Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
Sonic the Hedgehog has seen better days. It’s kind of a cliche in video game communities, but it’s hard to deny the effects this sentiment has had. The developers at Sega themselves are even aware of it, having gone so far as to create an entire game to fix what many have considered broken. In Sonic Generations, gone are the legions of ancillary characters, and gone are the bloated features that distract from the hedgehog’s purpose. Generations is a return to the halcyon days of Sonic, when Sonic was about speed and nothing else.
Or at least that’s the idea behind it. The truth of the matter is that for as much as Generations wants to embody that old Sonic ethos, it carries some serious misconceptions about what that ethos was. Not that that’s a bad thing—ironically, this proves to be one of the game’s greatest strengths.
Before I can really explain why, though, I have to address the elephant in the room: Sonic games were never about the speed. Or at least not at first. I’m aware of how counter-intuitive that sounds, but if you look at some of the earlier Sonic games (the very games that Generations claims it’s mimicking), you’ll find that speed doesn’t play as big a role as you seem to remember. What these games chose to focus on instead was patience and precision. The levels were filled with all sorts of hidden treasures that hasty players would blaze past, and obstacles that forced said players to slow down to think things through. They were navigational challenges, like any other game at the time. Speed was merely the game’s way of rewarding you for your patience. This becomes clear within seconds of playing the first game in the franchise: your first actions in the game only slow you down, and it isn’t until much later in the level that you find yourself moving fast.
Contrast that against how Sonic Generations envisions its own past. Unlike the earlier Sonic levels, which only hinted at speed, Generations’ levels fully embody it. Every spring, every curve, every single feature is designed to send you along this exhilarating roller coaster experience. You barely have any time to analyze your surroundings as the lush greenery speeds past you in the blink of an eye. What value would patience or care hold in a world like this? The levels contain so much empty space that it’s often easier (and to your benefit) to speed past everything than it is to engage with any of it. If anything, the game bears a stronger resemblance to modern Sonic games, which often ask the player to give up control so the game can move them about the level in exciting ways.
So Generations looks at its source material less as an absolute authority and more as a vague blueprint. That’s perfectly fine. It’s more than fine, even: the game’s failure to recreate the old Sonic spirit offers a healthier look at nostalgia than the game had probably intended. Trying to recreate the past is a futile effort, not only because of how difficult the task is, but also because it’s a retreat from one’s problems rather than a solution to them. By appealing to an idealized past that might not have even actually existed, you deny your ability to face your problems in the present. Sonic himself would do well to learn that lesson, seeing how his earlier games only avoided the problems in his newer ones through absence (absence of plot, absence of a 3D perspective, absence of superfluous secondary characters, etc.).
Looking at the past as a blueprint, on the other hand, averts such worries, since such a strategy still lends value to both the past and the present. We can see that in the game’s story, where it first combines the two time periods. I mean that quite literally: the game follows old Sonic and new Sonic as they team up to destroy the Time Eater, a temporal creature that threatens to destroy everything Sonic cares about. For fans of the franchise, this is clear meta-commentary: the series’ excesses have finally caught up to it, and not only will they destroy the present, but they risk taking the past along with it. At the same time, though, this problem is too big for either Sonic to handle on their own.
Why new Sonic can’t solve this problem alone should be obvious, since if we were to extend the meta-commentary, we’d find that these problems start with him. Yet that doesn’t mean the solution lies entirely with old Sonic, either. It would only make sense, then, for the game’s design to follow suit and merge their approaches together.
Just because the game doesn’t follow its predecessors to the letter doesn’t mean it completely ignores what they did. Those games lend Generations some very important structures, the most important of them being the 2D perspective. As contradictory as that might sound, I don’t see the use of a 2D perspective here as a kind of retreat. It’s more like a realization: removing a dimension makes controlling the player’s speed a lot easier. This in turn allows the game to realize the ideals its modern counterparts have strived to realize for years. It’s a true synthesis of past and present, the former bringing structure to the game while the latter contributes substance. Not only does such a strategy allow the self-realization that Sonic needs, but it also offers room for growth that the franchise can’t achieve just by looking toward the past.
Old Sonic lacks some of New Sonic’s moves and, by virtue of his difficulty adapting to a lot of these challenges, shows us how futile it is to embrace an idyllic past. Even within the game’s constrained 2D world, getting the hedgehog to move is a bit of a hassle. He has too much inertia; he won’t jump quite as far you thought he would, and he has trouble stopping on a dime. Yet to describe this as an inherent problem with the game would severely devalue what modern Sonic games are all about: speed without precise control. And new Sonic can handle that just fine.
For a game based around nostalgia, it seems odd that all we’d learn are its many limitations. This shouldn’t be a cause for concern, though. By learning to let go of the past, we can begin to better appreciate the present. Or at least that’s the attitude Sonic Generations takes toward the Sonic franchise. Its failure to venerate the games it holds in such esteem creates this strange, roundabout love letter for those games—and goodness knows they needed it.
Brian Crimmins is a freelance game writer who critically analyzes older Japanese titles.
RELATED: The Gamers Next Door Play ‘ZombiU’ with The Zombi Unicorn at The Playboy Mansion