In Defense of Sonic Adventure
Posted: Posted November 1st, 2018
Edited November 1st, 2018 by Famov
Sonic Adventure turns 20 this year.
Anyone with a passing interest in video game essayists (don't look at me like that) is likely to encounter the name Tim Rogers at some point. Rogers was infamous for his meandering, self indulgent writing style that would often take winding detours into personal anecdotes and overwrought analogy. His then-contemporary review of Metal Gear Solid 4, hosted on the now defunct actionbutton.net, was as biting as it was a long form test of patience. At one point he considers whether or not the adulation enjoyed by Guns of the Patriots was a sign that his peers in game's criticism were simple-minded boors totally divorced from any understanding of the concept of quality. He then relates to the reader a story of how one of his former colleagues casually admitted, to Tim's apparent horror, that Fleetwood Mac was their favorite band. With his question seemingly answered the essay continued on for another five thousand words.
I've got another one. This excerpt is from a piece titled "Tragedy of the Collectathons" written by someone under the pseudonym of "Merus". Thankfully that one still exists so I can prove I haven't just made all of this up.
"There's something [that] has been bugging me for years. Donkey Kong 64 was praised to high heaven upon its release. It earned a score of 90 on Metacritic, and was praised for its technical excellence, its expansive worlds, and just how much fun it was. Ask anyone now, though -- even the people who wrote those words in the close of the 20th century -- and they'll tell you: Donkey Kong 64 is not a good game. It's tedious and demeaning, and it marked the beginning of Rare's decline into mediocrity.
What's going on here? Are reviewers perpetually talking out of their collective arses, praising heavily-hyped games to high heaven however pedestrian they turn out to be, while hanging the memorable classics of the medium out to dry? Well, no; cynicism is a fun indulgence, but it's ultimately childish. The fact of the matter is that at the time, people did think Donkey Kong 64 was fun."
Both of these provide helpful context for what I'm about to do. You see, Sonic Adventure is a game that enjoyed unanimous critical acclaim when it released in 1998. IGN, itself certainly no stranger to mediocrity, presented Sonic's Dreamcast debut with an 8.6 in a review that for some hysterical reason refers to the iconic mascot as the "blue bomber". Within Gamespot's 9.2 review one can find the words "genuinely attractive" lavished upon a game that has in the years since received no end of memetic mockery for its graphical presentation. Fast forward 20 years and the accepted wisdom is that Sonic lost its way once it transitioned to the third dimension. So, to repeat Merus, what gives? There is a disconnect here that needs to be reconciled, and I think we can accomplish this without concluding that reviewers are either idiots or liars.
Once earned, cultural capital is a tenacious thing. The Sonic series has precisely five games to thank for its nearly 30 years of slowly diminishing relevance. They are, in chronological order, Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic CD, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and Sonic and Knuckles. The combined game of Sonic 3 and Knuckles is in some ways the most impressive release of its generation, and in every way an A-list platformer. Setting aside the legions of spinoffs that were made in the intervening four years, nearly all of which were completely worthless, Sonic Adventure was the next step for the series proper. In many ways it is a logical continuation of Sonic 3, with all of the same moving pieces but expanded upon to realize their new ambition on the Dreamcast's hardware. There are now six characters instead of three. They all, more or less, go through a similar sequence of stages and sometimes even fight the same bosses, but they all have a unique way of interacting with the environment. Sonic is the baseline, going from point A to point B, taking one of (often) multiple paths to some end objective. Tails has similar stages, but must race against Sonic to get to the end and has access to various shortcuts thanks to his ability to fly. Knuckles is on what is essentially an Easter egg hunt for pieces of the shattered Master Emerald, in what I tend to think are the worst levels in the game. Amy is slow and vulnerable, and must reach the end of her stages while avoiding an indestructible robot in pursuit. Speaking of robots, E-102 Gamma engages enemies with an arsenal of built in weaponry to shoot his way through combat heavy levels that end with one on one slugfests against another of his fellow E-series creations. Lastly we have Big the Cat, an oblivious, slow witted cat shaped monstrosity that chases around his pet frog and must fish him out of various bodies of water.
The first couple hours of this game, likely spent exclusively with Sonic (though the rest of the playable cast are unlocked in quick succession) will reveal the following: the game is a mess. Sonic is certainly fast (and floaty), and the vast majority of deaths anyone will encounter will be the result of Sonic breaking out of a predetermined movement script or by falling through the world. Camera movement is so difficult to predict, let alone control, that it gives the impression that it's actually a sophisticated artificial intelligence looking where it wants as opposed to acknowledging the commands of the feeble-minded mortal behind the controller. Remember turning on Super Mario 64 and contorting the floating Mario head in ridiculous ways? That's what the characters look like when they emote in Sonic Adventure. This is exacerbated by nonsensical dialogue that fills out the truncated story scenes. It is sometimes difficult to figure out where to go in the hub world in order to progress to the next area, and unlocking the next stage often requires solving an incredibly lame puzzle involving a small object found somewhere in the hub. The worst offender, the ID card, is hidden in plain sight and is so difficult to see I can pass by it a dozen times without realizing it's there. This is the best game mode by far. The more the other characters stray from the speedy platforming the less fun the experience is. The treasure hunts and the overwrought fishing minigame are particularly boring.
But let's dispense with all of this: I gave up the game with the title of this thread. This is meant to be a defense of Sonic Adventure. Increasingly over the years I've been left asking myself the question: Is such a thing even possible?
Let's see if I can manage it. Doing this properly requires I set the stage. We are looking at a brief moment in time that will never return, but is responsible in its entirety for the Sonic fandom as it has existed for the last two decades. The year is 1999. The last worthwhile Sonic release was in 1994. A fan of Sonic was a fan of Sega, and to be a North American, preteen fan of Sega was to likely be old enough to have felt the pinch of the Saturn era drought while remaining young enough to not have any reason to question Sega's future as an institution. Let's be clear about something. Sega lost the 16 bit console war all the way back in 1991, but we didn't know that. At the time, more of my friends had Sega consoles. Sonic Adventure was therefore the long awaited return of Sonic the Hedgehog. It was, for all intents and purposes, Sonic 4.
And then we saw screenshots of the whale.
This blew us away. It occurs in Sonic's first stage, and exists to reaffirm Sonic Team's commitment to their long standing argument in the "style versus substance" debate. In game it's easy to run afoul of this segment's scripted intentions and fly off the bridge, but when it works it looks incredible. The camera swings in front of the player, and we see this massive sea mammal jump out of the water to fall upon and destroy the bridge behind us. It was next generation in a way that was unmistakable even in low res magazine screens. This was the real deal. Sonic was back, he had matured, and Nintendo didn't stand a chance with the stodgy, blocky, cartridge-based N64. The full motion video, drawn out story sequences, voice acting, and rock soundtrack brought the Sonic series into a sphere that Nintendo hadn't even begun to consider. Not even Sony's mascot based outings were trying to do this, beholden as they yet were to Super Mario 64. This was new territory, and Sonic the Hedgehog was leading the charge.
The foundation for what would eventually rot the property from within was all established here, but it was new at the time and in its most benign form. As I implied earlier, it is as much a child of Sonic 3 as it was the father of Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic '06. There was a bit of furry melodrama, but it had not yet eclipsed the colorful, light hearted whimsy that characterized the early games. The janky platforming was easier to forgive when it was still this fast paced and propulsive. Compare Sonic Adventure with it's immediate sequel and you can see the transformation into plodding inanity truly crystalize. With Sonic Adventure 2 you had, at best, one third of a worthwhile 3D platformer. Here, however, the good content outweighs the bad. That may read like faint praise, but I can still enjoy the Sonic and Tails (and to a lesser extent the Amy and E-102) gameplay. Your mileage may vary, but what I have attempted to get across is that the game scored as highly as it did at least in part because there is something enjoyable trapped within the layers of awkwardness and aging technology. Sonic Adventure exists to imperfectly realize the very same ambition shared by Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Mega Man Legends, and even Donkey Kong 64. What would follow, in contrast, would pander to an increasingly insular fandom at the expense of its legacy and ultimately consumer confidence. God bless Christian Whitehead for doing an admirable job on Sonic Mania, but that's the only justice we can hope for at this point.
In its current form, the Sonic series and fandom exists to satisfy those that upload digital art drawings of anthropomorphic, teleporting assassin hedgehogs to Deviantart. (Original character. DO NOT STEAL.) It exists for those of us that are able to identify the difference between Metal Sonic and Mecha Sonic, or perhaps between Silver Sonic and Silver the Hedgehog, and if you don't know what on Mobius I'm talking about then there may yet be a place for you in civil society... But as they say, it's a Festivus for the rest of us. Sonic Adventure is our game, even if it's not really all that great and even if virtually everything that followed it is a total loss. Some of my friends would argue specific points with me on this: SA2, Generations, and Colors often get name dropped in this context, but, man, I just don't get that at all. Sonic Adventure is it for 3D Sonic. When the final boss battle begins and that insipid Crush 40 track kicks in, you are witnessing a life affirming experience for many thousands of former ten year old autists. It's so cool, but it's really not all that cool. As with a lot of Sonic final bosses, victory is achieved by maintaining momentum long enough to win before your rings run out, which makes it thrilling when you play well and frustrating when you don't. The song unfortunately cuts out halfway though the fight to be replaced by generic background boss music for no immediately obvious reason. Whatever. The first half of that fight still totally reaches the platonic ideal of Sonic's second era. You can quote me on that. You can't take this one away from us!
I began this essay by making the slightly embarrassing admission that I've been going out of my way to read video game essays for years. I was first inspired to emulate this example on a defunct website of my own: gametalk.com. The subject of this piece was, indeed, Sonic Adventure. I am even reusing my own title, for the tenor of my argument is essentially the same now as it was on Sonic Adventure's tenth anniversary. Now that another ten years have gone by (for myself as well as for the game) I figured I may as well give it another shot. Not much has changed, but that makes sense. We talk about how games "age" when that's not actually a thing. What happens is that our expectations change, and between 2008 and 2018 my positive perspective on Sonic Adventure only becomes increasingly difficult to convincingly articulate. It's a barely functioning shambles of a Dreamcast disc, occasionally uplifted by a few good ideas and a lot of character. The facial animations are hilarious, the voice acting is absolute garbled cringe, and the gameplay is hit or miss, with the misses reliably hinting at what the future of the franchise was destined to become. That sounds like a harsh appraisal, but I don't know how to be any gentler without misleading you guys. And if anyone reads this and is in any way offended by how I've described this game, the Sonic series or even its most dedicated fans, know that I regard myself as much a passenger on this doomed vessel as anyone else. Beyond that, I can only respond in this way:
*teleports behind you* Psh... Nothin' personnel [sic], kid.
“There cannot be greater rudeness than to interrupt another in the current of his discourse.” - John Locke
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