Ghosts of Games Past: Sonic Adventure
Once upon a time, one of the major players in the video game console business was Sega. As anyone who grew up in the 90’s can remember, they were a force to be reckoned with. Their rivalry with Nintendo in particular still exemplifies how big a feud could get in the game business, “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t” being one of the most famous shots fired during that time. This, of course, extended to their mascots. Where Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Sonic the Hedgehog. And for a long time Sonic was everything Mario wasn’t. Cool, high-speed, and filled with attitude in a way that really worked for the 90’s. But nothing lasts forever and Sega’s fortunes eventually gave way to being challenged by a third rival with Sony’s Playstation system. After the 90’s console wars and the failure of the Sega Saturn took their toll, Sega’s last-ditch effort was in the Sega Dreamcast, a console that, in retrospect, was ahead of its time with online play and powerful to boot. One of the system’s killer titles was Sonic’s next major foray into 3D: Sonic Adventure, which came out on December 23rd, 1998. While there had been flirtations with 3D before in Sonic Jam for the Sega Saturn, and Sonic: 3D Blast, this was the big leap from Sonic’s 2D origins to a more “modern” style.
Sonic Adventure is an interesting experiment in the history of the series. While Sega had experimented with the format of Sonic before in Sonic 3D Blast, that was more of an isometric platformer rather than anything close to what Sonic was known for. Sonic Adventure, however, was a true attempt at taking the famous high-speed gameplay Sonic was known for and transplanting it onto a new format. The results are seriously mixed; not least of which is because the game also takes the liberty of messing with the hallmarks of the series. These choices range from whole cast of characters available to play, different gameplay styles for each character, as well as a break in the action in the form of “Adventure Fields” acting as an overworld between levels. The game is tied together by a loosely-connected Rashomon-esque story. It also introduced the Chao: a pet sim that had nothing to do with the main game. This wouldn’t be the last time that a Sonic game would use this format, but this was the new Sonic in its most early and primal form.
The gameplay itself is rather fractured. While the game does attempt to transplant the 2D Sonic gameplay into three dimensions, it’s very flawed in execution. This being due to basic things like fussy camera angles, choppy speed mechanics, and frustrating stage designs. That criticism is something that mainly applies to the Sonic and Tails levels, as they more or less play like a straightforward Sonic game, but the choppiness is something that infects the rest of the game as a whole. It also isn’t helped due to the fact that Sonic, a very story-light and fast-paced platforming series up to that point was suddenly burdened with the “Adventure Fields” siphoning the momentum that would normally feed from one level for another. Instead of being able to progress, you’re often left running around trying to figure out where the next level is, or where the next event cutscene is. While it’s hard not to still enjoy messing around in the Chao Gardens after all these years, it (along with the other new ideas in Sonic Adventure) feels bolted on with little thought for how it interlocks with the rest of the game.
The major problem with this game was that it diverged too far from the qualities that made Sonic what it is. Sonic Adventure was, without a doubt, an interesting game — and it was encouraging to see (despite knowing the down side that would follow) that Sonic Team attempted to revamp the franchise, even if the result was imperfect. However, it’s hard not to get the sense that Sonic Team’s choices were more of a wild grasp at something that would blow dust off the series, rather than a careful effort to move the series into the future, especially when these choices ultimately detracted from the game’s quality. That being said, it’s still worth checking out, if only to see a turning point during a tumultuous time in gaming history
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