Sonic Jam - "Sonic Adventure" (1998)
Note: This was started in mid-July earlier this year, and has been in the making since then. I apologize for the wait.
A week before the Sonic 25th Anniversary Party in San Diego, I'm sitting at my parent's house on my laptop. I'm both excited about what next Friday will hold and terrified. Is it going to be another disappointment? Is Crush 40 going to actually suck live? Is Aaron Webber just going to make meme jokes for four hours? I don't know. But what I do know is that I'm at least somewhat hopeful. I'm hopeful because this new game is long-hinted to be a step in the right direction. I say this because the game in question may very well be Sonic Adventure 3, if all the teases are to be believed.
That would make it the second sequel to the game I'm about to talk about. And if it is, then it could very well be what Sonic needs in 2016. Because with the brand on the verge of collapse in 1998, Sega pulled off a miracle. They put out what is not only one of the definitive Sonic games, and not only one of the definitive Dreamcast experiences. No, they managed to pull off what I think is one of the most significant video games ever released.
Sonic Adventure is a bonafide masterpiece, and it's about time I unpack my love for it.
Every single year... no, scratch that. Every few months I find myself coming back to Sonic Adventure. Regardless of which version I'm playing, I've found myself going through Sonic's first true 3D experience dozens of times. No, that's not an exaggeration. I know the game by heart now. Bad day? Time for Sonic Adventure. Good day? Sonic Adventure. Lazy day? Sonic Adventure. I can basically go through Sonic's Story in an hour or two at this point. My love for this game cannot be sufficiently put into words.
But goddammit, I'm going to try.
It's best to give some background, first and foremost. As I've mentioned in the last few installments. Sonic's series was imploding, and it was taking Sega with it. Sega didn't know what to with Sonic, and in turn, Sega didn't know what to fucking do with Sega. Good games and my love for it aside, the Sega Saturn was a complete disaster in America. The Nomad was a joke of a handheld. Bernie Stolar was busy destroying any chances of the company recovering, thanks to him stroking a juicy revenge boner against Sony. It was all a mess, basically. Everything was in shambles and on fire at the same time. Not the company's proudest moment, and basically, a prelude to their spiral into irrelevance.
All bets were being placed on what would be the company's last stand. That last stand came in the form of what is, perhaps, my favorite gaming console next to the PlayStation 2: the Dreamcast. I could devote multiple posts to the system, and hell, maybe I will someday. But suffice it to say, Sega's last home console was arguably their best. It was years ahead of its time in terms of both tech and concepts, hosts unique and incomparable gaming experiences to this day, and had one hell of a cool controller. Of course, because this is the game industry, "ahead of its time" translated to "people didn't understand it entirely." And when people don't understand something, they usually don't buy it. Thus was the case with the Dreamcast, and after around three or four years, support was phased out.
We're not here to dwell on that, though. We're focusing on one of the system's greatest triumphs. A triumph that started back on the Sega Saturn, when Yuji Naka was plugging away at a fully 3D Sonic game. 3D Blast tanked, Sonic R was kind of a mess, and Sonic Jam was... well, a glorified collection of ports with a hub world and a minigame. Not exactly a flagship title. So, Naka was working on something called Sonic RPG, a tad bit of which was implemented into Sonic Jam's hub world. The thing is... well, the Saturn's technical specs kind of blew, to be honest. Sonic R's bad framerate and poor draw distance is proof of that. The speed and smoothness that were hallmarks of the franchise just wouldn't work with the system, simply put.
But it would work with the Dreamcast. Oh, boy, would it ever work with the Dreamcast.
So in 1998, Sonic was finally given the 3D game he deserved. And in 1999, American players got their hands on it. The game was, of course, Sonic Adventure, and to this day, it represents one of the sole examples of the series working in 3D. Yes, one of the sole examples of this was made almost twenty years ago. Yes, I know how many 3D Sonic games came between that and now. Yes, I realize how fucking depressing that is. But let's not dwell on that. Let's dwell on what made Sonic Adventure work.
From a pure design standpoint, Adventure is at its absolute best when you're playing as Sonic. That's because, frankly, his levels feel the most well-designed and polished. While that represents only a fraction of what the title has to offer, it's significant. Sonic Team actually seemed to wrap their brain around translating something that, in theory, should only work in 2D and make it function in three dimensions. This is a franchise build around zooming around, at blistering speeds, across the screen, bounding back and forth and up and down. At the same time, however, the best 2D Sonic games had room to breathe - moments in the game with slower platforming or exploration. That's why Sonic 3 is such a great game, for example. It's about more than going fast.
So, how do you solve this problem in three dimensions? Sonic Team's solution was rather ingenious, in my opinion. Gameplay's divided into two distinct components: going fast and jumping around, to put it simply. "Going fast" finds Sonic put on linear paths, while "jumping around" gives him small portions of bouncing on enemies and working his way up platforms.
Let's use one the game's best levels as an example: Speed Highway, although it really can be applied to any of 'em. Speed Highway's "going fast" portions come in two distinct forms, with Sonic being propelled forward down a winding highway and running down the side of a building. In both of these segments, Sonic can slow down, but the emphasis is obviously placed on the player holding "up" on the analog stick and using Sonic's Light Dash to automatically bind to rows of rings and make him go faster. There are obstacles, of course, which players have to carefully use diagonal controls to make Sonic steer out of the way, but the clear focus is gathering momentum and making the player "feel" fast.
On the other hand, we have two distinct "jumping around" portions. One of these setpieces is a rooftop, where Sonic's being assaulted by drones and tanks on a square board. The focus is on him slowly navigating across the rooftop, in all directions, trying to hitch a ride on a helicopter. The other setpiece is a small, sleepy town, where Sonic can wind down some cramped roads at his leisure, taking out enemies along the way; the music even slows down to represent a sort "cooldown" after outrunning explosions and dodging lasers.
The combined effect of every level (with the exception of the oddball casino bit) having these two distinct portions is a satisfying one. In some levels, players are practically shot out of a cannon and told to go for broke until they hit an area with breathing room. In others, you start in a more open area and gradually work your way towards blistering speeds. Either way, you're going to have moments where you get more control over Sonic, and moments where you're just making him go. To me, this is what makes Sonic Adventure (and, in fact, all of the other good 3D Sonic games) work so well. It gives players the speed they want, while still giving people craving a good 3D platformer bits where Sonic can wander. This is a roundabout way of saying that the level design is a beautiful balance between form and functionality, the "form" being "Sonic outruns a big fucking whale or snowboards away from an avalanche," the "functionality" being the tactile satisfaction of mastering Sonic's jumping physics and his homing attacks.
That's to say nothing of the multiple hub worlds, which let players experience a quaint coastal town, a sprawling jungle, or a heavily-armed airship. These portions of the game act as padding, yes, and some people might not like having to find a certain key, or trigger a certain event. For me, however, these bits act as a vital "build-up" for the masterful level design. Players go from point A to point B, and sometimes back again, before getting to progress. It's what makes the game feel like a true evolution from the older titles, in my opinion, and something that newer entries are sorely lacking. There's a full 3D world for players to contend with, and the game isn't just a simplistic, level-based platformer. Much like Peach's Castle in Super Mario 64, the hub worlds in Sonic Adventure are a crucial component, and removing them in later titles was an absolutely moronic mistake and an attempt to kowtow to a portion of the fanbase that's better left ignored.
Another crucial component that makes Adventure work is the usage of multiple characters. Now, while I'll defend this game to the grave, I will concede that this is one bit that could've used more fleshing out. See, each character has their own distinct campaign, and every one is noticeably shorter and less content-rich than Sonic's. However, that doesn't mean they're not worth playing, and in fact, to actually access the truly phenomenal ending, you need to finish all of them. That said, some are better than others. Tails' race-based objectives and Amy's slower platforming are actually pretty satisfying, and I don't mind E-102's either. But Knuckles and Big's... eesh. They're functional, yeah, but Knuckles is a bunch of dull treasure-hunting, and Big's is... well... it's a fishing simulator. These portions feel out of line with the rest of the title, and despite Knuckles' being vital to the overarching narrative, I really could do without them to this day. Again, they're not not awful, but they're not exactly "fun" either, at least to me.
On the topic of aforementioned narrative, Adventure really does have a great one. I'd make a case for it having the best one in the series, actually, tying with Shadow the Hedgehog (please don't crucify me, I'll explain later.) What makes it work is that it gives the cast depth, presents a tangible threat, and manages to strike a balance between whimsical and thrilling. There's a cataclysmic, world-ending threat at hand, and every character contributes to stopping it in significant ways for the most part. At the same time, however, every character getting their own arc gives them breathing room. Tails' inferiority complex towards Sonic, Amy's role as Sonic's concience and morality, Knuckles' commitment to duty even if it means turning on his friends... all of that and more unravels. I would never defend the narrative as great art, because let's face it, it was never supposed to be. However, it's nuanced enough to be interesting, while still simple enough for it to be a compelling popcorn flick of a game... that just so happens to star anthropomorphized animals.
The stellar level design and engaging narrative are all tied together by a stellar A/V package. Every character's redesign modernized them in a way that made them appeal to 90's kids sensibilities, and made them look a lot less goofy and cuddly. Meanwhile, the overall aesthetic of the game makes excellent use of color composition, with each level feeling like distinct worlds while being bound by some motif, color, or some such thing to the other levels. It feels like a cohesive package, tied together by a unifying design and some visuals that I would maintain are still impressive by today's standards.
Meanwhile, Jun Senoue's score is nothing short of masterful. It's a multi-genre mix, with heavy rock, techno, jazz, and all other sorts of sensibilities getting thrown into a blender. There are dreamy synths that paint vivid new age-y landscapes, fast guitars and drums that conjure up feelings of speed, and thumping club beats that give off a sinister, threatening atmosphere. Every track is stellar. In addition, there are vocal tracks with endearingly cheesy lyrics and seasoned industry vets at the mic, each supplying the major players with themes that fit their personalities.
Frankly, despite all the word vomit I've just gushed out, I could talk at great length for several, several more paragraphs about Sonic Adventure. My personal attachment to it, the comfort it brings me whenever I play it, why I think it's legimately one of the best games that's ever come out, so on and so forth. But I'll spare you. You've read this far. You deserve a break.
At the end of the day, Sonic Adventure is just a great goddamn video game. It plays well, it looks good, it sounds great, and there's enough there to motivate players to push forward. How Sonic Team couldn't maintain this high bar of quality into the 2000's, I'll never quite figure out. How they managed to outright ruin its sequel still baffles me, and how they kept discovering fun, new ways to shoot Sonic in the dick I'll never wrap my head around.
But let's save that for another time.
For now, let's take a moment to appreciate Sonic Adventure, and the high bar it set, and how high that bar is, even today.
Thanks for reading. Look forward to next time, when Sega manages to destroy every ounce of goodwill towards them with one game!