Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sonic Generations - Sonic Team Hates Classic Sonic

at 6:28 PM
Having jumped straight from Sonic 3 & Knuckles to Sonic Adventure to Sonic Generations, some might say I have an idealized impression of the Sonic franchise. That I didn't wade through the mires of ShadowSonic '06, and Unleashed, so my positive reaction to Generations is ill-informed at best, baseless at worst. I say: A.) fuck that attitude and B.) I tried and opted not to play many of those games. And for some reason I played two of Dimps' spinoffs, Sonic Colors (DS) and Sonic 4: Episode I, neither of which was particularly great. That said, Generations is a terrific place for anyone to return to the series, or to start with the series, or to continue the series. It's an exceptionally fun game. I'm leery of evaluating its longevity just a few days after purchasing, but the main gameplay is reliably lightning-fast racing fun, and there are a wide variety of technical challenges on offer. It's just... when it comes to the modern/classic dichotomy, it seems to convey the opposite message about the series history than the one you'd expect.

Just to give you an idea of the game's content: there are nine main stages. They've been designated into three generational chapters and are based on what I guess are considered the nine primary series entries: Sonics 1, 2, and 3 & Knuckles, then Adventure, Adventure 2, and Heroes, then Sonic ('06), Unleashed, and Colors. This provides a pretty wide variety of mostly recognizable settings, the joke of course being that the remade stages are almost all the first or second of their respective games. Surprisingly, that's not detrimental aesthetically - the lush Green Hill Zone couldn't look any Foreigner from the ethereal and alien Planet Wisp, nor could the frantic suburban City Escape from the European carnivalesque Rooftop Run.
The difficulty curve is a bit of a letdown - it's there, but late. Crisis City (stage 7) was the first stage where I felt at all challenged, then Rooftop Run held that note and Planet Wisp was actually a touch hard. These final levels took a lot longer to complete (>10 minutes) and contained genuine deaths from under-performance rather than randomness. Still, I woulda preferred those three levels as the middle set with three harder to follow. Also, even with an extended final boss sequence, ending on the Colors stage is weird. I realize there's not much they could do about that - that's just the order of the games - but the hardest stage is also the one with a big gimmick? That's just doubly frustrating.

Considering that the entire concept of the game is that Sonic has been divided between his Classic and Modren self, I couldn't help my dismay that Classic Sonic was sidelined as the story drew to a close. While the meat of the game is divided precisely 50/50 between the Sonics (each main stage and challenge has an Act 1 (Classic) and Act 2 (Modern)), the decisive events (read: boss battles) are dedicated to one Sonic or the other... but mostly to Modern. The first two boss fights are Classic; the subsequent four are Modern. The final battle is neither, but one could say it technically falls into Modern (if it's not old, then it must be new...). Like 'em or not, the boss fights are the game's Really Big moments, providing most of the challenge, plot progression, and catharsis of the campaign. And the latter two-thirds of these moments are given to Modern Sonic.
Beyond that, both Classic and Modern stages reflect traditional and latter-day design ideals, but with a distinct preference for recent trappings. The debate of whether Classic Sonic is genuinely in tune with Genesis Sonic is a separate one*, but it can be agreed that Generations establishes Classic as a gameplay paradigm distinct at least from its own Modern Sonic. Except that as the game progresses, the Acts 1 (Classic) begin to adopt the definitive elements of Modern Sonic: the crazy dynamism, floating platforms, powerful enemies, goofy power-ups, and so forth. This would make sense in a game dedicated solely to Classic Sonic: as he visits the worlds of '06 and Colors, we'd want to see those trademark concepts appear and be incorporated into the Classic formula. But that's not what Sonic Generations is - Sonic Generations is a game that theoretically runs the current Sonic play-style in parallel with that of years past. Because of this progression in Classic Sonic's stages, the two styles kinda converge at the end - the modern feel is obviously there all along in Modern Sonic, and growingly present in Classic. It's redundant - we already get to experience the stages in their new-fangled glory when playing Act 2 - isn't Act 1 supposed to be showing us the traditional underpinning? Why is it also showcasing the modern features? Makes Classic Sonic feel pointless, like they don't know what to do with him.

Though the slanted representation is quantitatively accurate according to the series' history (like it or not, 3D has been Sonic's modus operandi for almost two-thirds of his life), it's not aligned to popular perception, or, moreover, the promise of this game. I can't help but feel like it serves the agenda that Classic Sonic Is Gone For Good. Generations' endgame can be taken as a declaration of the ideal state of the Sonic character: first, as the culmination of his latest appearance, it should demonstrate the pinnacle of the principles guiding up to and through this game. Second, Generations story is quite literally the story of the series, so its climax should translate to Sonic's climax. That these key moments star Modern Sonic and his according style of gameplay seems to suggest that Classic Sonic has no place in the conclusive, evolved state of the series. Sonic Team kinda seems to be saying "our vision of the optimal Sonic experience does not involve the original Genesis foundation". Which is a really weird thing to say with the game that you dedicated to bringing back Classic Sonic! It's wildly cynical (and hardly something I actually buy), but you can almost imagine the pitch as, "let's do a bait-and-switch where we lure 'em in with the assurance of the good ol' days, then prove that the Colors gameplay is better!" Still, that's my takeaway from Generations. Not "both Sonics have a place in the world". Instead, "we've weighed both Sonics. We prefer the Modern one."

HANG ON THOUGH...

Sonic I said hang on.
Thank you. I realize it's pretty unfair to make you read that much and make me write that much to at this point say "eh I've been withholding a secret theory". But I'm not going to invalidate anything I've claimed so far. The endgame definitely puts the focus on Modern Sonic, and as established, Generations doesn't break from our narrative tradition of rising tension and climax, so there's no questioning that Modern Sonic makes the strongest impression after a first play-through. But this does suggest a second reading of the game, one I haven't yet pursued. In particular, it raises the question: do Modern Sonic's early stages present an abundance of classic design? That is to say, is the inverse of my heretofore observation also true? It's not something I picked up the first time through (I think Modern Sonic's Green Hill Zone just felt like Sonic Adventure's Emerald Coast), but without a read in mind, the initial stages of a game often whiz by. So that's a little homework for the next time you play Generations. Write down the ways in which the first few Modern Sonic stages are inspired by the Genesis games. Maybe the whole game is a see-saw. At the moment, that remains pure speculation.

*as the resident expert, hopefully Greg L. will cover this in a companion piece - suffice to say that Classic Sonic is at least inspired by Genesis Sonic and does try to emulate elements of its design, like stop-start pacing and pathfinding.

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