You know those games that are completely divisive? Let’s debate them and see whether they’re actually that bad or not. In this monthly series, games editor Eve and her friend Mark debate the merits and flaws of different games. Who wins is up to you. This month it’s the turn of Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 with Mark on the defence and Eve providing the prosecution. Court is in session.
Eve: I feel curious about this one. On the one hand, I know this game like the back of my hand and was almost obsessed with it when I was younger. But I remember returning to it a couple of years ago and just feeling a terrible sense of disappointment. Story aside – as no one plays a Sonic game for the story – it’s just not a good game. Aside from the Sonic and Shadow stages the gameplay is clunky, the controls are wonky, the presentation is often pretty awful and it lacks some of the heart of the original Sonic games.
Mark: Really? See I think it’s the last Sonic game with any real heart or enthusiasm, and it should be applauded for the story. While Mario went into ever more bizarre tangents unburdened by narrative concept, Sonic set to make itself something different, something epic, and I think looking back on the stories on the whole, it succeeds in that. It builds intrigue and tension – to some extent – for the endgames. The fight against Chaos and the change to Super Sonic would be nothing without all that had gone before. It’d just be another big monster.
Eve: That’s only partially true. The final fight with Robotnik at the end of Sonic 3 & Knuckles is epic because of the sole control over Super Sonic in space and the need for speed. That fight against Chaos does nothing different. And if we’re talking about Sonic Adventure 1, was anyone really actually invested in the whole “mistakes of the past” plot? The scenes with Tikal feel like unnecessary padding to make the game seem deeper than it really is. It doesn’t need to do that and could have been a decent – not great, but decent – story without all that. I appreciate that this element gives Chaos his backstory but really, does anyone actually care? If Robotnik had said that he did some scientific mumbo jumbo in a ruin somewhere I would have believed it and gone along with it. The idea that Chaos is a tool for him to build Eggmanland is plausible enough, it didn’t need that extra dimension.
Gamma’s story is proof of that. Gamma’s narrative barely has anything to do with the other characters’ and, for reasons I won’t spoil here for anyone who maybe hasn’t played the game, he’s not part of the last story. Yet, his is the most emotionally involving and intriguing tale in the saga. I don’t expect or want a Sonic game to have a plot with the depth of something like Bioshock or Fallout – far from it – but it seemed like some of the story in Sonic Adventure was there because the production team couldn’t find a way to give the main characters more depth. And, to be honest, they don’t need depth. I don’t play Sonic for a deep and involving storyline, I play it because it’s a fun platform adventure game.
Mark: Yeah, but let’s not forget that Sonic Adventure wasn’t made by Naughty Dog. Bits of it are easily removed but the central conceit of Chaos getting stronger with each Chaos Emerald is interesting enough to drive it. Problems aside, the fact remains that Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 did a better job of bringing more dimensions to the Sonic story than any game before or since. I accept that they may have overstretched when tey went for grandiose but I don’t think they missed it by much. As far as I’m concerned it’s a noble endeavour and, as with a lot of elements, they took that foundation and improved it for Sonic Adventure 2.
Eve: How exactly did Sonic Adventure 2 improve? I’m not convinced it did. In adding even more story elements it fails even more as a cohesive narrative. It’s dumb that people mistake Sonic for Shadow, it’s never explained what Rouge’s role is with the government, it’s ridiculous that Eggman wouldn’t know the true purpose of the ARK, and my god, the gameplay is awful 70% of the time.
Mark: It had more intrigue and was less sprawling, sending you through the story at a greater speed and upping the stakes. I’ll give you Rouge, she’s a pain in the arse, but not Eggman and Gerald. How many of us know what their grandparents did in their entire lifetime? If their family is anything like mine, Gerald probably mentioned it over Sunday dinner whilst everyone nodded and pretended to listen.
I think the gameplay stat is disingenuous though. Whilst the Tails and Eggman stages are uninspired, they’re at least consistent, whilst the Knuckles and Rouge hunts slowed the pace down just enough to provide breathing space without dragging down the whole game like the Big the Cat sections in Sonic Adventure, which are totally indefensible. Oh, and Sonic and Shadow’s levels are the best that 3D Sonic has ever been. It’s just a shame there weren’t more of them.
Eve: Yes, Sonic and Shadow’s levels are amazingly designed. It would have been nice to have more Shadow levels though. Having four of them in a whole campaign seemed a bit mean. My problem with their levels, though, is in the control. I’ve played both the Dreamcast and Gamecube versions of the game and in both the controls are equally awkward. You’d think they would have rectified these little things for the Gamecube re-release. Sonic and Shadow sometimes fly off the stage with the simplest of turns left and right at speed and this is particularly true on City Escape, where you can get hit by the GUN truck with even the most minor of turns. Jumping is terrible. On both versions, pressing A is a gamble. You might jump or you might do an instant homing attack, which often sends you veering in the wrong direction or worse, to your doom. This is particularly horrible in their final levels, where any wrong move can result in you falling into space.
Mark: I totally agree that there should be more Shadow levels but what is there is great. I never really had a problem with the jump, as a double tap makes the homing attack work. I think the key is using the camera. I never got a bigger buzz than in Sonic’s space level where I could create huge shortcuts by jumping between distant grind rails. Sonic Adventure had some solid ideas and themes, it’s just a shame they got so utterly chuffed over in later games. Sonic Heroes, for example, went straight for gameplay and was awful. Sonic 2006 tried for more story and was, again, utterly wank in all other regards. Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 aren’t the pinnacle of gaming but do enough right to elevate them above what came after considerably, and it has real charm… and a banging soundtrack.
Eve: I wouldn’t defend Sonic Heroes! And the less said about 2006 the better… I realise the homing attack was meant to only work with a double tap on command and I never had a problem when I actually wanted it to happen. On the occasions where I just wanted to jump though, the game ever let me and it often resulted in death. Can we talk about the bastardisation of Tails?
Mark: I’d argue that Tails was a bastard long before Sonic Adventure. Don’t you remember the cartoon? He was wetter than a trawlerman’s net. That’s canon, right?
Eve: Oh god, I do. Jesus Christ. But at least in Sonic Adventure he had some fun gameplay. In Sonic Adventure 2 he’s just plain awful. I get that he’s the counterpart to Eggman but my god, why? Why? It’s the worst thing you could do in a Sonic game to put Tails in a slow moving mech. The control is rubbish, the sound is terrible and the concept overall is annoying, with long and boring stages.
Mark: No different to Gamma’s stages in Sonic Adventure though. Tails’ parts never working in Sonic Adventure particularly, and I suspect he’s a character that they just don’t know how to use properly. Would you mind as much if it wasn’t Tails and was just another robot? I’ll agree they’re the weakest part of the three, even if Eggman’s pieces push the story along a bit. Also, I’d just like to point out that typing Eggman is breaking my heart, and if we weren’t being fastidious I’d be saying Robotnik. Just wanted to get that out there!
Eve: Gamma was a robot though, so I got that. Tails can fly and he’s fast. Why lumber him with something that doesn’t suit his abilities? On the whole Eggman situation… Well, I hate saying Eggman too but I read somewhere that apparently in Japan Robotnik has pretty much always been called Eggman and it was only changed in America and Europe for the original releases. But yes, for our audiences at least, Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 ruined the reputation of Dr Ivo Robotnik.
Mark: To be fair his reputation wasn’t helping by an amazing Chao Garden animation which lets you make Eggman hump a tree. Surely it’s worth forgiving the Sonic Adventure series everything it stumbles on for that moment alone?
Eve: Oh, I thought Eggman in the Chao Garden was hilarious! Humping trees and violently shaking babies – he’s everything you’d ever want in a father!
Mark: On the Tails side, like I say, he suffers in that he’s an integral character who they never know how to use. Until they create levels based around his flying abilities to give him a fair shake I’m happy to have him involved in a different capacity. Even if he is a moany little git.
Eve: Tails is indeed a moany little git and I’ve never liked his personality, but I’ve also always hated how the developers never seem to know what to do with him. Sonic Adventure came closest to being what gameplay should be with Tails. Sonic Adventure 2 ruined it.
Mark: It’s all true to his personality! Tails never works with a personality but, like I said, that’s not exclusive to the Sonic Adventure series!
Eve: I would also argue that Sonic Adventure 2 ruined Knuckles, as although his gameplay style is the same, the level layouts never suited his abilities. In Sonic Adventure, Knuckles’ levels felt expansive and relied on his ability to glide, a smart move considering that the Dreamcast didn’t have much function to move the camera up and down. In Sonic Adventure 2, his levels veered more towards climbing which, while one of his major abilities, isn’t exactly suited to the 3D console version of the game. At least, it wasn’t because of the Dreamcast’s limitations, and the fact they were too lazy to add camera control on the Gamecube version. As a result, you get a really annoying and frustrating experience that’s only marginally rectified in Pumpkin Hill, the one level that relies on expansive gliding and exploration.
Mark: I always thought of it as an example of Sonic Adventure 2’s streamlining. Sonic’s levels were tighter and more focused too so it made sense for Knuckles’ and Rouge’s levels to do the same while focusing on added abilities like swimming to expand the scope a bit. The worst part about Knuckles is that he gets the worst soundtrack. Can we talk about the soundtrack? There’s some bangers in there.
Eve: I quite like the Knuckles soundtrack! I have no arguments against the soundtrack in general. The soundtrack is awesome and has some iconic songs in there.
Mark: Yes! Live and Learn! City Escape! Open Your Heart! I’d happily have them on my iPod now!
Eve: The sound mixing is dreadful mind. You can barely hear anything the characters are saying!
Mark: Do you need to hear them though? The cutscenes are mostly fine and there are subtitles. Again, it shows Sonic Team trying to break into something outside their comfort zone. Some parts of Sonic Adventure 2’s cutscenes had me punching the air. And let’s not forget the tear jerking end to Shadow’s story.
Eve: Yes, you do need to hear! I’m not anti-subtitles at all but if the game is in English I want to be able to hear what the characters are saying! It distracts from what’s happening on screen in a game and takes you out of the action. Aside from that though, everyone is always talking over each others’ lines and it’s just embarrassing! Shadow’s story though… Yeah, I was a little moved by it when I was younger but they kind of spoilt the feeling with all the numerous sequels. Shadow should never have come back, as good a character as he was.
Mark: I totally agree but that’s not Sonic Adventure 2’s fault. Sonic Adventure 2 ended the story right, especially when Shadow came up good and went Super with Sonic and that’s why I’ll always defend its narrative aspirations.
Eve: I was always a little bit shaky with the whole concept behind that to be honest. It all seemed a little… Fanservice-y.
Mark: Well yeah, but it gave it a bigger ending and gave Shadow redemption. His righteous fury and death was stirring.
Eve: Not as stirring as Gamma in my opinion. Gamma had a lot of heart. That was one of the most beautifully crafted story arcs I’ve seen and is criminally underrated in my opinion. It’s overshadowed – ironically – by Shadow, who is something of a deus ex machine and has a really silly, sudden change of heart at the end of the game that’s illogical.
Mark: Why is it illogical? His love for Maria and what she represented overcame his original purpose. Proper anti-hero stuff that!
Eve: No, that’s a misunderstanding of the story. It’s not because he loved Maria and used that force for good, it’s because he misinterpreted her original message. The message Maria gives in the beginning is different to the one in the Last Story, deliberately changed to coincide with Amy’s slushy speech. It’s bad writing, used to shoehorn a character into a final confrontation and deliver an “anti-hero turns good” narrative that’s just plain tacked on.
Mark: Way to ruin the romanticism Eve! I’m not ruling out a translation issue on that point…
Eve: Oh yeah, of course, a translation issue. Riiiiight.
Mark: Well it wouldn’t be the first time! On a side note, remember how amazing the lip-synching was in Sonic Adventure? Legendary stuff.
Eve: Oh it was hilarious! Only marginally better in Sonic Adventure 2 mind!
Mark: Well, they made the mouths go up and down instead of all angles, so a marked improvement!
Eve: I guess! Any closing remarks?
Mark: Sonic Adventure is the last time the series could claim to be great. It doesn’t always achieve perfection but tries admirably to do something different, something darker and something with more in the way of narrative than its rivals. The Sonic and Shadow levels are everything you could ever ask for in a Sonic game in 3D, whist everything else serves to move the story along. They’re certainly not perfect games, but they have more heart and ideas than any other game in the series past Sonic & Knuckles. They introduced new characters and ideas who had personalities and story arcs, they had replay value through hidden items that changed the way previous levels played and they gave Sonic a boost in skills that endure to this day, such as grinding, the light speed dash and homing attack. In fact, they’ve never been used better than in the Sonic Adventure games. Mario may have blasted off into the stratosphere in three dimensions, but Sonic Adventure will always own my heart, even if I couldn’t own Sonic’s Soap grinding shoes. A noble endeavour and one that still sets the benchmark for any newly released title from the blue blur. Would the prosecution like to rest their case?
Eve: I admit that Sonic Adventure was probably the last genuinely enjoyable game in some areas. It’s just too bad that the end, overall product was so shaky. I don’t want to dislike it, I don’t want to criticise it, being one of my childhood games, but the fact is that it’s just not very well made and the flaws are apparent when you revisit it after a period away. It doesn’t hold my interest anymore, and I feel let down by the poor controls and camera angles. We could probably use a Sonic Adventure 3 that rectifies the problems and restores the blue hedgehog to his former glory.