Sunday, July 19, 2015

Worldly Weekend: Sonic Adventure DX: Director's Cut (GameCube)

There was a time where, for me, the Sonic Adventure games were Sonic. It was the same era where any 2D platformer that wasn't Kirby was far too hard for me, and Sonic the Hedgehog's Genesis classics were no exception. Sure, I could play Sonic Advance just fine, but hardcore Sonic fans on message boards far and wide kept dismissing them in favor of the old Genesis games.

Being a kid, I didn't really get that, much like how the same crowd held no love for the Sonic Adventure games birthed on the ill-fated Dreamcast (and eventually ported to GameCube, as seen in the cover above). The opening levels of each game had Sonic escaping from a killer whale and running over cars with a snowboard, respectively. I didn't care for rock music, yet Sonic made it cool with the likes of Live and Learn and Open Your Heart. If I was asked to describe the games with one-word answers as a kid, I would probably respond with words like "awesome," "kickass", and "deep". Yes, deep, likely in response to what I perceived as AAA-storytelling in the form of Gerald Robotnik's execution video and, in the case of the game I'm reviewing today, witnessing the poor plight of Tikal, an ancient echidna, attempting to prevent the slaughter and burning of the cuddly Chao creatures.

All wildly out of place in a Sonic game, you understand. And as we all know, it took Sega some time to learn from that. The rise and fall of Sonic the Hedgehog, all thanks to the likes of gun-toting edgy hedgehogs and woman-on-hedgehog smooching and werewolf hedgehogs and sword-wielding hedgehogs, has been widely maligned and joked about for years and years now. And yet the Sonic fanbase, chaotic as it is, can never decide whether or not it all started with Sonic's entry into 3D (or, in some deluded circles, argued to have never happened at all).

And now here we are, well over a decade since the original Sonic Adventure was ported to GameCube in the DX: Director's Cut edition, four years after its initial release in 1999. Coincidentally, that happens to be the last time I played it (2003, that is).

My friends, as those of us who've revisited our childhoods should know, there comes a time where we're forced to accept the bitter reality about what we once loved. That is why I am here today to inform you that Sonic Adventure DX sucks ass.

And I say that with zero malice whatsoever, for Sonic Adventure DX falls squarely into "so bad it's good" territory by taking all the wrong lessons from Super Mario 64 (and late-90's 3D game design in general). The result? A lovable abomination of hodgepodge game design, the worst camera ever devised, and glitches upon glitches upon glitches. Also, butt rock.

To put this all into context, Sonic Adventure DX splits the campaign into six characters: Sonic the Hedgehog, Miles "Tails" Prower, Knuckles the Echidna, Amy Goddamn Rose, E-102 the Boring-Ass Robot, and Big the Fuckin' Cat. They all take place within the same story, so the purpose is to put the pieces together from each perspective. Not that it's even remotely interesting today, mind you, but we'll get to that later. The real issue is that I'm really not kidding when I say that Sega took the opportunity to throw in every concept they could think of, be it speedy platforming, racing, chase sequences, treasure hunting, shooting, bumper cars, casino games, and, yes, fishing.

Now, are any of these actually fun? Maybe, but credit can hardly be granted to Sega and the folks at Sonic Team. See, Sonic Adventure DX makes design mistakes so elementary that it doesn't matter which character you pick, as all of their respective campaigns are riddled with pacing flaws, pointless/confusing decoration, and accompanied by some of the slipperiest controls and cameras known to man. Also, glitches.

Sonic takes most of the story meat and represents just about every level, so it's best to use him as a model. Many Adventure critics point to his campaign as being the only enjoyable one on a functional level; this argument may've held up roughly a decade ago when the game's flaws weren't nearly as apparent today, but that's definitely not the case now. The seams in nearly all the jaw-dropping set pieces (including the famous Emerald Coast whale chase) have long since eroded, and whatever remains entertaining (such as Lost World's tunnels and gravitational wall panels) is surrounded in a sea of mediocrity.

These are all meant to illustrate how fast Sonic is, but the problem is how Sonic's speed is set far too fast. This wasn't so bad in the Genesis titles considering the multi-faceted level design (that, and the speed was far more, well, measured), but the pit-ridden 3D planes of Sonic Adventure DX simply can't handle the inoperable speed of Sonic. Consequently, Sonic tends to either fall off pits, fall through glitch-ridden slopes, or dash across walls and ceilings. The last one's an intentional cool-looking mechanic, mind you, but one that's hardly useful; in fact, you'll often find yourself running into walls instead.

Actually, just about every character runs too fast. While they vary in speed, they're unable to camouflage two fatal flaws within Sonic Adventure DX's design, the first one being level structure that continually betrays player decisions and expectations. This can range from springs that often send players spiraling into an abyss (despite being intended to launch 'em up to platforms, rings, or...nothing) to sudden sequences introduced with zero context. To step away from Sonic for a moment, above is an example from one of the similarly-designed Tails levels, where a rush of air propels him upwards. As seen above, Tails tends to crash into various structures and the like, but he'll also fall back down for no apparent reason. Naturally, the player's response to press a button to get him flying again, but that'll actually accelerate his descent. Bear in mind this is within a race setting!

Problem number two is all about the camera. Put simply, the camera cannot keep up with the characters' speeds and flings about in the most nonsensical perspectives to capture them. Some of its most common habits include freezing in place as a character zooms away, attempting and failing to capture everything relevant to the character's actions/placement, or just freaking the hell out. Above is an example of the second variety: Sonic has just left a room in Casinopolis, but the camera wants to be mindful of his AI partner (Tails), so it awkwardly situates itself behind the room's glass paneling so it can display both characters at once (as opposed to where it should be: around Sonic).

In any other 3D action game, this would compel any player to toss their controller at the wall. But bad 3D Sonic games have this mysterious fascination with clunking up every area imaginable with glitches galore; in the case of Sonic Adventure DX, there's so much what-the-fuckery going on in setting/context, collision detection, and AI movement happening every 20-30 seconds. I don't know what's the nebulous secret behind why Sonic derpin' out is so damn funny , but regardless, I took the liberty of capturing some of my favorite moments.

Yes, that's Sonic showering within the bathrooms of Casinopolis, and he has a visitor! Tails had been hopping about until colliding into the wall and freezing in that walking animation, leading to the hilarious shot above. Truth be told, this actually happened just before the glass paneling camera shot, setting a scenario where Tails watches sadly as his lover moves on. I wonder how much filthy fanfiction I just inspired?

Here's Knuckles climbing the non-existent space beyond one of the Egg Carrier doors! Yes, even the game's three central hubs are hilariously glitch-ridden. Did I mention the hubs are easily the worst of the inspirations borrowed from Mario 64? I'm still not sure if you're supposed to walk on top of the trees of Mystic Ruins' jungle; I mean, me falling through every three seconds should be a clue, but anything goes with Sonic Team. Anyway, it's far preferable than getting lost in that unnavigable maze of a forest, so I don't mind.
Now, I'm told that Sonic Adventure DX brought its own share of glitches and errors during the porting process, allegedly making the game worse than it actually is. However, the idea of the level design, controls and the camera all magically turning to shit when transferred to GameCube is a hard pill to swallow, especially since some of these very complaints existed back upon its Dreamcast release. If anything, I really can't help but appreciate DX's efforts in at least making the game look pretty. Just take a look below.

Sonic Adventure
Sonic Adventure DX

I mean, both are all kinds of terrible, but for vastly different reasons. Sonic Adventure needs no explanation, as I'm certain I wouldn't be to sit through even one cutscene without collapsing in laughter. Meanwhile, Sonic Adventure DX takes the time to freshen the models to an acceptable 2003 standard, polishing 'em off with a shiny sheen. Unfortunately, they neglected to update the mouth animations, so everyone speaks with all the grace of a cow chewing cud. In case you're wondering, that's why Sonic's tongue is sticking out like that (also, why does Sonic have fangs?).

Yes, at the very least, I can't imagine the Dreamcast version excusing the very worst of Sonic Adventure. There's the voicing and scripting, for one. Like, holy shit. I knew revisiting an era where they casted unknowns to voice hackneyed dialogue wasn't going to be pretty, and I knew even as a kid there were some weak lines ("Tails! Watch out! You're going to crash! AhhHHHhH!"), but this is just on another level. You know things are bad when the entire cast of bad 90's dubbing tropes are here: the overacting ninnies (Sonic and Knuckles), the obnoxious body-type casting (E-102 and Big the Fuckin' Cat), "Good Voice, Bad Acting" (Tails' child actor), and The Actors Who Simply Don't Give A Shit (whoever they grabbed around the office to cheer Sonic's name before the final boss).

All are unintentionally hilarious. Granted, the late Deem Bristow brings some deliciously evil cheese to Dr. Eggman (one that he struggles to maintain, unfortunately, but points for effort), but this is all married to the following:

a) the aforementioned horrific attempts at lip-synching.
b) tuned to a boilerplate "ancient evil" script that attempts to be far more serious than it actually is ("THIS IS BEGINNING TO BLOW MY MIND," yells Knuckles after witnessing a mysterious vision).
c) characters constantly speaking over each others' lines.
d) the loud, blaring music constantly drowning out dialogue

Naturally, the results can't be anything but tear-inducing hilarity. You haven't lived until you've heard Tails's speech about the power of friendship.

The scripting even bleeds over to the silent human NPCs, all of who are concerned with burgers, archaeology, train station strikes, and finding love in pizza restauraunts. I'm the type that walks up to every NPC in sight, so naturally the blocky residents of Station Square and their insipid affairs fascinated me to no end. The love story moved me to tears, really.

And then there's Big the Cat. Big the Fuckin' Cat, whose only purpose is to fumble around and fish for his pet frog. This naturally begs the question  "why the hell am I doing this?" as most Sonic games have done in the past decade and a half. Sega's response? "Well, because we already implemented a fishing program for some reason."  Now, I just so happen to have an unhealthy obsession with cats, so I supposed I'd be willing to play ball with whatever the fuck Sega wanted me to do.

And I'm glad I did, because otherwise I never would've discovered the most beautiful level in all of gaming: Big's version of the Ice Cap segment. To clarify, the rest of his levels consist of just a pond to fish in, as they should be. No point in propping up those sections with fluff, right? For reasons I cannot even begin to decipher, the gang at Sonic Team decided to transform the Ice Cap fishing level into a labyrinth of springs, slopes, spike traps, and deep, deep water tunnels. As expected of an ice level, it's all very slippery, and I should also mention Big the Cat is ill-equipped to handle any platforming (he runs fast, but is offset by his poor jumping ability).

I spent roughly half an hour transitioning from mild curiosity to convulsing around the floor in laughter attempting to figure this level out. You're supposed to throw a boulder at one of the frozen ponds to find Froggy, but like me, if you don't bother to immediately seek the advice of Tikal, nothing in this level is immediately apparent. What ensued was a pattern of me briefly scoping out the bottom level, then climbing up down slopes and watching Big the Fuckin' Cat's fat ass falling all the way back down, springing over to completely irrelevant crevices and water pools (barring finding a hidden lure, but hardly worth all this fluff), and watching helplessly as the camera zoomed up at the ceilings of incredibly cramped underwater tunnels. I took the time to craft GIFs of my Ice Cap escapades, for words alone cannot capture the beauty of Ice Cap.

The last one's actually in the Mystic Ruins, but you see how Big just kinda fidgets in place for a bit? That didn't actually happen in-game. If you follow this link, you'll witness the true power of Big's spinning, gravity-defying powers, which no GIF converter could properly emulate.

Case in point, Sonic Adventure DX--nay, Sonic Adventure was the true beginning of a long, long era for Sonic, one often complemented by a never-ending series of "Why?" Why, exactly, am I doing all this? Why has the setting for Sonic suddenly changed to one populated with humans? Why did this game end up being so riddled with glitches? Why does Tails have to suddenly stop and inform me that I'm at the entrance to the Sky Deck, especially since this never happens for any other level? Why does the cutscene of Sonic falling from the sky really just consist of his running animation accompanied by an exaggerated slide whistle? Why am I fishing for frogs?

I won't lie and say Sonic Adventure DX is devoid of any redeeming factors, because it does, but boy do you have to endure a lot of shit to get to those points. Granted, it's all shit that made me laugh hard, and Sonic had yet to fall lower than this, but it's all still shit that made me ask why. I gradually learned to ignore all of it, but you also realize that you can't really escape it.

Even the soundtrack isn't safe -- with the very distinct exception of Sonic Chronicles, if there's one thing to count on in a Bad Sonic Game, it's almost guaranteed to have a damn good soundtrack. Above are two of my favorites: the theme for the Red Mountain level and E-102's theme. Note how both make excellent use of the piano despite being on opposite ends of the Sonic Adventure spectrum.

Then you have to endure butt rock; or in the example I've provided above, butt rap, assuming that is an actual term. Sung entirely from the perspective of Knuckles, his special rap claims that unlike Sonic, he "doesn't chuckle" and is something of a "bloat thrower".

In a different time, I would've argued that Sonic should follow its Saturday Morning Cartoon roots and focus on feel-good songs in the vein of Sonic R and even Tails's own theme for this game (something I've always had a guilty affection for). But in the end, Sonic's bad boy attitude won out.  All still in good fun, mind; why else would I still get nostalgic chills from Live and Learn? But then I listen to that rap and I wonder if it's really worth it.

In a way, I'm still wrestling with my feelings on Sonic Adventure DX. Make no mistake: it's really bad and I thoroughly enjoyed learning why, but in more of a "my soul's been punched" kinda way. Much as I laughed at Big the Fuckin' Cat, that half-hour is not only one I'm never going to get back, but I've spent far more time wondering "why?" and so I can't even visit side stuff like raising Chao and the Mission Mode in fear I'll have the same reaction. Maybe next summer; I need time to heal.

I now fear the worst for Sonic Adventure 2: Battle, which I'll be revisiting very shortly. If you excuse me, I'm going to drown my sorrows in Welch's White Grape Juice. Maybe it'll bring my childhood back, I dunno. Anything to make Sonic cool again.

You may've noticed some of the screenshots varied in quality. If you hadn't guessed, all the stuff with the black borders were from my recordings. I hear there's some programs out there that can take 'em out, so you can expect that for the next game I record (Kirby's Epic Yarn, maybe?).


  1. Do you think there will be another real good Sonic game next year for the series' 25th anniversary? I'm a big Sonic fan, but the last few games haven't been amazing (to say the absolute least). I'm hoping we get a 3DS Sonic game like the Rush games but in 3D instead of 2D. As for consoles, a great Wii U/PS4/Xbox One game would be awesome. This is an article I wrote on the subject:

    1. I sure hope so! What a shame the momentum brought upon by Colors and Generations ended so soon. Sega did mention they were downscaling their console development, though, right? Given Sonic's history, I'd rather not get my hopes up, but still...

      Your link reminds me -- I should really get more involved with Destructoid. Been meaning to do more research around the gaming blog world.