Sonic Adventures (Act 6)
It was during 1996 that Sega of Japan become properly interested in Sonic, with the “leave it to the subsidiaries” attitude previously adopted starting to fade away, and the corporation adopting a universal creative line and approach to the hedgehog. Outside of Sonic Team, one of the programmers behind the ‘other’ AM2 beat ‘em up, Fighting Vipers, undertook a lunchtime project of coding Sonic into the game. When AM2 supremo Yu Suzuki saw the gag, he promptly pitched a full-blown project to his former subordinate Yuji Naka. Although doubtful that the hedgehog’s physique would make fisticuffs feasible, Naka okayed the project, and AM2 quickly created Sonic The Fighters for an early 1996 arcade release. The game unsurprisingly was a simple title in the Virtua Fighter mould, featuring pretty much every character to have made an impression on the franchise, with the cast fighting for the chance to pilot the one-man rocket ship Tails had created for an assault on the obit ally-constructed Death Egg II. Arenas were modelled from previous Sonic levels, and the developers fulfilled what they saw as the duty on Sonic creators to introduce new characters by featuring a wrestling polar bear and Bean, a bomb-dropping duck inspired by a previous arcade game. Although Bean and Bark failed to stick, being completely ignored by others involved in the series, AM2 did manage to make one contribution to the Sonic-verse, by kitting Amy Rose out with the mallet which has since become her trademark weapon. Mako Mori’s soundtrack is an odd beast. It’s tempting to describe the tone as wacky, but for all the Loony Toons vibe in the choice of instruments, the actual music itself is tight and controlled. Interestingly, his nerve seems to fail him when it comes to scoring the bigger characters, with the bland compositions for Sonic, Tails and Knuckles being at odds with the wonderful piece that accompanies Metal Sonic’ appearance. As was becoming standard, the music was given a CD release, with a fantastic bonus track included in the form of the unused piece ‘Sunset Town’.
Another significant sign was the green lighting of a Sonic anime production, which made it to market in Japan at about this time. What’s noticeable about the action sequences documented in these two feature-length episodes is that they just feel right. A key moment is an action sequence in which Sonic & Tails use the Tornado to take down a large mecha, and the balance is perfectly struck- Sonic’s abilities are neither over nor under played, and the way in which he eventually defeats the robot feels logical and coherent. In terms of cast, the films see Sonic, Tails and Knuckles (inexplicably wearing an Australian hat) facing off against Robotnik, with the main original inclusion of “Princess Sara”, a human character created for the first of the two episodes. I’d happily draw some conclusions about this figure, and her influence on Sonic ’s Princess Elise, but sadly only having seen clips of ‘Part I’ of the anime, I’m unable to do so. In the second story, Metal Sonic has a symbiotic link to his flesh and blood counter-part, and eventually chooses to kill himself at the close of the story rather than continue leaching life from the real Sonic. There’s a real plot here, without attempting the psuedo-gritty feel of US Archie universe, and the whole affair is of a similar complexity to a multi-part epic STC tale. That said, a few aspects betray the animations’ region of origin, with a few frankly bizarre inclusions of sexual imagery that were trimmed from the stories when they eventually made it to the western market (on the back of the Dreamcast launch). More interestingly, the US & Pal versions of the story cut a moment when Sonic swears at Robotnik. It’s hard to put this down to cultural differences, as giving the middle finger means the same in any language- Sega of Japan just seem to be relaxed about their mascot expressing himself rather more forcefully than is normally considered appropriate for a Saturday morning cartoon star. This issue would later rear its head again during the translating of Sonic Adventure 2.
When the Saturn debut of the company mascot was pulled in October 1996, the firm’s Japanese arm moved fast. Sega had long had a contingency plan for the failure of Sonic X-treme in place, and as it became increasingly obvious that the company mascot’s absence was hurting the Saturn, the scheme was put into play. When creating Sonic 3D, Traveller’s Tales had been instructed to create high-res versions of the renders used to create the game maps, with a view to a future Saturn version of the title. Once X-Treme’s death was official, Sega of Japan ordered full speed ahead on the conversion, believing that any Sonic was better than none. The release of Sonic 3D in a smartened up-form took place in early 1997, and is an intriguing example of all-hands-to-the-pump across the company. The core game was pieced together by Traveller’s Tales, who benefited from the Saturn’s formidable 2D spite handling-abilities in pulling the code across. The “Bridge” special stages from the Mega Drive version of the title were unceremoniously dumped, replaced with a polygonal version of the half-pipe levels from Sonic 2. These fully 3D special stages were coded by Sonic Team in Japan, and at the time offered the most impressive graphics the Saturn had produced, with spectacular backdrops and true transparency effects implemented for the first time on the system. What’s more, the change had obviously been as good as a rest for the Team, as the quality of gameplay design here is brilliant- concepts are introduced throughout each of the levels, and then steadily built upon for the final stage. The other element of note is, as always, the soundtrack. Jun Senoue’s original Mega Drive score was dumped- despite his Sonic 3 work, the composer wasn’t synonymous with the character in the way he would later become, and had departed Sega to work on a score for a Nascar title. In his place was premier Sega Europe composer Richard Jacques, of whom you’ll also be hearing more later. Jacques’ work here is intriguing. There are a couple of masterful tracks, most noticeably the Gregorian-inspired piece that accompanies the Rusty Ruin stage, and the jazz special stage music is similarly magnificent. In the main through, most of the soundtrack is less than successful. It’s too obvious, too potent, being like drinking concentrated orange squash. Luckily, Jacques’ association with the series didn’t end here, with his work improving vastly once he stopped trying to pastiche the original games’ music. The Saturn version of Sonic 3D had much to interest the player, but sadly, it’s still Sonic 3D.
By which, I mean, it’s rubbish.
The outward clues that Sonic Team proper’s collective minds were beginning to return to their hero came in December 1996, two months before the Saturn Sonic 3D, with the release of the Christmas NiGHTS odd-on pack for that title. One of the unlockable bonuses was the option to play as Sonic in a tweaked version of the game’s on-foot mode, collecting four ideyas scattered around Spring Valley and then doing battle with Elliot’s beach ball opera singer boss, reskinned to resemble Robotnik. Although the gameplay feel of the section had nothing in common with the way Sonic controlled, being obviously just a super fast version of Claris and Elliot’s physics model, this marked the first time that a polygonal model of the hedgehog had been created, beating the Sonic 3D special stage to market by two months.
This attitude eventually crystallised into a specific initiative during March 1997, in the form of ‘Project Sonic’. This was a company wide initiative to both reconceptualise the character and use him as a basis for a fight back against the increasingly dominant Sony. The groundwork would be laid in summer of that year, with many publicity events and a high-profile Sonic Jam retro-pack release that would effectively reintroduce the character to the Japanese market, using the relative success of the Saturn in that territory to give him a second chance after only making a limited impact first time around. (Amusingly, Sega of Japan launched the obvious promotional product to publicise the game, with an appropriately named fruit conserve appearing on supermarket shelves.) This would then lead to a massive publicity drive for a bona fide new Sonic Team 3D title in late 1997 or early 1998. The start of this plan went well, with anticipation building across the industry after the compilation was revealed at the then bi-yearly Tokyo Game Show. The four Mega Drive titles had been subtly re-engineered for their appearance in Sonic Jam, with obvious alterations such as the inclusion of the spin dash move in Sonic 1 and quieter additions such as redesigning several levels to make them easier. Despite this, the main selling point of the collection was the inclusion of ‘Sonic World’, one of a number of experiments that Sonic Team had been conducting to analyse how their creation could be made to operate in 3D. Although this was pitched as being a means by which the player could access the collection’s bonus features, such as concept art and various short films (the Sonic CD intro, trailers for the anime and some intriguing animation tests were available), but the significance of the feature was obvious, being a look forward as to what could be expected from the unannounced future title. Even today, it’s a fascinating little piece, being a small 3D Green Hill-inspired level, abet with an original music track. Sonic World is effectively a halfway house between the 2D Sonic games and the full modern formula that would emerge in Sonic Adventure.
Despite the constant emphasis in all the games of finding new places for Sonic to explore, the design is taken straight from Sonic’s first appearance, with the chequerboard designs in place on the walls and the curious Hawaiian sculptures in place. A number of items which would be redesigned before Sonic Adventure appear in their 16-bit guises here, most notably the power-up monitors (with their design perfectly reproduced from Sonic 3) and the appearance of old-school lampposts instead of the more 3D-friendly restart gates which have been used every since. That’s not so say that it’s just a 3D version of Sonic 1, however, with the altered arms-back running pose that has been used ever since having been adopted in favour of the 2D arms-by-the-sides animation of the Mega Drive years. What’s missing is just as interesting. There’s no homing spin attack, or its non-combat acceleration variant, suggesting that Sonic Team had not yet turned their attention to how enemies would be handled in 3D. Tails appears in the level on a fixed looping flight path, with this being the only time you’ll see him carrying his hero in 3D outside of 2003’s Sonic Heroes.
At this point, however, the plan started to go pear-shaped. Try as they might, Sonic Team could not get the NiGHTS engine, optimised for gameplay on a 2D plane, to deliver the speed of 3D character movement they desired. So, for the second time in the 32 Bit hardware generation, a contingency plan was implemented. And, for the second time in the 32 Bit hardware generation, it involved a panicked phone call to Traveller’s Tales. Recognising that producing a full Sonic game was beyond the technical abilities of their present hardware, Sega ordered the creation of a game that would allow a 3D version of its mascot to move at speed, but without the rigours of design and level creation that a full platform game would entail. Traveller’s Tales were therefore hired to produce a polygonal racing game, themed around the hedgehog’s adventures. After watching Sonic 3D emerge, however, Sonic Team had a far better idea of the abilities of the Kent-based developer, whose technical skills dwarfed their gameplay understanding. Sonic R was effectively designed in Japan and made in England, with every creative decision made in the east and then couriered as drawings or instructions to the highly skilled programmers. Using a pre-existing game engine, Sonic R was a rushed job, to be completed in just a few months for release in November 1997. Bearing in mind the fate that befell Sonic X-Treme, Sonic Team adopted a conservative approach, favouring a small amount of content of complete solidity to a more substantial and buggy effort.
As with Sonic 3D, Richard Jacques was again hired to contribute the soundtrack, but events caused in to make a much stronger contribution than his effort for the earlier title. With E3 1997 approaching and little work having been done on the title, Yuji Naka ordered the composition of a vocal track in order to promote the title. Jacques’ ‘Super Sonic Racing’, with vocals by TJ Davis, still stands as one of the strongest bits of music to be produced for a Sonic game, and has appeared in the series in a number of forms since. Naka was rightly impressed by the track, and asked that the rest of the game be scored in a similar manner, with a vocal song for each track. Although complying with this request, Jacques was aware that it might be controversial, and also provided slightly re-arranged instrumental version of each piece. The in-game music doesn’t quite match the quality of the original piece, but is still of an extremely high standard. Jacques’ place in the Sonic music hall of fame was assured, although his preference for working on fully orchestrated scores has caused him to be an occasional contributor to the series, as opposed to one of its mainstays. His collaborator Davis appeared to have dropped off the earth after the title was released, only to unexpectedly perform Sonic R’s soundtrack live at the 2008 “Summer of Sonic” convention.
Next Time: Aw, a happy ending, for once. Come back next week for arguably the most important game of the franchise, in the form of Sonic Adventure. Philistines will be shot.