About a month ago, I wrote a bit about the Sega Dreamcast and its games. Since that point, I have been spending my non Dark Souls III gaming time basking in the glow of Sega’s beautiful little white box that was too lovely for our cruel world.
For the next few months, I am going to write sporadically about some of the console’s most famous games and its hidden gems. A natural starting point is its big launch game: Sonic Adventure.
I have deeply complicated and conflicting views on Sonic Adventure. Frankly, it is hard to me to be objective about it. It was the first true Sonic game since Sonic 3D Blast, another game I have complicated feelings about (gameplay is mediocre, but the graphics, music, and boss fights are pretty enjoyable). It is the closest thing that Sonic 3 & Knuckles has to a true successor, taking the scope of that game to bigger, but not always better, places. Booting Sonic Adventure up again and seeing the intro hits me with those initial feelings of excitement I felt in 1999.
But it isn’t 1999 anymore. Some of the Dreamcast games I am going to talk about on here are ageless, or have at least aged gracefully. Sonic Adventure does have a lot to enjoy, but those joys are tempered by some massive, glaring flaws.
Let’s start with the bad stuff. This is the first Sonic game with a cutscene driven story, and those cutscenes are pretty bad. They are rendered in the game’s engine and look nice, but that is about all I can say positive about them.
The writing and dialog is laughably bad, a combination of it being a kid’s game and some of the meaning being lost in translation. The lip syncing is the most distracting, with character’s mouths not even attempting the words being said.
The story itself isn’t bad, but wholly unremarkable. Dr. Robotnik (NOT CALLING HIM EGGMAN) has a new super weapon that requires Chaos Emeralds for power. Instead of a machine, this weapon is an ancient water monster called “Chaos”. Sonic and friends have to stop Chaos before he gets his watery appendages on all seven emeralds and becomes all powerful. Chaos eventually succeeds in both, but is defeated by the power of Sonic’s pure heart. This is all fine, but a slate of cutscenes isn’t necessary to sell us on this story. They interrupt the flow of the gameplay too often, and suffer from telling instead of showing.
I can accept all of those things about the nearly 20 year old game and its target market but there is one big problem: THEY. ARE. UNSKIPPABLE. If Metal Gear Solid lets you skip cutscenes, freaking Sonic Adventure should too.
The camera has always been the enemy of Sonic’s 3D outings, and a lot of the issues the series have had with it can be traced back to this game. It often feels like the camera is actively conspiring against you. I have played this game a lot over the last 17 years, and still take silly deaths because the camera isn’t cooperating during a platforming segment.
The other issue is speed. Sonic’s sections are blindingly fast, which makes since because he is Sonic. The problem is that there is no sense of building momentum like in the original games. Playing old Sonic games well is about maintaining momentum while still having control.
In Sonic Adventure, you are either walking or running at the speed of sound with almost nothing in between. This issue is exacerbated by Sonic feeling almost weightless, like he is sliding around on ice.
Overtime, you adapt to the problematic controls and camera. You never feel fully in control, but you learn to play around Sonic Adventure’s idiocyncracies.
Once you adapt, there is a lot to like! The graphics are great for its era, there are some stunning set pieces, the boss fights are generally fun, the levels are varied and distinct, and the music is excellent.
But the best part of Sonic Adventure is it’s staggering ambition. Sonic Team was trying to create the greatest 3D platformer of all time and didn’t pull a single punch in trying to achieve that goal.
This is to be expected from late 90's-early 2000's Sega, which published or developed wonderful oddities like Samba de Amigo, Jet Grind Radio, Super Monkey Ball, Shenmue, and Seaman. There is a strong argument to be made that Sega was the best gaming software developer of its era, even if that experimental streak didn’t translate to better sales figures.
The six different character stories all show Sonic Team taking big swings, some of them connecting and others resulting in strike outs. Sonic’s levels are standard platformer fare, but sprinkle snowboarding, casino, and flying combat minigames throughout to keep things interesting.
Instead of progressing from level to level automatically upon completion, like in the Genesis Sonic games, you are tasked with exploring what are called “Adventure Fields”. Adventure Fields are essentially hub areas that often contain their puzzles or quests that need to be completed before going to the next stage. They are also where most of those too long, unskippable cutscenes and the boss fights take place.
The other five stories are tweaks on this core gameplay and story, some more drastic than others. Knuckles finds pieces of the shattered Master Emerald that are hidden around the map. Tails races other characters to an objective. Amy is on the run from from Zero, a robot that is continuously chasing her. Think of it like a G-Rated Resident Evil 3. E-102 Gamma’s stages transform Sonic Adventure into an arcade shooter culminating in a boss fight, with a final boss that will hit you right in the feels.
And then there is Big the Cat and his much maligned fishing levels. I am going to put myself out there: I enjoy the fishing levels. I don’t think it is something that should have been necessary in order to see the final ending of the game, but it is a fun little diversion.
All six stories are fun to play on their own, but could have benefited from the Sonic Adventure 2 approach of condensing them down into one long campaign where you switch between the different characters from stage to stage. Cut Big’s stuff into one stage or boss fight, cut most of Tails’ early levels that are echoes of what Sonic is doing, make a couple nimble cuts to Amy and E-102's stages and you have a leaner, but still gigantic, game.
Even that hypothetical Sonic Adventure would probably have Sonic Team’s Chao pet project. It is a virtual pet game where you raise the aforementioned Chao creatures. Raising them opens even more minigames to play around with, the most ambitious being Chao Adventure. It is game in which you transfer your Chao to the Dreamcast VMU and raise it’s skills further. I never spent a ton of time with it, so I open the floor to Chao enthusiasts in the comments.
Needless to say, Sonic Team wasn’t interested in condensing. They had a console to sell that had the best performance on the market. Sonic Adventure’s bloat is a symptom of trying to get the Dreamcast over with consumers.
They didn’t succeed with their goal of making the best 3D platformer ever. It has a lot of glaring problems that have only become harder to ignore with time. That said, I enjoyed the hell out of replaying Sonic Adventure. It is a game that is an absolute must play to understand Sega’s initial mindset and ambitions with the Dreamcast.
It isn’t perfect, but is somehow perfect the way it is.
Next game in the Summer of the Dreamcast series: Capcom’s awesome arena fighter POWER STONE. Get hyped.