At the very end of 1996, Sonic appeared in a little known game called Sonic Blast alongside Knuckles the Echidna. It was one of the last games Sonic appeared on for the Game Gear. Times were changing fast, even faster than the hedgehog himself.
1997-1998: Super Sonic RAAAAAAACIN’
The era between 1995 and 1999 is often regarded as a dark age for the Sonic franchise, and with good reason. An entire console generation came and went without a notable Sonic game. Sega was acutely aware of the problem posed by this and rushed out a compilation game called Sonic Jam for the Sega Saturn in 1997. It was a Saturn re-release of the Genesis games with some customized difficulty options. Considering the number of times the Genesis games would be re-released, there was nothing especially noteworthy about Sonic Jam in and of itself for that reason. Its main selling point was a 3D environment called Sonic World, wherein Sonic could run around and unlock hidden artwork, music, and videos. Though very limited, Sonic World was already laying the groundwork for a big adventure in the making…
That same year, Sega again partnered with Traveller’s Tales, which had developed Sonic 3D Blast, to publish a 3D Sonic racing game: Sonic R. Sonic’s counterpart to the Mario Kart series, Sonic R was an interesting attempt to bring Sonic into the racing spotlight. Although not his first time racing (Sonic Drift 1 and 2 for the Game Gear came several years earlier), Sonic was not actually known for racing games, oddly enough. As an idea, this could have worked: Sonic R was a genuinely 3D game with pretty graphics for its time, taken from a a Formula One game that Traveller’s Tales had intended to develop. The soundtrack, written by Richard Jacques and performed by T.J. Davis, is still easily identifiable and unique in the Sonic franchise. Sonic R is also responsible for introducing the creepy Tails Doll character and proving that Sonic could be viable in the third dimension. Unfortunately, it was outclassed in sales by Mario Kart 64, and so fell short in its intent to get Sonic’s foot back in the door as a competitor to Mario. I actually played a demo of Sonic R in a CompUSA store, and that makes feel really old. Anyway…
At the time, Sonic Team’s focus was elsewhere. Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima developed Burning Rangers in 1998 for the Saturn, though they were still in the loop with Sonic. Their tentative steps with Sonic World had sown some seeds. Sonic Team member Takashi Iizuka had gotten an idea for a Sonic RPG, and development began for the Saturn. However, pressure from tanking Saturn sales caused this plan to be halted. Sega of America CEO Bernie Stolar was already interested in a new project with visual memory units on a new console, codenamed Katana. The Saturn was formally discontinued in 1998, along with the Sega Channel. The Katana started thinking for itself as a slim, white crate now called the Dreamcast.
1999: A New Adventure Begins!
The remainder of 1998 was spent preparing the new Sonic RPG. Naka, Ohshima, and Iizuka traveled to Latin America and explored ruins and jungles firsthand. Meanwhile, artist Yuji Uekawa was tasked with redesigning the ensemble cast to mark the transition into a new era and musician Jun Senoue took the lead on composing a varied soundtrack that built upon his work in Sonic 3D Blast. Sonic Team went into overdrive, banging out the product in ten months to release by Christmas. Though a technological wonder at the time, this game was still badly in need of polish. Iizuka and a handful of Sonic Team members flew to the United States to give the game a final lacquering for its Western release, culminating in a colossal hype train crashing at not-quite 60 frames per second onto televisions across the Americas: Sonic Adventure.
To build said colossal hype train, Sega gave the movie Sonic the Hedgehog to ADV Films to dub into English. A new Sonic cartoon was broadcast, called Sonic Underground. It told an entirely new story as Sonic being the prince of a lost kingdom along with his brother Manic and his sister Sonia…oh, and they were in a rock band together. Oh, and Sonic and his siblings were all voiced by Jaleel White. Yes, including the sister (though their singing voices were provided by Canadian voice actors, including Sam Vincent, perhaps best known as Double D from Ed, Edd, ‘n’ Eddy). Media was released a little at a time in the development cycle, showing an unused dragon boss, early artwork that made Sonic look like a motorcycle in the dark of night, and a dubbed line that suggested the player would collect the Chaos Emeralds manually rather than receive them as a natural course of the story in order to transform into Super Sonic. Notably, this was Sonic’s first big “talkie”: the game was fully voice acted in both English and Japanese. Of modestly interesting note is that Michael Mcgaharn, the voice actor of Knuckles, had also done voiceover work for Sega as Reed Phoenix in Burning Rangers one year earlier. Of greater significance is Jon St. John’s presence as new character Big the Cat. Jon St. John is best known as the voice none other than Duke Nukem. Hail to the chief, baby! Sega struck a deal with Hollywood Videos to release a promotional version of the game in America before it officially dropped. At last, on 9/9/99, Sonic Adventure made it to the United States, released to high critical and commercial praise.
Let’s get one thing straight: I love Sonic Adventure. Though I would not play it until 2006, it quickly impressed me as a return to form after years of Sonic’s absence. It developed character arcs with Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy Rose, and even one of Robotnik’s robots named E-102 Gamma. The story was beautifully woven together, told with flashbacks, inner monologues, and interwoven scenes told from different perspectives. Each character had different play styles and did not visit every level. Sonic was a traditional platformer, Tails did racing, Knuckles did treasure hunting, Amy did chase sequences, and Gamma played as a third-person shooter. That said, I would hardly give the game a free pass: for one, nobody quite explained what Sonic was doing in a city full of humans (who were themselves quite unfazed at the presence of a 3-foot, talking, bipedal, cobalt blue hedgehog). For another, it introduced Big the Cat, whose gameplay focused on fishing. This decision was ostensibly due to Sega Bass Fishing being the only other noteworthy game on the Dreamcast at the time. I did not realize there was significant overlap between Sonic fans and fans of fishing video games. Iizuka would in fact go on to admit in 2011 that Big the Cat was as pointless as he first appeared. Perhaps worst of all, for all of Sonic Adventure‘s positive qualities, it was clearly stitched together at breakneck speed. Rather than fix most of these problems, they were simply papered over when Sega quickly commissioned a sequel.
Yet most disturbing of all was the fact that there was a departure from the Sonic Team ranks just before Sonic Adventure made it out to the States. Naoto Ohshima, much like Hirokazu Yasuhara, reportedly had a disagreement with Yuji Naka about the future direction of the Sonic franchise. Ohshima left Sega and founded his own company, Artoon, in late 1999. His presence in the Sonic Adventure credits would be inexplicably removed when the game was re-released in 2003 and Ohshima has not been involved in a Sonic project since then. Trouble lay just ahead…
2000: Deal Me Out
Sonic had made his forays into racing game to catch up to Mario, for better or worse, but there was another frontier Mario had already conquered: party games. Nintendo had already released Mario Party and Mario Party 2 on the Nintendo 64 by the year 2000, with a third installment on its way. Sega collaborated with Hudson Soft, the developers behind the Mario Party franchise, to create its counterpunch: Sonic Square. Later renamed Sonic Shuffle, the promoted selling point of the game was to be its online play feature, allowing players to compete with others through the Internet. Part of this presumably relied on the advent of SegaNet, a successor to the Sega NetLink. Sega NetLink was a peripheral that connected to the Sega Saturn to allow Internet connection by calling directly to another console and was supported by a system allowing players to communicate in IRC. The servers connecting to IRC were shut down in 2001 but the Sega NetLink, theoretically, is still functional because it is a console-to-console connection. SegaNet replaced Sega’s PC-only online gaming zone (similar to the old Microsoft Gaming Zone) at Heat.net. A small marvel, SegaNet provided low latency to players due to its servers being directly connected to the SegaNet network and was available through most dial-up ISPs.
But it couldn’t be that simple, could it? The production cost to make Sonic Shuffle playable online staggered both Sega and Hudson Soft, which ultimately balked at this feature and cut it from the final product. As a result, Sonic Shuffle was doomed to be a pale imitation of Mario Party, and a poor one at that: the game was heavily criticized for being inscrutable, lacking in music, burdened with long load times, and having a cheating AI. Sonic Shuffle was naturally compared unfavorably to Mario Party and Sonic has not ventured into the party game genre since.
2001: End of an Era
The half of Sonic Team that moved out to America to clean up Sonic Adventure prior to its Western release must have been surprised when a sequel was commissioned and that sequel fell squarely on this group’s shoulders. Naka and the Japanese half of Sonic Team was working on Phantasy Star Online, so the American branch of Sonic Team formed its own group, Sonic Team USA. Iizuka and his team came up with a scenario featuring a doppelganger to Sonic, a black hedgehog named Terios (Japanese for “reflection”). Another new character was a female bat named Nails. Eventually, these two would be rebranded as Shadow and Rouge. Sonic Team USA got to work, cranking out Sonic Adventure 2 in 18 months.
If I can’t say enough good things about Sonic Adventure, I can’t say enough bad things about Sonic Adventure 2. Inspired in large part by American sites like San Francisco and Yosemite National Park, the setting of SA2 was intended to give the game a more American flavor than its predecessor. Sonic Team USA also prioritized a framerate of 60 FPS to give an impression of incredible speed. All of this, however, seemed to be emphasizing the wrong features. Sonic Adventure neatly progressed from Sonic 3 & Knuckles as telling a unique story with far stronger narrative frameworks than what was ever seen in any Mario platformer. Sonic Adventure 2 was, for all intents and purposes, a bizarre fan-fiction built around the concept of high action and little else. There is little doubt in my mind that the writers must have thought they were on to something brilliant, but the story was a mess and the game never really held up well. It was a sell out, right down to Sega’s partnership with SOAP shoes to play up Sonic’s new rail-grinding ability as if it were just a reskin of Tony Hawk Pro Skater. Several parts of the levels were pointlessly scripted events that had nothing to do with a sound physics engine, Tails’s play style was completely inappropriate as a third-person shooter, and oh, the treasure hunting. In Sonic Adventure, Knuckles had an Emerald radar that indicated if he was close to any of the three Emerald shards. In Sonic Adventure 2, the radar was modified so that it would only trigger if he or Rouge were next to only one shard that the game arbitrarily designated. That means that Knuckles and Rouge could be standing atop of an Emerald shard but the radar would not go off because the game did not give you permission to know that until you got another one first. It was impressive to see a game mechanic made considerably worse over time, to say the least.
And in the end, things did get considerably worse. On January 31, 2001, Sega announced it was exiting the console market. Sonic Adventure 2 shambled out in June 2001 to mark Sonic’s tenth anniversary and the last Sonic game on a Sega console. Happy birthday?
By this time, so many faces had come and gone in the Sega hierarchy: Tom Kalinske, as said before, departed in 1996. Hayao Nakayama left the company in 1998. Nakayama named Shoichiro Iramajiri as a vice president, and Iramajiri filled Nakayama’s position after the former left. He planned Sega’s return to triumph with the Dreamcast, which was urged by Kalinske’s successor, Bernie Stolar. Stolar had said in 1997 that “Saturn is not our future.” Before the Dreamcast launched in America, Stolar was terminated and succeeded by Peter Moore. Moore would have the reins of Sega of America as the company withdrew from the console market while Iramjiri would leave and be replaced by Hideki Sato, the man who had worked on the architecture of the Master System, Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast. In all of this, there was only one constant face for Sonic: Yuji Naka. Sonic Team had already been sketching out ideas for Sonic Adventure 3. While corporate reshuffling was happening at a rapid pace, Sonic Team now had to contend with being out of the console wars. 2001 ended on a question mark: what now?
To be continued…