an age where words like ‘radical’ and ‘awesome’ were no longer radical nor awesome. Slowly but surely Sega would see sense, and realise that the blue blur was at his best when he ran really quickly on a 2D plane. Right? So, after a long wait, Sonic Generations came along, and it was meant to be the game that fixed everything. It wasn’t.
The problem with Generations is that it had so much going for it – the lack of pointless gimmickry, the ‘back to basics’ gameplay, the vast oceans of nostalgia value – and it still turned out as nothing more than average. Most obviously, the gameplay was just shocking. What’s that? You can’t react to the sudden appearance of some spikes in less than an picosecond? Well, we don’t need your kind here. Don’t get me wrong, the original Sonic games used speed as their calling card, but they were built on a foundation of flawless, classic platforming. In Generations, both Sonics certainly zip along, but they both handle like they’ve had the bottom of their shoes coated in jellied eel-niks, and its meant the game has turned into yet another frustrating mess.
And playing the nostalgia card, while not exactly mistake, has had its problems too – it’s just created a sort of tunnel that allows us to see how bad things have become in recent years. Inexplicably, its the awful games that have been plundered the most for material. As the stages get progressively closer to the present, you see how the charming and imaginative badniks of the original games give way to Death Egg-loads of offensively generic anthropomorphic robots. One of the new enemies is simply a floating pistol; Sonic Team having presumably exhausted their reserves of imagination by deciding Sonic should have extendable wolf arms that day. The level design also mirrors this gradual yet irreversible decline into the mundane; look no further than the post-apocalyptic yawn of Crisis City or the pre-apocalyptic snore of City Escape. Adding a tornado of fire or a truck with chainsaws attached to it into the middle of a level does not equal excitement.
There’s an unintentionally heartbreaking scene at the end of the game where Modern Sonic wishes his Classic iteration farewell. “Hey Sonic! Enjoy your future! It’s gonna’ be great!”. You want to throw down the controller and grab him, slap him round the face a few times and scream “No! Stay in the past!”, in a desperate attempt to let him know that there’s nothing ahead but awful spin(dash)-offs, terrible level design and, presumably, a drinking problem. Because when cute, round Sonic of old rolled into our hearts in 1991, he was nothing short of a revolution, a character that not only re-defined platforming gaming but managed to shift the console allegiance of a less fickle generation of console owners remarkably in Sega’s favour, with the Mega Drive outselling the SNES two to one in the halcyon days of the early nineties. And sure, he’s had his problems since then, but that’s because SEGA never stuck to the formula. With a decade since his last properly good game, they’ve finally tried it out again… but, somehow, they’ve still managed to get it wrong.
You see, if there’s one thing that a Sonic game should never, ever be, it’s mediocre, and that’s what Generations undoubtedly is. So perhaps it’s time to hang up those red sneakers…
It is no secret to anyone, anywhere, that I am a massive Sonic fan. While I personally wouldn’t use the word “fanboy” (although perhaps the denial of the title has already told you more than you needed), but I imagine that many people would label me as such. Why is that? Well, if I were to be painfully, brutally honest, I would probably say that there has never been a Sonic game I haven’t enjoyed. From speeding through Green Hill Zone in Sonic one with nary a two-tailed fox nor a spikey-knuckled echidna in sight, to using the magical properties of aliens in Sonic Colours to drill down into a massive mountain of candy, there has never been a time where I’ve thought “This isn’t fun.”
The thing about Sonic, y’see, is the fact that he’s really, REALLY quick. Like, REALLY quick. And yes, that seems very obvious, but if you stop and think, that was quite the break-out quality to have. At the time of Sonic’s first arrival on the Mega Drive back in 1991, it was this that separated him from everything else. His games weren’t based around overly intricate platforming, nor storming a level and killing every enemy in sight. Your goal in Sonic was to get from A to B in ten seconds flat. What, you saw a monkey throw a coconut at you? Big whoop, I’m pretty sure Sonic was in another country by the time that coconut hit the ground. Running fast, pulling stunts and looking cool – that was always the Sonic way.
And that was why playing a Sonic game was like playing nothing else. A game where you blitzed past everything at the speed of sound, a game where staying still for longer than two seconds made you feel like you were doing it wrong, a game where rolling through snake-shaped tunnels and speeding through twists and loops made you feel like a badass. And sometimes, all these feelings could be achieved just by holding down right and enjoying the ride.
So, you might criticize the new Sonic titles for having dodgy platforming, insufferable characters, weird gimmicks, and overly elaborate, logistic-questioning relationships between a Hedgehog and a 14-year old girl, and those are fair criticisms, don’t get me wrong. But one thing that has always stayed with the series, from 2-D to 3-D and back to 2-D again, is the feeling of speed. The feeling of blasting through the world at a million miles an hour, of bouncing from obstacle to obstacle without a care in the world, and looking damn cool as you do it. If anything, graphical capabilities of the current generation has only made this feeling better – I would honestly say that the Rooftop Run level from the fanbase-splitting Sonic Unleashed gave me more pleasure than the entirety of the old Sonic titles, and I don’t say that lightly.
The new Sonic titles do have flaws, sure. But once you hit that boost button and see the edges of your screen blur, see the swathes of enemies in your path scatter like dominoes, see the defiance of gravity fifty times in one second…you just can’t stay mad at the guy. One thing’s for sure, I’d take him over a fat Italian plumber any day of the week.