Up until the release of Sonic Adventure, Sonic the Hedgehog hadn't made the same splash in the three-dimensional pool as other popular game mascots. In fact, Sega's cocky blue rodent had hardly caused a ripple when you consider the waves games like Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro The Dragon created. This became somewhat of a mystery, because without Sonic there would probably be no such thing as Crash Bandicoot. Sega had already created long-running franchises for their mascot on the Genesis and Game Gear platforms, how did they miss such an opportunity during the short lifespan of the Sega Saturn?
Instead of releasing a full-on 3D adventure of the same caliber as the aforementioned games, we saw the curiously non-3D Sonic 3D Blast—an enhanced version of a Genesis title. There was also the hopeless mess that was Sonic R— a racing/adventure hybrid that didn't do either particularly well, though it pushed Saturn's 3D graphics power to new heights. Besides those two forgettable games, the "new-age" Sonic could be seen on Saturn in a cameo role in Sonic Team's Christmas NiGHTS, and in the 3D portion of the compilation disc, Sonic Jam. Big deal, right?
Thankfully, Sega was looking to make amends with their huge Dreamcast launch title, Sonic Adventure—a blockbuster game of the highest order. You talk about a game with size, the latest entry in the Sonic saga is filled to the brim with fully-spoken dialogue; detailed, impressively animated and expressive characters; massive, colorful (and fast-moving) 3D environments; up-tempo, original pop music (complete with vocals); adventure scenarios; action scenarios; mini-games; a complete, integrated A-life game; and a VMU adventure. The only things you won't find in Sonic Adventure are a first-person shooter mode or a real-time strategy option.
For sheer spectacle, this is a game that would be difficult to top. However, it's downright disappointing that it couldn't be a more worthwhile playing experience. To say that Sonic Adventure is a treat for the senses would be an understatement, but that doesn't automatically translate into "fun game." Don't get me wrong, the game certainly has its moments, but the prevailing feeling here is that Sonic Team spent too much time trying to make the game look cool (no doubt the result of the pressure to make up for lost time) and not enough time thinking of ways to make it play better.
The biggest and most-talked about problem with Sonic Adventure is the 3D perspective, or the "camera" through which we see the action. In short, it's all over the place. Sonic Team showed a similar inexperience in handling 3D gameplay in NiGHTS Into Dreams… and Burning Rangers, but they actually take several large strides backward here. The camera in Sonic Adventure can never seem to find the right position, so it stays in constant motion. Not only does this confuse matters in terms of the controls ("Do I push up or down—or left to right—to go forward?"), but it makes the landscapes difficult to negotiate. Sometimes the camera pulls so far back from the fray that you think it's going away to cover another game, then suddenly it zooms in on Sonic's nose hair and you almost pass out from bewilderment. That's too bad, because the game does such a good job conveying the necessary sense of speed. In fact, in the best example of style over substance, the game actually takes control out of your hands on several occasions—going on auto pilot so the game can continue to move fast and still look cool without you (the dumb player) accidentally steering Sonic into a chasm and ruining it all. There's one scene at the beginning where Sonic is running on this flimsy dock, when he's suddenly chased by a giant killer whale (for those of you interested, this scene was stolen from Panzer Dragoon II Zwei). The game takes over here and moves the viewpoint to a low angle in front of Sonic, at which point he opens it up full throttle and charges at the camera in exhilarating fashion. Well, the game would have to play this part for us wouldn't it? How could we navigate Sonic if we can't see what's in front of him? I guess so long as it looks neat, huh?
I also thought the game could have gelled more. There are so many different things to do—from the adventure mode, the action stages, and the Chao raising game, to the mini-games, the event sequences and the five other adventures for Sonic's buddies. The game never blends all of these elements into a cohesive structure, instead they're presented as separate parts. I found it hard to stay interested as a result. Equally distracting was the fact that Sonic and his five friends are the only talking animal characters in the game. It's like they were inserted into the wrong game (one full of regular people). I found it a little bizarre that the humans took no notice of, say Tails' slightly smaller stature and yellow fur coat (not to mention his two tails that let him fly like a helicopter).
Overall though, I don't have a problem recommending Sonic Adventure. Though not as playable as it could have been, there's still plenty to do and much to see. Even this long after its release, it's hard not to marvel at everything this game throws at you. I wonder though, is it possible that Sonic the Hedgehog was meant to stay in two dimensions? After all, the character was created with fast-moving, side-scrolling environments in mind, and I haven't seen anything to convince me that Sonic is at home in a 3D world. Maybe some games weren't meant to test these waters? In today's polygon-crazed world, there's probably no chance we'll ever see Sonic go back to his 16-bit roots. Even though Sonic Adventure is perhaps the ultimate expression of Sonic's presence, I still believe his best days were on the Genesis, Game Gear and Sega CD.