Tuesday 25 September 2012

Sonic Adventure

Blog Squirrel, home of obscure games.

I have in my possession a copy of Dreamcast Collection for the Xbox 360. Why this was given to me considering my fairly hefty library of real Dreamcast games is anybody's guess, but here we are, and here's the first game of the pack, the lovely Sonic Adventure, first released to Xbox Live in 2010.

What's to be said of Sonic Adventure that hasn't already been blurted out across fourteen years of internet message boards? It's a game that appeases a certain brand of video game fanatic - Dreamcast-owning Sega fans of the late 1990s, where the demise of Sega has left us with considerably warped views. For us, the Dreamcast is to God as Dreamcast Sonic Adventure is to Jesus (albeit probably better than Jesus), and armed with the power of nostalgia and brilliance, neither can be criticised by man. If you disagree, we'll burn the German embassy in Sudan, because this is the height of sense and logic and open minds are for chumps.

To the non-believers, Sonic Adventure is a broken relic of the past which continues to haunt and distort views on the hedgehog to this day. The game is seen as dated, cringe-worthy, and is believed to have inspired a generation of failures, statements that are all true. Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast is isn't a very good game for most of the world, yet it is the very best of games for those who watched it grow.

But note my wording. Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast is king, but versions released since? They're not even in the royal bloodline. Of course, anyone who owned a Dreamcast could identify differences between versions straight away, but to some, this is less obvious... such as the modern Sonic Team, who have chosen to reclassify the PC version of "Sonic Adventure DX" as our saviour.

Let me make something perfectly clear - Sega ports are rubbish. With the exception of the 2011 release of Sonic CD (buy that game), the process of bringing old Sega games to modern consoles has been extremely hap-hazard over the years. Mega Drive and Master System games are converted without a moment's thought, where tortured animals are substituted for audio and a lack of coherent thought oozes out the sides. Saturn games (unless developed by Treasure) are largely ignored, and Dreamcast games rarely stem from the Dreamcast console. Everything on this disc actually comes from either the PlayStation 2 or PC, and with that comes crazy jumps in quality.

If anybody at Sega of America gave a damn about what they were doing, they'd realise this compilation is counter-productive. Crazy Taxi has widescreen support while Sonic Adventure doesn't - people will ask why, and it's not a question that can easily be answered. Were these actually Dreamcast games, each would suffer from the same set of flaws and respect could be given, but instead, we have a mix of odd conversions that aren't true to the original designs. I want to go to the Original Levi's Store™ - why won't you let me.

But of course, anyone can see this compilation was built on the cheap from the menu alone, and the fact the European cover opts for American-style Dreamcast packaging designs is a testament to this. Sonic Adventure is one of the more lazy and uninspired games in this package, with very little being adjusted to suit the needs of XBLA consumers. It's not quite as baffling as the inclusion of Space Channel 5: Part 2 (which failed to see a Dreamcast release outside of Japan, unlike its predecessor which is now significantly harder to find), but it stems from a PC version of the game, released seven years prior in 2003.

Sonic Adventure hasn't aged well, but bizarrely it's the 2003 release of Sonic Adventure DX that has suffered the worst. DX is an "enhanced" version of Sonic Adventure for the GameCube and PC, which changed things to suit the updated hardware, but not significantly enough to address the obvious problems. Character models were marginally improved and sprayed with WD-40, some bugs were fixed, and steps were taken to make the frame rate more consistent, along with various subtle changes to lighting and textures and a plethora of other things you won't notice.

Theoretically it was an upgrade which made sense, but even back then Adventure was considered too dated to be taken seriously as a major player. The upgrade itself is inconsistent and less than thorough, and the experience still feels broken to newer players. Good news to note at this stage that absolutely nothing has been done for XBLA users. In fact, significantly more was taken away, such as the unlockable Game Gear games, or charged as DLC, such as the DX-branded mission mode - the features that once made DX worth owning.

I've always admired Sonic Adventure for its bold decisions. Its (failed) attempt at bringing the 2D Sonic gameplay to three dimensions, its poorly acted but strangely fascinating story, and of course, its set of music, which has been unmatched in all successive Sonic games. But it's equally interesting to observe how the game plays from an adult's perspective - in my old age I now notice how flooded the game is with horrible JRPG tedium, and the fact levels are beaten by running into walls. I was oblivious to all of this in 1999.

In fact, Adventure is far looser and unpredictable than I remember it, and although some of this may be attributed to the changes in DX (which I have spent considerably less time with), it's clear that Sonic Adventure hasn't stood the test of time very well. It is perhaps as muddled as the Dreamcast itself - obsessed with how it looks and sounds, but less on how it plays and performs against its later rivals.

Never have I taken the view with Sonic Adventure that only one character matters. I enjoy the diversity, and the quirks that come attached. What hurts Sonic Adventure most is its ties to Japanese culture - the JRPG-esque stories and overworlds, the breeding simulator and the often awkward padding. The camera is of course mind-numbingly horrible but such was life back then, and aside from some handheld outings, this is the only post-Saturn Sonic game I'd be willing to save.

The sad thing about this XBLA version is that it doesn't seem to care. Sonic Adventure was a groundbreaking Dreamcast release pushing the limits of game design and graphics. It was spectacular in 1999, yet this version from 2010 is far less so. A choice was made to gut out the title screen, but nobody was inspired to go the extra mile and fix some of the game's most pressing concerns - the camera, the collision or even the faithfully emulated loading times which serve no purpose other than to frustrate.

Sonic Adventure DX was never a full conversion - Big and E-102 were never given a makeover like the other characters, and I am told there are various texture and geometry issues that were left unaddressed. Plugging holes in Sonic Adventure would be immensely satisfying as there is so much that can be done. Efforts would be significant but not game-changing, and we'd be able to look at this game in a much better light.

"But Squirrel", you cry, "would that not ruin the feeling of nostalgia?". And yes, it would, but here's the thing - it was already ruined. Re-releasing a half baked PC version of the game is no substitute for the original. Giving us Sonic Adventure in its native Dreamcast form lets us look at the game with our 1998 heads and judge it as a 1998 game. To upgrade some but not all of the game makes no sense at all - now we're using our 2010 heads to judge a game from 2003, and that's always due to end in tears.

Sadly, this is the only version of Sonic Adventure currently on sale, and that means you'll have to deal with the stupidity to get your "Dreamcast" fix (and no doubt you'll be getting your half-baked "Saturn" fix from NiGHTS later in the year). But this sort of conduct can be taken as both an insult to fans of Sonic Adventure and the Xbox 360 alike - no attempt was made to fully utilise the hardware, and no respect was given to the Dreamcast classic. To reiterate, this is a decade old, mediocre PC port disguised as a Dreamcast game. If there's an appetite for this than fine, but I suspect people were expecting a bit more for the modern age.

Mind you there was no point in making these comments. You'll likely know what my advice is - get a real Dreamcast and play Sonic Adventure as intended. If you weren't a Dreamcast groupie you're unlikely to understand why this game is so great (particuarly if you go in expecting a rival to Super Mario 64), but if nothing else, at least this way you're not funding laziness and greed. Fight the corporate fat cats, 99%, etc.

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