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Sonic Adventureland: A Roller Coaster of Love

If you’ve visited a Disney theme park in the last half century, you may be familiar with Space Mountain (or “Star Wars Hyperspace Mountain” per its Disneyland Paris branding). Originally conceived as Walt Disney’s roller coaster homage to the boundlessness of human ambition, today the attraction wallows in retro-futuristic parody. Steeped in the influences of iconic ‘60s and ‘70s sci-fi films – however superficially – Space Mountain evokes the unsettling, sinister tone of a future we'd never want but may only be marginally worse than the one we got. As we wait in the queue, its dim spaceport catwalks usher us through a thematic mess of obtuse angles and space-age mainframe panels. We lift off in garish pod cars and uneasy anticipation mounts as we ascend its pulsing blue tunnel. And then, the pitch-black void of space.
Image credit: TheCoasterViews

Over the next couple minutes, Disney’s spacefaring voyage pulls us up to 3.7Gs through a flurry of drops, twists, and jolts. The darkness deprives us of just enough senses for a more potent and unpredictable thrill; one we feel more than see. In the void, we’re blind to its gaudiness. It becomes clear Space Mountain was born out of the calculated ingenuity of chain-smoking Imagineers at the peak of their craft. It's almost viscerally Kubrickian, however lacking in allegory or irony. Primitive and unpolished in its interstellar kitsch, Space Mountain’s artistry endures in another sense: it’s just a darn fun ride.

And so it goes for Sonic Adventure.
If you’ve played a Dreamcast in the last quarter century, you may be familiar with Sonic Team’s ambitious 3D platformer (also the console’s best-selling game). You’re also likely to have an opinion of it. I can relate, I’ve had many. My volatile views on Sonic Adventure have practically been a roller coaster of their own. It was the reason I bought a Dreamcast and I loved playing it back when it was the first and only game I owned at launch. I soured on it in the decades since, often echoing the criticisms people spout whenever the internet convenes to complain about the game. More recently, I replayed all its characters' campaigns and it is safe to say I’ve opened my heart to Sonic Adventure once again. These days, I revisit it more often than just about any video game, period.

I’m still recovering from the whiplash.
Sonic Adventureland: A theme park where the only lines are the load times!

For me, Sonic Adventure is best enjoyed as an amusement park, and it is in that spirit that I am always eager to jump back into its queue.

Magic Kingdom's Main Street USA: Disney's facsimile of an American street that is very real in its fakeness. Pictured: an authentic depiction of our enthusiasm for parades.

Like any respectable theme park, Sonic Adventure offers a breadth of attractions which vary in quality and appeal. It features several playable characters, intertwining narratives, disparate play styles and mechanics, dozens of action stages, and a wealth of minigames. Of course, it notoriously stumbles in the vast majority of those offerings. We can spend all day filling in those blanks with the game’s every sin, as if the internet hasn’t been doing that for decades. But dwelling on them misses the point.
The UK pavilion at the Epcot Center World Showcase: where half the beers in the pub are Irish. Not sure how authentic it is, otherwise, but the fish and chips and pints of Bass go down nicely all the same. I heard they at least got the weather right.

If I spend a day at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, I’m not there to worry about the dizzying-yet-boring teacup ride, overpriced hotdogs, or myriad other aspects that are not to my liking. Screw that. Just hand me a Dole Whip and set me loose on classic rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Haunted House, and Space Mountain. If I do nothing else, that’s still a great time.

Likewise, my ideal day in Sonic Adventure focuses on the handful of attractions I enjoy most. No more. no less. I’m not fretting about how tedious Big the Cat’s fishing is, or how obnoxious all the voiced dialogue sounds, or how janky the physics and camera can be. Most of the game’s quirks are easy enough to get used to, and those that aren’t are either charming or avoidable. Either way, they don't matter. I know what I want out of the experience and – time and time again – Sonic Adventure delivers exactly that.
I usually play as Sonic the Hedgehog, and I’ll begin by moseying around the Station Square and Mystic Ruins hub areas in the same vein as Main Street USA or Adventureland. At Disney's parks, visitors get their yuks by high-fiving Goofy or posing for pics with the princesses. In Sonic Adventure, I indulge myself in the raw, personal baggage of its NPCs.
Hi there!

By lending my ear to their tribulations, I feel invested in the city’s plights in ways that all the leading cast of characters, voiced dialogue, and cutscenes could never conjure.

In fairness, the people of Station Square and I have been through a lot together. Minor spoilers: I stood in solidary with the train operators who picketed for livable wages and better working conditions from the City. I consoled the children who lost their parents to late work nights, jungle expeditions, and gambling addiction. I listened as lovelorn romantics navigated the turbulent currents of infidelity, jealousy, and a ménage à trois. I helped a lovestruck woman muster the courage to talk to a dude, though maybe I shouldn’t have (she was basically stalking him). I owe a lot to the newsstand owner whose headlines and gossip kept everyone abreast of the escalating stakes. And when Dr. Eggman besieged the city with mechs and missiles, I did what I could to assuage everyone’s terror. Now, as they rebuild their lives in the wake of a calamitous endgame, the least I can do is check in once in a while. End spoilers
In romance  just like everything else  Big the Cat always be fishing.

Once I’ve made the social rounds, I’m ready to hit up some rides action stages. To that end, Sonic Adventure features a stable of personal favorites that I’m always excited to ride again.

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Emerald Coast

As our maiden voyage into Sonic’s post-2D era, Emerald Coast may not be the most coherent introductory level in a “Kishotenketsu” design sense. However, its zippy beachside stroll eases me nicely into the cadence of Sonic’s action stages. Like any good roller coaster, I’m thrust through an abundance of pure-speed segments flavored by memorable set pieces. And it ain’t all loop-de-loops and murder whales. The adrenaline is broken up with a mix of multi-tiered spaces, diverging pathways, and hidden nooks to explore, while introducing a couple new play mechanics along the way. The Emerald Coaster strikes an easy balance between speed and exploration, and it soothes with its lush flora and chill beach vibes. You can bet your ass I’m feeling the sunshine.

And if I were to equate Emerald Coast to a Disney thing, I’d say it’s like Pinocchio, if only 'cause of the whale stuff.
Screw Shamu -- Gotta go back!

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Red Mountain

After a brief commuter train ride to the remote jungle (try not to overthink it), it’s time to climb. Scaling Red Mountain’s cliffs and hoodoos demands precisely as much platforming as I can tolerate from a Sonic level, but it’s an agreeable balance. I’ve warmed up to Red Mountain considerably over the years as I’ve found more efficient ways to traverse the clunkier outdoor segments. But more importantly, I’ve finally found an excuse to use the word “hoodoo” so I can't say it wasn't worth it.
Things really heat up in the stage’s back half when Sonic falls into a goddamn volcano. The pace picks up from there, which is recommended as he’ll need to outrun rising lava, flame columns, and toppling rock pillars to escape. It’s dumb as hell and I’m here for it. And those riffs fucking slap.

As a roller coaster, Red Mountain has some Big Thunder Mountain vibes, with a dash of Haunted Mansion. At the very least, whoever died in that volcano seems to be enjoying themselves.

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Windy Valley

Sonic’s proclivity for getting into – and then escaping – natural disasters is an impressive, albeit dangerously imprudent hobby.

Following our hike up, down, around, under, through, and then back up Red Mountain, I’m lagging. I’m also happy to ditch all pretense of platforming. By far the most linear and windy course, Windy Valley (heteronyms, heh…) is as about as close as the game gets to feeling like an actual roller coaster (and yes that includes Twinkle Park, the level where Sonic literally rides one). Anyway, Windy Valley features a pseudo-platforming sequence where Sonic gets sucked into a giant vortex and has to escape by hopping up floating chunks of land and debris. After that, it’s mostly an on-rails scamper along an impossibly steep and twisting track – provided I keep holding up on the analog stick. It’s a simple thrill and I’m a simple dude. What can I say?

I’m actually not sure which real-life coaster Windy Valley resembles. Maybe something in Cedar Point, Ohio, or a Six Flags theme park. Realistically, it’s probably more like that euthanasia coaster.
Fuck, man. What a way to go.

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Speed Highway

At this point, my ADHD meds are wearing off. As my focus drifts, I figure I’ve got one more ride left in me, so I need make it count. It's time for a romp through Speed Highway.

To reach this action stage, I return to Station Square where I have to break into some asshole’s skyscraper. I suspect he’s an asshole because he owns a skyscraper; I know because he never shuts the fuck up about it. Once inside, I have to ride the elevator up dozens of floors to access the only freeway entrance in the district. I cannot imagine the sheer fuckeduptitude of greased palm lobbying and corruption that precipitated such an atrocity of infrastructure and urban planning. And considering the other labor abuses and gross mismanagement on display from city leadership so far, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Either way, this building hosts the entrance to one of my all-time favorite Sonic levels, so I bear the stench of complicity without protest.

Pictured: the Station Square City Council

As an amusement park attraction, Speed Highway is quite brilliant. Like the most memorable Disney rides, it spins an environmental narrative that captivates through its divine pacing, visual aesthetics, and spectacle. Also like the storyline within a Disney ride (or Kingdom Hearts game), it makes no goddamn sense. The highway system is simultaneously an engineering marvel and transportation management nightmare. It’s cobbled from an incomprehensible mess of rooftops and slapdash freeway segments. None of them ostensibly lead anywhere or connect to anything yet, somehow, there’s an arresting flow in it all.

Speed Highway is nothing if not true to its name. The suspended vantage reveals the full expanse of its electric starry night, which blurs past as the bassline licks and Sonic sprints across the skyline.
Fundamentally, Speed Highway is built atop the pillars of classic Sonic level design. It emphasizes verticality and high-risk/high-reward exploration in ways that only the greatest 16-bit Sonic stages ever have. It is infinitely replayable in an increasingly literal sense. There are almost always multiple routes to explore, with some more obvious than others. Collectively, its design supports a broad range of play styles and near-endless opportunities for exploration and improvement. Impressively (for Speed Highway; sadly for me), I’m still discovering new routes after all this time.

I’m continuously mesmerized by the flow that clicks as Sonic traverses the disjointed pathways and shortcuts lining the city’s upper reaches, then vertically down a skyscraper, and into the depths of the streets below. Maintaining my momentum throughout Speed Highway feels immensely rewarding. And if I fuck up, Sonic falls to the lower sections (and sometimes often to his death). Those routes tend to be more meandering and cluttered with enemies and platforming segments but, either way, it’s just a darn fun ride.
Sonic (Traffic) Jam: "Yo, buddy! We're talkin' here!"

Oof. Fair enough.

Quick sidebar: Nothing I do in Sonic Adventure will ever broach the game-shattering wizardry of Sonic Adventure’s speedrun community. Gotta give a shout out to those folks.

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Now that I've gotten my adrenaline fix for the day, I think I’ll wind down with some low-key shenanigans around Station Square.

I'm not the only one with hobbies around here. As you might be aware, Dr. Eggman fancies himself as a bit of a gacha enthusiast in his own sadistic way. Instead of capsule toys, he imprisons small animals inside the killer robots that litter the action stages. Sonic is the good guy, obviously, so I take seriously my moral obligation to bust up the bots and rescue those helpless critters whenever I can.
Once we’ve saved enough of the tiny fellas, it’s time to jaunt over to the Chao Garden where they make delectable snacks for my hungry Chao pets, who must have worked up quite the appetite while I was off galivanting. With loving zeal, my Chao wrench every drop of life force from their fluffy, delicate husks. But not to worry! Their sacrifice imbues my blobby minions with nominal stat boosts, which eventually make them run/swim/glide/climb faster in the Chao racing minigame. As a bonus, the Chao wear outfits from all the cute, severed appendages as they strut about the garden. It’s like their own little fashion show. Adorable!
Goldiva is a hungry little Chao. Here she prepares to consume an otter – her second-favorite snack. Rats are her first favorite, so as long as we don’t tell the police or PETA, we're in the clear.

Yoikes. I've gotten so off the rails, I’m not sure if a track ever existed.
The Jungle Cruise comedy routines aren't for everyone, but the boats of Hydro Thunder are a tough crowd.

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Anyway, my point with all of this – to the extent I still have one – is not that everyone should enjoy Sonic Adventure, or even amusement parks. I don’t give a shit. Video gaming is a deeply personal medium that we can engage with in an overwhelming number of ways. The more narrowly and specifically I can identify the aspects of those experiences I find most meaningful, and the more I can understand how and why they resonate with me, the easier it is to focus on enjoying games in the ways I find most rewarding while worrying less about the blemishes and bullshit. To this end, it helps when I can reframe games in terms of the activities and verbs which evoke an ideal set of emotions and experiences (or “aesthetics” in the game design sense) that I want to get out of them.

I’ve been harping on the amusement park/roller coaster analogy but it is just one example. For me, it describes a particular kind of gaming comfort food I crave (like churros) when I’m anxious, or depressed, or am otherwise indecisive about how to spend my time next. The games I enjoy in this manner tend to be simple, familiar, and bombard me with a sustained, kinetic flow and spectacle that I’m thrilled to relive over and over. Along with Sonic Adventure, there are plenty of other games that scratch a similar itch. These include OutRun 2/Coast 2 Coast, NiGHTS into Dreams, Wipeout: Omega Collection, Sonic R, Hydro Thunder, Cruis’n Blast, Beat Saber, SSX, F-Zero GX (and other futuristic racers), Thumper, 1080˚ Snowboarding, and the criminally underrated TrickStyle.
Criminally underrated: There are people who've underrated TrickStyle who are literally in jail right now (probably, statistically speaking).

Leaning on more personal shorthands helps me to discover and better appreciate games that speak to the virtual experiences I value most. I also find that classifying games by the reasons I play them and sensations they induce can be far more useful and reliable than one-size-fits-all categorizations by genre, concept, or play mechanic.

In addition to the roller coaster paradigm, some of my other favorite types of games include those that let me inhabit dense communities as a tourist or neighbor; or lose myself in flow states while honing new skills; or improvise while immersed in evolving and unpredictable chaos, or craft my own emergent narratives through experimentation and role play; or adventure aimlessly with distraction as my guide. For me, these kinds of descriptors strike more at the heart of what draws me to the medium.

As I continue to revisit Sonic Adventure through this lens, the more I appreciate all the myriad ways it resonates with me – not only as an amusement park – but as a darn great video game.
Too many churros.


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Alright, that’s enough out of me. Thank you very much for reading and I'll be curious to know what draws you to your favorite gaming experiences, Dreamcast or otherwise.

And if you dislike Sonic Adventure, be sure to list each and every thing you hate about it in the comments.

Cheers!

- Brian (@VirtuaSchlub on Twitter)

And with that, I’ll leave you with this random tomfoolery:
The Ohio Players perform "Love Rollercoaster" (via Anichka Banichka on YouTube)

Here it is. The most amount of water Sonic can be in without drowning.

Eat shit, asshole.

Lazy Taxi.

Sonic Adventureland merchandise: Could be better.

Sonic the Movie with Sonic Adventure SFX: Edum's Dumpster on YouTube

5 comments:

JúlioSlayer Oliveira said...

Awesome!!! My FAVORITE game of ALL TIME. Period.


Is it the best and most perfect game of all time? No, but for several reasons it's my favorite. Mainly for the brilliant design of the action stages, the soundtrack, the atmosphere of the adventure stages and the memorable bosses encounters. Everything is so much fun. The first time I played through the Final Egg stage I laughed and played at the same time, because the level design is so brilliant. I like it so much that I forgive the stages of the Big The Cat (nice character, bad choices for his action stages) neither the bugs (except for some bottomless pits).

Tom Charnock said...

Love this! What a great article Brian - thanks for spewing your thoughts out onto the internet. I must say that your critique of Speed Highway's planning and building legislation department was a particular highlight! Awesome stuff :)

Laurence Goodchild said...

This was a real joy to read and has got me itching to revisit Sonic Adventure - especially your take on how to enjoy games. Everyone has their own personal experiences for sure, but focusing on what you enjoy and ignoring the blemishes is something I think I'll try to take on board more often.

P.s. Yes, the riffs slap HARD. Bass is a delicious pint, but I haven't spotted it on tap at a pub in yonks. And of course, Sonic would never cross a picket line.

Brian (@VirtuaSchlub) said...

Thanks for reading, everyone, and I appreciate the fantastic comments!

Laurence - Thanks for the very kind words, and I also really enjoyed your roundup on Dreamcast indies. I've abandoned hope that my brain can keep up with all the new developments so I greatly appreciated your broader perspective/summary on the state of the scene. Best of luck finding Bass on tap soon!

Julio - Totally agree. It can be exhausting to feel we always need to caveat our enjoyment for imperfect or divisive games. I certainly feel that pressure, especially when traditional game review discourse has conditioned us to frame everything around pro/con lists, comparative rankings, and graphics/sound/fun factor/replayability scores. But realistically, Sonic Adventure (like any game) is under no obligation to be flawless or "perfect" (which truly means nothing). If we focus on the aspects we care most about, it makes it easier to cut through the cynical static.

Tom - Glad you enjoyed that little rant. It was a lot of work just to cut that down to a single paragraph (it was originally four).

bramenjam said...

This is why I come to the junkyard. The writers always find a new and slightly absurd way to appreciate/discuss/preach games. Lovely stuff once again!