A lot can change in 20 years. When the original Sonic the Hedgehog launched on 23rd June 1991 we didn't even have the Super NES in the West, and the thought that Nintendo and SEGA would one day work together was less than laughable. Yet here we are, two decades later, playing a celebration of Sonic's career on Nintendo's latest console.
A lot has changed in those 20 years. While Sonic has firmly established himself as SEGA's commercial poster boy, his games have slowly diverged from the early 1990s template, when going around a loop at top speed was the biggest thrill: now Sonic grinds on rails, boosts and has to run away from everything bigger than he is. Sonic Generations wants to reconcile the two styles in one package, but it never quite satisfies.
The story behind Sonic Generations is standard fare: Dr Eggman has discovered a new monster — the "Time Eater" — and wants to use it to destroy the world. One unfortunate side effect is that the two timelines collide, bringing Classic and Modern Sonic, Tails and Eggman together. What's most disappointing is how the story is told: whereas the HD versions get fully rendered cut scenes, 3DS owners are left with talking character portraits, text boxes and the occasional portrait box that shakes or moves. There's no sense of movement or progression with these scenes; they feel more like placeholders than part of a polished product.
But let's not overplay the importance of cut scenes in a Sonic game — many will be glad they received less attention than usual. Picking up Classic Sonic and racing through Green Hill Zone is as appealing now as it was 20 years ago: with just a spin attack, jump and spin dash, this is recognisably the Sonic of old. Playing as his Modern version essentially puts the game in Sonic Rush mode: Sonic gains a boost bar and homing attack, with the balance weighted more on all-out speed than building momentum.
The differences between the two aren't as pronounced as Sonic Generations on 360 or PS3, which features 2D and 3D stages, but the boundaries become more blurred when the homing attack is added to Classic Sonic's arsenal. Here the game deviates from its campaign promise of recreating early 90s Sonic gameplay: having Classic Sonic use a homing attack changes the level design, encouraging you to chain enemies together and zip straight over to springs instead of skilfully measuring your leaps. It's entirely optional to use the homing attack, of course, but you won't access the fastest routes without it, and it becomes more and more important as you progress.
Modern Sonic has had almost no such changes made, and handles more or less identically to his past Dimps-produced handheld outings: with three similar titles on DS before it, the game's modern stages feel assured, with some smart use of background and foreground 3D to introduce alternate routes. It's often thrilling, and the addition of warning signs when approaching death drops helps to limit the frustrating deaths. Cynics may note it's still often a case of holding boost to win, but it's less hands-off than previous titles, at least.
Bosses and special stages will also be familiar to Rush veterans: bosses often sit in a circular arena, though the game uses 3D space more smartly this time, switching between planes deftly. The special stage sees you racing through a tube picking up coloured balls to grab a Chaos Emerald, and is essentially lifted straight from Sonic Heroes.
You may feel there's little here to surprise, and that's half the point, of course: it's supposed to be a celebratory revisit of Sonic's best bits and it regularly succeeds; Mushroom Hill Zone is particularly well captured. The sound also excels, with some high quality remixes and familiar sound effects to round things up.
While the regular story mode won't last too long, your playtime is extended by the presence of online multiplayer, time attack and 100 missions that offer tiny challenges to spice things up: defeat no enemies, complete a boss with just one ring, perfect runs and more. Challenges are unlocked through story mode progression, StreetPass hits or Play Coin purchases, and once conquered offer artwork, character models and music to browse.
Ultimately, however, it's hard to shake the feeling that Sonic Generations isn't all it could be. Just as Sonic Unleashed on Wii was pared-down next to its HD sibling, so Generations feels lacking: there's no overworld exploration to speak of, no red rings to find and little of the same sense of a new perspective on classic games. Adding the homing attack to Classic Sonic betrays the game's core appeal of enjoying Sonic as he was; instead it creates a strange hybrid that doesn't quite satisfy either camp. There's still the odd physics bump to smooth out too, though the game handles far better than at our hands-on preview earlier this year.
Sonic Generations has a lot going for it: it looks good and offers plenty of content, and when it's on form it succeeds in combining Sonic's platforming and speed in a single package. Some design choices miss the mark though, and it's undeniably short and unambitious compared to Super Mario 3D Land. Most of all, it never quite recaptures the original's vibrant spirit that made it stand out 20 years ago.