Friday, November 19, 2010

Sonic Adventure, or Racing to the Bottom

Sonic_AdventureI’ve never owned a Sega console.  My cousins had a Genesis, so most of my exposure to Sonic and his friends was rationed out across occasional holiday visits.  The blue rat hedgehog entered my life as a cartoon character first and foremost – first as a manic goofball voiced by Jaleel White and then as some sort of Blade Runner-esque hero

Suffice to say, I grew up without the reverence for Sonic that seems to pervade large swaths of the gaming community.  So when Sonic Adventure cropped up on Xbox Live Arcade, I was intrigued. 

Originally released in 1998 for the Sega Dreamcast, Sonic Adventure was Sega’s retort to the monstrous success of Super Mario 64 (released two years earlier).  Team Sonic (much like Nintendo before them) took their beloved mascot and thrust him into a fully three-dimensional environment – theoretically ushering in a whole new era for the franchise.  It even became the bestselling game on Dreamcast (a fact which dumbfounds me – more on that later).

Cut to twelve years later: Sonic’s legacy isn’t looking too great.  Sega’s taking a buckshot approach to the development of new Sonic titles.  Sonic Colors (a 2D/3D platforming hybrid) is out for the Wii.  Sonic Free Riders (some sort of hoverboard racing thing) is a Kinect title.  The first episode of Sonic 4 (a “return to form” for the series) is a downloadable release. 

With each new Sonic game, Sega claims they’ve recaptured what made Sonic great.  After playing through Sonic Adventure, I’m wondering if there’s anything worth recapturing.

Lost in Space

Even if I’d grown up with a healthy knowledge of Sonic canon, I don’t think my 1998 self would have been prepared for Sonic Adventure.  Sonic lives in a beachside hotel, in a city populated by seemingly normal human beings that also happens to have a train that goes directly to some nearby Mayan Mystic Ruins.  Eggman Dr. Robotnik uncovers some jelly monster named Chaos that evolves when fed things called Chaos Emeralds.  Sonic must hunt down these emeralds – whose locations he seems to know intimately despite having never heard of them before – to save the world or something.

The only thing that’s more ludicrous than the abysmal story is how heavily the game relies upon it.  Lengthy, poorly animated/edited/acted/written cutscenes break up the game’s already shoddy pace.  Wasn’t the story of the original Sonic just “Run Right to Win”?

As I lost as I felt in Sonic Adventure’s cockamamie story, I felt even more lost in its various environments.  Scattered throughout each area are little glowing puffballs that will occasionally offer hints as to where to go next.  However, hints like “Go to the mystic ruins!” (spoken in an uncomfortably disembodied female voice) are cold comfort when the game’s offered scant information as to what you might do once you get there.

The three-dimensional stages – a casino, a castle of some kind, an airship, etc. – offer little guidance, as well.  I’m not asking for handholding or floating arrows, but muddy textures and an awful camera reveal little about what Sonic might even want to do next, much less what he should do.  Bumpers and launch pads will wrest control from you without warning, flinging Sonic around levels like a ragdoll.  There is a way to make disorientation fun (amusement park rides are built on this principle), but in Sonic Adventure its just plain frustrating.

Out of Control

Controlling Sonic isn’t fun.  So not fun, in fact, that I could barely bring myself to experiment with the other characters (yes, there’s some sort of Rashomon-like story crap going on – ignore it).  Sonic is about speed, right?  Mario 64-like playground areas are not conducive to speedy gameplay, and Sonic’s movements aren’t fine-tuned enough for precise platforming.  Even though most of the straightforward “Run in One Direction” passages aren’t exciting, at least they don’t call upon Sonic to do something that just isn’t on his resume.

That said, there are a few fatal flaws to Sonic’s speed game – even when the levels are designed in his favor.  Merely brushing a wall or obstacle brings Sonic to a screeching halt.  The word “disruptive” barely begins to describe how this affects gameplay.  Sonic’s speed also makes him an incredible danger to himself.  His 0-60 time is unpredictable, and it’s easy to lose control of him and end up watching yet another untimely demise for the rodent. 

Sonic Adventure can’t find the balance between slow, methodical platforming sections and fast-paced, “Here, why don’t I do that for you?” tracks for Sonic to speed through.  When it gets difficult, it’s nearly impossible to tell why.  Is it the oversensitive, busted controls?  The murky design?  Or is the game just broken?

In the Rearview

It’s wrong to evaluate Sonic Adventure as anything other than a product of its time.  It came basically on the heels of Super Mario 64, and you can almost hear the development meetings with execs just playing video of Mario levels and going “Make sure we have this!” 

I’m being hyperbolic – there’s nothing here that feels like theft or plagiarism – but the point is, this game predates the dual joystick revolution.  When Sonic Adventure came out, Half-Life was only a month old.  Platformers still helped drive the console wars.  It was conforming to a style that barely exists now.

Don’t play this to get your Sonic fix.  Don’t even play this to get your gaming fix.  If you must play it, view it as a bug-ridden museum piece, a relic with faded paint and chipped corners.  Or you could do me a huge favor: go back in time and make sure that Alex Kidd takes his rightful place as Sega’s mascot, thereby negating the existence of this lackluster game.

Charge Shot!!! was provided with a copy of Sonic Adventure for review.  If you’re still not dissuaded, you can find Sonic Adventure on Playstation Network and Xbox Live Arcade for ten bucksTry the demo first, at least.