Join on us on the 9th of every month leading up to the 20th anniversary of the North American release of the Sega Dreamcast on 09/09/19 as we talk about some of the games that made the system have such a lasting impact.
In hindsight, the Sega Saturn was an awesome piece of hardware and home to many terrific games that countless players missed out on as they migrated to the Nintendo 64 and the Sony PlayStation, but it wasn’t what Sega needed at the time. The Saturn’s strength lied in the second dimension, but players didn’t want 2-D games anymore, they wanted 3-D, and more importantly for Sega, they needed Sonic the Hedgehog in 3-D which is something the Saturn never got but not for a lack of trying on Sega’s part. When it came time to launch the Saturn’s follow-up, the Dreamcast, Sega needed their own Super Mario 64 equivalent starring their mascot that became a household name in the days of the Genesis/Mega Drive.
Sonic Adventure, the debut 3-D outing for Sonic the Hedgehog, missed the Dreamcast’s Japanese launch in 1998, but for the console’s 9/9/99 release in North America, the territory in which the Genesis saw the most success, Sonic was there day and date, speeding down a pier getting chased by a whale in what was one of the most jaw-dropping set-pieces that a console could produce at the time. But it wasn’t just Sonic that was speeding at players, it was a whole host of characters both familiar: Tails, Knuckles and Amy Rose as well as new: E-102, a robotic henchman of Sonic’s nemesis, Dr. Eggman, who North American audiences knew as Dr. Robotnik and a fishing-pole wielding cat named Big. Those who dismissively said Sonic’s most popular outings only required the player to “push right to win” now had a myriad of gameplay types to sample, from races to shooting stages, treasure hunts and fishing. Even the Dreamcast’s new memory card peripheral, the VMU, which had its own screen and buttons became part of the experience via a mini-game where players could raise and collect adorable creatures called Chao and take them with them when they weren’t playing.
Sonic’s brand of multi-path stage design and momentum based plat-forming were things that were never going to easily translate to 3-D and for the most-part, Sonic Adventure works but its faults were far more forgivable then than what they are now. It still amazes even today to see Sonic zoom through loop-de-loops and down the sides of buildings, but critics of the “push right” variety have further ammunition in these sequences as it’s in these sections that the player has less control but the game is also arguably the best for it. To put it mildly, Sonic feels more unwieldy compared to the likes of Crash, Mario and Spyro, due in large part to the fundamental design of what makes Sonic so much fun: building up momentum for a temporary burst of speed and a new foe even more vile than Dr. Eggman: the cumbersome camera.
One of the main problems with the Dreamcast’s controller is its sole analog stick which leaves only the left and right triggers for camera control or aiming in shooters. Even with the ability to manipulate the camera in Sonic Adventure on one axis, it’s still hard to get it to do what you want to and that can lead to some cheap deaths in the more platform heavy sections like those towards the end where you have to carefully manipulate Sonic along the bowels of Eggman’s ship. Sonic Adventure is the debut of Sonic’s homing attack where you leap into the air and hit the jump button again to guide yourself to an enemy, and while it feels automatic, it’s a lifesaving necessity at times and an acceptable compromise.
The stages that make up Sonic’s part of the game are all about speed, and a large criticism of Sonic Adventure’s design is that it’s overloaded with gameplay types that takeaway from the game people expected to be playing. The design choice to divide Adventure into multiple campaigns shouldn’t be seen as a fault of the game though, but rather a gamble that didn’t quite pay off and also a necessary evil. By the time the Dreamcast launched, players were expecting more from the games they purchased as larger games like RPG’s and plat-formers full of items to collect and mini-games to unlock dominated the market. Perhaps more could have been done with the Sonic character, but had Adventure shipped with just Sonic stages, it wouldn’t have the impact it needed at the Dreamcast’s launch to sell systems and reinvigorate Sonic’s video game career.
For the most part, the diversions with Sonic’s friends are brief and the only real parts that are a chore to get through are the Knuckles exploration stages as they require far too much verticality than what the Dreamcast controller allows and the Big the Cat fishing expeditions that don’t even allow you to use the Dreamcast’s fishing controller. A good rule of thumb for playing Sonic Adventure either for the first time or revisiting it years later is what can be referred to as the “veggie’s first” – or the vegetarian/vegan equivalent – where you play as Sonic to the point where you meet up with the first extra character, Tails, and then complete all the other campaigns, finishing off with Sonic’s remaining levels and the too awesome conclusion where you play as Super Sonic, rocking out to “Open Your Heart” by Crush 40.
Where Sonic Adventure’s bloat is most evident is in its trying to be greater than what it actually is story line. The Sonic games on the Genesis had simple stories but also effective messages about environmentalism with Sonic trying to defend the natural world against the industrious Dr. Robotnik which is not a bad starting point for a game made with the power of the Dreamcast. Instead in Sonic Adventure you have Sonic and his friends trying to prevent the resurrection of an ancient, watery being named Chaos that craves the power of the Chaos Emeralds and has connections with Knuckles species, the echidnas. It’s not engaging in the least, especially when you’re forced to sit through overly long cut-scenes that make little to no sense and slow down the momentum considerably in a franchise that’s all about building it.
The world building in Sonic Adventure also fails to give the Sonic character a tangible universe for him and his family of characters to call their own, an issue that has plagued the franchise since Sonic Adventure. If you show someone a screen shot of any stage from the Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis games, they all read – even the more technological ones – like they come from the same universe, however Sonic Adventure takes place it what appears to be our world and it makes for an odd contrast. Sonic and his friends run around a small city block where people are going about their business and they all have no issue it seems with anthropomorphic animals and killer robots running around.
The small hub-world that makes up Sonic Adventure, in what can only be described as Sega’s adventure to Princess Peach’s is both boring and confusing to run in. Divided into a small city block with a jungle area connected via a train, Sonic Adventure doesn’t really have a world to call its own and it can be troublesome to find out where you need to go. There are hint balls that will tell you where you need to go, but they feel more like a Band-Aid fix for not designing a world that’s easy to navigate. The hub-world comes across as something Sega must’ve felt they had to have in their design as it was present in Nintendo’s stable of platform action games and even Sony’s Spyro the Dragon series but thankfully it was axed from the one and only sequel to Sonic Adventure in favor of a more level-by-level structure like the 16-bit games.
Sonic Adventure is a fascinating game in that it was near universally praised upon its release and helped to move Dreamcast consoles, however time has not been as kind to Sonic’s breakout 3-D games compared to similar games on the Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation. What was it about Sonic Adventure that made critics overlook its many faults? Maybe it was because unlike how it is now, Sonic had more or less left the public eye for a whole console generation and both critics and players were excited to strap on those red sneakers, collect rings and bop on the heads of robots. For its time, Sonic Adventure was a very ambitious game that gave players a lot of game for the asking price and expanded Sonic’s world far greater than what could’ve been only imagined on the Genesis. The scene that comes to mind when most people think of Sonic Adventure is Sonic speeding away from a rampaging whale, which, deliberate or not, was a wise choice as Sonic’s pursuer can be likened to the competition trying to catch up with what Sega was doing, at least for a brief time in the Dreamcast’s life cycle.
Come back next month as we continue our look at Dreamcast games and we try to make some CRAZY money.