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Showing posts with label 1998. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1998. Show all posts

Examining Yu Suzuki's 'Tower Of Babel' 1998 Dreamcast Tech Demo

Way back in May 1998, Sega of Japan held a conference announcing the impending arrival of its new console. It was to be named Dreamcast. The Sega New Challenge Conference was the first time that the world was formally introduced to Sega's successor to the Saturn, and the hype was very real. The gaze of the world's press was focused on a small lectern on a darkened stage, as Sega of Japan President  Shoichiro Irimajiri revealed the final form of the new console; while on a huge screen behind him tech demos showed off what the hardware was capable of.
1998 was a magical year.
The first of these demos showed a Irimajiri's head rendered in real time, while various effects were applied to it - lighting, textures and morphing effects showed what the Dreamcast could do. It also featured a glimpse of a fully rendered 3D Sonic the Hedgehog, the first time we got to see the model that would later be used in Sonic Adventure. To this day, the 'Iri-San' tech demo has remained undumped and is most likely locked away in a vault somewhere in Sega's Japanese headquarters.
 Image source: Edge Magazine issue 60
The second tech demo, and the focus of this particular article became known as the 'Tower of Babel' demo, where viewers were taken on whirlwind tour of a fully polygonal settlement built around the base of an enormous tower. The squat buildings set on an idyllic isle, the sun setting in the distance while the huge cylindrical tower rose above the winding streets. It really is a striking and curious scene, and while it may not seem very impressive by modern standards, back in 1998 these types of sequences had never been seen running in real time on console hardware; and as you might expect they were spread across the pages of gaming magazines the world over.
Image source: Edge Magazine issue 60
I personally remember seeing the images of the Irimajiri and Babel (or Babylon, as it's sometimes referred to) tech demos reproduced in glorious fuzz-o-vision in the pages of several magazines at the time of the Dreamcast's announcement; and being amazed and excited in equal measure. But then, after the initial excitement made way for the actual launch of the system (and with other tech demos coming along too - which have similarly never been leaked online); I pretty much forgot about Irimajiri's floating head and the mysterious little village huddled on that lonely rock in the shadow of a tower. That was until I finally got to see the thing for myself in real time, and thanks to the power of the internet, so can you...

Sonic Adventure: A Personal Retrospective

The year is ... somewhere between 1998 and 2001. The place is a tiny apartment building. My family had recently acquired a new video game system, (one of the rare times we've gotten a system during its actual run) the Sega Dreamcast.

So naturally, I play the heck out of the demo disc that came with it. Rayman 2 demo? Yes. Tomb Raider? Definitely. Fur Fighters? (If it's the one I remember with the random object throwing and what not) Yes, please! However, one demo stood out in particular for me. That of Sonic Adventure. That demo received many, many playthroughs.

Fortunately, we purchased several Dreamcast games a bit later, and Sonic Adventure was one of them. I couldn't get enough of it. I played it over and over again. Well, not technically... (See, we hadn't gotten memory cards yet, for whatever reason. So I had to restart every time. Naturally, I didn't make much progress, notwithstanding the unskippable cut-scene). Even when I had a memory card, my journey with the game wouldn't end until several years later.

So what is the appeal? Well, I can't speak for the majority of Sonic fans, but I know about me. On a side note, I initially had no idea that there were other Sonic games before this one. I just knew Adventure. (And later Sonic Shuffle, but that nightmare game is neither here nor there.) So I guess this is a disclaimer that all/most of my Sonic experience is interpreted through that game, even if subconsciously.

To the game itself, then! It is a 3D platformer, the first true 3D game that Sega had produced up to that point. The attempt at 3D was a risk, I suppose: however, the bigger risk seems to be the varied styles of play that the characters have. In previous games, play-style was more unified, as the number of playable characters tended to be low. That's not the case in Sonic Adventure. Every one of the six characters accomplishes their goals in different ways. To review the game, I believe each should be discussed in turn:

Sonic
Description: Titular character, and main protagonist. I believe his play-style exemplifies the game as a whole. The basic goal of his levels is to travel from point A to point B (often with a few major changes of scenery and music in-between). Simple, but fun. Being the main character, his story is much longer than the rest of the characters' stories, totaling in at 10 action stages, 2 mini-games and several boss fights. Additionally, the final "character" unlocked after completing the other characters is another outing for Sonic, featuring the final boss fight of the game.

Analysis: His mode is appealing because it continues the speed and platforming action of previous entries in the series. After all, the game is called Sonic Adventure, so it's only natural that the best gameplay comes from his levels. Personally speaking, one of my favorite aspects of the game was a certain boss fight of Sonic's: the Egg Viper. Initially, I simply could not figure it out. I kept dying. After figuring out that I should use homing attack on it, it became very easy and my favorite boss fight. The music was also a drawing point for it, too.

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Tails
Description: Sonic's loyal side-kick. His play style is a variant of Sonic's: get from point A to point B before Sonic (or in his last level, Robotnik.) With one exception, all of Tails' levels are shorter versions of ones traveled in with Sonic. Similarly, only Tails' last boss fight is uniquely his own (Egg Walker, parallel to Sonic's Egg Viper.) It seems like Sonic is condescending to let you win, as one time during my latest run-through (in Casinopolis' sewers) I caught Sonic standing around, waiting for me to catch up.

Analysis: After Sonic, Knuckles, and E-102, probably the last play-style that I actively appreciate. The racing character doesn't go too fast, and speed rings are provided to give you an appreciable advantage. Because the stages were previously seen with Sonic, there is little need for more exploration of the level beyond what is necessary to win. Tails' final boss fight has the same music as Egg Viper, is a little tricky, but doesn't give the same satisfaction that Egg Viper does. His story feels short. (And a theme arises: stories that feel short, even for the stories with annoying play-styles.)

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Knuckles
Description: A friend and rival of the spiny blue dude. In Knuckles' stages, one must locate three pieces of the Master Emerald that are scattered about the play-field. He, Sonic and Tails have a number of boss fights and stages in common: their past history in older games draws them together, even in this iteration. For the most part, his stages are easy to complete in a few short minutes.

Analysis: Even though the Sonic games series was founded on the principle of speed and intense platforming action, I find Knuckles' stages pretty fun. The player is allowed to explore a portion of the gestalt stage in Knuckles' version of that stage, much like a player can explore the adventure field as other characters. Knuckles has one unique boss fight: he battles the newly formed Chaos 2 on the hotel's observation room.

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Amy
Description: Star-crossed fan-girl of the spiny blue dude. As with Tails' play style, Amy must reach point B before Zero catches her. However, there is no friendly rivalry: he is out for blood. Well, bird, but he doesn't care for Amy either. Because she doesn't have Sonic's speed or Knuckles' power, she must evade Zero as best she can. Her play style is annoying, as she can't spin-dash and must constantly avoid attacks by Zero. Fortunately, her story is very short, stage-wise, only having three. Only in the very end does she defeat the annoying Zero and reunite her bird with its family.

Analysis: Annoying. It wouldn't be so bad, if not for two things. First, she is slow physically. Second, if you go back to play the other missions for the levels, Zero somehow returns! Even though you may have already killed him in the final boss fight. (I only did Hot Shelter, so maybe he wasn't in the others? Eh.) It is nice to see him explode, especially after he punches the innocent Flicky (the cute birds from Sonic 3D: The family of birds is of this species.) for no reason. Not my favorite story of the game, but not my least favorite either.

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E-102 (Beta)
Description: Robotnik robot turned vigilante. He must reach point B, where the goal varies. In later missions, he is after the other E-100 series robots to free the animals trapped within them. He's not fast like Sonic, but he does have something better: a laser guided blaster! Everyone made a big deal about Shadow having guns in his game, but E-102 beat him to the punch with his five stages. (Albeit, only one gun. Still, it's the principle of the matter!)

Analysis: Roll around and blow stuff up. Super fun! Revenge yourself against the evil Dr. Robotnik. Even better! I'm sure they would have gotten dull after a while, but I would have appreciated one or two more of his levels. Also, he was just cool looking. The E-100 is one of the few instances where Robotnik actually had a good design aesthetic. Too bad they all got destroyed...

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Big
Description: Umm... Big cat who lives in the forest with his frog pal. Like Knuckles, he hunts for something. Unfortunately, his something swims. His levels thus bring the oddest play-style for a Sonic game: fishing. Fortunately, there are only four stages and a weird boss-like thing.

Analysis: Uggh! He is one of the reasons I never completed the game when I originally got it. Only during the later run-through was I able to finally get through his short, but annoying, story. I may have enjoyed a stage once or twice, but otherwise disliked them. The action was much slower than the rest of the game, and too dissimilar in style.

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In the end, 4 (5 maybe) out of 6 of the characters are enjoyable to play as. That's a pretty good ratio, especially considering later Sonic games. However, I see another aspect that I had not noticed before: fun, inconsequential story details. For instance, in the Station Square adventure field, one can follow a story of romance: at the Burger Shop, an NPC female has a major crush on the NPC guy in the burger shop. Over the course of the game, she moves from outside the shop, to inside - too nervous to order - to finally become a co-worker with him, her adoration for him finally known. It has absolutely no effect on any story or gameplay. It's great!

Another one, however, affects the story. The train workers decide that they need to go on strike. This helps point the player to focus on stages and events within whatever adventure field s/he is stuck in at the time. (When I tried to reason out the chronology of events, this is a minor event in most of the characters' stories. Sonic, Tails and Knuckles' stages can be easily reconciled. Others alter the events slightly. Big's involvement with Chaos 6 complicates things a bit.) Anyway. I think there's one or two others (like the explorers in the Mystic Ruins) but these are the ones I noticed the most and really liked.

Still, Sonic Adventure does have its foibles. One are the unskippable cut scenes. During the first play-through, they're OK. But when I'm playing through for the fourth or fifth time, I already know all that stuff. Plus, some of the voice actors (coughamyandbigcough) can get annoying after a while. The camera occasionally misbehaves. However, the controls handle well. It is also cool to learn the story of Knuckles' ancestors and why Chaos is trying to wreck everything. Thus, Sonic Adventure is my favorite Sonic game, and the game to which I return again and again.