I actually may have giggled a bit with glee as I got to grips with Green Hill Zone in 3D on the show floor last week. But then again, it's one of the most iconic video game levels of all time, so warm glows of nostalgia are par for the course, really. You could be forgiven for thinking that nostalgia will be the only reason to pick up Sonic Generations when it hits the shelves later this year, but while Generations is pretty much a big, fat 'Best Of' to mark Sonic's 20th anniversary, it is by no means just a copy and paste job of level we've seen many, many times before.
Green Hill Zone is a perfect example. The levels have all been 'reimagined' to a certain degree, with all of the settings in the game - spanning the length and breadth of Sonic's career - playable in two different modes: Classic and Modern.
Taking the reins with Classic Sonic revealed the blue hedgehog to be a little stockier than usual. It's important to note that none of these reimagined levels are identical to their original counterparts, so while there were multiple routes, badniks, little tunnel bits (the original S-bend and zig-zag before going airborne is recreated), springs everywhere and aerial puffs of golden-ringed wonderment, the layout differed not only between Generations and Sonic the Hedgehog, but also between Classic and Modern modes. Classic Sonic, having a bit of a rounder belly, felt a little heavier than his skinnier, modern clone, and was confined to a retro 2D plane.
More focused on the platforming side of things, this seemed very much a mode built for exploration, the slightly weightier controls allowing for a setup more geared towards platforming, missing jumps and corkscrews more often than not led to caves and other untouched areas rather than just hedgehog suicide. Controls are simple and straightforward here, as you'd expect them to be, with running, jumping and the odd spin-dash the only options available. But then, that's all you're going to need.
Modern Sonic, conversely, takes a big fat leaf out of the excellent Sonic Colours and throws features at you. There are super speedy 3D on rails sections that are just pure nirvana for the eyeballs and they segue nicely into 2.5D areas that are highly reminiscent of Donkey Kong Country Returns. Speed is the order of the day for the 3D sections, bouncing off of enemies with homing attacks on one button, sidestepping and dodging giant piranhas with a nudge of a bumper, and it felt good. Really good. The framerate doesn't drop a single bit, even in the more dazzling cinematic parts to Modern sections, and Green Hill zone looks glorious in stereoscopic 3D - available across both modes.
A further treat came later that day in a tiny closed-door preview of another of the levels not shown on the floor. This time, producer Takashi Iizuka walked us through a demonstration of another iconic level from Sonic's past, this time from Sonic Adventure 2: the marvellous City Escape. If you're unfamiliar with the level, it essentially involves Sonic racing downhill , a blade at his feet, and off into the hilly and loopy streets of San Francisco, all the while being chased by an enormous armoured truck.
The Modern version of the level sticks quite closely to the original, beginning in the same fashion, seeing Sonic sprint down the sides of towering buildings, the ring-powered boost helping propel our blue and spiky friend that little bit faster. Riding the blade again at the start of the level - and Iizuka wasn't afraid to bust out a few tricks - ticked several nostalgia boxes. But, again, there are some subtle differences to this level too. There seem to be more alternative routes for a start, Iizuka-san highlighting once again as he did in the months before Sonic Colours came out, the importance of replayability and striking a balance between high speed and exploratory platforming. The GUN Truck is even more menacing than before; the familiar chase sequence towards the end of the level now had Sonic dodging massive buzzsaws emerging from the vehicle's cab. The level also looks absolutely gorgeous, a far cry from the XBLA offering of Sonic Adventure that emerged last year.
Classic Sonic's take on the level, however, was completely new. Strapped in to the 2D plane once more, Iizuka's demo had Sonic barely dropping down onto the streets below as he did in the Modern runthrough, instead jumping around over rooftops and hurtling along scaffolds of construction sites. That marauding GUN Truck was even more prominent , this time zigzagging in and out of the foreground, appearing every so often to demolish the landscape and cut off certain routes if Sonic wasn't quick enough. Even better, there's a new 'classic' dance remix of 'Escape From The City' that is utterly brilliant that blares out as our hedgerow-dwelling chum races about the place, and a few 'Wanted' posters up around the city give shout-outs to old favourites Bark and Bean.
Far from being lazy updates of old games - as Sonic Adventure was on the virtual arcade marketplaces - Generations continues the mission statement set out in Sonic Colours - trying to find that perfect balance between classic and modern styles and trying to get the best out of both worlds. Iizuka and his team might be accused of trying to have their cake and it eat it too, but this is far from a confused project. On this evidence, they've struck up a winning combination, using the original levels as inspiration, whilst also incorporating some of the finer new features and gameplay styles we've seen over the years. Sonic has let himself down a bit on occasion over the years, but twenty years marks his status as a popular, enduring survivor for whom we have a lot of goodwill. We want Sonic to succeed, to stand up tall alongside Nintendo's pantheon of gaming greats. And Generations looks like it might just help him do that.