I probably don’t need to preface this with a whole thing with something like “hey did you know some Sonic games are bad????”. It’s easy to look back at things and poke fun at them, and Sonic provides a good number of things to poke fun at. Gaming trends change a lot, and the current trend is that Sonic is bad, and even was always bad. Yet, when games like Sonic Adventure and Adventure 2 released, they were met significant praise. They were considered some of the best in their genre, even when titans like Super Mario 64 were around. Of course, I don’t think I need to tell you that fans loved them and some still do.
Yet that’s not the narrative we see anymore. Some folks say they’re relics from a bygone era that we only liked because we didn’t know any better. Others say the series was never good to begin with, even lumping the 2D Sonic games in with them. How did SA1 go from demonstrating whole new possibilities with the platformer genre to something whose only merit is in being mocked? How did SA2 go from giving the Dreamcast an amazing send off, to something cringey and embarrassing?
Its guilt by association, I think. People are now filled with the memories of Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic 06, Sonic Lost World, Sonic Boom, etc. Years of mediocre or just bad Sonic games have unfortunately buried both the good games, and the good ideas that some of the bad games had. Add to this Sonic Team always over-correcting when it comes to criticism, and you occasionally end up in time periods where no one seems to know what Sonic is, or what it should be.
I’m not gonna go on a whole thing about what Sonic should be, instead I just wanna remember what made the Sonic Adventure games good. If you watch any number of Sonic essays, you’ll hear it stated that Sonic should be about three things. Speed, platforming, and exploration. It’s not a bad statement, but its one that is derived solely from the 2D games, and it totally ignores games that attempt to break from the mold. Which is what Sonic Adventure was meant to do. The Adventure games, and even the boost games, are a totally unique style of 3D platformer. Isn’t that something worth acknowledging? I think dismissing them simply because they don’t meet an arbitrary list of things is really narrow minded. Instead, I’m going to judge the games based on what I think they set out to do.
Adventure carries over Sonic’s sense of speed wonderfully. Much like the 16-bit era, in a time where platformers were about kinda casually hopping from one platform to the next, Sonic is all about zooming through environments at incredibly high speed. Set pieces that add some spice and variety to the levels. Accompanying it all is an eclectic soundtrack giving it that distinct late 90’s edge. The controls haven’t aged the best, as Sonic is slightly too sensitive, but its hardly bad, and plenty of other games certainly had worse to deal with.
The levels are all broken down into sections where the tone of the level shifts. Emerald Coast goes from the sun drenched beach to this little cave grotto, and then back to the beach again. Windy Valley sees you getting sucked up in a tornado and platforming to get out of it. Speed Highway has you running on bridges and roadways suspended high in the air, then running down a building, and finally some more slow paced platforming on the streets below. You even get different songs for each section of these levels. It’s all fantastic and provides the levels a sense of progression and variety. The last two stages as Sonic I think are his weakest stages, as there’s a complete focus on traditional platforming. Its not even bad platforming, and I think on a technical level they’re pretty impressive, but still, they don’t really have that unique spark that makes the other levels great.
If you look up any modern review of Sonic Adventure, you’ll probably hear them say that its the closest the series has come to capturing what Sonic is in 3D. What do they mean by this? It has some open ended platforming. Which mainly only comes in the form of just using the spindash to jump over obstacles and get through the level faster. Honestly, I really don’t think the platforming is significantly more open ended than what you see in later games. I really don’t consider this to be a bad thing though.
There’s plenty of linear platformers out there that are light on exploration and instead focus on being essentially an obstacle course. This is what I think they’re trying to do.
Maybe it doesn’t capture some of the exploration that could be found in Sonic 3, but I struggle to find a reason why that really matters. What it does do is still really fun. Running through stages in Celeste never stops being fun for me, even though its an entirely linear game. Its the same thing here. The game putting you through a little scripted set piece for a second or two every now and then really isn’t such a big deal, as the original games did this as well. You can say that the weren’t always forced in the 2D games, but that was only sometimes true. There are even ways of skipping some of them in SA1 and 2 that are clearly intended. Also, as far as being more “open ended” goes, the boost games actually succeed in this area a whole lot more. In particular Colors, where wisps are used to access whole different areas. Secondary paths in Adventure and even Adventure 2 generally only lead to meager rewards before converging back on the main path, and occasionally in SA1, just dead ends.
So, its not a literal translation of the 2D games. This is a different beast. Even more so with the other playable characters. Which I don’t really think are all that bad. Yeah, Big the Cat has fishing in a Sonic game, and its not particularly engaging fishing. I’m not gonna try to say that Big is actually super fun to play. I think the other characters are perfectly fine though. Tails plays more or less like Sonic, Amy has unique movement mechanics, Knuckles focuses on exploration, and Gamma is like an arcade shooter. While I don’t think you could have a full game based on these, they’re still perfectly fine for the role they’re meant to fill.
After all, this is Sonic “Adventure”. The game is meant to be more broad in its scope. This comes through with the hub worlds too. Rather than each level having some random theme to it that’s largely disconnected from what the hub world is, the world all connects together in a way that mostly makes sense.. The hubs themselves also have NPCs you can interact with, and while some just have inconsequential dialogue, some others have little arcs they go through over the course of the game.
Of course there is a downside here, none of the characters feel as fleshed out as Sonic, with all of them having less stages. Tails’ racing gimmick is neat, but it constantly forces you to just take the most direct path rather than taking things at your own pace. Tails’ flight is less a tool for exploring and more a way to circumvent obstacles. Knuckles’ stages are just entirely too short, with none of them taking me more than two minutes. Gamma also has a similar issue. Amy feels like the most well executed idea, and its a shame this gameplay style was never revisited. Outside of the weird stealth thing, her movement is interesting and has a much greater emphasis on positioning, which you don’t really see much in Sonic games at all.
Folks say that they hate playing as the other characters, but I don’t think anyone is legitimately opposed to their gameplay, I think the bigger issue is just how unsubstantial a lot of it feels. Tails and Amy feel like the most well executed in terms of ideas. Knuckles and Gamma are fine, but ultimately feel unsubstantial. And of course Big is an easy target. If Knuckles and Gamma felt a bit more fleshed out, I don’t think folks would’ve minded them at all. Sonic after all is about momentum more than speed, so I don’t think small variations on how that is implemented is something that is totally unwelcome.
Some might say that the story isn’t worth all the focus, but I’d disagree. The way the story is presented, how you see multiple different perspectives, and get little crumbs of information about what happened in the past, is really neat. You put all the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle, and you get a kind of “aha” moment when everything clicks into place. It makes the rather mundane and by the numbers story stand out more. Its a great way of writing a story that takes advantage of the video game medium. You want to play through the other stories to learn more about Chaos and this ancient civilization that was wiped out.
I think other characters stories are fun too. Tails gets a little arc where he learns to not be so dependent on Sonic. Amy learns that she can’t simply pine after Sonic for the rest of her life. (Too bad that gets dropped immediately after this game) Knuckles learns a bit more about why he has the responsibility of guarding the master emerald. Gamma gains sentience and realizes that he wants to stop Eggman. Big….wants to save his frog. These aren’t literary masterpieces, but they’re good enough to make those characters satisfying to play in their own right.
Sonic Adventure was meant to be a whole lot more than just Sonic in 3D, and honestly I think it succeeded. People say its aged horribly, and while it does show its age in a lot of ways, in particular the cutscenes and voice acting, the gameplay has aged pretty well. There’s platformers and action games from that era that I think have fared much worse. The camera can be an issue, but given that it was a first attempt, I can forgive it.
It was a great start for Sonic in 3D, but I think Adventure 2 is what really set Sonic apart. Everything gets polished up. Sonic controls much better now, and is less jerky at high speed. Levels are more focused in on that obstacle course philosophy, and introduce alternate paths and shortcuts that are rewarded for speed and quick reactions. Yes, there is much less exploration to be found when compared to the classic games. However, I kinda just don’t care. Running through levels, optimizing your path, nailing the shortcuts, it’s all so satisfying. Getting that perfect run where you were on the ball the whole time feels very rewarding.
The perfect compliment to this is the ranking system where the game will grade you after you beat a level. You’re graded on time, how many rings you have, and the enemies you’ve defeated. You also can’t really just make a mad dash for the end of the level, you have to collect rings and interact with the stage, whereas in SA1, enemies could be ignored for the most part. You get bonus points if you chain together homing attacks on enemies. There’s also bonus points for grinding on rails and doing tricks off of ramps, both of which add to the interactivity the levels can offer. There’s also special golden enemies that pop up once per stage. These are generally off the beaten path somewhere and require some skill to get to. They also disappear after a few seconds, so you have to be fast. These give you a lot of points, making that A rank a bit easier to get.
The level design, the scoring and ranking system, they all compliment each other very well. Getting higher ranks means experimenting with the stage more. Shortcuts and small alternate paths often present the opportunity for more points. If you just blaze through the levels, you won’t get an A rank, so you have to hunt out opportunities for more points. This does mean that there is kind of an optimal path through each level that results in more points. Which I just don’t particularly mind. Even if every one of my runs through Metal Harbor looks the same, I still enjoy playing it. Its just fun. I don’t consider it a lesser stage either, or somehow inferior to any given 2D Sonic stage. They’re very obviously trying to do different things. Its not like Sonic Team forgot to hit the “add exploration” button or somehow think that it wasn’t an aspect that people liked.
Another great addition is that when you go to the stage select, you can complete different missions in each stage. The first mission is just playing the level normally. The second mission is collecting a hundred rings. The third one is neat and involves rescuing a chao in the stage, which are always in pretty well hidden areas. The fourth mission is beating the stage under a certain time, and the fifth is the most interesting. Its a hard mode version of the stage, where there’s different enemies and remixed obstacles. These add some great new challenges and additional variety to each stage, and its unfortunate this became something that Sonic Team just wouldn’t do in later games.
There is of course also the other playable characters, with Tails and Eggman taking on Gamma’s gameplay, and Knuckles and Rouge with Knuckle’s gameplay, albeit with some modifications. Tails and Eggman are both slower than Gamma, which I feel was kind of intentional. Their gameplay is more methodical, and you’re meant to take out large swathes of enemies at once for maximum points. Knuckles and Rouge have an odd change, which is that you have to find all the emeralds in a particular order, you can’t just find them at your discretion. This is only meant to facilitate the hints the game gives you for where emeralds are. Honestly though, I don’t mind too much, and levels are significantly bigger and involved anyways, so the hints are welcome.
A lot of folks bring up issue with the other playable characters in these games, and I understand where they’re coming from. I don’t mind the game not just being one note though. For Tails and Eggman in SA2, I really enjoyed finding the best way to take out enemies to get a lot of points while still trying to keep a brisk pace. For Knuckles and Rouge, I enjoyed memorizing where all the emeralds can be, and getting them as fast as possible. I also just think their levels are legitimately fun to explore.
SA1 and 2 also feature upgrades that you can get on the characters. These flesh out their abilities a bit and open new ways of interacting with levels. I don’t think they ever really lived up to their potential though. The light speed dash and bounce bracelet in SA2 are probably some of the better examples. The bounce bracelet perfectly compliments the momentum based platforming, and the light speed dash is a fun little gimmick though it never really goes beyond gimmick. It can be used as an attack in some cases, which is pretty neat though. Unfortunately, this idea was dropped after SA2, which is a real shame, as getting upgrades always provided plenty of reason to go through other stages again.
One last thing is that the enemy design in SA2 is far better than it is in SA1. Lots of enemies in SA1 are really small and hard to see, or just not very threatening at all. If you get hit by anything, its likely because you just didn’t see it coming. SA2 though, enemies are big and bulky. Impossible to miss, and compliment the fast paced gameplay so much better. This also carries over into bosses. I don’t think the bosses in SA2 are particularly exceptional, but they are notable for how fast you can beat them. When you know what you’re doing, you can beat basically all of them in under a minute. A stark contrast from having to slowly whittle Chaos’ health down in SA1 in its boss fights.
Overall, there’s a good reason why these games were called Sonic Adventure, rather than “Sonic the Hedgehog 4”. It was a totally new style of game, highly experimental, and for the most part I think it succeeded. Are they rough around the edges? Yeah, of course. Especially when compared to something like Mario 64 or even Mario Sunshine, which are incredibly polished games. However, I’ve played SA1 and 2 multiple times, and those Mario games only once. Something that I chalk up to just having very unique experiences with personality like nothing else.
Sonic Heroes presents something of one step forward, half a step back, and one step kinda off to the side. At its best, I daresay I enjoy it more than SA1 or 2. At its worst, sometimes I wonder why I keep playing it. I don’t mind the whole team up thing, in fact I’d say its pretty good. Gone are the characters with different playstyles in favor of having three characters that all have different functions, which allows for a lot of varied gameplay in a single stage that changes at the press of a button.
The biggest issue I have with this is that it clearly signposts what formation you can be in. I think more people would’ve found it better if it stopped telling you what formations to use after the first stage. Then people would feel like they found something on their own rather than going down one of the prescribed paths. Still, they do offer legitimate variety to the game and make it a little less linear. Its also more combat oriented as well. Enemies now sometimes take multiple hits to deal with. This does tend to slow the pace a bit, however you can also “level up” your characters throughout each stage, and this enhances their abilities. At the maximum level, you can blaze through enemies quickly enough.
Another issue that’s kinda persisted through the games up to now but has gotten I think a lot worse is one aspect of the level design. That is, how a lot of them tend to be platforms suspended above an empty void, and one wrong move leads to your death. The games try to address this by having your character stop on a ledge if you happen to run into it, so you have the opportunity to save yourself. Its less than perfect though. Ultimately, I’d say most deaths in these Sonic games happen entirely because of just misjudging a jump, or worse, getting hit by an enemy and getting sent flying back off a platform.
In Heroes, I think its gotten worse thanks to controls that just aren’t as tight. Folks say to just use flight formation, but that feels like a bandaid. When I land from a jump and Sonic immediately runs right off a platform, that doesn’t feel particularly fair. Still, it shows the quality these games generally have that even with this going on, the games are still fun to play.
The story presents a bit of a regression from SA1 and 2. SA2 was very ambitious for them, and while I don’t think it has “good writing”, I think it certainly has memorable writing. I can still remember my reactions when Eggman blew up the moon, the boss fight between Sonic and Shadow, the whole final sequence. The story managed to elevate the stages beyond what they’d normally be. Sonic isn’t just snowboarding down the streets of San Francisco, he’s snowboarding down the streets of San Francisco while fighting the government. Stuff like that sticks with you.
Heroes plays it a lot safer. Its ironic that it has probably one of the biggest casts in Sonic games, yet a rather paltry story where the only thing of interest that happens is near the very end where we see Metal Sonic as a villain for the first time in 3D. That’s about it though. The rest of the story is just assorted antics with Sonic characters.
Sonic Heroes, even though I think its a good game, kinda started a decline for Sonic. We saw a truncated story, which no doubt came from people criticizing the stories in SA1 and 2. An attempt to meld different gameplay styles together because people criticized the other characters in SA1 and 2. Weird appeals to nostalgia, also. Special stages are how you acquire chaos emeralds in this game, rather than them being incorporated into the narrative. Even the title cards for level evokes the title cards in the older games.
Heroes didn’t do very well critically, people citing the controls, the middle four levels being really bad, the story being not great, among other things. This also started a mentality among gaming communities that would start to fester. Sonic games should be only Sonic, none of the other characters aside from what the 2D games had, and have minimal to no story beyond “Eggman is doing bad things again”. This mentality came to a head with Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic 06. Two games that I think really deserve their own space to talk about.
I think Sonic 06 kinda broke Sonic Team and after that had little idea of where to go with the series. Everything they tried ended in failure, no one seemed to like anything they did, even the stuff that was actually good. It also made Sonic discussion insufferable. Sonic was a laughing stock, even the Adventure games were mocked, as Sonic 06 still had a lot of its DNA. Sonic was a bit lost, and even with later games that were genuinely good, its reputation had been marred so much that people had a hard time appreciating it.
Sonic’s identity now seems more geared towards being self-aware, even self-deprecating. It can be hard to remember that at one point, people considered the Adventure series to be every bit as good as its contemporaries, without having to view it from an ironic lens.