Sonic Adventure – Dreamcast
Developer: Sonic Team / Sonic Team USA
Release Date (NA): December 23rd, 1998
Genre: Platformer, Action-Adventure
Rating: 6 (taking “for its time” into account); 4 (if it were released today)
Reviewed by: Nike Halifax
“Get a load of this!”
-Doctor Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik
Do you like coffee? Me either—upsets my stomach too much. I mean, I like the taste, but it isn’t nice to me. Makes my heart beat really fast, like Sonic. Sonic probably doesn’t drink coffee. He wouldn’t need to. Hell, his metabolism alone probably keeps him up at night; poor guy probably hasn’t slept since birth.
Well, that’s not true—there was the Saturn. We didn’t see much of him on that system. Sonic, for various reasons, never made a proper debut on the Sega Saturn; the good men and women of the Sega gaming world had to make due with an anthology collection and a weird on-foot racer. That’s the gaming equivalent of, what, a clip-show episode of Boy Meets World? Yeah, there were Sonic games for the Saturn, but there wasn’t a SONIC game. Like, what if the Nintendo 64 never had a Super Mario 64, just Mario Party and Mario Kart 64? That’s all Sonic had for the Saturn. Sonic R is a racer, Sonic 3D Blast is the clunky, isometric port of a clunky, isometric Genesis spin-off, and Sonic Jam is just an anthology. The closest we got to a proper 3D Sonic platformer on the Saturn was Sonic Xtreme, and that was canceled.
The Blue Blur phoned it in for the Saturn generation, but at least he had his rest (unlike me), and (also unlike me) he came back in full force with the US launch of the Dreamcast.
In his first full polygonal 3D outing, Sonic was given a makeover by way of a new voice, a new body, and a plethora of new game mechanics. Featuring six playable characters, an intertwining storyline, fully-voiced cutscenes, a couple of FMVs, next-gen graphics, blast processing fast gameplay, and a rockin’ soundtrack, Sonic Adventure was set to take the gaming world by storm. And it totally did. I think.
To this day I’m still not entirely sure. As far as I know, Sonic Adventure was a success, critically and commercially, but today everyone seems to think that was because it was the first proper 3D Sonic platformer, and it was on a new system, and it was a launch game, and…
I don’t know. Maybe it’s the fact that it hasn’t aged well. Some of the scenery is still nice to look at, and the characters animate decently…except when they speak. The mouths are laughably bad when doing so. Maybe it’s the music. It’s timeless—timeless in that way where it sounded old when it came out. That worked to its benefit, initially. A lot of the more “traditional” levels (i.e. the ones that pay stronger homage to the initial 2D games) are scored in a way that captures the simple exhilaration of moving at a high speed. But the rest is just…noise. I love “Open Your Heart” (the game’s de facto theme song), but I love a lot of the 3D Sonic music and, quite frankly, some of that music shouldn’t be loved. That’s not to say there aren’t some good tunes. I liked the various boss music tunes, E-102’s theme is funk-tastic, and the Mystic Ruins theme is catchy (and mildly trance-inducing) in small doses.
Sound and graphics aren’t everything, but even the gameplay is hit-and-miss…mostly miss. I mean, you can’t say Sonic Adventure isn’t ambitious. Each character controls differently, and gameplay ranges from running to flying around and digging for treasure. The game is split between traveling around a hub world to solve various puzzles (which usually leads to the next level for whatever particular character you’re playing), and the actual levels. Sonic’s levels are the classic “get from here to there, and do it fast” we expect out of a Sonic game. There are platforming sequences interspersed with high-speed sections, a little snowboarding here and there, but for the most part it’s classic Sonic (in THREE-DEEEEEE).
Probably the single greatest addition to Sonic’s transition into 3D is the homing attack. When Sonic jumps, pressing the jump button while in the air propels him forward in whatever direction the analog stick is pointing. If you hit and destroy an enemy, you get the opportunity to perform another homing attack. There are some opportunities (and some required sequences) where you can basically chain homing attacks between enemies. Homing also works for hitting ring bubbles and springs. I really can’t stress how great the homing attack is. It basically turns enemies into a means of keeping up momentum rather than a way to halt it, and it’s satisfying to blast through a narrow tunnel then zip through a line of enemies over a dangerous chasm. It also adds a slight puzzle element to the levels without bogging them down, as sometimes you need to choose what enemy to attack and when to attack it.
Unfortunately, only Sonic and Tails’ levels are a real blast to play. Tails only gets a free pass because most of his levels are Sonic’s levels, the only real twist being that he must beat Sonic to the finish line. Yeah, he can fly, but that doesn’t really change level progression all that much. Regardless, Sonic and Tails are the most fun to play. By a twist of cruel fate, they also have the most issues. The rest of the character campaigns range from “adequate” to “this is justifiable cause to murder an innocent human being.”
Knuckles, for example, is “adequate.” Out of everyone, he’s honestly the most fun to control, as you can run, jump, punch, glide, and dig. It’s varied, it’s fun, it comes naturally, and it suits Knuckles’ levels perfectly. Unfortunately, his levels are kinda boring. Knuckles’ role in the game is to collect all the shattered pieces of the Master Emerald, which translates into a series of scavenger hunts. In contrast to the rest of the game’s long, linear levels, Knuckles’ levels are relatively small but open-ended. Your goal is to run/fly around in search of the three shards randomly scattered in each level, and you’re given a vague “radar” of how close you are to a shard. The only essential part of each mission is to find all the shards, but you’re rewarded if you’re able to do so in a short amount of time and/or without using any hints. Overall, Knuckles’ levels aren’t bad, but outside of the chance to play the baddest motherfucker in the Sonic franchise, there’s nothing exciting about his campaign.
The same goes for Amy. Amy is much slower than Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, and her levels are on the tedious side. She attacks with her hammer, does fun little flip-jumps by launching herself with her hammer, probably tortures small animals with her hammer, and has a certain charm to her play style, but her entire campaign feels like an afterthought. That said, she has an important role in the game’s plot, so I guess the developers decided they had to include her. Her campaign could’ve been fun…if it were a bit more fleshed out.
E-102 Gamma is the first time we ever get to play a “bad” guy in the Sonic games (unless you count Knuckles’ first appearance, but that’s more of a Goku-Piccolo situation), and his core storyline is actually some pretty heavy I, Robot-type shit. There’s this whole plot about moral awakenings, the nature of sentience, freedom, sacrifice, guilt, the ethics of programming, etc. Is it supposed to be read into and analyzed so heavily? No, but it’s still an interesting sub-plot for a silly game. Also, his theme music kicks ass. E-102’s levels are basically giant shooting galleries; you go through the level shooting everything in sight, then fight another one of Eggman’s “Elite” robots (one of your “brothers”) at the end. It can be a little brain-dead at times, but it has its charm.
And then there’s Big the Cat. Big has to find his friend, “Froggy.” Several times. How? Fishing. Terrible fishing. Boring fishing. Pointless fishing. You can’t explain Big the Cat. Big the Cat has to be experienced. It’s like going through a war–you have to be there to understand what’s so terrible. I mean, you know what’s terrible, but you don’t KNOW unless you were actually there. I just…I like cats, guys. I like cats a lot. I fucking hate Big the Cat. Not even the character himself, just the levels. The character is so bland, such a non-element to the story, that I seriously think he was just tossed in last minute for the sake of MORE gameplay variety. But those levels made me hate that character. It’s the finicky controls, the tedium of the gameplay, the fact that you lose a life if you lose your fishing line, and that unshakable feeling that what you’re doing has no bearing or purpose in the universe. Big’s levels are lazy, unfun, unneeded padding.
That’s my biggest problem with Sonic Adventure: anything not revolving around Sonic and Tails feels half-assed. Everything. Even some pivotal parts of the game that affect Sonic and Tails’ levels. Every part of the game, even Sonic’s levels, suffers from a terrible camera system. The camera tends to hang on level scenery or flip out during platforming sequences, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself inexplicably falling off the stage or suddenly running in the wrong direction. The controls themselves alternate between overly-sensitive to imprecise, and it’s a problem that’s most apparent when playing as Sonic or Tails. Many attacks and button inputs seem to have slight delays to them, which makes especially perilous or time-dependent platforming sequences (or boss fights) slightly more frustrating than they should be. Again, when you’re playing as, oh, say, Big the Cat, that’s not that much of an issue. But when you’re playing as Sonic or Tails, it’s hard to maintain a high speed when split-second jumps have to be anticipated two split-seconds in advance. This isn’t even counting things like Sonic’s Light Dash upgrade.
The Light Dash has Sonic zipping through a line of rings at high speed, allowing him to literally run over chasms and other hazards he otherwise couldn’t normally cross. In order to perform a Light Dash, you have to charge your Spin Dash, so trying to perform a Light Dash while zooming through a level has one of three outcomes: 1.You successfully perform a Light Dash; 2. You perform a Spin Dash and roll off a cliff/roll into a line of rings; or 3. nothing happens because you were too far from the rings. The safest way to do a Light Dash is to stop, slowly move up to a line of rings, and wait for the game to prompt you. Whee.
Meanwhile, I understand it’s difficult to perform precise maneuvering at high speeds, but there’s no excuse for how “digital” the movement feels (again, especially for Sonic and Tails). Yeah, you can fluidly move in three dimensions, but your two speeds are “fast” and “Warp Nine.” Mundane tasks like picking up a switch and carrying it to a slot, adjusting your aim so you can line up with a row of rings up ahead, and turning a corner are turned into tedious tests of patience. The developers seemed to understand this and gracefully provide the player with a few loop-de-loops or straightaways each stage, guaranteeing at least some high-speed fun. They also have chains of springs to bounce you around, and boost pads scattered all over the levels to give you some sense of momentum, but this all comes at a cost: the few standout parts (running down a skyscraper, running down a pier that’s being torn to shreds by an orca, spinning through the innards of an Eldritch abomination) are set pieces in which control is essentially robbed of the player in exchange for spectacle. Oh, there’s also the Chao garden, but it’s nowhere near as addicting as the Chao Garden in Sonic Adventure 2. You hatch monsters, you raise them, they’re cute, you can take them with you when you go out somewhere by transferring them to your VMU. Or you can do none of those things and not waste your time. Your time is valuable; it should go to being a productive member of society. Or the Chao Garden in Sonic Adventure 2.
Basically, Sonic Adventure is worth playing only for its place in history (and if you’re a Sonic fan, maybe). The story is pretty good (even if the cutscenes and dialogue are laughable), there’s lots to do, the hub world can be fun in small doses (especially the casino), and at least a third of the music is cool. It’s not a bad game by any means; in fact, it was pretty damn fun when it first came out–but Sonic Adventure is definitely showing its age, and it started Sonic’s never-ending search for a truly successful 3D formula. Overall, Sonic Adventure 2 is a much better effort. Go play that instead. Get me a cup of coffee while you’re at it.
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