How Sonic Adventure Blue My Mind: Reliving the Hype

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Dreamcast’s North American launch – 9.9.99 – I’ve been thinking a lot about my earliest impressions of Sega's final console and the reasons why I saved up my meager allowance to bring one home that day.

Sonic Adventure was undeniably the catalyst.

It was the game that jumpstarted my interest in Sega’s swansong platform and in video gaming as a serious hobby. Over the subsequent decades, my sharp criticisms of the game have grown starkly at odds with my enduring fondness for it; yet neither sentiment has undermined, nor ceded ground to the other. 20 years onward, I continue to appreciate Sonic Adventure for a multitude of reasons but more for how it sparked my passion for the medium – and all the incredible experiences that would follow – than for the game it ultimately was. I’ve come to terms with the idea that, in a weird way, perhaps I'm nostalgic for a game that never truly existed.

Spoilers ahead for Sonic Adventure and Sonic 3 & Knuckles...and my childhood, for that matter.
Thanks to this magazine, I've been living the dream(cast) for the last 20 years. – EGM, Issue 112
In the beginning, 13-year old me was casually perusing the Electronics Boutique video game shop at a local mall. My mom was off shopping for shoes, or books, or circular saws, or whatever it is moms buy and I just wanted to kill some time. I wasn’t at all serious about video games; I still went outside back then. The nine-year-old Sega Genesis was the newest console I owned, and I had fallen completely out of the loop on what was happening around the then-modern gaming scene. Gazing at the endless rows of unfamiliar game boxes and jewel cases lining the store walls, I was bewildered. It’s like I had suddenly warped into gaming’s cynical, dreary future:
  • Tenchu: Stealth Assassins? Turok 2? Apocalypse starring Bruce Willis? Looks like all the games are trying to out-badass each other these days. How edgy.
  • Spyro the Dragon? Guess anthropomorphic dudes with ‘tude games will never die, huh? Oh, but this one breathes fire? Radical.
  • Glover? Jeez, brand tie-ins must really be out of control if the Hamburger Helper mascot has his own game now.
I was largely detached from the newfangled games of that era and honestly, it didn’t seem like I was missing out on much. But then I finally noticed something a bit more…let's say, familiar?

It was the November 1998 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly. As I peered closer, I noticed the cover image looked vaguely like Sonic the Hedgehog. Hold on, it was Sonic the Hedgehog…except...was it? I recognized the blue spines and iconic red shoes – check and check – but this Sonic was staring at me with creepy green eyes. He pointed coolly with his massive cartoon hands, inviting me to open this magazine to find out just what he’d been up to in the years since we last destroyed the Death Egg and returned the Master Emerald to Angel Island.

And so I did...
Beautiful. Glorious. Bullshots. – Also EGM, Issue 112
Turning right to the cover story, I was bombarded with a spread of gorgeous screenshots. Yep, it was Sonic the friggin’ Hedgehog alright, along with his furry pals Tails, Knuckles, and...other critters. The gang was all here and apparently they were poised for a triumphant return. And boy did their new game look amazing. To my untrained eye, these screens looked like some high-grade, expert Pixar-level stuff. I was already sold. I knew then and there I’d be buying this Sonic Adventures game and whatever platform it would…wait, Dream…Cast? Uh, Dreamcast? That kinda sounds like some Engrish shit. Is Sega serious? 
The Sega None of the Above seems like an odd choice for a console name – but then again – so did the Dreamcast back then. – EGM, Issue 112, once again
But then the hype got real.

Over the following weeks and months, I read and reread that magazine countless times, just hoping to get a sense of what grand journey awaited me in Sonic’s – and indeed, Sega’s – next adventure. I hung onto every hype-filled word that EGM editors Crispin Boyer and John Davidson had generously inked onto those pages. Here’s an excerpt:

From a gameplay standpoint, it’s already perfectly apparent that the game is going to be absolutely huge. The incredible speed of the gameplay has obviously been a contributing factor in this. After all, what’s the point of having original game-like bursts of velocity if the level structure doesn’t allow you to enjoy it all? Naka-san and the team have clearly been working on this, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the Speed Highway section. Sonic hurtles through streets and urban scenes, between buildings, past fountains and landmarks and then even runs up and down buildings. Seeing him scream down the side of a skyscraper really has to be seen to be believed.” – EGM, Issue 112, November 1998, Pages 194 & 198

I spent hours imagining the ways Sonic Adventure – with potentially limitless opportunities to explore its vast locales at breakneck speed – would blow my mind. I envisioned that it might somehow combine the sandbox freedom of Super Mario 64 with the sheer speed and vertical exploration of the Sonic titles I knew, plus whatever other crazy advancements video games must have made since I stopped paying attention to them. A trillion polygons per second? Maybe! Blast processing? Of course! Fully-explorable cityscapes instead of flat skybox backgrounds? Sure, why not? If those gorgeous screenshots were the easel, then my unruly imagination was both the brush and the canvas.

In hindsight, The Sonic Adventure I had imagined was probably more akin in scope to 2018’s open-world Spider-Man game than the semi-linear ‘90s platformer that EGM was describing and Sonic Team was promising. It’s clear my naiveté and unfamiliarity with the limitations of then-modern video games, combined with an overactive mind, led me to build up impossibly lofty hopes for this game.

C’est la vie.
Not Sonic Adventure. 
Eventually 9.9.99 rolled around, as would Sonic, and I’d learn to curb the untenable hype and enjoy Sonic Adventure for the endearing, inventive, and enormously flawed game that it was. In many ways, its more fundamental problems have only compounded over the last 20 years but those critiques aren’t really the point here so I’ll move on.

If I have a point at all, it’s how awesome it is that we can appreciate games for – or regardless of – various of aspects of hype, history, nostalgia, innovation, technical prowess, collectability, artistic merit, design philosophy, or any arbitrary evaluations of “fun factor,” “replay value,” and whatever else. We can have drastically varied perspectives of what all of those things are, how much they matter, and how they co-exist – freely interacting or isolated, complimentary or conflicting. Video gaming is a highly personal medium that we can uniquely enjoy on myriad levels and for whatever reasons we damn well please.

In other words, there’s nothing that says our favorite games need to be 10/10 games, or 7/10 games, or even 4/10 games. They can fundamentally fail in the traditional product “quality” sense yet can still mean a great deal to us in any number of other ways.

In other, other words: I absolutely adore Sonic Adventure even if I think it’s kind of a shit game.
That's truer than you know, buddy.
If I have a second point, it’s that – for some of us retro junkies – perhaps modern gaming always sucks until it doesn’t. Despite my initial skepticism over its so-edgy action games, ‘tude-laden platformers, and "extreme" everything at the time, those fifth and sixth generations of Sega Saturn, PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Dreamcast games would eventually become my favorite era in gaming history. I guess a little hindsight goes a long way.

Compared to two decades ago, the things I appreciate about Sonic Adventure – and video games more broadly – have irreconcilably changed. However, I still consider Sonic Adventure an immensely charming game and an admirably ambitious one in its own right. Sure, the game’s Station Square setting is hardly a to-scale Manhattan but it innovates in spades.

Nowhere is this more evident than in its vision for commuter rail service. The in-game trains are faster than Sonic (why else would he use them?), they’re instantaneous (they’re always waiting for him), and they extend well beyond the municipal boundary and into the far reaches of the jungle. Is it overkill? Probably. Is it a grossly inefficient use of taxpayer funding? Absolutely. But isn't it amazing? Well, no. Not really. It turns out a lot of employees were getting screwed over in this whole pursuit of maximum convenience. Things fall apart rather quickly when a labor dispute unfolds later in the game and the train shuts down as the workers strike to negotiate for better pay and working conditions. Sucks for Sonic but that’s some A+ worldbuilding right there.
Hyper-frequent, direct rail service to the Mystic Ruins: It's a transit planner's dream but a train conductor's nightmare.
Even considering the game’s back-of-the-box achievements, Sonic Adventure is a force. It features an impressive array of diverse action stages; highly-explorable hub areas; six playable characters with their own unique, interwoven narratives and considerably varied gameplay styles; several cross-genre mini-games; and lots of chatty NPC residents with no shortage of drawn-out personal drama. That's what the kids call content, right? And even if Sonic Adventure doesn’t execute all those things perfectly – let alone very well – it’s still a highly unique and ambitious platformer, even by modern standards for the genre.

A quick sidebar: I feel the virtual pet Chao gardens alone could warrant a standalone game, albeit one that hopefully explores and addresses the ethical issues with enslaving them to lives of arduous racing, forced breeding, and accidental spin-dash abuse. Now if Sonic Team ever made that game, that'd be some S-tier worldbuilding right there.
Uh, should someone call Chao Protective Services?
Personally, Sonic Adventure remains an immensely important game to me, not least because it spurred me to imagine the cool things video games may or may one day be capable of. Most of all, it was my introduction to a console that would host so many of my favorite gaming moments over last 20 years. Just like the Dreamcast itself, Sonic’s first 128-bit outing was – and continues to be – an adventure well ahead of its time.


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Thanks for reading! So do you have any particularly fond (or not so fond) memories of Sonic Adventure? What originally sparked your interest in the Sega Dreamcast?

Find me on Twitter (@TheVirtuaSchlub) and on the Saturn Junkyard's TitanCast podcast. Also feel free to check out the Saturn Junkyard blog site, Youtube channel, and Facebook community.


So tonight I'm gonna party like it's 9.9.99 – My Dreamcast launch collection

No comments: