The Existential Horror of Sonic Adventure

Since his debut in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog had been more than a mascot for Sega. He was the lifeblood of the company, a saving grace that finally allowed the Mega Drive / Genesis to gain a foothold in a market utterly dominated by Nintendo. Next to their portly Italian plumber, Sonic was a revelation, a zippy speedster filled with rad 90’s ’tude.

Flashforward to 1998. Nintendo and Sony had entered the 3D space with spectacular results due to Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot, their dominance further cemented by the likes of Banjo-Kazooie and Spyro the Dragon. Thanks to these titles, a solid formula was emerging for 3D platformers. Create a vibrant world, pop a cutesy character into it, and give the player responsive controls with which to steer them.

While these genre defining works were being released, Sonic the Hedgehog was suspiciously absent in the 3D realm. He’d failed to make an appearance on the Sega Saturn, due to a dysfunctional development cycle that caused his 3D debut to be cancelled. In turn, the Saturn died a quick death on the market, which some attributed to the lack of a Sonic title on the system. With the imminent release of their 6th generation console, Sega were not going to make the same mistake.

Hell or high water, Sonic Adventure would be the flagship title for the Dreamcast at its Japanese release, even if that meant a mere 10-month development cycle. In a post-Mario 64 world, Sonic Team sought to create large adventure fields for Sonic to travel through between the more traditional action stages. There would be a greater emphasis on story, quests and exploration. The action stages themselves would be expansive and frantic, fully exploiting Sonic’s foray into the 3rd Dimension. This would be a Sonic game for the next generation, proving that both Sega and their blue mascot were here to stay.

That was the idea at least. In practice, it tells a very different story.

Walking through the adventure fields, the player is immediately hit with an eerie sense of isolation. They’re huge, sprawling areas for sure, but for the most part, utterly devoid of any landmarks or NPCs. It’s easy to lose sight of your objective or overlook the key needed to open the next progression point, so the player often wanders aimlessly through the dull, lifeless environments. For a game starring Sega’s famous speedster, you spend a lot of time trapped in areas, going around in circles. Metaphorically, someone’s put lead in Sonic’s boots.

It doesn’t help that the longer you stare at the adventure fields, the more unsavoury questions raise their head. Why is Sonic suddenly a giant blue hedgehog living amongst humans? Why are ancient Inca ruins a train ride away from an American metropolis? Why is there a ladder that leads down to a solitary wooden pier, seemingly daring the player to jump to their watery doom? Beneath the bright colours and cheery J-pop, there’s the ever-present sensation that Sonic doesn’t belong in this strange world.

When you finally unlock a new action stage you feel nothing short of relief, though it’s short-lived. Simply put, Sonic is way too fast to control in a 3D space, and the fixed camera angles often have a stroke trying to follow Sonic at top speed. These issues are exasperated by a multitude of glitches that cause Sonic to get trapped in tight spaces, or plummet through platforms to his death. This makes later levels like the Egg Carrier and the Mystic Temple an utterly tortuous ordeal.

image source: Nerdbacon

Sonic Adventure feels like a surreal nightmare from which its titular character is trying to escape, and that’s quite fitting. Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot had proven that 3D platforming was the future, but for Sonic, it was his greatest existential threat; his iconic speed proving too much to handle in a 3D space. It makes sense then that Sonic doesn’t fit in this odd world of Inca ruins, garish casinos and lumpy looking humans, because in retrospect, he never should have abandoned his 2D origins.

The dissonance between Sonic and his game world are captured best in the unskippable cut-scenes. The dialogue and voice acting aren’t fit to lick the boots of the worst Saturday morning cartoon, but it’s the lip sync that’s truly abominable. Mouths pulsate and stretch in all directions, like a snake unhinging its jaw to eat an egg. Eyes enlarge and bulge. Nothing comes close to matching the dialogue spoken. In moments like these, the game feels like a horror-show, as Sega pushes these simple characters into dark areas they’re not equipped to handle.

In 2001, the Dreamcast was discontinued, and Sega exited the hardware business, surviving to this day as a third-party developer. For the first time, Sonic was not enough to save Sega from its financial woes.

Though Sonic Adventure continues to be remembered fondly, it’s patient zero for the problems that have plagued the franchise for the last 20 years. The dull adventure stages, the broken gameplay, the insipid storytelling – this is where it all began. In fact, it may be the first existential horror game in the platforming genre, in which a revered icon faces his complete obsolescence in a new era. The real antagonist of the game isn’t Dr. Robotnik or a cranky water god or even the horribly broken controls, but rather the steady march of technological progress. And that’s something not even Sonic could outrun.

Special thanks to Shannen Hogan for introducing me to the madness that is Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast.

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Jack O’Higgins
Jack is a freelance journalist based in Dublin. He covers music, film, comics and video games. If this article angered you, please complain to him on twitter at @jackohigginz, as he really needs to raise his social media profile.

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