Thursday, June 23, 2011

The 'Tude is....back?

See that? Depending on what Sonic fan you ask, THAT is the real Sonic. A huge head, a bit of pudge, and that know-it-all grin.

It’s Sonic’s 20th Anniversary, and even though the years have not been kind to the blue blur, with Sonic Generations, something just feels different. There are no gimmicky characters, No terrible butt-rock. No nonsense plots, and for the duration of this demo featuring Classic Sonic, no terrible camera work or questionable 3D gameplay. Just you, Sonic, and what the Green Hill Zone would’ve looked like had the game released in this day and age, with the technology available, the demo seems to promise as it’s booting up.

It truly has never looked better.

It’s quite breathtaking, to be honest. Similar to the way Street Fighter IV brought its classic characters to life, The Green Hill Zone practically jumps from the screen with meticulous detail. Lush, volumetric grass sprouting from the ground, rolling waterfalls, and a background that’s filled with similar areas to the one you’re exploring. It’s literally like staring into a panorama of several Green Hill Zones, and it goes a long way into making the area feel more alive. Enemies have received a similar overhaul, being distinctive and well animated, though occasionally they can get lost in the hustle and bustle of the backgrounds.

Strangely yet not offensively so, everything has a larger-than-life effect similar to Sonic Adventure 2’s reimagining of the level, but it’s once again in the stage’s favor, as the drastically pulled back camera does much to showcase all the extra details on display as well as set the stage for some fun camera work. For example, even though the game remains fixed on a 2D plane, everything looks feels three dimensional, with platforms that feel like canopies as you run beneath them, or piranha who leap over bridges from the foreground to the background. There are even certain parts of the map that cause the camera to react dynamically, like an especially fun effect that sees the camera over his shoulder to add a rollercoaster-like effect for running down a hill! The music is something to write about as well, sounding just as anyone who has played the first would remember, but with all the instruments composer (insert name here) wishes he had when struggling with the Genesis’ sound chip way back when. Overall, the game accomplishes with gusto what Sonic 4 tried to do and failed: Making the old new again, while maintaining the same retro sensibilities.

Even the control accomplishes this. While they aren’t as smooth as I would’ve liked, with an odd stickiness that sort of tethers Sonic to flat surfaces, there’s no denying that it’s the closest approximation to classic Sonic that Sega’s been able to muster in over 15 years. I even took the time to fire up the original Sonic 1 to confirm my suspicions, and it was a smooth transition. The sense of inertia and speed you get from careening down a hill, or the gradual climb before a steep hill are present, and it makes the return to platforming all the more welcome. (Yes, platforming.) Even at this early stage, it seems that the “plaforming with speed rewards” type gameplay is back from the Genesis days, and everything from swings, to springs, to corkscrew loops are all here and well accounted for. This is another beautiful thing, as the stages are absolutely MASSIVE in scope, somewhere between Sonic 1 and 3 in terms of alternate paths and hidden areas accessible by only the finest of reflexes.

At one act, the demo is a bit short, and one can only wonder why the second act featuring Modern Sonic was excluded from the package (along with the 20-day expiry date), but I have little worry for the final product. The daytime stages in Sonic Unleashed, and Sonic Colors have been some of the best translations into 3D the series has ever seen, and if they keep that spirit intact for the full game, I have little to worry about. What I do know however, is that the part I was most worried about turned out better than I’d hoped. I loved the classic stage, and given that I've played through the demo three times and found something different each time through experimenting, I'm confident that if all of the classic stages continue in this fashion, Sonic fans are going to be in for a real treat come this fall. I've never felt so nostalgic playing a modern Sonic before.

Bravo, guys.

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