I didn’t learn who Sonic was until well into the mascot’s decline. My first encounter with the series was at a friend’s place, where I picked Shadow the Hedgehog out of his collection between rounds of Star Wars: Battlefront. The guy never said a bad word about any game, but he mercilessly tore into Shadow and the many wrongdoings of his video game. In the following years I’d learn quite a bit about the blue hedgehog and his pals as I interacted with people from other fringes of gaming society, but I didn’t seriously delve into the games myself until I was recently challenged to.
Sonic Adventure is the game I started with, which only seemed fair. Mario, Link, all the major gaming mascots were first introduced to me by way of their first 3D adventures, barring Kirby. Sonic too made the leap into 3D like so many other mascots before him, yet here it didn’t go so well. A misstep that could be overcome on its own, but that would be cutting Sega a lot of slack.
Recall that the Dreamcast was not truly competing with either the Nintendo 64 or Sony’s Playstation; that was the Saturn. These consoles all launched between 1994 and 1996, during which Sega struggled enormously. The Saturn was short-lived and Sonic fans were left with only an isometric adventure, Sonic R, and a compilation of old 2D games. Sony and Nintendo were dominating the gaming market, with many 3D games that are considered masterpiece classics to this day, even though they were plagued by some control and camera issues.
The Dreamcast released in 1998, several years into this round of the console wars. The Playstation 2 would follow only 2 years after and the GameCube would release in mid-2001. Comparing Sonic Adventure to Super Mario 64 or Jumping Flash! doesn’t fly because those games had been out for literal years. Sonic’s first full 3D adventure ought to be compared to the second wave of 3D games, with the likes of Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon, and Rayman 2. Games that were already far ahead in refining controls, gameplay, and cameras for 3-Dimensional environments.
That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Sonic Adventure. I found the game to be quite fun when viewed on its own. The high-speed stages were fun to play through, but even more so I appreciated the game’s willingness to experiment. Each of the playable protagonists has wholly different core gameplay, with Tails being certainly my favorite. Instead of just having a high-speed stage to tackle, you are actively racing against another character and encouraged to find shortcuts and exploits to cheat your way to victory.
The story is also cheesy beyond compare and the bad voice acting fits it so neatly you’d almost think it was deliberate. I liked seeing events play out from different perspectives, like having to battle Sonic as Gamma after originally doing that battle the other way around. And yea, I’ll say it: I even liked Big the Cat and his fishing mini-game. Sue me!
My issue with the game stems from how it compares to its contemporaries. While entertaining, there’s no denying that the game is very shoddily thrown together and faces problems that its competitors had long since overcome. While Ocarina of Time pioneered an accurate feature for targeting enemies, Sonic’s homing attacks randomly decide not to lock on or have you dashing straight through your enemies. The game’s geometry struggles to support the game attached to it, with even regular play seeing Sonic and friends dropping through the ground or getting stuck in scenery.
Other design decisions would seem baffling for even the earliest 3D titles. When the game wants to unlock previously-inaccessible areas for you, the keys for them just randomly spawn in odd corners of the HUB world or right in front of you without any context whatsoever. Many moments of the game that should be memorable sequences are infested with janky design issues like this. Like how battles between main characters are effortlessly won in seconds by spamming your basic homing attacks. Or how about an item that you have to carry around as Knuckles and which only exists because none of his attacks can otherwise hit the monkey gates.
Such ridiculous design decisions carry on all the way to the final battle, where depleting the boss’ health bar triggers a cutscene where he vanishes, reappears, and you then just battle the same boss a second time. Why not just give the boss 6 hitpoints then?!
Again, this doesn’t make Sonic Adventure terrible, but it’s certainly a bad look when Sega’s hit game starring their prestigious mascot is struggling to even keep up with the efforts of third-party developers. Sega had 4 extra years to take notes and figure out how to design a satisfying, competitive game and they just didn’t. Had I reviewed Sonic Adventure at the time, I’d probably say: “It’s unique, but not very good. Maybe get it on a sale if you feel up for an experimental platformer.”
And I can’t even begin to imagine how this must’ve been for those poor Sega kids; already burned by the Saturn if they could afford one, now stuck with a console that would discontinue mere years later with a 3D platformer far below par. Sega kids had a lot to envy other gamers for, whereas I don’t think many Nintendo or Sony households were particularly bummed with not getting to play Sonic Adventure.