Sonic Adventure was this close to being the greatest system launch game of all time.
I often wonder if it is simply the miracle of hindsight that allows us to view the Sega Dreamcast as Sega’s “last chance” at the console market. Back in the days of the Dreamcast’s launch, the Dreamcast was merely the latest in the parade of new Sega systems that all seemed to blend together. The Sega Genesis was a revelation, but the Sega CD “upgrade” was dominated by prerecorded nonsense starring Time Gal and the Funky Bunch. This begat the 32X, a cartridge-based add-on that had maybe 32 games, none of which were at all memorable, save for that one starring Nerples the Echidna. The Sega Saturn was Sega’s answer to the Playstation… but Sony destroyed it before the poor planet was even allowed to cool. Yes, stacked like that, you can see why Sega needed a win to survive, but at the time, we had just shaken off the Atari Jaguar, which was birthed by, what, the six brothers still begging for a new Atari console? If Atari could produce a video game console after destroying the entire industry, then Sega would keep making systems until after Eggman had well and truly spoiled… Right?
But whether the Dreamcast was the final bullet in the chamber or simply Sega’s latest offering to a capricious public, no one at Sega wanted to see the Dreamcast fail. It’s easy to look at the Virtual Boy or Game Gear and wonder aloud what the designers were thinking, but no one writes a blog expecting to only soak up a mere seven readers (I think I have twenty!), and no one launches a game console expecting it to fail. Yes, some launches have been… fraught with difficulties, like announcing such features as “compatible with absolutely zero games” and “incidentally destroys the entire resale market”, but those were mistakes made by monoliths that expected their juggernauts to keep on jugging no matter what. The humble hardware manufacturer that is surviving only thanks to a decade’s worth of general goodwill knows damn well they better come out with a hit, and, what’s more, since Sega could also be responsible for the software, they may as well produce that hit in-house. No sitting around waiting for Squaresoft to produce a system seller here, let’s pump out our first “real” Sonic game in five years and showcase exactly what this baby can do.
It… it was supposed to be a thing of beauty, and I can almost see how Sonic Adventure could have worked.
Ever play Wii Sports? Of course you have, because it is the most successful system launcher of what will likely be all time. I’ve already, while discussing hulked-out lawyers beating up regular lawyers, enumerated exactly why Wii Sports was such a success (cliff notes: everyone understands how to bowl, and Wii Sports lets you do exactly that, as opposed to some video game abstraction), but another reason Wii Sports succeeded while, say, nearly the entire Kinect library failed, was that Wii Sports knew damn well to leave the traditional “unlocking” conventions of video gaming behind. Yes, there are “challenges” included with the celebrated pack-in, but think about what you actually played with your friends. I can tell you what I played, and that was an endless, alternating loop of tennis and bowling. I’d check my own Wii to see how many hours were dedicated to just those two activities, but I know at least two friends (and my mother… is she technically a friend?) with Wiis that were frequently abused, so a more accurate tally is practically impossible (I loathe to admit that my friends may have played Wii Sports without me at some point, the monsters). And while we did randomly try Boxing every once in a while, I can safely say that, during my (group) play sessions, we ignored golf and baseball almost entirely. Now, this is the internet, so I’m sure there are people out there shouting angrily at their monitors about how dare I ignore such robust experiences as Wii Sports Baseball & Golf, and you know what? That’s okay! That’s the beauty of Wii Sports! You can freely play whatever sub-game you want within the whole, and you don’t have to bowl a 300 just to unlock the ability to play Tennis. This is huge, particularly in a pack-in game, because, while you can guess someone may have just purchased a Wii with six other games, it’s also entirely possible that that Wii was a single, financially burdensome holiday gift, and lil’ Timmy won’t see a new game for another year. It takes long enough to set up a new video game system nowadays (between cabling, receivers, batteries, and updates), and no one wants to, when they’ve finally got that “Press + to Start” flashing back at them, have to take their bitter medicine (Golf) before getting to the stuff they actually want to play (Tennis).
Sonic Adventure did not ever consider this lesson. Sonic Adventure made you play a fishing game to advance to the actual Sonic game, or it made you play a Sonic game to get to the fishing game. It’s… not a good thing.
Like Wii Sports, Sonic Adventure offers a number of different sub-games. While they all utilize the same basic graphics (and reuse a number of areas), they’re pretty varied in actual gameplay.
- Sonic, the main man (hedgehog), has the most traditional gameplay. While there are areas that are practically unskippable cutscenes (outrun a whale for some reason!) the majority of Sonic’s gameplay is just as “fast” as you want it to be. Obviously, the levels are designed for moving as quickly as possible and “homing dash”ing from bot to bot, but if you want to take it slow and explore an area, that’s allowed too. While it’s Sonic the Hedgehog in a Sonic Game, Sonic’s gameplay is much more like Mario 64 than, say…
- Miles “Tails” Prower is probably exactly what you’d expect of a Sonic Game, as his missions are primarily races against other characters like Sonic of Eggman. Every stage is just the tiniest bit removed from being a Kart Racer, and speed and course memorization are key. There are shortcuts, too, just to further belabor the point.
- Mittens the Echidna has levels dedicated to treasure hunts. While these levels could easily just be the Sonic stages again, but with an emphasis on finding checkpoints or whatever, these levels are totally unique, and built to utilize typical echidna skills like flight and digging. Couple this with the radar mechanic bundled into each level, and there’s practically a whole new spin on the “collectathon” genre here. Ever get stuck looking for that one, last red coin? Here’s a game with the answer to that problem, and some fun places to go searching, too.
- Amy Rose is a slower Sonic the Hedgehog by way of survival horror. No, the pink hedgehog is not pursued by an endless army of zombies with only a scant few herbs to help her, but she is constantly chased by a giant Badnik, and, lacking Sonic’s speed, has only a toy mallet to protect herself. On the surface, this makes her stages very similar to Sonic’s, but on the other hand, the addition of one constant, malevolent element drastically changes the mood/pace of the adventure.
- E-102 Gamma is one of Eggman’s bots, but he’s on the side of the angels thanks to a programming glitch. His gameplay is the most radically different from the rest of the crew, as he is well equipped with guns and ammo, and has the ability to shoot his fellow bots to roboheaven. This is, actually, completely necessary, as Gamma also has a time limit on all of his stages, and nailing multiple enemies at once will refill that hourglass. As a result, Gamma’s stages become absolute orgies of destruction, and, if I may say so, are a lot of messy, destructive fun.
- The much maligned Big the Cat offers stages with slow, methodical fishing trips. On the Breath of Fire – Sega Bass Fishing Scale of fishing games, it ranks about a six: more robust and “natural” than most fishing games, but still not direct enough to make “hooking” a marlin a likely occurrence.
- And sandwiched between all of these levels is the “adventure mode map”, a 3-D Zelda Overworld-esque urban city and surrounding area that hides a number of treasures and collectibles, but only for the intrepid player that uses their noggin to chase down other powerups to unlock puzzle solutions. It’s basically a game onto itself, albeit one where the only failure condition is wasting too much time convinced Sonic should be able to jump just a biiiiit higher.
So what are we looking at there? Seven separate gameplay styles within one game? That’s actually a pretty good idea for a launch game, because it not only gives the player a lot to do, but also shows off all the wonderful things that will be available on this fledgling system. Like racing around as Sonic? More Sonic Games are inbound! Tails more your speed? Let’s get some kart racers for you! Gamma shooting chaos what gets your motor going? Action games ahoy! One of the seven people on Earth that enjoy palling around with Big the Cat? This system will have an entire controller just for fishing! The only thing missing from this adventure is a credits sequence that ends with “you might also like.”
But, as is Sonic Team’s want, it all got screwed up.
Sonic Adventure has seven different gameplay styles crammed in there, but, unfortunately for everybody, you have to play every single one to see the entire game. And this isn’t a case of “play the Sonic levels so you have a base for the Amy challenges”, the Big the Cat stages have practically nothing to do with anybody, but you have to play through everyone else’s stages to unlock that lonely fishing game. Gamma is running an almost entirely different game from the rest of the cast, and his “story” is pretty divorced from it as well, but you have to do some Amy Rose stages to unlock the bot. And, yes, you have to play through everybody’s levels if you want to see the finale to this adventure, so maybe block out a day of your week to play through all the Big the Cat fishing trips that are the complete antithesis of playing a Sonic Game so you can complete this Sonic Game.
So, Sonic Adventure could have been an excellent showcase for all the places you’ll go with the Sega Dreamcast (really, if it had included something like a Fighting Game, it would be a preview of the entire system in one game), but it failed. The graphics were there, the gameplay was there, but it was too diverse, and, while it’s not impossible to find someone who liked everything on disc, it was much more likely your average player would grow frustrated with at least one “game”, and just quit the whole thing in defeat.
Maybe it wasn’t the best launch game, but I suppose, looking at the legacy of the Dreamcast, it was… appropriate. Good try, guys, let’s revisit the concept on the next system. Oh? There’s never going to be another system? Sorry to hear that.
FGC #83 Sonic Adventure
- System: Sega Dreamcast. And for all my talk of the Dreamcast, I actually played the Nintendo Gamecube version for this article. And I considered playing the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 versions.
- Number of players: One. Guess a two player game is also better for system launches. Actually, aren’t there minigames that can be multiplayer? Do they even count?
- Feel like you’re forgetting something? Okay, yes, the game is also kind of a glitchy mess. I can’t tell you how many times I perfectly timed some difficult Sonic jump and then, poof, just fell through the floor like it wasn’t even there. Actually, I want to say this was the game where I finally “got good” at 3-D platforming, primarily because I had to replay some stages so many times to escape the gaping maw of oblivion.
- Favorite Sonic Character (SA Edition): Amy Rose doesn’t get nearly enough levels, and I think I prefer her stages to Sonic proper. Yes, it’s basically the same thing with the added Badnik issue, but her more measured gaming also eliminates those damn “hold right forever” cinema scenes that populate random Sonic levels. I’d be happy with half the Sonic levels, and double the Amy levels, if given the chance. Also, Amy has the best, creepiest theme song. “It was so cute, I had to shave it.”
- I swear continuity isn’t a thing: Okay, Angel Island is literally big enough to contain two games, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, but once it lands in Sonic Adventure, it takes all of two seconds for a character to run from one end of the place to the other. What the hell!? Where did Ice Cap Zone go!? ARGH! Worst game ever!
- Did you know? There’s a flying dragon creature that was apparently cut from the game at some point. Considering the dragon has more than a passing resemblance to Panzer Dragoon creatures, seems like another spot where the idea was to promote just how cool Sega could be. Imagine! Dragons!
- Would I play again: I admit that this is something of a guilty pleasure of mine. I don’t play the game like it’s supposed to be played, but it’s fun to fire up a level or two once in a while and just quit when I get too frustrated (about 15 minutes). So I’ll play the game again, but I don’t think I’ll ever play through the game again.
What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen… Aerosmith’s Revolution X: Music is the Weapon for the Sega Saturn. Oh man, worst song played on ugliest guitar. Please look forward to it!