Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Video Game Review: Sonic Adventure DX: Director's Cut (Nintendo GameCube)

Sonic Adventure was the hedgehog's first foray into true 3D platforming (with the arguable exception of Sonic R). Released for the ill-fated Dreamcast in 1998, Sonic Adventure redefined the action-adventure-platforming genre with a coherent storyline and cutting edge cinematics, as well as full (if somewhat flat) voice acting. In the 1990's, Sonic was speeding for the cosmos while Mario was still chugging along at a low 64-bits. While slow and steady won the race, this entry in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise wasn't down and out for long.

Sonic Adventure reappeared in 2003 after the successful port of its sequel in the form of Sonic Adventure 2: Battle in 2001. This enhanced port featured slightly improved graphics, sound, and controls, and a host of additional--most notable is the entire Game Gear library of Sonic franchise games, all eleven of them, making this game more of a collection which happens to feature Sonic Adventure as its focal point than solely being a Sonic Adventure port.

Let's get one thing straight off the bat: I love this game. The Sonic Adventure titles are, in my opinion, a pair of the finest games ever created. They might be a bit rough by today's standards, and hell, Sonic Adventure is pretty rough by any standards, but there is so much good to be found that any bad is almost immediately outweighed. The graphics might bug, the stages might stick, and the voice acting might not really be acted, but gosh darn it, Sonic Adventure is a good game!

The game offers six playable characters for the primary Adventure Mode, but you only get Sonic right off the bat. Other characters are unlocked as you encounter them throughout the story, and I don't feel I'll be spoiling anything by letting you know who they are: Tails, Sonic's eager sidekick, Knuckles, stoic guardian of the Master Emerald, Amy Rose, fan girl extraordinaire, E-102 Gamma, rogue robot rebel, and Big the Cat, dimwitted mountain man. Each character has their own story which ties into the bigger picture and the creative team went through a lot of trouble to make sure you knew that these stories were all bundled together, even when the characters hardly interact. The most obvious example of this is the way characters can be found on the adventure map at various points and speaking to them will reference the events currently going on in their own stories. It's a lot of fun just running around trying to find and speak to all of the other characters.

Sonic Adventure comes under a lot of fire for having slower segments than most other Sonic games, but also for the introduction of E-102 Gamma and Big the Cat, and I can't scream "bullshit" any louder. To get it right out of the way, Sonic games have never been about automatically attaining speed. They have always been about platforming and puzzle solving with speed as a reward for players who were skilled enough to keep the momentum going. The games which have done away with the platforming emphasis have been absolutely abysmal, and all of you Speedbabies should be ashamed. On another matter, Sonic Adventure offers multiple characters with varying play styles for a reason, and the game is successful with it. If every character were as fast as Sonic there would be nothing special about him. This has been one of my biggest gripes with more recent entries to the franchise, even Sonic Heroes. We don't need Sonic if everybody else is just as fast as he is and they can throw boulders.

E-102 Gamma is less criticized than his equally sized comrade Big, but he still comes under a lot of fire for no real good reason. The character isn't fast, no, but he brings so much to the game and I feel that it would be a far worse title without his story and his gameplay. For starters, I find Gamma to be incredibly fun to play with. He has a pseudo-shooting type of game which relies on locking onto a large number of enemies and defeating them with homing rockets to build up your time, and then completing your set objective within the time limit. Gamma's story is the most complex, deep, and touching out of all the story modes, and I'll admit to tearing up a couple of times. This game wouldn't even be a blip on the radar without his inclusion.

Big the Cat... is a little less easily defensible. I don't actually take issue with his game play (which is to fish... Big fishes...), and it can sometimes be quite enjoyable. Unfortunately it's a little too difficult and I damaged my joystick trying to complete all of his "A" rank missions. It also could have used a bit more spit and polish, as there feels to be a lot of chance involved that shouldn't be there. I think Big could have also benefited from having more explorative stages, but instead he's typically dropped right by the pool of water he needs to fish around in. While it's true that he can explore Ice Cap and Hot Shelter, there isn't any benefit to his doing so. I will say, however, that exploring Hot Shelter with Big is a lot of fun.

The other thing about Big, though, is that there isn't anything wrong with his character. I actually find him quite charming. He's slow, he's stupid, and he doesn't talk all that fast, but he's a good-natured giant who gives off a lot of good and happy vibes. My biggest complaint with his inclusion is how forced it was. He has almost no relevance in the grander scheme of things. I mean, he shows up a lot of pivotal moments for the plot, such as assisting Sonic in battling Chaos 6 and retrieving a Chaos Emerald after Station Square is flooded, but he hardly interacts with anyone. Big bumbles around from area to area treating the other characters as backdrops, and they treat him like one, too. The most interaction he has with any character is a brief exchange with Sonic before the battle with Chaos 6 in which he is actually talking to Froggy (who is imprisoned in Chaos) and Sonic says something along the lines of: "Don't worry, I'll help your friend". Big never says "Thank you" or anything else in response to Sonic at all. He just lumbers off to fish Froggy out of the God of Destruction.

Which brings me to my other issue, really: Big had the opportunity to interact more with the other characters, but Sega did not give it to him. Early on in the game he encounters E-102 Gamma who abducts his pal Froggy. Big then chases Gamma to the Egg Carrier, which he sneaks aboard. This would have been the perfect opportunity to give Big a rival battle (something this game desperately needed more of) against E-102, and it would have been awesome. Even before this point Big could have had a confrontation with Tails whom he thought was abducting his pal. There are two instances where rival battles could have been used, but they were missed, and Big feels less like a participant in the plot because of it. Not to mention that the one boss Big does encounter, Chaos 6, doesn't actually have a boss "battle". It's more like a minigame in which you must fish Froggy out of Chaos' body. That's it. Cast the line, grab the frog. Battle over. They could have done more there.

Even at the end of the game when Sonic's friends are gathering the positive Chaos Emeralds around the destroyed Station Square does Big's role go unnoticed. He has a brief clip where we see that he's stumbled upon a Chaos Emerald, but in the next sequence when the characters are all giving their Emeralds to Sonic, Big is nowhere to be seen. Instead Knuckles has somehow acquired his Emerald. This is a real shame, as it was a good opportunity to show that Big really did consider Sonic a friend by now. It's even more infuriating when Gamma, who was only friends with Amy Rose, shows up to bring the hedgehog an Emerald, but his own actual ally is just nowhere to be found. I don't know. More could have been done with Big to make the whole situation a lot better.

I mentioned "rival battles" earlier, but I didn't actually explain what those were, so I'll go ahead and do that. There are two types of boss battle in Sonic Adventure: regular boss battles against monsters and machines who have health meters, and smaller battles against the other playable characters. As far as I know, there are only two such battles, but each one can be played from three different perspectives, so I guess there's six of them. I found these battles to be a lot more enjoyable than the major boss battles, although I'm not entirely sure why. I just know that there were a number of opportunities where this gimmick could have been used to good effect, but simply wasn't for who knows what reason. It would have also been cool if, when playing as characters like Knuckles or Gamma who fought both Sonic and Tails at the same time, the rival battles actually played out as fighting Sonic and Tails instead of just Sonic.

The larger story involved Dr. Eggman having resurrected an ancient god of destruction named Chaos and seeking the Chaos Emeralds to give it more power. Naturally, it's up to Sonic and Tails to stop the nefarious nut before the world is destroyed. It's an alright story for this type of game, although the delivery is really cheesy. I'm not just talking about the voice delivery, which is god awful, but some of the script writing is just weak. I appreciate some of the cartoonishness of the Genesis-era games being preserved, with Eggman's ultimate goal being to build the "ultimate city" known as "Robotnikland", but a lot of lines were just utterly forced and don't make much sense until you look at it in retrospect. Actually, the lines still don't make much sense, but at least the general story and individual character progressions do.

The animation is a whole other matter. I know this was the early days of 3D animation in video games, but this is all just so laughably bad. The expressions the characters make while talking are utterly ridiculous and exaggerated, and often times there eyelids are lower and raised at different levels. The movements are all very stiff and wonky, and a lot of times the characters don't properly begin or end in action until after they've already announced that they're going to. There are a number of times where the scene will load with Sonic and Tails walking slowly, but then they suddenly break into a run as if they'd be doing it the whole time. It's just really weird and makes for a lot of bizarre sequences. You kind of have to think about the game afterwards to appreciate the events as they happened, because your memory will erase all those miscalculations and you'll be left remembering the idea of what was supposed to happen, which is much cooler than how it actually did happen.

The voices themselves weren't bad, but the delivery was extremely poor and often flat. A lot of times it sounded as though the voice actors were embarrassed by what they had to say and tried to keep themselves as quiet as possible so nobody could hear them. There are also a number of times when Dr. Eggman is just completely inaudible, and I'd have no idea what he was saying without the subtitles. This is kind of a huge issue for a game which strives to be so cinematic.

The stages are all varied and generally fun, although there is a lot of glitching that you have to play through. Characters get stuck on walls, characters go right through walls, characters get stuck on floors, characters go right through floors, scripted actions don't happen the way they should, etc. These glitches will often to lead deaths which aren't in any way the player's fault and, as I've mentioned in a few reviews, this is infuriating. If you can play past the glitches though, it's all well worth it. The stages encourage exploration by offering various alternate paths, and even more options open up for players who take the time to actually good at the game. I've discovered so many shortcuts and alternate routes that I don't even remember what the "right way" looks like for most levels.

Unfortunately most of Sonic's stages include some kind of game play gimmick such as riding bumper cars or escaping a mad orca. These gimmicks aren't polished at all and I found them to be my least favorite aspect of the game. In fact, I dislike them so much that I avoided playing Sonic's story until I had completed everyone else's and had to finish the last few Sonic stages to progress. That's how bad these gimmick portions are. They aren't fun. They're miserable. I hate them. They don't work, they're broken, and there wasn't any reason to have them if they weren't going to go through at least a little bit of play testing.

Each stage has three objectives categorized in ranks A, B, and C, and only the C rank is available the first time you play. Typically these objectives are to collect a certain number of rings and finish the stage or finish the stage under a certain time limit. Completing the objectives gives you emblems which determine your progress in the game and unlock various bonus content such as the Game Gear games. Collecting all 130 emblems actually unlocks a seventh playable character who can be used in the Trial Mode of the game: (SPOILERS) Metal Sonic.

Metal Sonic is basically a Sonic reskin, which is kind of disappointing. I mean, I knew he could only play on Sonic's stages, and I knew his game play wouldn't really differ from Sonic's in any significant way. Still, I was hoping he'd at least have his own victory animation. Metal Sonic also randomly breaks out in a sprint which... is wrong. The character is supposed to hover, which he does at normal speeds, but for some reason hitting zipper causes him to run, which isn't how this character is supposed to work at all. Since Metal Sonic can only be used in Trial Mode he doesn't have any kind of story, but I like to pretend he has a little one which happens after the main story where Dr. Eggman is testing the upgraded robot on the same terrain that Sonic has recently navigated.

Metal Sonic's stages include all three ranked missions, but you don't get emblems for clearing them. You get a nice little Metal Sonic face over the rank level, and the satisfaction of having completed the game at a full 100%. I'm okay with that. It's just a neat little bonus for players who actually loved the game.

Another cool thing I forgot to mention is that characters don't have unique stages. Now, I don't mean that every stage is the same, no, but they all happen in the same place. Knuckles levels happen in the middle of Sonic's levels, and you can even get to some of the Knuckles-specific platforms with enough practice. It's cool to see the areas where other characters were or will adventure in while playing as somebody else.

It is unfortunate, though, that the non-Sonic characters have very few stages. Amy Rose only has three stages at all, I mean, why was she even playable? Sure, she contributed a lot to the story, but could they really only come up with three scenarios to place her in? This is disappointing, and it shows just how little care went into including the other characters.

In addition the main game, Sonic Adventure comes equipped with a sub-game called the Chao Garden. This is one of the key features of the game, and it's why most people continue to play the Sonic Adventure games long after they've completed them. In the Chao Garden you're tasked with raising chao, tiny little creatures who can absorb the powers and abilities of other animals. I talked about this a lot in my guide to small animals the other day, so I won't get too specific. The gist of it is that certain animals, which can be found in the action stages, grant different abilities to your chao. Your chao can then take those abilities into races and compete for the grand prize. Other than a few emblems, there isn't really much reward for raising your chao. However, the experience can be somewhat humbling and players might find that they develop a real affection for the creature they're raising, not too different from the way training a Pok√©mon can help you to like its species.

The game also includes sixty missions as a separate mode. These missions differ from the stage objectives in that they're really specific and can be really bizarre, such as bringing the man from the burger shop to hang out with Metal Sonic simply because the robot is lonely. Some of these missions are maddeningly difficult, but I found them to be overall fun. I think what I liked more than the missions themselves, though, was the scavenger hunt in the Adventure Field to find them at all. Each mission is written on a small ID card which is hidden somewhere in one of the three locales, and you aren't able to complete that mission until you've located it. A lot of the missions are out in plain sight, but some are in really clever locations and out of reach places. The Mission Mode was a really good touch. I liked it.

As I mentioned earlier, Sonic Adventure isn't the only game included on the disc. In fact, you have eleven Game Gear titles, some of which were never released in the states prior to this game. Because of this, Sonic Adventure DX: Director's Cut feels more like a Sonic the Hedgehog Game Gear Omnibus Featuring Sonic Adventure than actually just being Sonic Adventure. This point is even more clear when you consider that Sega later repackaged exactly half of these game gear titles into their own collection (Sonic Gems Collection) with two lesser 3D titles and one arguably superior 2D title, which add up to being the equivalent content (or less) of Sonic Adventure. I think it would be important to note right now that in light of the inclusion of these titles, I'll be rating SADX:DC as a collection and not just as Sonic Adventure.

And as a collection, it's ace. You really can't go wrong when you've got the entire Game Gear library at your disposal. Some of those games are the bomb, and some of them are showing up for the first time outside of Japan. Unfortunately the only kind of multiplayer in the game happens to be among a couple of these game gear titles, and they happen to be the terrible ones. So multiplayer is kind of not a thing. Two people can play Game Gear games at one time, and the game will even boot up two emulators beside each other to make it happen, but it's actually really annoying as the music doesn't sync up at all. Still, this collection is awesome. It's got everything. Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic Blast, Sonic Triple Trouble, Sonic Spinball, Sonic Labyrinth, Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, Tails Skypatrol, Tails Adventure, Sonic Drift, and Sonic Drift 2. All there.

While Sonic Adventure on its own might only deserve a seven or eight, I can't help this. Collections are always going to score highly because... well, because they offer incredible packages of some awesome games. Sonic Adventure DX: Director's Cut for the Nintendo GameCube gets a ten out of ten, simply for offering an amazing line up of incredible games.

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