Retro Review: Sonic Adventure
It’s easy to forget that Sonic Adventure was once an all-round hit. These days the 3D Sonic games are at worst seen as a collective mess, and at best still come up inferior to the 2D classics. Yet SEGA’s first attempt at transitioning dimensions was surprisingly competent, and Sonic Adventure largely succeeds at retaining the qualities that made the Mega Drive games so great. Just like before, the most fun you can have in Sonic’s Dreamcast debut involves running really, really fast in a straight line towards a giant loop-the-loop.
At the heart of Sonic Adventure is a large conflict between old and new ideas. The game’s mechanics have been adapted into 3D in a satisfying and natural way, but at the same time it demonstrates a complete lack of fear for trying new and weird things. SEGA’s equally refreshing and reckless attitude towards experimentation results in an experience that mostly feels innovative, but twenty years later can be borderline intolerable at times. When their system’s best selling game contains an overworld that’s this offensive you can perhaps see why they didn’t last much longer in the console race.
And yes, setting the precedent for the next twenty years Mario is there to show-up Sonic and highlight how things are done properly. The parallel game to Sonic Adventure is of course Super Mario 64, and here we see how awesome the concept of a main hub can be when fully realised. In contrast, trying to navigate Station Square can feel like getting repeatedly punched in the face. Aside from the horrible camera issues the main problem is that the area is split in three by a hotel lobby that’s almost symmetrical, and working out what door leads where is an unnecessarily confusing task.
Unless the idea of getting lost in the Mystic Ruins sounds like fun to you, there’s really no shame in googling how to get between Action Stages as fast as possible. Or just download a complete save, I won’t tell anyone. The actual levels of Sonic Adventure are so well designed that even if you remove any sense of challenge or unlock progression the element of fun is retained.
The sharp contrast between the game’s elements feels undeniably odd. Whilst many of the design decisions feel like they were made by someone with an active dislike for the player, there are Action Stages that stand out as some of the greatest levels in the history of 3D platforming. I’m talking about Emerald Coast, Twinkle Park and of course Windy Valley – an insane rollercoaster of a level that embodies everything good about the game. Perhaps the best way to explain what happened would be to simply conclude that Sonic Adventure doesn’t do exploration well. Unlike Super Mario 64, which fully committed to the idea and redefined its series’ core mechanics to optimise them for 3D, SEGA took more of a half measure; open world hub and linear Action Stages.
As with the Mega Drive titles, Sonic’s speed has an inherent problem; the difficulty increase in later levels clashes with the game’s ethos of effortlessly running through environments as fast as possible. Tricky platforming sections and scenarios that require immense precision feel out of place, and as a result it’s the earlier stages that end up being more fun to play.
This is something I still notice, and I should mention that I’ve honed my skills at this game and its sequels of a period of fifteen years. Yeah, the level of frustration frequently noted as one of the series’ criticisms doesn’t effect me as much as it will someone who hasn’t completed Sonic 2006 on hard difficulty. Even so, missing a homing attack on the final boss and falling off the map still happens to me, and it still sucks.
Sonic Adventure includes a few mechanics further removed from the base platforming. Some of these work really well; the snowboarding section of the Icecap level is still an absolute winner, even if it’s now overshadowed by the opening section of Sonic Adventure 2. Other ideas sound cool in concept but fall short in execution. Having a Casino full of interactive games could have worked, but NiGHTS Pinball is nowhere near as fun as it sounds and collecting the 400 coins required to complete the level is a chore. Flying Tail’s aeroplane in an on-rails section reminiscent of Star Fox has a lot of potential, but ultimately disappoints.
You can also play as five of Sonic’s friends, which again adds variety, as well as a mixed-bag of new mechanics. The Knuckles stages for instance have you searching for hidden gems. You should’t play these levels, they are not fun at-all.
At this point I’m going to interject a quick technical side note and mention that Sonic Adventure has been ported and expanded in a confusing way, and as a result the ‘definitive’ version of the game isn’t overtly clear. There was Sonic Adventure DX released for the GameCube in 2003 and then a digital release on PSN/XBLA in 2010. Oh, and both have been ported to PC.
My recommendation would be the Steam release plus this enhancement, which adds missing features from the original port as well as additional graphics and resolution options plus mod support.
Alongside other classics such as Shenmue, Skies of Arcadia and Jet Set Radio, Sonic Adventure embodies everything weird and amazing that made the Dreamcast such a distinct console. Did I mention that there’s a really great bit where a whale chases you? Probably not, but you probably already know that. Throw in some traditional elements from the Mega Drive series and you’ve got a unique classic that’s still probably the best 3D Sonic game ever made. Not that that’s saying much, AM I RIGHT?