Live and learn: A Sonic Adventure 2 retrospective
Sonic may turn 25 today, but this certainly isn’t the first milestone birthday that SEGA’s venerable blue mascot has celebrated. Fifteen years ago, Dreamcast-owning Sonic fans were preparing to mark the decade that had passed since his Mega Drive debut with the release Sonic Adventure 2.
The original Sonic Adventure had been the Dreamcast’s great white hope: the first true 3D outing for SEGA’s most important franchise. While it might be a stretch to say that the console’s success rested on that of Sonic Adventure, the game certainly stood the best chance of returning disenfranchised Mega Drive owners that had abandoned SEGA during the Saturn years to the fold.
Given Sonic’s erratic career trajectory since then, it’s easy to forget that back in 1999 the mainstream gaming populace still held a lot of affection for him, and that there was a palpable sense of optimism in the buildup to the Sonic Adventure’s release, which would be day and date with the Dreamcast itself outside of Japan. It was a critical time for the SEGA – if they weren’t able to establish and maintain enough momentum at retail before the almost messianic coming on the PlayStation 2, the dream would be over almost before it had begun.
We now know that to be true because it actually happened, of course, but back when Sonic Team USA began work on a sequel to Sonic Adventure, SEGA were still very much committed to making the Dreamcast success. In the end, Sonic Adventure had received a strong but not outstanding reception, owing largely to its glitchy camera, cheesy dialogue and overall lack of polish. The game had clearly been rushed to market, meaning that fans hoping for a Super Mario 64-like revelation had been left somewhat disappointed.
Big changes were afoot for Sonic Adventure 2. As we touched on a moment ago, the game was to be helmed by Sonic Team USA as opposed to the developer’s Japanese branch, although it’s worth noting that veteran homegrown luminaries such as Takashi Lizuka, Eitaro Toyoda and Kazuyuki Hoshino still formed the core of the games’s creative nexus.
Storied series legend, Yuji Naka, also received a producer’s credit, juggling work on Sonic Adventure 2 with Phantasy Star Online back in Japan.
The San Francisco-based development team allowed local scenery and architecture to inform their work, a fact that would be particularly apparent in stages such as City Escape, which is clearly inspired by its steep, tram-packed streets, or the massive Golden Gate-style bridge seen at the start of Radical Highway. In this regard, Sonic Adventure 2 served as something of a blueprint for many future titles in the series that would seek to draw inspiration from real world locations, such as Sonic Unleashed or the much maligned 2006 reboot attempt.
Sonic Team USA also opted to double the first Sonic Adventure’s rather erratic 30 frames per second to a nigh-on unshakable 60, while managing to cram just as much – if not more- detail into the graphics. The increase in terms of smoothness was certainly pleasing to the eye, but the key benefit here was much improved controller response. This and a number of gameplay changes to the Sonic-style stages, specifically, the instantaneously activated light dash and addition of grinding, streamlined the gameplay no end, starkly contrasting the first Sonic Adventure’s stop-start level design and, arguably, better distilling essence of classic Sonic.
Rather than offer a separate story for each character, Sonic Adventure 2 split the playable cast into two teams of sorts: Hero and Dark. They ran parallel to each other in narrative terms, leapfrogging between three main gameplay types: Sonic and Shadow’s platforming, Eggman and Tails’ shoot ‘em ups and Knuckles and Rouge’s treasure hunts.
Sonic Team also did away with the original game’s hub world Adventure Fields. This was no great loss, however, since of the three featured in Sonic Adventure, only the Egg Carrier was worth exploring. Thankfully, completed stages could still be revisited via a map screen.
Chao, Sonic Adventure’s virtual pets of sorts, made a welcome return for its sequel. You could boost their stats by giving them a Chaos Cores gained from defeated enemies, take them for walks via the Dreamcast’s VMU and then have them take part in various contests. They’d even change appearance based on which character they had an affinity for. Some fans have particular affection for the Chao system, jokingly referring to both Adventure games as ‘Chao simulators’. Indeed, Takashu Iizuka has stated in interview that Sonic Team considered the Chao system as being key to the game’s longevity.
Sonic Adventure 2 was revealed to the industry at large at E3 2000, having been rumoured to be in the offing for a while. Its debut trailer emphasised what would turn out to be a key theme: the contrast between good and evil, and heroes and villains. At the trailer’s end, you’ll catch a teasing glimpse of what would perhaps become Sonic Adventure 2’s most enduring legacy, the introduction of Shadow, the quintessential anti-Sonic.
Last year, I wrote an opinion piece on him for SEGA Nerds which you can read here, but suffice to say that an ‘evil Sonic’ had long been a staple on fans’ bucket lists by the time it actually happened. Bizzare mammal-come-anthropomorphic sexpot, Rouge the Bat, also saw her inaugural outing in Sonic Adventure 2, albeit a largely forgettable one.
The public got its first hands-on with Sonic Adventure 2 via a pack-in demo included with Phantasy Star Online, which featured opening stage, the aforementioned City Escape. It served as an excellent representation of the final product (despite the usual disclaimers to the contrary).
The only notable differences were cosmetic: a different logo for the game and the lack of licensed Soap grinding shoes that would be worn by both Sonic and Shadow in the final retail version. Also, in the demo the music for City Escape was instrumental only, with vocals yet to be added at that point.
The game’s actual release ended up being somewhat bittersweet, owing to the fact that in January 2001, around 6 months before Sonic Adventure 2 hit stores, SEGA had declared their intention to discontinue the Dreamcast and leave the console hardware business for good. Fans knew that this would be probably be the last time a main series Sonic game graced their beloved underdog of a console.
SEGA ensured the game was a fitting bookend to Sonic’s tragically short Dreamcast career by releasing a lovingly put together 10th anniversary edition alongside the standard SKU. It included a gold-coloured CD featuring music from various Sonic games released up until that point and a commemorative coin and booklet, all in an exquisite blue case.
Speaking of fan service, dedicated players who managed to successfully collect all 180 emblems, by completing various in-game tasks and challenges, got a very special anniversary treat: a fully 3D version of the iconic Green Hill Zone, the first level from the first Sonic game. Additionally, although multiplayer had traditionally been an afterthought for Sonic Team, they nonetheless saw fit to include competitive split screen multiplayer and even a kart racing mini-game; nobody could accuse Sonic Adventure 2 of being short on content.
Reviews were positive. Gamespot noted that it was “easily a must-have game for fans of the platforming genre in general and the original Sonic games in particular”, and IGN asserted that it was “one of the best Sonic games ever on one of the best consoles ever”. The game’s camera remained a sticking point however, and there was much disagreement over the quality and necessity of the non-Sonic stages.
Post-Dreamcast, Sonic Adventure 2: Battle graced the Gamecube in 2003. It was much the same game, barring a few additional multiplayer characters and features. That isn’t to say that the port is half-hearted though, as SEGA put a lot of effort into replacing the original Dreamcast version’s Chao VMU functionality with a solution which allowed Game Boy Advance owners with copies of Sonic Advance to transfer Chao to and from it via the Game Boy Advance Link Cable.
Despite this, it arrived to a noticeably more frosty reception than the Dreamcast release. The Steam, Xbox 360 and PS3 ports released in 2013 have been similarly berated for not adding anything new and/or not aging particularly well.
Now, 15 years later, Sonic Adventure 2 occupies a somewhat odd place in Sonic history. While its gameplay, story and graphics are arguably much better than those of its predecessor, the original Sonic Adventure is recalled more fondly. This is largely for the reasons we talked about earlier: it was the first 3D Sonic, with a fate indelibly linked to that of the Dreamcast. In short, it made gaming history purely by virtue of being first, which is something that cannot really be said of its successor.
That said, if you want to remind yourself that, despite the mountain of evidence the contrary, 3D Sonic can work brilliantly, Sonic Adventure 2 is probably the best place to start. It and Generations stand tall to this day as Sonic Team’s finest 3D creations.