The year was 1998 and the videogame industry was deep into the newest phase in the Console Wars. Nintendo and SEGA had left behind two-dimensional gameplay and were focusing entirely on polygons and 3D, while Sony provided some surprising competition in the arena with its PlayStation console.
In 1996, Super Mario 64 (Nintendo EAD) was released, marking the 3D debut of Nintendo’s portly plumber. With its tight, responsive controls, bright, vivid colours, exciting soundtrack and simple, yet increasingly challenging, gameplay, Super Mario 64 was largely regarded as a successful evolution from 2D to 3D gameplay for Nintendo’s mascot.
Meanwhile, Nintendo’s once-high-and-mighty rival, SEGA, was…struggling a bit. Their ill-fated 32X and SEGA Saturn hadn’t exactly set the world on fire and their superspeedy mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, while still a popular cultural icon, hadn’t been featured in a main series videogame for a long time, finding himself relegated to spin-offs, cancelled titles, cameos, and odd-ball experimental titles.
Determined to reignite Sonic’s success, SEGA set to work crafting a title that would not only compete with Super Mario 64 but also draw gamers away from their competition and firmly towards their powerful new Dreamcast console. In order to facilitate this, Sonic Team decided to craft a title that would mix multiple gameplay styles, completely redesign Sonic and his friends and enemies, and unite Sonic’s formally-competing continuity to softly reboot their once-blockbuster franchise.
Given that I wasn’t afforded the luxury of owning every games console back in the day, I opted to jump ship from SEGA to the Nintendo 64 and, as a result, I first played Sonic Adventure when Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut was released for the GameCube in 2003. This means that I didn’t play the game until after playing Sonic Adventure 2: Battle (Sonic Team USA, 2002), an upgraded expansion of Sonic Adventure’s sequel, also on the GameCube.
Picking a favourite between the two is difficult as the controls, graphics, voice acting and lip-synching, and gameplay mechanics were vastly improved in Sonic Adventure 2 (ibid, 2001), which also introduced Shadow the Hedgehog to the series, but Sonic Adventure had a lot more gameplay variety, a slightly more interesting story, and had a lot more additional content in its updated ports. Eventually, these GameCube ports were further ported to the PC and these versions then came to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. As this latter version was recently on sale on Xbox Arcade, I once again bought Sonic Adventure (though I was too cheap to buy the DX: Director’s Cut add-on) and blasted through it so let’s see if it’s still as good as I remember it.
Sonic Adventure (Sonic Team, 1998) saw players take on the role of Sonic the Hedgehog in his first fully 3D adventure. Arriving in Station Square after a long absence, Sonic encounters the mysterious aquatic lifeform Chaos causing…well, chaos…and soon uncovers a plot by his old nemesis, Dr. Eggman, to gather the legendary Chaos Emeralds and use them to empower Chaos to destroy Station Square. Teaming up with friends old and new, Sonic races to keep the Chaos Emeralds out of Eggman’s hands and stop his plans before it’s too late.
Right away, Sonic Adventure wipes the slate clean for the Sonic series. Not only is Sonic a fully-realised 3D character, he’s now taller, edgier, portrayed by Ryan Drummond as a heroic thrill-seeker, and living alongside humans in a vaguely-Earth-like setting rather than hailing from an alien world populated entirely by anthropomorphic characters.
Rather than speeding through 2D environments, Sonic navigates 3D stages with the camera placed behind him but, to make traversing these new stages easier, Sonic Team implemented what has now become one of the most contentious additions to Sonic’s arsenal, the Homing Attack. Nowadays, gamers take the Homing Attack for granted as it has been tweaked to hold our hands through its auto-lock-on and targeting reticule but, back in the day, it was an innovative gameplay mechanic that boosted Sonic towards the nearest enemy, spring, power-up pod, or simply blindly in the direction he is facing. It wasn’t a vastly over-powered move but, like Z-Targeting in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo EAD, 1998), was an essential mechanic to blasting Sonic through his sprawling, engaging zones.
As in his previous 2D outings, Sonic also has the iconic Spin Dash, which can boost him along with an almost-game-breaking speed or be held down and charged up for one big boost. He can also acquire a few upgrades that allow him to perform the Light Speed Dash; like the Homing Attack, this is now an iconic staple of Sonic’s 3D arsenal but, here, it’s a bit clunky as Sonic must charge up a Spin Dash and then release the button to speed along a set of Golden Rings. This was vastly improved in Sonic Adventure 2 to the format we are now used to, where the Light Speed Dash is assigned to a single button.
For gamers more used to Sonic’s most recent titles, Sonic Adventure may seem a bit of a shock as it also includes a whole host of additional characters to play as. Miles “Tails” Prower must race, usually against Sonic, to reach a goal first, using his twin tails to fly and attack enemies; Knuckles the Echidna must glide, climb, and dig through stages to find fragments of the Master Emerald; and Amy Rose has to use her Piko-Piko Hammer to evade the invincible ZERO. Sonic Adventure also introduced gunplay to the Sonic series for the first time by allowing players to blast through stages as the tragic robot E-102γ (or simply “Gamma”) and one of the most divisive characters of the entire franchise, Big the Cat, a massive, slow-witted cat who has to fish for his elusive friend, Froggy.
Once players have cleared each character’s story from start to finish, they unlock once final chapter where everone comes together to power Sonic up into Super Sonic so that he can end the threat of Chaos’ ultimate form, Perfect Chaos. This started a trend in the 3D Sonic games where players would unlock one final story where they play as Super Sonic, something that is still often seen in modern Sonic titles, which have only recently begun allowing players to play as Super Sonic outside of the Last Story.
In addition to these story modes, Sonic Adventure also features the Chao Garden. As Sonic and his friends destroy enemies, they can rescue a variety of little animals that can be taken to three Chao Gardens found in the game’s three Adventure Fields. In here, players can hatch and raise Chao, tiny little versions of Chaos, and power them up with these small animals, buy them food and accessories in the Black Market, and then race and battle against other Chao in the Chao Games. Chao’s stats (run, fly, swim, power, and stamina) will increase (or decrease) with each animal they interact with and the Chao will take on different characteristics and colours as they level-up, eventually evolving into stronger bipedal forms. The Chao Garden is a nice little distraction and an extra incentive to play but I can’t say that I really miss it from modern Sonic games; it’d work as a mobile app, or something like that, though.
Story and narrative are a massive part of Sonic Adventure; previously, there was a massive divide between the Sonic narrative in Japan to that seen in the United States and Europe. While Sonic always lived on Earth in Japan and fought against Dr. Eggman, in the U.S. and Europe, he lived on Mobius and battled Dr. Ivo Robotnik; Knuckles lived alone on Angel Island in Japan but was isolated on the Floating Island elsewhere, and there were a few inconsistencies regarding the amount and appearance of the Chaos Emeralds as well.
With Sonic Adventure, though, Sonic Team sought to consolidate all these inconsistencies into one brand image for their super-fast mascot. “Eggman” is used by Sonic and his friends as an insult to their egg-shaped adversary, who refers to himself numerous times as Dr. Robotnik; Sonic and his anthropomorphic counterparts are right at home alongside humans, and the previous games are used as a vague basis for the character’s back stories (Amy specifically remembers the events of Sonic the Hedgehog CD (SEGA, 1993), for example) but, at its core, Sonic Adventure, with its anime-inspired aesthetic, serves as a soft reboot for the franchise that would act as a clean slate for the series going forwards.
Unfortunately, this didn’t last very long. All-too-soon, Sonic’s narrative began to get more and more convoluted and the idea of one unified worldwide version of Sonic was tainted by further drastic changes to Sonic’s aesthetic, the addition of Classic Sonic and the production of Sonic Boom (Various, 2014 to 2018). Long-time fans of the series struggled a bit with Sonic’s dramatic redesign; fans literally argued themselves into a frenzy over the fact that Sonic now has green eyes, for God’s sake, and debates continue to rage to this very day regarding what is the best design for Sonic.
While I actually really enjoy each of the character’s stories and gameplay styles, fans also reacted badly to many of Sonic Adventure’s gameplay mechanics. The speed and excitement of Sonic’s gameplay continued into Sonic Adventure 2 and eventually evolved into the sole gameplay style we see in modern Sonic titles, but Tails’ and Amy’s formulas were abandoned entirely by the sequel, with only the shooting and treasure hunting mechanics lasting to Sonic Adventure 2.
But it was Big the Cat who suffered the most, with fans seemingly unified in their hatred of his slow movement and fishing gameplay. I, however, really like Big; his stages are short and simple, his gameplay inoffensive and easy to master, and it’s a breeze to cheese his additional missions. Honestly, if I had to pick a character I disliked out of all of those on offer here, it would be Amy, as she’s a bit awkward to control at times (thanks in no small part to Sonic Adventure’s dodgy, jerky camera) but, having said that, her stages are still pretty short and easy to get through and I would much rather than three great characters and stories and three average ones than one single gameplay style.
Sonic Adventure was also hampered a bit by its camera, as mentioned, and control schemes; these would be refined in Sonic Adventure 2 but, here, everything is lacking a little bit of polish. It isn’t the glitch-filled, game-breaking end of the world a lot of Sonic fans will scream at you that it is but it can cause some unnecessary deaths at times. The game’s voice acting and lip-synching are also still a source of derision but, honestly, I really don’t care; all the characters sound great, and very appropriate, and, while the lines aren’t always great and their delivery can be hit and miss, that was just how voice acting was back in those days and, for me, it just adds to the quirky charm of the videogame.
Sonic Adventure is also packing quite a bit of content. Alongside the Chao Garden, there’s also the option to replay each character’s stage a couple more times to earn additional Sonic Emblems (which can be found hidden in the Adventure Fields or are awarded after finishing stages and story modes); players can earn further Emblems in the Trial Mode, by finishing sub-games, and by winning Chao events. In the DX: Director’s Cut expansion, there’s also a Mission Mode that tasks players with fulfilling certain objectives for even more Emblems; once you earn all 180, you’ll unlock the ability to play as Metal Sonic in Sonic’s stages. While a simple reskin, this is a fantastic addition to the game and I would honestly love to see Sonic Team do more reskins like this in Sonic titles as it’s so easy to do and just helps add a bit more incentive to play and a little variety.
That is what I love the most about Sonic Adventure: the variety; each character experiences events from a different perspective, meaning you might watch the same cutscene two or more times but the dialogue and camera angles will be different depending on who you are playing as. Also, if you get tired of blasting through stages at break-neck speed with Sonic, you can take in the gorgeous visuals at a slower pace with Knuckles or Big or just go in all guns blazing with Gamma. There’s a lot to do, lots of little hidden secrets and Easter Eggs to find, and I always want to play a little more, do a little more, and explore areas with each of the six characters.
It is honestly very disappointing to me that SEGA slowly began to shift away from Sonic’s extended cast and focus solely on Sonic’s gameplay. In Sonic Adventure, Tails and Amy both learn to be independent characters who aren’t simply one-dimensional bit players in need of rescue. Now, though, you’re lucky to even see Amy in a cutscene in a Sonic game and it seems to take a massive, concentrated effort of willpower for Sonic Team to allow players to play as Tails, to say nothing of poor old Knuckles!
Sonic Adventure isn’t entirely to blame for that but the game is a bittersweet experience to play as it’s so much fun and has so much potential but some of its best parts (character variety, the semi-open world, and the level-up system) were omitted entirely in Sonic Adventure 2 and SEGA have never really been able to make a Sonic title that feels as immersive as Sonic Adventure. Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 2006) tried to emulate the same feel and expansive nature of Sonic Adventure, but it lacked the gameplay variety and was littered with bugs and issues that made it more of a poor imitation; Sonic Unleashed (ibid, 2008) was perhaps the closest to succeed at emulating Sonic Adventure’s style but, rather than try to expand and refine upon this to reintroduce more of the concepts and mechanics of Sonic Adventure, SEGA and Sonic Team chose to release wildly inconsistent Sonic titles and bog their franchise down with multiple competing iterations of their mascot rather than continue with one unified version of their most popular brand.
This is a real shame but, for me, does not diminish the impact or enjoyment of Sonic Adventure. Sonic Adventure 2 might be technically better in a lot of ways, but there’s something about racing through Station Square, exploring the Mystic Ruins, taking down the Egg Carrier, exploring the history of Sonic’s world, and battling Chaos’s various forms that I find extremely enjoyable. I like that the redesigns of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy, and Eggman all look cool and that the playable characters have distinct gameplay styles; I like the aesthetics of the game and its world and the new characters, who are both fun to play as and surprisingly complex; I like that the game is simple but also challenging at times, that the bosses are big and have a lot of variety, that the soundtrack is a mixture of styles (from cool skater rock to nostalgic tunes to mechanical synthesis), and that Eggman is a competent threat and not just some bumbling buffoon.
For me, Sonic Adventure was a fantastic way to reintroduce Sonic to a new generation of gamers and a great starting point for a whole new series of Sonic titles; SEGA and Sonic Team may have fumbled the ball at capitalising on some of the game’s great ideas but it doesn’t change the fact that Sonic Adventure is a fun title to invest a few hours on and that it succeeds far more that it fails, no matter what the toxic Sonic fan community might have you believe.