Sonic Jam - "Sonic Adventure 2" (2001)
Ask just about anyone, and they'll tell you that Sonic Adventure 2 is the best 3D Sonic game. Some might even tell you that it's the best Sonic game, period. They'll cite running away from a truck through Not-San Francisco and skating down city streets on a piece of metal. They'll start singing the words to "Escape from the City" and "Live and Learn." Rightfully so, too. Those are great sequences and some great tracks. But there's something else about those bits.
You can see them in the first 15-20 minutes of the game. Even the first 10.
You don't really hear people chat much about the rest of Sonic Adventure 2. Maybe they'll chat a bit about Shadow's introduction, or start rapping about Knuckles not chuckling, or show you some titty fan art of Rouge the Bat. But you don't hear most people who remember the game fondly talk about the rest of it. It's mainly relegated to that one level and those two songs, at least from my experience. Ever wonder why that is?
It's because Sonic Adventure 2 isn't a very good game. One might even say it's pretty bad.
Alright, there it is. I've waited for a while to get that one off my chest. There's this commonly accepted opinion that Adventure 2 is both an improvement on the first Adventure and Sonic at his best. That's a bad take to me, and it has been since I first played it. Because frankly, this was the game that marked the true beginning of Sonic's most well-known downward spiral.
|But hey, that truck, right? Guys?|
I've mentioned this phenomenon before, this tracing the trajectory of Sonic's fall from grace before. I still do think Sonic R represented Sega's willingness to crank out any old thing and put their mascot on it. I also still think Sonic 3D Blast marks the first time Sega was a-okay with letting a proof-of-concept serve as a mainline Sonic game. Both of those were definite starts in Sega's willingness to flirt with disaster. However, they didn't do a lot to damage Sonic's reputation. People still loved the series. People still bought the hell out of anything with Sonic on it. But Sonic Adventure 2 was the first game where I feel a lot of people started to get tired of the series. Sonic didn't become the household joke he's still struggling not to be until the 2000's, and how did he bring in that decade? With Sonic fucking Shuffle and this. I don't think that's a coincidence.
But while Shuffle has the excuse of being a spin-off, Adventure 2 doesn't. This is the foot Sega wanted to put forward in a last-ditch attempt to turn Dreamcast units. Where Adventure was a promise of their console could achieve, Adventure 2 was a desperate death knell and grasp at relevancy. You have to remember that Sonic's history is closely entangled with Sega's, and by consequence, one can look at each Sonic game as being representative of where Sega was. And at this point, they were hurting. Their console, which should have theoretically been sweeping the floor with the competition, was in a distant last place. Bernie Stollar's horrendous mismanagement had made the company a joke in North America. The consistent bickering between Sega Japan and Sega of America was still raging. Collectively, they were in a bad place, and this bad place ultimately doomed what was inarguably their best console.
Like anyone in a bad place, Sega was attempting to salvage what they could from their sinking ship. It's hard, then, to look at Sonic Adventure 2 as anything but half-hearted salvage. It's a grab bag of ideas snatched from their earlier success, but missing both the heart and ambition of that earlier title. Much like many things done in desperation, it's also a very sloppy, scattershot sort of package.
From a narrative standpoint, it's kind of a lazy disaster. While Shadow is honestly one of my favorite Sonic characters (for reasons I'll discuss in later entries,) he's very little here except for "bad Sonic." Which, by consequence, makes the majority of Sonic Adventure 2's narrative not much more than "good Sonic fights bad Sonic." It takes the age-old storytelling trope of "what if there was a bad guy badder than the other bad guy" and stretches it to its logical conclusion, by turning Shadow into the anthropomorphized manifestation of anger and angst. Gone are the cruel but also goofy antics of Eggman; Shadow's really evil, you guys, and he's evil because Eggman's evil relative made him in an evil laboratory and evil things happened to a little girl he cared about. It's all very overwrought, and while Shadow's story would later get dealt with a greater deal of nuance and detail, it's hard not to see this as the writers running out of ideas.
That said, I have to give it props for introducing stuff that would get used better later. Like I said, I think Shadow is a character who's turned into a vital part of the Sonic franchise, and it really wouldn't be the same without him. Same goes for Rouge, who added another much-needed female character to the roster. While she is very much, as I often put it, a "titty bat," she's also a fun, Fujiko Mine-esque character that adds an element of chaos to the series and a dynamic foil to Knuckles. So in the midst of a story that's kind of a dumpster fire, we got two good things, and I think that's worth noting.
|The face that launched a thousand edgy ships.|
Furthermore, there was something in Adventure to break up those levels - freedom. Adventure 2 does away with character-specific campaigns and the open world, and is a far worse game for it. There was something relaxing in wandering around Station Square, the Casino, or the Mystic Ruins. It offered some breathing room and gave players the impression that Sonic inhabited more than just a series of disconnected worlds. There was atmosphere there, which is something the series definitely needed. The same can be said of each character campaign. Sure, some were better than other, but each one had their own unique flavor, and by consequence, gave each character more personality. Adventure 2 has no real atmosphere, and characters are given very little space for development or expansion. It's a regression from where we were led to believe Sonic would go next.
The same can be said for the parts of the game I even like. Sonic and Shadow levels are, across the board, lacking in the creativity and ambition found in the Sonic campaign of Adventure. Where that game offered a wealth of diversity in terms of what Sonic could do, Adventure 2's lack of focus gives very little time to allow Sonic and Shadow to do anything else but run from point A to point B. One of the central critiques people who don't care for the Sonic franchise have is that it's a whole lot of running in a straight line until you finish a level, and Adventure 2 is a prime example of that complaint.
Which, sadly, dovetails with the Dreamcast's story. The beginning of the console was marked by ambition and hope, diversity and attitude. Sega offered stuff that couldn't be found and often couldn't even be done on other platforms. Think of games like Soul Calibur, D2, Illbleed, Shenmue, Power Stone, the countless Capcom fighting ports, Space Channel 5, Blue Stinger, Jet Set Radio, Skies of Arcadia, Grandia 2... there are way more, but those are what I could come up with off the top of my head. These were risky, weird, wonderful games that floated the mainstream and did things on their own terms. They were the capitalization on what Sonic Adventure promised - diversity, creativity, and ambition. But the years wore on. Sega's marketing failed them. Sony kept landing safe mainstream bets, and Nintendo kept putting out landmark titles in their biggest series. Sega couldn't keep up, and that ambition gave way to licensed shovelware, multiplatform ports, and sports game after sports game. Failure led to lack of resources, lack of resources led to lack of risk, lack of risk led to lack of ambition.
In other words, Sonic Adventure 2 is the perfect metaphor for Sega's failure as a first-party publisher/developer. It's a sad game because it represents the end of an era. Sega's day as a reigning competitive force in the marketplace was over, and by proxy, Sonic's era of being a household name was over as well, at least in the same capacity he once was. It's not an awful or broken game, but it is an uncreative, unambitious one, and a far cry from the highs that the Blue Blur hit in the 90's.
That said, if you like it, that's cool. If you think it's the best 3D Sonic, I think you're wrong, but hey. You're entitled to that. It's definitely not the worst.
Because you see... the worst was yet to come.
It's time to slowly unpack the disaster that was, in my mind, the very worst 3D Sonic game until 2014. Get ready to look at all those Eggman's Robots.