Retrospective: Sonic Adventure 2

Were the Sonic Adventure games good? Throw that question out to the crowds of Twitter users and watch people fight over it, because it’s a contentious one. But that wasn’t always the case. This series had a famously rough transition from 2D to 3D, but I think a lot of the poor reputation of modern Sonic stems from the total disaster that was Sonic ’06 and from some of Sega’s less bad but still pretty bad blunders such as the endless slog of the nighttime sections of Sonic Unleashed and the entirety of Shadow the Hedgehog.

The Adventure games, on the other hand, went over pretty well at the time. The first two real Sonic games in 3D were far from perfect, with plenty of camera problems and glitches, but I remember liking them when I first played them on the Dreamcast, and I don’t think anyone really outright hated them or declared the series dead after playing them. A lot of fans agreed, and I do too, that they weren’t nearly as good as the original 2D games on the Genesis, but they weren’t considered a disgrace to the series or anything like that. Even when the Dreamcast died, these two games were at least well-regarded enough to live on as Gamecube ports with new features added. Yet now they do get quite a lot of hate, especially the first one, which I’ve even heard called one of the worst games ever made.

I’m not going to address here whether Sonic Adventure deserves that harsh assessment, though I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. But I only own the Steam port of Sonic Adventure 2, so that’s the one I can write about without having to dig through hazy twenty year-old memories. I finally got around to playing this version of SA2, and I don’t feel that differently about it now than I did back when I played the Dreamcast original upon release in 2001: generally pretty all right but with some boneheaded gameplay decisions and clunky elements that make it a chore to get through sometimes.

But amazing dialogue

But you’re reading this to get specifics, so let’s get to them. SA2 opens with a nice cinematic-looking shot of Sonic being transported as a prisoner on a military helicopter for a crime he obviously didn’t commit, because he’s a good guy. So he jumps out of the helicopter and onto the streets of San Francisco using a broken-off piece of it as a skateboard (Sonic doesn’t take fall damage, so he’s fine.) It turns out that he’s a victim of mistaken identity, because the grandfather of Dr. Robotnik, now officially known in the West as Eggman, developed another anthropomorphic hedgehog as an experiment on an orbital base to be the ultimate lifeform.

When Eggman discovers this being called Shadow, he unleashes him to cause some chaos. And of course, since Shadow and Sonic are shaped in a vaguely similar way, everyone thinks it’s Sonic wreaking havoc instead. While Sonic runs from the military police, his friends Tails and Knuckles join up to help out, pairing off against Eggman, Shadow, and another new character named Rouge, an anthropomorphic bat lady and a government spy. But she’s also a treasure hunter who’s after the Master Emerald, which for some fucking reason isn’t on the Floating Island anymore.

Remember when Knuckles was the guardian of the Floating Island and sworn to keep this shiny rock on it, otherwise said island would fall into the ocean like in Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure 1? Well Knuckles doesn’t, because he never even brings that up. And this is the third time he’s lost the damn thing anyway. What are you doing, Knuckles?

And since Knuckles shatters the emerald on purpose to get it out of Eggman’s hands, he has to search for the missing pieces again while also helping out Sonic. Amy Rose is also around, though she sadly doesn’t get much to do this game other than pine after Sonic and get captured by the bad guys as usual. Other things that happen in the course of the game: Sonic and Tails meet the President of the United States, and Eggman blows up half of the Moon with a giant space laser.

More stuff happens in Sonic Adventure 2, but this is enough to see that the plot is pretty damn stupid. In places, it doesn’t even make sense. The mistaken identity part is already silly enough since Sonic and Shadow clearly look different even from far away, so why does everyone mistake Shadow for Sonic? I guess it’s because the game needs someone for you to fight/run away from in these stages. And it can’t just be Eggman now, because he’s also a playable character along with Shadow and Rouge in the second “Dark” storyline that runs parallel to the “Hero” one up until the final part of the game, when both teams have to work together to defeat a greater, more insane evil than even Eggman himself.

But does anyone care that much about the plot of a Sonic game? Some people do, and five years later the series tried a sort of serious RPGish plot with Sonic ’06, but that didn’t work at all and went over horribly. So maybe it’s better if the games don’t worry so much about plot. You can easily ignore the dumb plot, because the gameplay is the main thing.

Sonic Adventure 2 also trips up a bit there, however. The first Sonic Adventure, released in 1998/99, tried out a lot of different gameplay modes, a couple of which were famously clunky (namely Big the Cat’s fishing game that’s widely hated; people also complained about Amy’s sluggish platforming style, though I didn’t mind it as much.) Sonic was still the center of attention, however; his game was by far the longest out of the six, with many more stages to play through. SA2 cut down on the number of gameplay modes to just three: traditional fast platforming action with Sonic and Shadow, an exploration-based hunting mode with Knuckles and Rouge, and a third-person mech shooter with Tails and Eggman, each mode sharing equal game time. So when you’re playing SA2, you’re only running around classic Sonic-style for one third of the time.

This is obviously a problem if you don’t like the other two-thirds of the game. You can’t even just play through Sonic and Shadow’s stages and ignore the others like you could in SA1, because instead of individual character routes, the story is told through two separate Hero and Dark routes that alternate stages between Sonic/Tails/Knuckles and Shadow/Eggman/Rouge. So you just have to suffer through those parts if you’re not interested in them.

Do you know the Pumpkin Hill song by heart? I fucking do

I don’t hate all the non-Sonic/Shadow parts of this game. The Knuckles and Rouge hunting levels get a lot of shit, but I don’t find them that bad. The scavenger hunt element of those stages work pretty well, and the three emerald shards or whatever other three objects you’re hunting for are placed in randomized locations that you need to find by using a sort of hot/cold radar system, so each run through of a stage plays a bit differently. The horrible camera controls can make it hard to dig around in tight areas as you’ll often have to do, but the camera in this game is always a pain in the ass anyway.

No, the sections of SA2 I really don’t care for are the mech stages. It was a fun novelty to play as the villain Eggman, and it makes sense that he’d be using a mech to get around, but Tails is now also stuck in a mech throughout the game, which means the player misses out on his unique flying ability that made playing as him in Sonic 3 & Knuckles so fun. I know Tails is supposed to be an engineer, so it’s not crazy that he’d be driving a mech around, but that still seemed pretty dumb to me. You can fly, so why not use that skill?

The greater problem here, though, is that these stages are just too slow and dull. I don’t see anything special about them. Though I do know people who really like them, so this seems like one of those “your mileage may vary” issues.

excitement

But the Sonic and Shadow stages are pretty fun. They’re still not as fun as the stages in the original Genesis games, partly because they’re far more linear. But I think the main appeal of these stages in the early 3D Sonic games is seeing how quickly you can make it to the goal. This game even implements a time/score-based ranking system from E to A (no F, I guess because if you reach the goal, you haven’t technically failed no matter how long it took you to get there) along with four extra challenges in each stage and bonuses for completing them successfully. If you’re a completionist, you can get a lot of replay value out of Sonic Adventure 2.

Some of that replay value is also provided by the Chao Garden, where you can raise some weird onion-headed blue creatures with any of the six playable characters, feed them animals to make them strong, run them in races, etc. I’m not into this kind of virtual pet stuff, but if you are, it’s worth checking out.

This is pretty much how you raise Chao as far as I know

The team that ported SA2 to Steam seems to have done a pretty decent job, because it mostly plays fine.* I do get some slowdown in a few parts of stages (mainly Sonic and Shadow’s visually busy jungle stages) but I’m not sure how much of that is me having a piece of shit PC that I can only run visual novels on. For the most part, this game plays how I remember it playing in 2001. All the good and bad elements of the game are still there: the camera is still garbage and the mech stages are still boring, but the Sonic/Shadow stages and some of the Knuckles/Rouge ones are still fun to play.

The soundtrack hasn’t been touched either, which is again both a good and a bad thing. I really like some of the music in SA2, especially Rouge’s smooth jazz lounge stuff and Shadow’s extra over the top angsty-sounding themes like “Supporting Me”. The Knuckles raps are still really bad, but then again they’re so bad that they’ve become jokes, especially the Pumpkin Hill theme — and in any case, it’s hard to imagine those Knuckles levels with any other BGM. If you’re a fan of Crush 40 and Jun Senoue’s guitar-playing then you’ll also really like Sonic’s character and stage themes. I’m not a big fan of the style, but “City Escape” is still catchy. Just try to get it out of your head when you’ve heard it once.

Hey Knuckles, when you’re done flailing around like a dumbass, let’s have a proper fight.

In the end, I still have mixed feelings about Sonic Adventure 2. It’s mostly fun to play, and even the mech sections aren’t horrible to get through aside from a couple of extremely overly long stages late in the game. On the other hand, I think it also represents a shift away from the old Sonic style that I grew up with as a kid and that I liked so much. The first Adventure also added new characters and a dumb plot, but it felt more in line with those older games somehow. With SA2, we’ve now got much more “adult” characters with the extra-edgy Shadow, who looks like he was designed to appeal to depressive loner kids (i.e. me) and Rouge, who looks like she was designed to appeal to furries on DeviantArt (i.e. not me, but I guess I get what they were going for if in fact they were going for that.) And the President is a character in the Sonic universe now for some reason. Sonic Heroes is where the series really lost me, and Sonic ’06 is where it gave me a giant middle finger, but in some ways SA2 feels like the beginning of that shift into unfamiliar territory.

But does it really matter that much? Sonic the Hedgehog as a whole has had plenty of ups and downs, and even though I’ve been mostly out of the loop with the Sonic series for the last two decades, I’ll probably always have a soft spot for it. I certainly will for Sonic Adventure 2, which in my view counts as one of those ups. At the very least, this game is certainly not the disaster some critics paint it as. I guess that’s not the most enthusiastic endorsement I could give the game, but I’d say it’s still worth trying out, even with its problems. 𒀭

 

* This isn’t the case for the ports of Sonic Adventure, however. The Gamecube port Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut was supposed to be an upgrade, but it actually downgraded some of the graphics and added new glitches that weren’t present in the Dreamcast original. The PC version is even worse in this regard, taking the Gamecube version and compounding these problems, and unfortunately the SA offered on Steam is based on that one, making it a port of a shitty port of another shitty port. Thankfully, fans have created patches to fix many of these issues, doing far more for the game than Sega ever bothered to. For a comprehensive rundown of the port issue, see a video overview here (made by Cybershell, an excellent YouTube video maker who recently reappeared for the second time after years of hibernation) or go straight to the source to get all the details.

As far as SA2 goes, I also played it on both the Dreamcast and the Gamecube, and I don’t remember so many differences between the two versions aside from a few bits of added content like multiplayer battle mode, but I could be wrong about that. It’s been a long time, after all. I should also mention that the extra Gamecube content is offered on Steam as DLC. I didn’t buy it, but it’s only a few dollars as of this writing.

A review of Dreaming Sarah (PC)

Once again, I’m late to the party.  I came across Dreaming Sarah, an exploration platformer made by the independent developer Asteristic Game Studio, just recently, despite the fact that the game itself was released in 2015.  At first I thought it was related somehow to Dreaming Mary, another independent game that came out a few years ago, but it’s really not.*  In fact, the developer says straight up that his game was directly influenced by Yume Nikki, a Japanese RPG Maker game in which you control a girl who is exploring her dreams.  Yume Nikki has influenced a ton of games, so that isn’t a big surprise.  The influence is especially evident in Dreaming Sarah, though.  You play as silent protagonist Sarah, a blue-ponytailed girl who mysteriously awakens in a field in the middle of a strange forest.  Although this is a platformer, Sarah cannot punch or kick or stab anything – there’s no combat in the game, in fact.  Her only goal is to break out of her dream and into the real world, where she’s trapped in a coma.  You might expect this fact to be concealed until the end of the game, but the developer throws it out there right in the first line of its description, so I guess it’s not meant to be a secret.

Fortunately, Sarah can discover various items throughout her dream world that give her new abilities and that unlock new areas of her dream world.  Most of these items are hidden in worlds other than the initial forest area, worlds that are often far more bizarre and surreal than the forest.  Sarah also runs into other people and beings, residents of her dream worlds, who sometimes have helpful advice or a new item to offer.

I hate these fucking eyes, really I do.  They don’t do anything; they’re just creepy.

As Sarah unlocks new areas in her dream world, the game drops hints about what might have happened to her to cause her coma.  I should note that, even though I wouldn’t exactly call Dreaming Sarah a horror game, it does contain some unsettling imagery.  Even more unsettling that the above eyeballs staring right at you.  Yes, really.  I won’t spoil it for you, though.

Dreaming Sarah also contains a few puzzles.  Some of them are quite easy, but a few require you to take cues from your environment that may lead you to a new item. The puzzles are all doable, and none of them are really difficult at all, but they do require the use of dream logic – Sarah is exploring her dreams, after all, so this is fitting.

Even in my dreams, I get carded.

There’s not actually much more I can say about Dreaming Sarah without spoiling parts of it.  I really like the pixel art and the general style of the game.  Special mention has to be made of the background music, which is made by one Anthony Septim (who gets top billing in the game, right after the initial title screen for some reason.)  Every track fits the changing environments in Sarah’s dream world and adds to the mood.  Just like the background music in Yume Nikki, it’s simple but effective.  I’ll be following Septim from now on, along with Garoad, the guy who wrote the soundtrack to VA-11 HALL-A.

I’ll also be following Asteristic Game Studio.  I’m not going to say Dreaming Sarah was amazing.  It was about two hours long as I played it, and despite the variety of strange dream worlds it all felt a little lacking at the end, as though it could have been something more.  In fact, it’s kind of hard for me to say the six dollar price tag is justified.  I enjoyed the game, but I also bought it during a sale, and it might be worth seeking Sarah out on sale too if you’re interested in it.

Then again, two Big Macs cost more than six dollars, and I’d say that playing Dreaming Sarah is at least better than eating two Big Macs (and playing Dreaming Sarah won’t devastate your colon, either.)  So maybe the value of the game is entirely relative.  But I do see a lot of potential here, and I hope this developer follows Dreaming Sarah up with something even better and more fully realized. 𒀭

* Dreaming Mary is well worth playing, though it’s much more of a nightmarish horror game in the vein of something like Blank Dream.  Unlike Dreaming Sarah, it’s also free, so if the wallet is light at the moment and you can’t spare even a dollar (or six dollars) for a game then it’s a good option.  The same is true of Yume Nikki.  And Blank Dream, which I reviewed here.  In fact, you’d better just play all of them.

Edit (8/23/18): It’s interesting to see how far you can come after a year.  I don’t know why I was being so weird about this game’s six-dollar price tag.  It’s a well-crafted atmospheric game with a good soundtrack.  I think I was going through a lean period at the time, so I was especially sensitive about paying money for things.  Now I’ve pretty much given up on giving a fuck about anything, so I don’t mind dropping six dollars on a good game, even if it only lasts for two hours.

I still like that line about the game not devastating your colon unlike two Big Macs.  Not sure where that came from.

Retrospective: Knuckles Chaotix

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As a former child growing up in the 90s, I remember when Mario and Sonic were the go-to guys for video game-related fun and time-wasting. They still are, I suppose – but in the early 90s, they were a whole lot more prominent, complete with massive ad campaigns and a running war over the world’s game console market.

As it turned out, neither Nintendo nor SEGA won that war, because Sony pretty much screwed both of them with the Playstation. But while Nintendo managed to hang on with the Nintendo 64 and carve out a niche for themselves as a purveyor of excellent first-party titles, SEGA spun completely out of control and crashed into the NASCAR bleachers, killing and maiming hundreds of spectators. The Saturn debacle could be taught at business schools as a case study in marketing ineptitude, but SEGA’s earlier hardware add-ons to the popular Genesis console were almost as misguided.

The SEGA CD system was the first of these disasters, a 1993 CD attachment that sold poorly and should have tipped SEGA off to the fact that nobody was interested in new consoles that attached to consoles they already owned. But SEGA hadn’t learned their lesson, because Christmas 1994 brought the SEGA 32X, yet another add-on to the Genesis that could run 32-bit games. As far as I can remember, none of us at school really knew it existed – and we were exactly the same little shits that SEGA was directly targeting with their ad campaigns.

Bad marketing decision, or worst marketing decision?

Bad marketing decision, or worst marketing decision?

Okay, enough of the video game console wars history stuff. The 32X, despite the general shittiness of its concept, did have at least a couple of interesting games on it, as I learned when visiting the house of a friend from school (who was also the only person I knew in the world who owned a 32X. Seriously, next to nobody bought it.) One of these was Knuckles Chaotix, a game spun off of the wildly popular Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Knuckles was supposedly an echidna, which as far as I can tell is a sort of Australian anteater thing, and he was Sonic’s rival in Sonic & Knuckles, which was and still is an amazing platformer. In Chaotix, Knuckles joins up with a new team of animal-people to do whatever the hell it is you’re trying to do in this game (I don’t quite remember, but “stop Dr. Robotnik” probably covers it.)

Yes, it says "WELCOME TO THE NEXT LEVEL IN 32X WORLD."  Too bad nobody cared to take the invitation.

Yes, it says “WELCOME TO THE NEXT LEVEL IN 32X WORLD.” Too bad nobody cared to take the invitation.

It really is too bad that nobody played it, because Knuckles Chaotix is an interesting game. It might not be a good game, exactly – but it’s certainly not a bad one, and if you have a friend to play it with, it can be pretty fun.

Having a friend around is vital, actually, because Chaotix is really a two-player game. In some ways, it resembles other Sonic Genesis titles: it’s a platformer with lots of curves and loops and straight areas that let you build up speed, and Dr. Robotnik is the bad guy you’re fighting. However, Chaotix distinguishes itself from every other game in the series by featuring 1) a mandatory policy of two characters on screen at all times 2) who are tethered together by a magical sparkly rope that never breaks. This bond allows each character to “slingshot” each other across a level, quickly building up insane amounts of speed and allowing wild leaps that would never be possible to make with a single character. Characters could also pick up and throw each other up onto higher ledges (or pick each other up for no reason and run around – not especially productive, but a great way to piss off your friend.)

This golden tether keeps you and your partner tied together and allows you to build up massive speed by slingshotting each other up curves.

This golden tether keeps you and your partner tied together and allows you to build up massive speed by slingshotting each other up curves.

Knuckles Chaotix is interesting for the way it forces teamwork and cooperation between its players. It’s also interesting for how it takes control away from the player when choosing a new level to play (picked randomly by the computer) and a new partner to play with. Each player has seven characters to choose from, including Knuckles himself, his friends (who each have special abilities) and two really shitty, slow characters called Bomb and Heavy that seem to have been inserted into the game solely to piss players off. Unfortunately, you might have to play as these guys, because in order to switch up your team mid-stride one character has to play a game akin to that ripoff carnival grabber game that features a seemingly random collection of possible new partners. You’ll need decent reflexes to grab the character you want.

The strange character select screen

The strange character select screen

So this is definitely an interesting game (how many times have I said that this review? Way too many times.) But Knuckles Chaotix does have some issues that put its overall quality into question. Firstly, the layout of the game’s stages can be confusing – it’s often not clear which direction you have to travel to reach the end of the stage. Sonic CD also had this problem, but Chaotix takes it to the extreme. This can obviously produce a lot of frustration.

Secondly, Chaotix pretty much sucks if it’s played alone. It can be played alone, but, as I learned when playing it a bit recently on an emulator, it’s quite aggravating and unintuitive to control two characters at the same time, even though it is possible through the carrying and slingshot methods. Besides, from what little I can remember about playing this game with a friend almost 20 years ago, most of the fun of Chaotix comes from screwing over your partner and laughing at the general weirdness of the game’s features and mechanics.

There are some doors that will only open through teamwork.  Also note the negative ring count.

There are some doors that will only open through teamwork. Also note the negative ring count.

So is Knuckles Chaotix worth playing? The question is pretty much moot because, as far as I can tell, the game was never re-released after the almost immediate failure of the 32X. One might have expected SEGA to slap Chaotix onto a compilation to give it a new lease on life, as they did with the equally forgotten Sonic CD, but for whatever reason they never have. If you want to play this thing, you’ll either have to go the emulator route and find a way to set up a two-player thing around your computer or buy a 32X (and a Genesis, if you don’t own one already) and a copy of the game on eBay. Knuckles Chaotix is a strange and fascinating title, but I can’t honestly say it’s worth tracking down a 20 year-old Genesis add-on for. If, however, you are a Sonic fan with lots of disposable income and you know someone else who actually gives a shit about playing this, I say go for it.

Anyway, that was entirely too many words I just wrote about this game. I blame it on the half-pot of coffee I drank. I’m going to lie down now.