Sunday, 23 September 2012

Sonic Adventure

If there’s one important lesson that the Dreamcast taught the games industry, it’s that any console is only as good as its games. All of the advanced graphics and ahead-of-its-time online play means absolutely nothing if the console gets most of its use as a really expensive ornament, a lesson I wish Sony and Nintendo would hurry up and learn before releasing any more handhelds, and the fact that the Dreamcast had roughly 6 games makes its failure seem reasonable in hindsight. However, it did leave us a few wonderful games to remember it by, one of which is Sonic Adventure.

I’m sure if you even have a vague idea of what Sonic’s about then the plot shouldn’t be too tough to take a stab at the plot. The main storyline follows Sonic and Tails quest to stop Dr Eggman from taking over the World, this time by collecting the plot convenient Chaos Emeralds to give magical powers to his wobbly spunk monster. Subplots involve Knuckles’s attempt to reassemble the Master Emerald, Amy running away from a robot, another robot named E-102 shooting things and a bizarre man-child-cat thing named Big fishing for his best friend. It’s hardly expert storytelling but the occasional crossing of the characters paths makes the events feel natural and adds a sense of reality to the story. There’s also some surprisingly deep character development; yeah, Sonic is a catchphrase-spouting macho douchebag who’s somehow still loveable but E-102’s struggle to accept his purpose in life or Tail’s struggle to be independent are just a little more thoughtful than you’d expect from what is essentially a kids game. Just don’t expect the same amount of complexity from the overall plot; it wouldn’t be a Sonic game without the good guys triumphing now, would it?

The one word I would use to sum up the gameplay in this title would probably be “varied.” Each of the 6 playable characters has similar control schemes and level styles but with vastly different gameplay styles, an impressive feat on its own, ranging from Sonic’s usual high-speed shenanigans to treasure hunting as Knuckles to a bizarre fishing mini-game as Big. The fact that you have to play as Sonic first to unlock each of the characters in his Story mode undercuts the “choice” aspect somewhat; if you just can’t wait to do a spot of fishing in an amusement park but haven’t unlocked Big yet then you get to either do some more running or risk being taken away by men in white coats at Alton Towers. Even within the levels there’s a huge variety of mini-games, from kart racing to snowboarding to pinball, it never once feels like the game is running out of ideas or stagnating. One mini-game that I’m not so fond of is the Chao Garden. It’s universally lauded as one of the best aspects of this game but I just can’t see the appeal, but if you’re really itching to engage in a little Tamagotchi lite involving little puddles with faces then you’re in luck!

It’s worth noting that this was the first Sonic game to make the transition from 2D to 3D. It’s often pointed to as the point at which the series started to go downhill but for me it’s the point at which it started being playable, mostly due to my absolute loathing of side-scrolling. Besides, blaming the fact that Sonic Unleashed sucks dick on the fact that it’s in 3D is like blaming Germany’s poor weather for Hitler’s less than tolerant behaviour. My continued love of the game is perhaps due to the fact that it mainly takes place in a very small set of areas; I’ve always said that the most memorable videogame settings are those that the players gets to know and love intimately; there’s a reason that everyone loves the Spencer Mansion but couldn’t tell you where any of Resident Evil 5 took place, and the Adventure Fields fulfil this role nicely. Although the technical restrictions of the time meant that nothing quite as vibrant as Liberty City was yet possible, the inclusion of cars and NPCs you can interact with give the areas a feeling of life and energy. I could and probably have spent hours just wondering around the place enjoying the atmosphere, a feeling sadly lacking from the sequel with its focus on universe-trotting adventures, and putting the gateways to the actual levels within these areas makes things feel far more natural than just carrying you from area to area in cutscenes. It could easily be said that the gameplay is buggy and the controls are fiddly and that’s certainly true but it’s endearing in a Skyrim kind of way, like a cat that constantly throws up on itself or the cast of TOWIE.

This is another point that may go without saying for a Sonic title but the music is particularly worthy of massive praise. The decision to switch from playful childlike 8-Bit music to Jun Senoue’s full-on rock music was indeed a wise choice, fitting extremely well with Sonic and Knuckle’s badass personas in particular. The tracks for each area just seem to fit perfectly, from beautiful melodic rock guitar work in the first beach level to the heavy industrial metal onboard the Egg Carrier to somber African style music in the jungle, I really can’t think of a bad track. The vocal tracks featured also have the great honour of single-handedly giving me my first taste of genuine rock music, featuring as they do what I now consider to be my All-Star Tag Team of Underrated Rock Vocal Gods: Johnny Gioeli, Ted Poley and Tony Harnell. I listened to “Open Your Heart” and “It Doesn’t Matter” more times than anyone can possibly imagine, perhaps they even changed my life forever. It’s telling as the quality of these musicians and songs, Senoue and Gioeli in particular, that even people who didn’t like the gameplay of this title and future worse Sonic titles always squeeze in a sneaky, “The music is fucking awesome, though!” when describing them.

It’s been a little shorter than many of my other reviews but it’s quite a simple game: A set of minimalistic stories holding together a ton of fun. Getting hold of a Dreamcast version would be more hassle than it’s worth but it’s out on XBLA and PSN as far as I know so what are you waiting for?

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