The Saturn era was not kind to the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, as evidenced from my last two reviews. Courtesy of Traveller’s Tales, there was Sonic 3D Blast (a spinoff Genesis port) and Sonic R (a clunky racing game). And from Sega Technical Institute, there was the cancelled Sonic X-Treme. What was Sonic Team doing during all this? Well, the folks responsible for creating Sonic in the first place didn’t exactly want to have their whole lives revolve around a blue hedgehog. Yuji Naka in particular was a visionary, and his special project for the Saturn was the lovely Nights into Dreams. (Sonic Team would also go on to create the fun Burning Rangers.) But after Sonic X-Treme crashed and burned, it became clear the dream team (or a good chunk of it at least) needed to reassemble and figure out how to get Sonic running around in 3D. Yuji Naka teamed up with Naoto Ohshima (Sonic’s creator) once more, this time deciding to create a big plot-driven adventure for Sonic to partake in.
At first the team programmed test levels with the Saturn in mind, but it soon became clear that Sega was planning to move on to more advanced hardware in a couple years, and they decided it would be best to take advantage of the power of what would become the Dreamcast. A new system, with an A+ Sonic game in 3D as a launch title–that was the plan. And so they set to work, and used some of their “test run” material for a Saturn release titled Sonic Jam (which I hereby rate a 4/5). This was simply a compilation of Sonic 1, 2, 3, and Knuckles, but it also featured a 3D hub world that allowed the player to run around as Sonic and enter rooms that featured character art, music, videos, etc. It was merely a taste of things to come, as Sonic Team had a much grander setting in mind for their real project: the ancient Maya Empire.
Working on the next big Sonic game was apparently a good enough excuse for the team to take a trip to Mexico and Peru, where they visited places like Chichen Itza, Tikal, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu. The goal was to take advantage of the advanced graphics the Dreamcast was capable of to create a more realistic-looking world, and Sonic Team’s trip through Latin America gave them all sorts of inspiration to work with. This is evident enough in several of the levels that can be played through in the final product that is Sonic Adventure.
The characters were redesigned to give them more detail, taking better advantage of the greater graphics capability and keeping in mind their occupying of a 3D space. And, well, to make them look cooler. All in all I have no issues with the redesigns. Sonic is a bit taller and has longer spikes, which is sensible as he no longer needs a compact frame to take up less space on a 16-bit screen. And the nemesis Dr. Eggman is given a much more detailed look, one that is less cartoonish but still recognizable as a new iteration of Robotnik. He fits in more feasibly this way in the more realistic-looking world created for Sonic Adventure. All in all, this was clearly intended to be a relaunch of the franchise.
As such, Sonic Team went all out with this game. They wanted it to look amazing, sound awesome, and be a perfect transition of Sonic’s gameplay from 2D to 3D. They ultimately created six playable characters, each with their own unique play style. This allowed the developers to really get a good feel for programming all sorts of things for the Dreamcast, and made Sonic Adventure a nice showcase of what they determined the system would be capable of from day one.
I remember when I first saw the Dreamcast–and Sonic Adventure–on display at Toys ‘R Us. Suffice to say it left a big impression on me. I was pretty floored to see Sonic in 3D, running around just as fast as he did in the classic Genesis games. And the graphics were amazing! I saw it as a huge step up from what the Playstation and Nintendo 64 were capable of. Sonic Team really pushed themselves to make the most of the new Dreamcast hardware, and as history shows their efforts definitely payed off (at least, in terms of making the Sonic franchise relevant again). Sonic Adventure managed to impress a lot of people not only in the West, but even in Japan too. It was cool, it was fast, and it seemed to show Sega was truly getting its act back together. Instead of a sudden and expensive launch with few available titles on day one (as was the case for the Saturn in the West), the Dreamcast was well-hyped in advance, released at only 200 bucks, and had one of the biggest and most impressive launch lineups ever. And this time, their famous mascot was there to lead the way.
So the point I’m making here is that Sonic Adventure was a big deal when it released in 1998 in Japan, and in 1999 in America (specifically 9/9/99–I will always remember that date). But does this game stand the test of time? Is it actually fun to play? Can you pick it up in 2015 and not find the whole thing a dated and clunky waste of time? The general consensus on this game has definitely changed over the years, and advancements in 3D action gameplay have undoubtedly affected the way we look back on pioneer titles such as this one. My opinion has certainly shifted back and forth, and I admittedly struggle a bit to decide how harsh or lenient I should be here. Alas, the struggle to critique that which holds great nostalgia!
I will start by focusing on the controls. Sonic Adventure overall feels great. Sonic is easy to control, and his transition from 2D to 3D is about as seamless as could be hoped for. He runs fast, and save for a few exceptions I was generally able to maneuver him throughout his ten levels without dragging against walls or launching off of cliffs. Though there aren’t as many different paths to take as in the old games, the levels still feel well-designed and manage to keep things engaging from start to finish. If you ever need a speed boost, using the spin dash is easy and instantaneous. Sonic goes faster when rolling down hills, and slows down when he is running up steep inclines. As for his jump, it is slightly floaty–but I feel this is helpful for allowing the player just enough time to adjust Sonic’s course when it comes time to land him on platforms. All in all, I think there is a solid experience to be had in playing as Sonic in this game, so mission accomplished.
There are five other characters that each have a few levels to play in (generally reusing parts from Sonic’s levels), and overall they are not as engaging. Tails and Knuckles both control really well–just as well as Sonic, and with their added abilities (flight for Tails, gliding and climbing for Knuckles). Unfortunately, the game style utilized for them (and really, all the other side characters) comes off as… very “test run.” Tails’ levels involve him racing Sonic, which is okay I guess, but his stages are incredibly short. And as for Knuckles, the goal for him is to locate three emeralds in each stage, using a beeping “cold… cold… warm, warm, hot-hot-hot” type of radar. It’s all way too easy though, and over in no time.
New characters include Amy the Hedgehog (who appeared briefly in Sonic CD), who has a sort of… survival horror kind of gameplay? She is chased by an indestructible robot throughout her levels, in a somewhat Clock Tower fashion (though, you know, not actually scary). Then there is a robot you can play as that features a very easy lock-on shooting mechanic. And finally, you can play as a giant cat appropriately named Big, whose gameplay features… fishing, lol. The brief campaigns of this little peanut gallery are okay for a quick diversion I suppose, but ultimately it all feels tacked on. I would have preferred more focus be given to Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles, giving them more levels and fleshing out their gameplay more.
Basically, if you stick with Sonic, you’re in for a good time. The other half of the game though is… mediocre at best. And if you want to win the game, you will need to play through all the levels for each character. It’s not that hard to get through all their stuff in a couple hours, but some people really do hate those side campaigns.
Focusing on Sonic a little more though, I’ll bring up a few more points. There are hub worlds in this game known as adventure fields, which add a slight bit of puzzle-solving and exploration to the mix. I was okay with this back in the day since it was something new and unique (to me at least), but nowadays I really do prefer to get on with it. Enough with this open world nonsense, just give me the next level! Next point… The camera in this game. A lot of people are really critical about the camera, and to be honest I’m not sure where all the vitriol stems from. I almost never experienced a major issue with it, and I was generally able to use the Dreamcast’s triggers to rotate the camera whenever I really needed to. It’s definitely not perfect, but hardly what I’d call a deal-breaker.
Oof, there really is a lot to talk about in this game… MUSIC! I love the soundtrack for Sonic Adventure. This is the point where Crush 40 comes in and starts rocking out for most of the 3D Sonic installments. The vocals are a bit cheesy, yeah, but I do genuinely get a kick out of a lot of their tunes. I mean, imagine seeing this opening video for the game as a kid back in 1998, with “Open Your Heart” playing in the background. It’s awesome, right? It’s awesome. And as for tunes used in all the levels, it turns out there’s quite a nice variety to be had. Lots of interesting environments to work with, and the BGM fits in perfectly every time.
Speaking of sound though, there is also voice acting for the first time in a Sonic game. The voices are… not the best, lol. Same can be said for the plot. I mean, the story works well enough to please kids, as a more “badass” alternative to the average plot of other mascot platformers. In Sonic Adventure, Dr. Eggman unleashes a water-based monster that ultimately becomes a Godzilla-like creature to wreak utter havoc. The story is mostly a search for Chaos Emeralds and defeating all of Eggman’s robots, but along the way you get a little backstory for the echidnas that used to live on Knuckles’ floating island. They were destroyed by the water creature it seems? I don’t really get how Knuckles is around if all his ancestors were killed though. I suppose this constitutes thinking too much about the plot.
Last thing I have to give a little attention to: the chao garden. Sonic Team wanted to experiment more with a pet simulator, and what they came up with was a kind of advanced Tamagotchi or Giga Pet with cute little creatures called chao (always pronounced “chow” — 1 chao, 2 chao, 100 chao). This turned out to be a HUGE time sink for me, I can hardly explain it. You can raise all sorts of chao. You feed them, pet them, hug them, etc. AND, you can give them animals you collect in the action stages in order to change each chao’s appearance and raise their stats. You want to do this, because you want to have your chao enter races… and win! You can even place your chao in the VMU (the memory card with a screen on it) to make this literally like a Tamagotchi, and have your chao go on a little adventure. Connect your VMU with a friend’s, and you can have the two chao battle it out… or even breed? Why not both? Sonic Team really went all out with this little feature, and for me at least it turned out to be a fantastic little time waster.
Well, there you have it. The longest review I will (hopefully) ever write here. But I think this at least shows how much of an impact the game had on me, and just how much content it had in comparison to anything in the franchise that came before it. Sonic Adventure may not be all that polished by today’s standards, but for its time it was definitely ambitious. If you have a Dreamcast, you probably already have this game (and if not, it should be easy to find cheap). If you have a Gamecube, you can go for the enhanced re-release (with the DX added to the title), which makes all the characters really shiny and thus out of place in the environment around them (Note: some of my screenshots were likely from the DX version). Also, it has more bonus missions for extra replay value, if you are into that. This version of the game is also available to download for the Xbox 360 and PS3.