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Sonic Adventure 2 (XBLA/PSN): The Retro Review

(SPOILER WARNING: This review contains unmarked spoilers. The game is over a decade old and well-known amongst our readers, so we deemed it unnecessary to refrain from spoilers. If you’ve never played the game before, you’ve been warned.)

In a franchise like Sonic that has been on such a rollercoaster of quality for the past twenty years, Sonic Adventure 2 somehow sticks out in the franchise as possibly the most polarizing game in the series. To one part of the fanbase, it’s the pinnacle of Sonic. Because it was the first major Sonic title on a Nintendo platform, many people cite SA2 as their introduction to the franchise. And yet to others, the game symbolizes the start of everything that nearly killed the franchise forever. So as I review Sega’s recent digital rerelease of Sonic Adventure 2 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, I feel it’s necessary to frame the game in context.

Outside of the broader fanbase context, I – like many others – have my own personal relationship with SA2. I was but a wee child when it first came out for the Dreamcast in 2001, and I spent a frightening number of hours engrossed in the game. It wasn’t my first exposure to the series; that title goes to Sonic 2 on the Genesis, whose predecessor and sequels received a similarly obsessive amount of my attention. In fact, the sole reason I asked for a Dreamcast for Christmas in 2000 was so that I could play the original Adventure. So, being the fanatic little child I was, Sonic Adventure 2 earned a special, fuzzy, nostalgiatastic place in my heart. The question, then, is: eleven years later, can it keep it?

The answer: No.

So, let’s start with the gameplay. Sonic Adventure 2‘s stages are split in to three types: action (Sonic/Shadow), shooting (Tails/Eggman), and treasure hunting (Knuckles/Rouge). Oh, and the odd kart driving bit for god knows why. Of these three (or four) types of stages, only one contains the slightest semblance of what one might call “fun”, those being the action stages. These levels play much like the Sonic stages in the original Adventure – run around as a high-speed hedgehog, homing attack bad guys, abuse spin dash for the sake of speedrunning. The most notable addition to the mix is grinding, which debuted in this game complete with sponsorship from grinding-shoes maker Soap (more on that later), and in this incarnation had a Tony Hawk-esque balancing system that never seemed to actually cause you to fall off a rail but just tediously slow down. Its death in more recent titles is not mourned. Overall the controls are a bit tighter than the first game, though at high speeds, any errant movement on the analog stick can still send you careening off the edge of a stage to your death (a problem not fixed until Sonic Unleashed, where your analog stick gets less sensitive the faster you go to accommodate for this). Another major, glaring design flaw is that nearly every action in the game that isn’t jumping or homing attacking is mapped to a single context-sensitive button. Yes, light dashing, bounce attacking, somersaulting, and spin dashing are all on the exact same button. If you are trying to perform a light dash over a pit in Crazy Gadget, you can only pray that the context sensitivity system doesn’t fail and you just bounce attack to your death. The biggest problem with the action stages, however, lies in the level design. Sonic Adventure 2 began a trend in the series (often attributed to Dimps) of painfully linear level design and excessive amounts of bottomless pits. There are very few, if any, alternate routes through most levels. I actually played Sonic Adventure 2 live on a stream in preparation for this review, where a viewer commented that they can tell where I am in the level just by listening because it’s the same route every single time. Combine this with, say, Final Rush, where the entire level is basically rails and small platforms over a massive bottomless pit, and you have a recipe for some of the most uninteresting level design in the franchise’s history. Still, despite these problems, there’s a certain inherent fun to be had in zipping around levels, light-dashing rings, and homing attacking across enemies. Sadly, despite these being the only enjoyable portions of the game, they only make up a third of the stages. Welp.

Let’s move on to the shooting sections of the game. I’ll introduce these thusly: the first of these stages you encounter involves boy genius and anthropomorphic fox Miles “Tails” Prower piloting a walking mech that doubles as a bi-plane as he infiltrates a top-secret military base and commits acts of terrorism. That should tell you everything you need to know. A holdover from Sonic Adventure the first, a game which also suffered from severe identity issues, shooting stages return in Sonic Adventure 2 with Tails and Eggman (albeit in walking mechs) as your playable avatars. The controls are quite simple: hold or spam the action (X/B or square/circle, depending on your platform) to shoot, A/cross to jump or hover, analog stick to move. Moving is incredibly clunky, and god forbid you have to turn around, because your character will come to a full stop for a good second or so and awkwardly change direction, presumably in an attempt to capture that real piloting-a-mech feel. Combat is completely boring and uninteresting, consisting entirely of bashing the “shoot” button until everything is dead, at which point a door will open or something, who cares. Your health system operates on rings, kind of, except not really; you start with a full health meter at the start of each level – taking damage decreases your health, picking up rings increases it, and there are items to fully restore your health in some levels. The abundance of rings in most levels means that you are far more likely to die from falling in a pit than because of any actual difficulty in maintaining your health. This makes sense in Sonic stages, where the difficulty was never about staying alive but in getting a good rank or time, but in these slower shooting stages where going fast is not a focus, having a poor combat system and meaningless health system are symptomatic of a complete lack of thought given to the design.

Finally we have the treasure hunting stages, represented by Knuckles the Echidna and TitsRouge the Bat. Like the other two types of stages, these also return from the first Adventure title, except that somehow these actually manage to be worse than their predecessors. You see, the gameplay of these stages consists of three pieces of the Master Emerald being scattered around the stage, and having to use your various abilities (as well as hints you can get from monitors) to seek them out. In order to help find them, you are given a radar that indicates when one is close by. In the original Adventure title, this radar would indicate when you were near any of the three pieces of the Emerald, and had five levels of sensitivity so you know just how close you are. Adventure 2, on the other hand, only lets you search for one piece at a time, and only has three levels of sensitivity. I can only imagine they limited the radar to one emerald a time to lengthen the stages and thus frustrate the player, who wishes to blow through these stages as quickly as possible to get to the next Sonic stage. A special shout-out goes to Rouge’s final stage, Mad Space. This level contains spherical planets à la Mario Galaxy that you can hunt around, except that the gravity on these planets is janky as all hell (as in, even jankier than the game usually is), and once you’re on a planet, getting off of it is a complete pain in the ass. On top of that, the hints given in the stage are all false or in reverse, only adding to the irritation. Readers, please, join me in giving this stage a good, old-fashioned “f#@% you.”

Oh, and this kind of stage appears only twice, but must be at least touched upon: kart driving. Presumably because they had an engine sitting around from Twinkle Park in the original game and didn’t know what else to do with it, the game contains one kart driving stage per story (and a subsequently unlocked full-fledged kart racing mode). Both levels are nearly indistinguishable and mind-numbingly dull, set on the emptiest representation of the Golden Gate Bridge ever seen in a video game, as you drive either a car version of Tails’s Cyclone or a vehicle for Rouge that can only be described as phallic. The controls are… passable, but incredibly bare-bones; “accelerate” and “drift” are even mapped to a single button (double-tap accelerate to drift). As mentioned, there’s also a more extensive kart racing mode with more characters, multiplayer, and multiple tracks – again, nigh indistinguishable – that you unlock after beating the stages in the main story. I don’t know why you’d play this over an actual kart racing game unless there was some kind of apocalyptic scenario in which all kart racing games were wiped from the face of the earth and Sonic Adventure 2 stands alone as the sole survivor.

Now to address some of the issues with the game that affect every character. First of all is the upgrade system. The original pitch for the Sonic Adventure series was that it would be a Sonic and Knuckles RPG. By the time Sonic Adventure 2 came out, that idea had long since been stuffed in the rubbish bin, but odd little pieces like this remain. Basically, as you progress through the game, you find “upgrades” for your character that give them extra abilities. Sonic gets the light dash, for instance, while Knuckles gets the ability to dig, Tails gets the ability to hover, and so on. Some of the upgrades are essential to progress (like the light dash), while others have limited utility (like the light attack), and still others are completely useless in every imaginable scenario and I can’t even fathom why they exist (Magic Hand). All in all, the system is fairly pointless and frankly all of them should just be unlocked from the start. Early stages are a chore to go through without some of them.

Second is asset reuse. Oh god, the asset reuse. Sonic Adventure 2 recycles content left and right throughout the game. Count the number of times you go through the exact same corridor in Eternal Engine. Which, by the way, uses almost the exact same assets as Crazy Gadget. Which is the same as Lost Colony. Oh, except Lost Colony is a bit darker, I guess. This sort of thing is rampant throughout the game. Wild Canyon and Dry Lagoon are the exact same stage with a different appearance. Sky Rail and Pumpkin Hill use the same basic layout except at a different time of day and with more grind rails. City Escape and Radical Highway merge to form Mission Street. The core of the Eclipse Cannon is just the emerald shrine from Sonic Adventure 1. I could go on and on. It feels like the game’s art team operated on a five dollar budget, which, given how Sega was doing at the time, may not be far from the truth.

Speaking of asset reuse, let’s talk about enemy variety. Classic Sonic games were filled with enemy variety. Each stage had different enemies, they all had different behavior, they had unique and cute designs, little animals popped out, it was good times for everyone involved. Sonic Adventure 2 throws all that out the damn window. Every stage is riddled with boringly designed “military” robots, except for the desert stages, which recycle badniks (and, for some reason, E-102 Gamma) from the original Sonic Adventure. Some of these enemies are just homing attack fodder, others shoot at you so slowly and infrequently that it’s as if they just can’t put their heart into it, others shoot at you but also have shields, and all of them are completely snore-inducing. And when you destroy them, from their rubble emerges a glowstick you can give to your Chao so they can attract more mating partners at Chao raves.

Oh man, you guys. You guys! Chao are in this game!

Look at these adorable little guys. This is the meat of the game right here. The rest of the game is just filler so you can get rings and Chaos Drives and animals for your Chao buddies. You pet them, you feed them, you race them, you pit them against each other in karate, you make them angels or devils, you breed them, you send them to kindergarten, you buy them toys. It’s basically the highlight of the game. In every level, you can find three Chao Boxes. The first gets you a key to enter the Chao Garden, the second gets you a handful of animals for your Chao, and the third gets you a rare, special animal. If you have a Chao Key when you reach the end of the level, you then get transported to Chao World, where you can enter the Chao Garden and raise your Chao. Feeding them raises their stamina, giving them Chaos Drives (glowsticks) and animals affects their stats (flying, strength, speed and so on), different animals alter their appearance (giving them a rabbit may give them bunny ears, or giving them a skunk may give them a black and white tail), and raising them with different characters affects their good/evil status. It’s surprisingly intricate for what is basically a distraction from the base game. It’s understandable that the Chao Garden has not returned in subsequent Sonic titles, but it boggles my mind that they have not spun this off. Imagine a smartphone Chao game with microtransactions to buy fruit and animals and toys for your Chao. You could own the world, Sega.

Since I think my overall point has been made about the gameplay, let’s move on to the story. The gimmick of the game is that there’s two story modes, one telling the hero (Sonic/Tails/Knuckles) side of the tale, and the other the “dark” side (Shadow/Rouge/Eggman), and of course a final story that ties them together. No amount of mockery or sarcasm could express just how outright insane the plot of this game is more adequately than a straight, factual overview of one character’s backstory, so here we go.

Sonic Adventure 2 debuted the franchise’s most popular character, Shadow the Hedgehog. Shadow is a genetically engineered hedgehog designed on a space colony fifty years ago by Eggman’s grandfather as part of a research project to create the ultimate life form and find a cure for the Sonic universe’s equivalent of AIDS. (No, seriously.) Shadow is immortal and can use large magical jewels to stop the flow of time and warp from location to location. When he was on the space colony, he was best friends with a young human girl named Maria who suffered from AIDS – I mean, uh, NIDS – and taught him to love humanity. He continually angsts over her murder by the military throughout the game and, due to memory loss caused by fifty years in stasis as a military captive, believes Maria wanted him to avenge her death and destroy humanity. Did I mention he is a genetically engineered magical immortal rodent? Because this is important. Also the prototype version of him was a giant lizard, and the climax of the game involves that lizard having an entire space colony shoved up its rectum. Sonic Adventure 2, everybody.

If you want to know where all the awful furry drama nonsense found in later titles started, look no further. The pseudo-realistic settings, the angst-driven stories, fuzzy animals piloting weaponized vehicles, it all has its roots in SA2. Even the original Sonic Adventure, for all its faults, still had a lot of whimsy. There were badniks, there were giant twirling pathways in the sky, there was pinball, there was a volcano prison thing with these dudes made out of hoops or something, there was a giant theme park with a roller coaster and bowling. Eggman’s main motive was to build Eggmanland, he had a flying fortress, you had to bounce on his robots’ heads and free your animal buddies and reach the capsule at the end of the stage. The sequel, in contrast, is set in unimaginative, “realistic” city streets, military bases, and desert pyramids, with a derelict space colony sprinkled in for good measure. The story revolves around weapons of mass destruction, military secrets, escaping from prison, a genetically engineered hedgehog, blowing up the moon, blackmailing the president, a flying rodent with boob physics, espionage, and AIDS. SA2 marks the point where Sonic Team stopped trying to make classic Sonic titles and tried to make the series more quote-unquote “mature”, and boy did it fail. Unfortunately, the game amassed such a fanbase that later titles like Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic 2006 carried over all the flaws of the Adventure games and amplified them tremendously.

On a more upbeat note, no review of Sonic Adventure 2 is complete without discussing the game’s soundtrack. It’s a compilation of music filled with guilty-pleasure earworms like City Escape’s vocal track, the punk-rock vibes of Green Forest, and the cheesy 80’s rock anthem Live and Learn that serves as the game’s theme song. Each character has their own sort of “theme genre”: Sonic’s music is usually fast-paced, jazzy rock tunes; Tails has more upbeat, keyboard-centric themes; Shadow has darker, electronica-infused rock; Rouge has effeminate pop music; Eggman has slow, methodical power rock. And Knuckles, well…

Tomoya Ohtani, future sound director for Sonic 2006 and Sonic Unleashed and all around excellent composer, made his Sonic franchise debut with Sonic Adventure 2, and primarily wrote all of the magnificent rap themes that accompany the Knuckles stages. Whether these tracks are so-bad-they’re-bad or so-bad-they’re good generally depends on who you ask, but I personally fall squarely in to the latter camp. It’s these sorts of little things that keep a smile on my face while playing SA2 instead of hurling the controller out of my window out of frustration. On the whole, the soundtrack is memorable, if a bit bland and generic at times. This game’s soundtrack, in keeping with its theme of setting the stage for the awful titles that would follow, leaned a bit too heavily towards generic 80’s rock music and lacked the variety and general greatness that the soundtracks for titles like Sonic Unleashed or Colors would later have.

Graphics for this rerelease hail from Sonic Adventure 2: Battle for the GameCube. The end result is that a few models, particularly the character models, receive a nice boost in polygon count, and a few textures here and there are changed relative to the Dreamcast original. The game holds up about as well as you would expect a game from 2001 to hold up. The texture work in particular is quite nice. I’ve already made my complaints about the uninspired art direction in this game, but from a technical perspective, the textures scale surprisingly well. Basically nothing has been changed or updated in the art department, however, so don’t expect it to look substantially better than the GameCube version.

The new edition also bumps the resolution of the game up to 720p (at a full 60fps!), adds 16:9 support, and updates a few odd ends such as the HUD and item box capsules to look a bit nicer at the higher resolution. There’s a few other quirks as well. The original game featured numerous instances where two characters would talk over each other due to poor dubbing; several of these have been corrected, at least partially. Also, in places where Omochao gives the player directions about what buttons to press, his dialogue is muted because they couldn’t rerecord his dialogue for the PlayStation 3 controller which obviously has a dramatically different button layout. Not that I’m complaining, since the less Omochao talks the better.

The most noteworthy change from the original game is the complete removal of all advertisement for Soap. During the game’s development, Sega’s budget was severely lacking. The Dreamcast survived only because Sega could not yet bear to put it out of its misery, and cash inflow was poor. So to fund the development of Sonic Adventure 2, Sega signed a sponsorship agreement with Soap, a manufacturer of shoes that had built-in grind plates. In exchange for extra funding, Sonic donned a new (and hideous) pair of shoes loosely modeled after Soap’s own products, and billboards for the company were sprinkled throughout the game. Fast forward ten years, and Soap as a company essentially no longer exists, thus all their billboards have been replaced with generic Sonic Team ads.

Going back to the aforementioned 16:9 support: while the game itself always runs in widescreen, a substantial number of cutscenes sadly still play in 4:3. Several of these are the prerendered video cutscenes that would have to be totally rerendered in widescreen, while others used MPEG videos to overlay effects on the cutscene, and those videos would similarly have to be redone for proper widescreen support. It’s not surprising that Sega didn’t put a lot of effort in to redoing these scenes, and frankly a lack of widescreen is the least of my problems with the cutscenes in this game.

While the new release is advertised as a rerelease of the Dreamcast version, it’s actually based upon Sonic Adventure 2: Battle for the GameCube. The title screen has been reworked to resemble the original release, but the graphics, level layouts, and features all come from the 2002 update. Particularly keen-eyed fans will notice that the Big the Cat cameos removed from Battle have largely been restored in this new version, but aside from that, what you get is Sonic Adventure 2: Battle with some of the GameCube version’s additions stripped out and sold separately. This means that, yes, you have to buy the additional Battle DLC to actually get all the emblems in the game, as well as get some multiplayer features and Chao Karate (plus the DLC changes the title screen to the Battle version). This review was done with the Battle DLC, but unless you’re a completionist or really love the multiplayer, you really won’t miss the extra features. And the original title screen is way cooler anyway. Notably absent, with or without the DLC, is any kind of intro sequence – an odd omission considering the image of Shadow with his arms crossed atop the Golden Gate Bridge is likely burned in to the minds of many fans of the game. (Note: apparently the intro does play if you leave the game on the title screen, but not when you start the game as the original did. Thanks to CyberLink420 in the comments.)

As far as special additions in this port, there’s not much. Aside from widescreen and 720p support, this is basically the same game you played ten years ago. There’s no online multiplayer, for example. There are leaderboards, if only because Xbox Live Arcade requires them. The game does include a special making-of bonus video, like the recent Jet Set Radio and NiGHTS rereleases, but the video is terribly short and gives very little in the way of new information about the game’s development, aside from a single mildly amusing anecdote about parking tickets. All in all, if you already own the game, there’s little added value.

I’d love to talk about the multiplayer mode, but sadly I didn’t have anyone to play it with for this review, something an actual online mode would’ve solved. Most of my criticisms of the main game still apply, however. The short version: you can race against each other as Sonic and Shadow, try to find the emerald pieces first as Knuckles and Rouge, and shoot each other to death as Tails and Eggman, with a few bonus characters with slightly different stats thrown in the mix and power-ups based on how many rings you get. It can be mildly fun to play with friends, but few games aren’t.

So what’s the verdict? All things considered, Sonic Adventure 2 is a poor game. Ten years ago, when she was young, there was the odd facial feature or mole that you could do your best to ignore by turning the lights off when you bedded her. But ten years later, and gravity and age have not been kind to her. Even a paper bag can’t make you ignore those saggy cheeks and uncomfortably thick wrinkles. In other words, it’s a dated game that was only okay for its time and pretty subpar today. Which isn’t to say it’s irredeemably terrible – there are far worse games out there, even just in this franchise. And some may even find a B-movie sort of charm in how seriously it takes itself and how silly it actually is. But from a modern standpoint, it’s simply not a good game. If you have a copy of this game that you can play already, the new additions do not warrant the cost. If you’ve never played it before, it’s probably not worth your time. About the only person I could confidently recommend this to is someone who is already a big fan of the game and doesn’t have their old copy anymore so they can relive some childhood memories.

(Side note: 4200+ words and I didn’t even mention how awful the camera is. If I write any further on this game I think I may very well end my life, so suffice it to say: the camera is pretty bad.)

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This review is based off the PlayStation Network rerelease of Sonic Adventure 2, including the Battle DLC.

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