Retrospective: Sonic Adventure

sonica

“SweetJesuslookatthatwhalethatlooksawesome!”

That – or something along those unpunctuated lines, anyway – was the thought that ran through my head the first time I saw Sonic Adventure in action.

I was about 18 years old, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed university student with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart, years before I became the angry, whiskey-soaked misanthrope I am today. I was in Another World (a shop that sold video games, comic books and other cool stuff), and they had a then-brand-new Sega Dreamcast on display, the console hooked up to a TV monitor showing a Sonic Adventure gameplay demo on a loop.

The demo in question showcased the game’s opening level, Emerald Coast, the highlight being the now-famous sequence where Sonic sprints along a wooden bridge, closely pursued by a killer whale leaping through the water and smashing the bridge behind him. It was a brief sequence but also a thrilling and visually spectacular one that helped launch the blue hedgehog onto a new console generation in style. I bought a Dreamcast soon afterwards. (And later sold it to pay the rent, but that’s another story).

Sonic Adventure - killer whale

Sonic Adventure was a launch title for the Sega Dreamcast, released in Japan on 27th November, 1998. Sonic had already been the Sega mascot for several years by then, this being based more on the character’s success on his original home, the Sega Mega Drive (a.k.a. Sega Genesis), rather than his limited and uninspired appearances on the Dreamcast’s predecessor, the Saturn, which never actually received an exclusive Sonic platform game.

Between the Mega Drive and the Saturn, the five people in the world who owned a Sega Mega-CD (myself being one of them – thanks, parents!) could enjoy Sonic CD, a worthy successor to the early Mega Drive games, while the two people in the world who owned Sega’s 32X add-on (don’t look at me this time – even I wasn’t that much of a Sega fan) only received Knuckles’ Chaotix, a spin-off starring Knuckles the Echidna rather than Sonic.

So Sega needed a return to form for Sonic’s debut on the Dreamcast, especially since as part of the launch line-up, the game would be responsible for selling the new console to people. Sonic co-creator Yuji Naka had spent his Saturn days acting as producer on games such as Nights into Dreams… and Burning Rangers, but returned to the Sonic series due to his interest in the upcoming Dreamcast console and the suggestion of Sonic Team colleague Takashi Iizuka, lead designer on Nights into Dreams… and the person who would go on to direct Sonic Adventure, to apply an RPG-style formula to a Sonic the Hedgehog game.

Sonic Adventure - Sonic Team logo

One working title for the new Sonic game was Sonic RPG, but this didn’t stick, which was probably a good thing since the game didn’t actually turn out to be an RPG. In the end, the more fitting Sonic Adventure was chosen.

Even though development had only begun around April 1997, Sonic Adventure was released in time for the launch of the Dreamcast. However, the tight deadline presented to Sonic Team meant that the original Japanese version had some planned content missing while simultaneously containing several glitches and bugs, such as the player being able to use certain characters in levels those characters shouldn’t have had access to, problems with collision detection, and various graphical glitches.

The game’s problems and missing content were soon addressed by Sonic Team, however. There was nearly a year between the release of Sonic Adventure in Japan and its release in the rest of the world, and this time was used to iron out some of the game’s issues and to include content missing from the original Japanese version: a full English voice track, subtitles in multiple languages, rumble support, more sound clips, better-organised menus, and more. This revised version carried the original Sonic Adventure title everywhere in the world except Japan, where it was released as Sonic Adventure: International Edition.

Sonic Adventure was the first Sonic game to feature free-roaming 3D gameplay and was met with a great deal of commercial and critical success, being praised for its graphics and soundtrack, and for retaining the dynamic and fast-paced gameplay of earlier Sonic games. In fact, Sonic Adventure would go on to become the best-selling game on the Dreamcast and is still considered by many fans to be one of the best games in the Sonic the Hedgehog series.

Sonic Adventure - cast

Although Sonic remained Sega’s primary mascot and the star of the game, Sonic Adventure actually featured six playable characters: Sonic the Hedgehog, Tails the Fox, Knuckles the Echidna, Amy Rose (also a hedgehog), the robot known as E-102 Gamma (catchy name), and Big the (giant, purple and apparently mentally impaired) Cat.

Each character had at least some levels specific to them, and each one also offered their own style of gameplay: Sonic focused on speed and the kind of platforming associated with the character, Tails raced against Sonic or Doctor Robotnik, Knuckles scoured levels to find hidden emerald shards, Amy had to evade a pursuing robot, and E-102 Gamma blasted his way through levels within a time limit.

As for Big the Cat… well, Big the Cat fished. Yeah.

Sonic Adventure - Big the Cat

Although Sonic Team deserved praise for offering players a variety of gameplay styles that worked well on the whole, Big the Cat and his quest to find and capture his friend Froggy (who was a frog – try to keep up) via the art of fishing was a misstep.

Apparently, Sonic Team conducted surveys during the game’s development to ensure that fans would be pleased with the finished game and its characters. If this is true, then obviously people were crying out not just to see fishing in a Sonic game, but fishing as carried out by a purple, feline version of Lennie from Of Mice and Men.

Sonic Adventure certainly wasn’t the first game in the series to increase the supporting cast, as this had been done on a regular basis dating back to Tails’ debut in Sonic 2 on the Mega Drive, with some characters becoming recurring ones while others slipped into obscurity (See you in Hell, Ray the Flying Squirrel!). Sonic Adventure merely continued an existing trend which remained apparent in a number of the Sonic games that followed it – the trend of the bloated supporting cast, which saw games surround Sonic with usually unnecessary characters who added little of value while simultaneously taking focus away from Sonic himself.

Thankfully, this is a trend which has certainly been scaled back over the past few years, as seen in more Sonic-focused titles such as Sonic Generations and the two digital episodes of Sonic the Hedgehog 4.

Sonic Adventure managed to keep the traditional and popular elements of earlier Sonic games such as high speed and well-designed, colourful levels while also introducing enough new elements to make the game stand out. Although once again the story essentially boiled down to Doctor Robotnik being a dick and trying to take over the world by harnessing the power of Chaos Emeralds, more attention was paid to it this time around, with each of the six playable characters having their own story which intertwined with the others, giving the plot and the game itself an interesting structure.

Sonic Adventure - Knuckles & Chaos

The increased focus on story was emphasised by other features such as the game being the first Sonic title to include full voice acting, the frequent cut-scenes, boss battles occurring at certain points in the story rather than at the end of a level, and the game’s full ending only becoming available after the completion of each of the six playable characters’ stories.

Even though the game didn’t turn out to be a fully-fledged RPG, depth was added to Sonic Adventure not just through the story but also through the dividing up of gameplay into Action Stages and Adventure Fields (along with the occasional sub-game such as snowboarding or driving a bumper car).

Action Stages were traditional-style levels, featuring enemies, checkpoints, a timer, etc., while Adventure Fields were non-linear areas containing NPCs with whom you could interact, some very light puzzles, and a number of hidden items and upgrades for the playable characters. The Adventure Fields were basically hub worlds, a first for the Sonic series.

The majority of NPCs found in the Adventure Fields were human, and all seemed unfazed at living alongside a handful of anthropomorphic talking animals. One suited and seemingly middle-aged man even asks Amy – the teenage pink hedgehog – if she’d like to go out with him on a date, a moment which manages to be wrong on several levels simultaneously.

Sonic Adventure - Chao Garden

Another new feature presented by the game was the opportunity for players to possess their own in-game virtual pets in the form of disgustingly cute creatures known as Chao, which could be kept in Chao Gardens accessible from the Adventure Fields.

By hatching and raising your Chao, you could then race them for your amusement, and to increase your chances of success, you could give your Chao the small animals you had freed from Robotnik’s robots in a previous Action Stage. The Chao would then absorb these animals and take on some of their physical characteristics – a pretty horrific fate for the rescued animals, when you think about it, and one that would lead to various hybrid-looking abominations crawling around your Chao Gardens.

Sonic Adventure - Doctor Robotnik

Sonic Adventure also applied an updated art style to Sonic and his supporting cast, giving them a more modern and detailed appearance, with Robotnik’s redesign being one of the best examples of this. Finally, Sonic Adventure was the first Sonic game to feature downloadable content, the Dreamcast being the first console to possess online capabilities straight out of the box. DLC for the game included themed decorations offered on occasions such as Halloween and Christmas, and the Chao Black Market, which sold items that helped players with the raising of their virtual pets.

Random personal side note: when I first played the game, Sonic Adventure was the holder of my “Best Sky In A Video Game” Award. During the course of the game you got to see some of the Adventure Fields at different times – day, dusk, and night – and I was transfixed by the star-filled night sky of the Mystic Ruins Adventure Field and the exotic, tribal-sounding music that played in the background. Meeemorieees…

The current holder of that prestigious award which I just made up is the sky in Rockstar’s epic western Red Dead Redemption: Best. Sky. Ever.

After the success of Sonic Adventure, you’d have thought that Sega would be keen to immediately replicate that success with a sequel or at least some kind of follow-up of a similar formula. Instead, Sonic Team’s next game would be Sonic Shuffle, a blatant rip-off of Nintendo’s Mario Party games and one that received generally poor reviews upon release.

Sonic Adventure - Sonic Adventure 2 cover

A direct sequel to Sonic Adventure did appear the following year, however, in the form of the cunningly named Sonic Adventure 2. Once again, six playable characters were available and new supporting characters were introduced to mixed response – Shadow the Hedgehog became popular enough to later star in his own game. Rouge the Bat? Not so much.

Sonic Adventure 2 was also the first Sonic game to appear on a Nintendo console, being ported to the GameCube as Sonic Adventure 2 Battle. Sonic the Hedgehog on a Nintendo console – it was a notion that would have seen you burned as a heretic and sorcerer had you suggested it during the early 1990s, the darkest years of the Sega vs. Nintendo Holy War.

Sonic Adventure 2 turned out to be the final Sonic game for the Dreamcast, as sales of the console declined due to the popularity of Sony’s PlayStation 2. Eventually – and sadly, given the console’s power and potential – Sega discontinued the Dreamcast and placed its focus as a company on software, the Dreamcast being its most recent entry to date in the console hardware market.

But Sonic Adventure lived on beyond the Dreamcast, being rereleased across a variety of platforms as the further-enhanced port Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut. Originally released for GameCube and PC, the Director’s Cut version of the game included Metal Sonic as an unlockable character, a brand-new Mission Mode, improved lip-syncing for the characters, shorter loading times, enhanced graphics, and fixes for some remaining minor glitches and collision detection issues.

The Director’s Cut also contained twelve Sonic games previously released on the Game Gear, Sega’s handheld console, although these bonus games only appeared in the GameCube and PC versions of the game, and were missing from its later release on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and digital platform Steam.

Sonic Adventure - Windy Valley

Although Sonic Adventure contained elements which would recur in future games in negative ways – mainly, the trouble developers often had adapting Sonic and his style of gameplay to a fully three-dimensional world, and the issue of an unnecessarily sprawling supporting cast – at the same time the game reinvigorated the franchise by combining some of its best traditional elements with exciting, brand-new ones. Sonic Adventure became a success because it deserved to be, not just because it was a game with Sonic’s face slapped on the front, as that didn’t count for as much as it used to after the character’s limited success on the Saturn. The console’s eventual brief lifespan aside, the game also showed right from the start what the Dreamcast was capable of.

Sonic Adventure - Emerald Coast

Sonic Adventure is one of the high points in the history of Sonic games, at the time hitting a sweet spot between the old and the new. It was the strongest entry in the series since its early days and has stood the test of time well, remaining to this day a better game than many of the Sonic games that followed it.

So, Sega? Dreamcast 2. Sonic Adventure 3. Go on, I dare you. (Oh, and if you could throw in Shenmue 3 while you’re at it, that would be great, thanks).

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