While Sonic did burst onto the 3D scene as early as 1996 with the best imitation of eye cancer the Sega Genesis could offer, it wasn’t until Sonic Adventure that you really felt the full effects. I’m overlooking Sonic Jam completely because you can get more of a sense of speed from watching an ambitious droplet of condensation run down the side of a glass. No, for speed in full 3D, the Sega Dreamcast delivered the first real contender.
Ironically, I don’t think there’s more of a split over the quality of a Sonic game than Sonic Adventure as a result.
There are some other contenders on that list with Sonic Generations or Sonic Colors, but as time makes more fools every day, several hordes more seem to fall on one side or the other. I think it’s even going to be a question on ACT tests in the future and in lie detector tests as a baseline. This is the question that will define a generation in some distant future: Is Sonic Adventure a good game?!
It’s fine, relax. We’re going to deconstruct this together. Do you want a hot chocolate? Maybe a blanket?
I can very easily see either side of the argument here as it’s very clear that Sega didn’t have a strict outline to follow. They were already two years and a full console generation behind/ahead of Mario and Nintendo, and simply had to come out with something decidedly different.
To be honest, they hit that nail on the head with design, story, and even gameplay. Early Sonic, aside from all other content in his games, started with essentially the same moveset as Mario with the differences staying aesthetic (Mario with his cape, Sonic with Tails etc.) throughout the 2D heyday. That came down to their main ways of beating enemies, which was jumping on their heads until the concussions became too much.
Sonic Adventure introduced everyone to the homing attack, which felt distinctly separate from anything Mario could do. It allowed for an instant burst of speed when needed, to play with level design, and to allow for bosses to feel grander and more open to variation. While I could just as easily throw in “allowed players to lose minds with accidental deaths”, I’ll stand by the homing attack as one of the best, most vital changes Sega took to in 3D.
The design of Station Square and the semi-open world that Sonic explores is where I think the seesaw tips most wildly. Sonic simply moves too fast to make exploration anything but a shaky-cam fest inside the few buildings you can enter. The other three areas aren’t as bad since they’re more open, but then they feel the sting of being a mostly lifeless group of ecosystems. There’s no paragon that proves the presence of Sonic in a more open landscape was the wave of the future, nor a highly desirable present.
Levels are just as spotty with a concept of bursting speed taking a lot of control away from the player. Everyone remembers the opening level, Emerald Coast, with the killer whale chase that is cinematic and felt really cool in the day. Playing now, I still think that level holds up in all honesty alongside Windy Valley, Casinopolis (in bastardized form), and Speed Highway. The issue is that leaves over half of Sonic’s levels that are meh or worse – I’m looking at you Twilight Park – partially because the players have so little control over where speed is earned or used.
The cinematics are certainly there for Sonic Adventure but their overabundance hurts with interaction. Entire minutes can go by where you have about as much input in Sonic’s direction as a quick time event, and it deflates your excitement as a result. It’s a fairly simple line to draw between “less interaction” and “less enjoyment”, especially as someone that’s come back to play on multiple occasions. The big cinematic booms don’t hold a candle over time whereas any of the 2D Sonic games can still engage me with their tightly interactive gameplay.
The big addition to gameplay is the inclusion of 5 other characters to play as besides Sonic, 2 of which are abominations against both God and the Devil. Big the Cat can take his fishing rod and f*ck it with Froggy filming. His is always the last campaign I drag my dignity through, kicking and screaming while dementia sets in as a self-defense. Look, this is dark and all but fishing does not, I repeat does not, belong in a Sonic game anymore than throwing cards into a hat belongs in Doom.
The other abomination is Knuckles’ scavenger hunt levels. While not as terrible as in Sonic Adventure 2, it still feels nonsensical that Sonic Team decided that the protector of an all-powerful emerald should dig and hunt for them in levels with his trusty intuition guiding the way. Crash Bandicoot got gem hunting correct years before this game came out, and didn’t dig a single hole to do it.
Each of the characters has a story that, strangely enough, actually moves fairly well through Sonic Adventure. We’re not looking at anything emotionally engaging or even coherent outside of context here, but because of the distinct characters and singular goal, it slightly works.
My favorite aspect of the story is how it allows for so many boss fights to happen because, hand to the master emerald, I really do enjoy the majority of them. Each of the free-range 3D environment brawls really do engage you and ask that you pay attention to enemy queues. The two downsides here are that Eggman and his Chaos companion show the same form to too many people and the 2D-as-3D boss fights aren’t as engaging. Those fights turn into attrition contests that feel unnaturally elongated, thus, not fun times.
Which is all to say the following statement with the bare-minimum of sarcasm: Sonic Adventure is probably the best 3D Sonic game in existence. This is where Sega didn’t bloat everything to a ridiculous extent or yet have the filthy year of 2006 on their conscience, and by letting further entries really punch themselves out with too much design, I’ll take back to Sonic Adventure for a short thrill anytime. Who’d have thunk that a simple Sonic experience would last the longest?
Sonic Adventure Score: