I was always a SEGA kid. Sure, A Link to the Past is at the top of my all-time list, and I felt a guilty thrill cheating on my Genesis as I played through Super Metroid, but my fondest 16 bit memories were of games like Sub-Terrania…and Sonic the Hedgehog. I remember counting the minutes ’til junior high school was out so I could rush home and play through Sonic 2. I’ll even still get involved in semi-heated Genesis vs. SNES arguments with friends for fun from time to time. I bought a Dreamcast on launch day, driving all over San Diego to find first a system, then a game, then yet another store still to buy a VMU. I bought Sonic Adventure a few days later, and I convinced myself that it was flawed but great.
I was wrong. Sonic Adventure for XBLA and PSN has successfully driven a stake through the heart of my combined nostalgia/Dreamcast launch blinders/residual SEGA fanboyism. Everything from the original release is in there, from fishing mini-games to Chao raising to awful voice acting, like an evidence folder in a trial against what you thought was ostensibly the Dreamcast’s flagship launch title.
The gameplay shifts between 3rd person, behind the hedgehog running, which doesn’t control very well, and 2D side-scrolling sections here and there which control marginally better (since you’re pretty much just holding forward and hitting the jump button). Enemies and bosses are dispatched by rolling through them, bouncing off them, or boosting through them, but Sonic has always been more about lightning fast platforming than kicking enemies’ collective asses. When Sonic Adventure released, the graphics were amazing, and the sense of speed was unmatched.
The game was so fast, in fact, that you probably didn’t even realize how broken it actually is. Sonic Adventure is so fundamentally flawed that it borders on unplayable – the sections that move the fastest, that work most, that are even slightly interesting, require the least input from the player. In fact, in many of these sections, input from the player will result in death or catastrophe, and there’s really no way to know which until you either fly through not completely sure what happened or die, also not completely sure what happened.
This is, of course, when the camera is working — which is about half of the time. There are not enough expletives in the collected languages of humankind to express how broken the camera in Sonic Adventure is (and I am very familiar with profanity). You might hear people talk about games where the camera seems to get "caught on something," but in Sonic Adventure it’s like the camera is hanging onto random objects for dear life. Its negligence becomes more homicidal as the level design leans toward the punitive side near the end of the game, but it’s always lurking, waiting for a chance to block your view (often by showing the inside of a character model or game object).
The controls themselves are another failure. Sonic and co. maneuver poorly, even at slow speeds, and there are bizarre collision detection rules in place that will cause you to become caught in bizarre invisible traps that require some frantic thumbstick jerking to break free of. This extends elsewhere throughout the game, as the world itself seems fragile and pitted with holes in its reality. I fell through floors, was catapulted outside of the game world, and generally murdered without warning or explanation by failures in Sonic Adventure’s ability to hold itself together repeatedly. And this isn’t counting the times the camera literally broke free of the game world itself to exist outside of the engine’s geometry.
All of this presumes that you can actually figure out how to get to the next action stage. Sonic Adventure has an overworld – or an Adventure World, rather – that features some mild platforming and pronounced frustration. Characters control even worse in Adventure areas than they do in Action stages, as you’ll be walking most of the time, rather than running as fast as possible. Action stages are difficult to find — they’re entirely reliant on paying depressingly close attention to Sonic Adventure’s painful cutscenes and dialogue for esoteric clues as to your next destination. You’ll be just as likely to stumble on the next nonsense "key" to the Adventure area that holds your next Action stage.
If you think that paragraph is confusing, Sonic Adventure will make you feel like you’re stuck in Groundhog Day by comparison.
The bulk of your time will be spent playing through Sonic’s campaign. But as you play, you’ll meet various, er, pals from Sonic’s menagerie, including Amy, Tails, and Knuckles, which you can then guide through their own little journeys through the horrors of broken 3D platforming. Each character has their own wrinkle or drastic departure from the game’s primary mechanics — Tails hovers, E102 shoots, Amy…wields a giant hammer, Big the Cat fishes, and Knuckles glides and punches. Unfortunately, all of these new mechanics are even less functional than the broken platforming of the main adventure.
While it’s difficult to comment on whether the game feels more broken in downloadable arcade form than it did for its US release on the Dreamcast, there is an unmistakeably rushed and shoddy air to the presentation of the port. It’s as barebones as can be, with hideous menus, no widescreen support, and an options menu that forgets your camera settings once you exit the game. Performance is good, at least, as I can’t remember any point where the game dropped below 60FPS.
Sonic Adventure, in hindsight, feels like a game thrown together in a panic, held together by spectacle and the fervent wishes of SEGA fans for a proper return to form for Sonic and SEGA. Unfortunately, spectacle has a short half life, and Sonic Adventure’s basic design and gameplay fall apart under scrutiny. Playing Sonic Adventure for the first time in 11 years, after returning to the franchise a few times over the last decade, I’ve realized that the great tragedy about Sonic games isn’t that they’ve gotten worse over two console generations — they just haven’t gotten appreciably better.
While the upcoming Sonic Colors has a great deal of promise and Sonic 4 – Episode 1 is being developed as a return to the conventions of Sonic 2 from the Genesis era, Sonic Adventure is, in hindsight, the culmination of everything that made Sonic an also-ran to Nintendo’s flagship mascot — all (poorly aged) flash, and very little substance. Even as a curiosity, I would advise you give Sonic Adventure a wide berth.