One Giant Leap, 1999: Sonic Adventure

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: The Blue Blur moves into the third dimension fashionably late in Sonic Adventure

Last time we saw Sonic, he and Sega were riding high, a successful challenger to the seemingly all-powerful Mario and Nintendo. The SNES/Genesis rivalry was the stuff of playground legends, and it seemed like Sega was well-positioned to be a power-player for many years to come.

Well, turns out “many” means “like 3 tops”. Sega followed up the Genesis with the Saturn1 in 1994 and it absolutely ate shit. It was getting dunked on by Sony and their PlayStation before either had even hit store shelves, and developers quickly chose to support the newcomer and abandon Sega. This defeat had happened so suddenly, Sega didn’t even have time to put out a flagship Sonic game for their console before it was toast.

So, Sega decided to cut their losses, and make a bold move to try and save their hardware business. They chose to get a head start on the next console generation, releasing the Dreamcast a full year2 before Sony’s PlayStation 2, at a time when they could compete directly against the technologically inferior Nintendo 64 and PlayStation. And this time, they’d do it with their mascot leading the charge.

Sonic Adventure is an incredibly ambitious game, fitting for something trying to both reestablish Sega as a player in the console market and Sonic as a top-tier name. It takes the hub-and-spoke model of Super Mario 64 and pushes it a little bit closer to a modern open world, full of NPCs to make it feel alive. Each of the game’s three connected overworlds really feels like Batman like a city block, jungle ruins, and airship respectively, rather than the more open-ended and abstract worlds of SM64 or Banjo-Kazooie. The game has a fully voice-acted story, something that isn’t necessarily unique for 1999 but isn’t exactly common yet for the genre. There are six(!) playable characters, each with their own campaign3 and playstyle. And of course the legendary soundtrack was recorded with live instruments, incredibly uncommon in console games of this era. This is a game with its sights set on being an all-time masterpiece.

And here’s the part where I’m supposed to talk about how Sonic Adventure falls very short of those lofty ambitions. Here’s where I talk about the bad camera, the fiddly controls, the wonky animations. Here’s where I get enraged by Big the Cat’s fishing-based gameplay, or Knuckles’ treasure hunting, or the sometimes vague objectives in the overworld. Maybe I should freak out over Sonic interacting with normally-proportioned humans too, really sell this. After all, I’ve been down on games in this series before, but every single one of them is a certified classic. Sonic Adventure is the first one to have a divisive reputation. Time to unload, right?

Some people find this unsettling. I’ve never been sure why; guess I’m just Built Different

And sure, I’ve got complaints. I’ll even get into some of them later. But it’s not like Sonic Adventure is the only janky 3D platformer of the 90s; it’s not even the only one I’ve covered! Jumping Flash!, Super Mario 64, even Banjo-Kazooie are all significantly less polished than we’d expect from a modern title. And it’s not like SA was viewed as worse than its contemporaries at the time; IGN’s initial review back in 1999 gave the game an 8.6 out of 10. This was a reevaluation, a diminishing of stature that happened entirely after the fact. Reviewing the Xbox 360 port in 2010, IGN gave the game a 3.5. And while I would never say that it’s wrong to reevaluate critical consensus of the past, or to have an idiosyncratic take, or that the 2010 reviewer was being “unfair” or whatever, I would say that there is a 0% chance that anybody who thinks that, say, Super Mario 64 deserves a 3.5 would have been allowed to write that review4. Sonic Adventure has become “fair game” over the years, and while it has its flaws I think its strengths tend to get overlooked as a result.

So, let’s correct that. Transitions from 2D to 3D can often be rough, especially in this era, and one big driver of that is an inherent lack of precision. When you’re landing a jump in a 2D game you can really only move on one axis, but in 3D you have two, rendering the process an order of magnitude5 more complicated. Sonic Adventure corrects for that by introducing the homing attack; while in midair, you can press jump again to make Sonic lunge forward. If there’s a nearby enemy he will instead lunge directly at them. This is a very clever solve to the problem. It’s also intensely satisfying in a pure gamefeel sense; Sonic’s initial jump is extraordinarily floaty, seeming to hang in the air forever, a leisurely jump. But then when you homing attack it’s very fast and focused. There’s a push and pull to this that you can’t really teach, it just feels Right.

The bounce up after hitting something is also great, as is the ability to chain them together

The game also has a strong sense of when to use speed6, using elements like springs and speed boosters to send the player careening around the stage, very fast and wholly in the developer’s control7 in contrast to the slower-by-comparison sections where the player’s in charge. Much like the homing attack there’s an engaging push and pull here. It also lets the developers put extra level “track” in the same geometry, which is pretty important, because space in Sonic Adventure is tight.

Which, let’s get into it. Sonic Adventure was a launch title in an era where each new hardware generation was a massive leap forward in complexity. As a result, Sonic Team didn’t quite know how to squeeze every last drop out of the Dreamcast, and had to rely on less elegant solutions to getting their levels implemented, such as hard loading zones that pause the game for a second or two and can result in a massive shift in location. This could be jarring, and sometimes hurts the flow of the level. But more importantly, it’s also related to what is in retrospect probably the most controversial aspect of this game: the six playable characters.

Or at least, I strongly suspect it is. There are 11 action stages in Sonic Adventure, and Sonic himself gets to play in 10 of them. With a couple exceptions8 every other character’s levels fully reuse the areas from Sonic’s version. It’s a common critique to say that Sonic Adventure would have been good if it had just focused on Sonic and cut everyone else, but there’s a reason it doesn’t do that. Creating an entire new level takes a lot of man-hours, and it also takes up a lot of space on-disc. Creating a new character isn’t free, of course, but it’s a hell of a lot less work and takes up way less space. Even assuming that there is in fact space on-disc for more (I’m not doing any sort of technical analysis here, it’s quite possible) there would not have been the production capability to match. There are 32 action stages (ie non-minigame, non-overworld levels) across the 6 campaigns in Sonic Adventure; a game that focuses solely on Sonic maybe gets to up his number of stages from 10 to 12 or so, but it absolutely could not have delivered 32 levels.

But, let’s not veer too far into apologia here. There are still plenty of problems with the other 5 characters. They almost universally feel unpolished compared to Sonic9, often featuring only one segment of a level rather than the full gamut that Sonic offers. Their mechanics tend not to be well though-out. For instance, Tails requires the player to sequence-break to beat Sonic10 in a race, but Sonic Adventure’s camera is heavily scripted and fully breaks if the player strays from the intended path. And infamous Big; sadly the haters have a point. The fishing is at once too simple and too complex; sometimes the frog you’re trying to catch will break from your line, or won’t be interested in biting your hook, and it won’t really be clear why. But also, each of Big’s 4 levels is more or less “throw the line at the nearest body of water and hope”, with nowhere near enough done to give a sense of escalation or even novelty. And there are more minor breaks too; several routes feature a basic “Lights Out” puzzle, where you toggle lights by stepping on them. Easy enough, except in Gamma’s route it’s a massive pain because he’s so much larger than everyone else that he overlaps multiple buttons at once unless you’re really careful.

Perfect size for Sonic, less perfect for a giant robot

It’s a sad reality of game development that design often gets deprioritized during production11. If an art asset isn’t up to snuff, you can see that instantly. If a game is buggy that’s more-or-less objectively measurable. But if a game isn’t fun, or worse, isn’t as fun as it “should” be…you can’t quantify that. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. So, in the case of Sonic Adventure, the need to make the game “feature length” without missing the Dreamcast’s launch window is obvious and easily measurable, so it gets prioritized. Polishing the new characters, though? Who’s to say what does or doesn’t need to be done; maybe players just need to git gud, maybe it only seems unfun because we’ve been pulling 100 hour weeks for 3 months and nothing feels like anything anymore, etc.

And again, part of this comes from a modern perspective. Video games, especially platformers, tended to be stuffed full of half-baked mini-games around this time. It was simply the style. And while I would never say that we can’t criticize the past using the knowledge of the present, it should be done evenly. Sonic Adventure is a flawed, janky game with big ideas that has clear influence today12 and should be treated in the same way as the other flawed, janky, ambitious and influential games of the era, whatever that means for you. If you’ve always avoided SA, maybe give it a chance. You might find it unbearable, but you just might be able to see what so many others did back in 1999.

Stray Observations:

  • Seriously, this game has an excellent soundtrack. I’m a huge fan of Jun Senoue both as a composer and as half of Crush 40, and this is one of his better works. Main theme “Open Your Heart” is a standout, and the way the game drops it as the music for the final boss fight is an epic move that more games need to copy.
Don’t exactly love the switch halfway through, though. Gotta keep the vibes going the whole fight!
  • Gamma’s story is surprisingly dark; a robot built to serve Eggman, he learns to value life and disobey his cruel master…only to realize that, since his own existence is predicated on keeping an innocent bird trapped, the only ethical thing to do is to take his own life so that the bird may be free.
  • This is the game that brought the name “Dr. Eggman” to the West. It strikes a compromise with “Dr. Robotnik”, treating the latter as his real name and Eggman as an insulting nickname Sonic and friends use. Of course, he also calls his own battleship the Egg Carrier, and from Sonic Adventure 2 on is just calling himself “Eggman” full-time, just like in Japan.
  • This game also updated Sonic’s character design, making him more angular and even more “cool” than his classic look. The Adventure Sonic is more-or-less the one I grew up with, so he’ll always seem “correct” to me. Older fans sometimes take issue with the design, though, finding it unnecessary. Personally, I think sticking with the classic look was untenable; the entire 90s saw massive “coolness inflation” in cartoons, such that characters who were legitimately subversive due to their edge at the start of the decade (Bart Simpson was denounced by President Bush!) were considered entirely safe by the end of it. Sonic always has to be cool, at least to kids, so growing with the times is a must.

Other 1999 platformers of note:

Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage! moves away from the pure platforming of the first game, adding a bunch of powerups, side objectives, and just general structure. Each level now has a mini-story arc to it, with Spyro being asked at the start to help the locals solve a problem, and with the critical path through the level ending with the conclusion of that problem. Not exactly War and Peace here, but it helps define what you’re doing and overall it makes Ripto’s Rage feel more substantial than its predecessor.

1999 also brings us Donkey Kong 64, another collect-a-thon from Rare. This one’s borderline infamous due to just how much stuff there is to collect and how cumbersome it is to pick it all up; you can play as several different Kongs, and each one has their own exclusive collectable. Outside of its iconic DK Rap, it’s probably best remembered today as the subject of YouTuber Hbomerguy’s “speedrun” livestream fundraiser for UK trans children’s charity Mermaids.

Donkey Kong says “Trans Rights”!

Next Time: Does “bigger” always mean “better”? A case study, as the bear and bird return in Banjo-Tooie