This review was originally published in December 2011.

We’ve run up against the limits of the possible: That’s the precis of the cultural malaise which descended upon us all over the last few years. It’s the most insidious form of attack, damping our motivation and stymieing our progress; and the worst part of it is that we’ve launched the barrage against ourselves. We’ve become jaded. What would be the point of getting excited about any future project, since its achievements would be so incremental that we’d barely feel the difference? We could go to the moon, but what would be the point, since we can’t live there? Better to retreat into nostalgia than continue futilely pushing against the elasticated bounds of the future and end up where we began, poorer for having pointlessly spent our energy.

Luckily, once in a while a precious parcel arrives from the past and, perhaps, illuminates our future. Arrested Development is being brought back, to deliver comedy safely through the marshland of underpants bullshit and pointless knobheads to a golden land of plenty. Blur are to perform together again, reminding us that music should be enjoyed rather than endured. And, most unbelievably of all, Sonic the Hedgehog is back, and good! Anything is possible now; perhaps it always was. Maybe by mid-2012 I’ll be living on Mars and jetting off to my job fighting dragons in the heart of a star! My heart is already beating: Yes, that‘s how shockingly good Sonic Generations is – it made me feel feelings again. I think this one is called ‘hope’.

Sonic Generations’ stated aim is to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the franchise by recreating classic levels from past games and allowing the player to experience them using the skillset of either ‘Classic’ or ‘Modern’ Sonic. Sonic Generations’ implied aim is to revive the franchise by jettisoning all the bullshit (read, ‘werehog‘) game-specific gimmicks that consistently distanced the games from what initially made them so compelling and concentrating on its more successful aspects. The predictable (but welcome) method of achieving this was by removing the extraneous additions from a formula that doesn’t even need boiling down to ‘move from left to right through a level’ because it already was that. The success of Sonics 1 – 3 & Knuckles was predicated upon their relative simplicity; straightforward, skillful platforming through distinctive, imaginative levels. Thankfully, SEGA appears to have finally recognised this and pared the gameplay of Generations back to that state of grace, and it absolutely works.

The ‘classic’ gameplay feels transplanted directly from Sonic 2, with Sonic’s abilities limited to running, jumping and the iconic spin-dash, all of which do exactly what you expect them to so navigation feels pleasantly responsive and, despite my misgivings in my preview, spamming the spin is less powerful than it appears. Meanwhile, ‘Modern Sonic’ has access to a boost, wall-jumps, stomps and homing attacks. In recent iterations of the franchise this wealth of skills has resulted in gameplay that felt loose and imprecise, like a prostitute with Parkinson’s, since it was hard to marry Sonic’s trademark speed with stop-and-go platforming in three dimensions. Generations largely avoids these problems by having rather linear levels, intricately well-designed so that you see anything requiring accuracy coming a long way ahead and can react accordingly, keeping the momentum going. It also makes use of the skills in ways that contribute to rather than detract from the sense of speed, such as judicious use of the boost allowing Sonic to run on water like a blue rodent Jesus. It’s not perfect; at speed Sonic’s sideways motion is curiously ponderous so you’ll be reliant upon the vagaries of the quick-step move and his jump is just not high enough to reach platforms it looks like you should be able to, but it never becomes frustrating and both methods of playing are fun, albeit in very different ways. Only the final boss is less enjoyable than it ought to be, due to SEGA’s long-standing affectation of having a completely different control scheme for the last encounter, denying you the catharsis of putting your acquired skills to the test. It’s like being at the moment of climax, O-face prepped and ready, and the girl producing a Rubik’s Cube and demanding you solve it. You’re likely to a) get frustrated by this sudden change of pace and b) wonder where she produced it from.

As competent as the gameplay is it’s ultimately just a tool for navigating levels, however, and it’s in the design of these that Sonic Generations excels. Each one has been culled from an entry in the main series of games and, while it would have been enough for them to have simply been well-designed levels skinned to resemble those levels aesthetically, SEGA have recreated parts of topography you’ll remember from past games; certain half-pipes, enemy locations and even the placement of springs have been lovingly recreated so returning players can laugh in reminiscence even as they progress to the next, new challenge. It’s a genuine treat to see returning locales rendered in 3D, and navigating classic 2D set-pieces like Chemical Plant’s liquid-filled pipes in a new dimension is a shameless nostalgic delight. Visually Generations is superb; the framerate rarely drops even as you skim through areas rich in colour and depth. When Sonic slows down it is possible to see the relatively low-resolution textures but, frankly, if you’ve slowed down then you’re not playing the game correctly.

The translation of ‘classic’ gameplay into the more modern levels is less successful; partly because the more cluttered graphics sometimes make it hard to establish which areas you can jump to but mainly because they lack the nostalgia factor. The choice of modern levels is also slightly problematic because their lack of variation also betrays the dearth of imagination with which SEGA has approached the franchise recently. Compared to the gloriously sun-drenched Green Hill Zone, chemopocalypse-inspired Chemical Plant Zone and Sky Sanctuary’s hidden palace overshadowed by a stentorian mustachioed space station, the modern levels are, respectively, a city, a city, a beach, a city, a city and an alien amusement park. Despite the samey nature of their aesthetics, they’re uniformly fun to play through, furiously frenetic and imbued with a real sense of velocity that fulfills the series’ promise.

Story-wise, it’s all so much dross, although it’s surprisingly how willing SEGA is to satirise its flagship series’ fall from grace: They’ve recast Sonic as the harshest critic of his own bullshit, and by the time univerally-despised Charmy Bee appears his frustration is palpable. It’s surprisingly endearing and the self-parody means you’ll almost forgive the series its recent faults. At present, though, fans consider releasing Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 an atrocity on par with devouring a baby in front of its parents so I suspect SEGA still needs to perform more penance. Above all else however, Sonic Generations is symptomic of SEGA’s Renaissance, a return to their aim of making games that are purely fun. As the relaunch of a long-stagnant franchise and a standalone game, it’s an undeniable success. If, at the close of 2011, such a feat is possible, then anything is. This breath of fresh air has become a gale.

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