Sonic Adventures (Act 3)
With Sonic now established as a cultural phenomenon, it came as no surprise to find that the rights to produce a TV series based on the character were snapped up by US/French firm DiC. What followed, however, wasn’t quite what was expected. The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog is best thought of as a series featuring the character, rather than one about him. The distinctly madcap scenario pits a nomadic Sonic and Tails against Robotnik and his two minions, robots Grounder (loosely based on the Aquatic Ruin badnik) and Scratch (not loosely based on anything). Universally despised by fans, it’s rather entertaining in places, although it clearly suffers from not actually being ‘about’ anything, reliant on the writers coming up with a different gimmick every week. Due to the character still being under-defined in the US when the series entered production, the creators had to make a number of leaps of faith, of which the more sensible were retained in other forms (Sonic’s addiction to chilli dogs was eventually made ‘canon’ by Sonic Unleashed). Others such as the nonsensical plot device of Sonic donning various disguises, were quietly kicked to death. It’s not completely awful, but did inflict a truely horrible design of Robotnik on the world, which took several years of brand management to stamp out. The ongoing success of the character made it clear to Sega of America that a more substantial conception of Sonic was needed, and the US version of the Sonic-verse as it stands today actually created by the successor series, simply known as Sonic The Hedgehog.
Probably the most high profile release that directly followed the release of Sonic 2 was the STI-developed Sonic Spinball, which had a budget surprisingly high for such a title. Later converted to the 8-bit systems, it tasked the hedgehog with infiltrating and destroying Robotnik's new island-sized badnik production facility, which was entirely made up of pinball-like areas. The game is small but challenging, with the player sure to experience countless deaths before its four levels have been completed, despite the high degree of control that is given over Sonic when he's in flight. All art assets and sprites were created specially for the title, with the direction apparently influenced by the look of the follow-up to AoStH. It manages to find its own unique tone, but the overly challenging gameplay tends to undermine strengths such as the technically impressive special stages and the superb boss music (sound is otherwise weak). Like many of the non-Naka developed titles from this period, it suffers from continuity problems after Sonic 3 established that Robotnik had been trapped on Angel Island since the conclusion of the second core game. For this reason, it makes most sense to consider the title as taking place between the first and second games, like Sonic CD. Spinball is far from the worst of the cash-ins the series has seen over the years, but the unappealing art direction makes it unlikely to be anyone's favourite.
Speaking of Sonic 3, development of the game commenced after a severe readjustment of Sonic Team, with Yuji Naka and Hirozaku Yusahara putting together a mainly Japanese outfit for development of the next core installment. After rejecting initial experiments for an isometric title as impractical, they undertook development on the Sonic 2 model, with the goal of improving the depth of gameplay and design of the levels. A key decision was to move the two player versus mode to a separate feature, eliminating a factor that had constrained the size of the levels in the second game and enabling much more complex environments. The third game finally shook the left-to-right linearity which had dogged previous instalments of the series, with the hedgehog often having to double back on himself to make progress. The complexity of the characters’ moveset was also increased to add more depth to combat, with the player now being able to make Tails fly at will and Sonic being granted an ‘insta-shield’ which awarded a moment of invincibility. Unfortunately, the full scope of this project would take time to realise, and sales of the Mega Drive were slowing. As a consequence, development of the game was effectively split partway though, with Naka & co ordered to get the first six levels of the title into shape for release as soon as possible. The second half of the game would be released at a later date as Sonic 3: Special Edition.
Even after being cut in half, Sonic 3 remains a superb offering, with the features listed above combining with a sensible restructuring of the power-up system to produce the greatest depth of gameplay of any of the 2D titles. Where before the shields available to characters had been a perfunctory inclusion, they were now split into fire, water and electric versions, each offering their own gimmick. These superficial features however, were just the tip of the iceberg. Each also had its own secondary properties in resisting specific enemy attacks, and their use by Sonic unlocked a different attack move, such as the fire shield’s horizontal blast or the spark shield’s double-jump. Pretty much every aspect of the game was increased in complexity from its predecessor, with access to the special stage now moved to hidden giant rings, and Star Posts offering access to non emerald-based bonus rounds where power-ups could be obtained.
As with Sonic 2, the plot of the game was structured around the addition of a new character, in this case Knuckles the Echidna. After the previous game’s conclusion, Robotnik and his Death Egg had crashed onto the legendary Angel Island (that’s Floating Island to us in the west). The scientist had convinced Knuckles that Sonic was seeking the Master Emerald that powered the island’s ancient machinery, and that his duty to his dead species required him to protect the island from the hedgehog. In a nice piece of continuity, it’s Knuckles who removes the Chaos Emeralds from Sonic at the start of the game, denying him the ability to go Super. (In other cases, Sonic Team appears to have modelled the gems’ presence on their Dragonball Z inspiration, which scatter themselves after being used.) At the time, Knuckles had the most complex motivation of any of the cast, and the brief appearances he made seemed to win him fans, with scarcity breeding value. It also gave Sonic Team the opportunity to add many of the mini cutscenes which had proven so popular in the previous games, with the echidna frequently turning up to use the island’s architecture against Sonic. In addition, the Team chose to dramatise Sonic’s movement between levels, adding to the impression of Angel Island as a coherent location.
After Masato Nakamura’s acrimonious parting of the ways with Sega, the company found themselves faced with the task of finding a new high-profile composer for the third game in the series. What happened next is mired in controversy, but many believe that Michael Jackson wrote at least part of the soundtrack for Sonic 3. Voice analysis of sound samples and similarities to published pieces cause fans to credit Jackson with the soundtracks to Carnival Night, Icecap and Launch Base, as well as the Knuckles riff and the mini-boss music that was based around it. Icecap’s music is one of the best-loved Sonic tracks of all time, with countless rearrangements found online. Although these five tracks are much less intricate than the other parts of the score, they are both catchier and more distinctive- Carnival Night’s sinister vibe comes from the score, as does the high-tech feel that stops Icecap being another generic snow level. Mid-way through development, however, controversy began to circulate around Jackson, and Sega dropped him like a stone from involvement in their child-friendly mascot, although the western versions of the game retained the pieces the singer had already finished. The later PC release of the game saw all of Jackson’s music scrapped, replaced by more complex but less distinctive pieces from Sega’s in house sound collective, who also in all territories contributed the tracks not recorded by Jackson. Amongst their number was a musician called Jun Senoue (remember that name, you’ll be hearing it again later). Amusingly, a few years later, Michael’s sister Janet appropriated the music from the 8-bit Sonic 1’s Bridge area wholesale to form the chorus of her 1998 track ‘Together Again’.
The inclusion of a save game option in Sonic 3 meant that players could return to their favourite zone at will after beating the game, and tellingly Sonic Team made the level select code infinitely harder to activate, supporting the view that they had always intended it to be used for those wishing to replay a particular area after beating the game. Tellingly, Sonic Team titles from NiGHTS onwards would go onto feature the option to select cleared environments as a standard feature. With the strength of its engine, depth of gameplay and some wonderfully conceptualised levels, Sonic 3 stands as a great advancement of the 2D series, but neither reviewed or sold as well as its immediate predecessor. This lead to a slight rethink of the approach to releasing the second half of the game, which continued to be developed at the Sega Technical Institute.
Despite its failings, the Master System incarnation of the second game had sold strongly, and development continued apace on a third title, known in the west as Sonic Chaos. A seriously modified engine was created for this title, which for the first time mimicked the control and gameplay of the core series within the limitations of the 8-bit systems. The main selling point for the title was that Tails was also controllable (in Japan, the game was released as ‘Sonic & Tails’), with a simplified version of his flight gimmick from Sonic 3. Unfortunately, the technical demands made of the consoles resulted in compromises in the art, with some horrifically simplistic and garish design. The game tried to cover this with a plot which saw Robotnik using one of the Chaos Emeralds to mess with the nature of reality itself, but the game remains extremely unappealing visually, was well as being far too easy.
From a fan perspective, the sequel that followed it, Triple Trouble (Sonic & Tails 2 in Asia) is of interest mainly for the continuity error that stems from Knuckles’ conversion to the white hat brigade in the second instalment of Sonic 3. Taking the stopgap ending of the first part of the title as a definitive conclusion, the game still sees the echidna as one of the trio of enemies confronting Sonic, with Robotnik and Nack the Weasel making up the numbers. The latter is a curious character, known as 'Fang the Sniper' in Japan. The bounty hunter is recognised as a bona fide member of the Sonic ensemble, despite having only appeared in this Game Gear title and in 1996’s arcade beat ‘em up. Despite it not being financially viable to produce a Master System version of Triple Trouble, games continued to follow for the handheld, initially in the form of weak Mario Kart-clones Sonic Drift 1 & 2, before a pair of spin-off puzzle-based platformers staring Tails appeared, requiring the fox to use a variety of gadgets to defeat robots attacking South Island. A slightly less sane venture followed in the form of the isometric Sonic Labyirnth. The greatest entertainment that this spin-off provided actually came from Sega Pro's review, written in the style of a piece of fan fiction.
The Game Gear's parting shot to the franchise came with one final title, Sonic Blast. This latter game feature both Sonic and Knuckles as playable, and presented a bizarre combination of Donkey Kong Country-style rendered graphic with a return to the art direction and slower gameplay of the first 8-bit iteration of the series. It’s hard not be reminded of the cliché of the elderly Japanese solider emerging from a tiny island in the Pacific, unaware that the second world war is long over. Somewhere in downtown Tokyo, there’s probably still a development house churning out Game Gear Sonic titles, unaware of their lack of sales…
Next Time: I set about giving the second TV series the kicking it deserves, before moving on to the altogether more pleasant topic of Sonic The Comic. And if you’re VERY good, there might be time for Sonic & Knuckles as well…