The Making Of: Sonic Adventure
If the Dreamcast was going to succeed In Its make-or-break mission, It needed star power – It needed sonic. but sonic needed a revamp. we speak to TAKASHI IIZUKA and KAZUYUKI HOSHINO to learn how sega’s hero was reinvented for his 3D Debut
Takashi Iizuka and Kazuyuki Hoshino on the trails and tribulations of making Sonic’s first full-3d platformer
The gaming audience can be a fickle one, and by the late Nineties Sega was certainly feeling the effects of having lost its affection. In the early part of the decade, the company had experienced explosive growth thanks to the success of the Mega Drive, driven by its charismatic mascot Sonic The Hedgehog. Sega broke Nintendo’s virtual monopoly on the console market and joined it as a leader, before the company crashed down to earth as the over-engineered and expensive Sega Saturn failed to replicate the success of its predecessor. Sonic had suffered in those years – Sonic Team was busy on new projects like NIGHTS Into Dreams, and Sega Technical Institute’s planned 3D platform game Sonic X-treme was cancelled, having collapsed under the weight of its own ambition. By mid-1997 Sonic had essentially been shuffled into the background, with his most recent game being Sonic Jam, a compilation of his Mega Drive adventures. Though the collection was excellent, it was astonishing to see that just six years after his debut, Sonic was already retro.
That change in status was not lost on Sonic Team, which began work on a new Sonic project immediately after Sonic Jam’s completion. “As we focused our time making new games and not Sonic games, we saw Sonic’s popularity drop and felt like we let down all the fans that had supported Sonic from the beginning,” remembers Takashi Iizuka, director of Sonic Adventure and current Sonic series producer. But Sonic’s declining popularity wasn’t just down to the lack of new games. “My impression was that Sonic had lost that fresh, new image he had when the character debuted. Almost all of that was gone and the character felt very safe, boring and conservative,” explains Sonic Adventure art director Kazuyuki Hoshino. In short, Sonic needed a reboot. “We all took it upon ourselves to make another Sonic game – the best Sonic game to date – something that the fans would feel was worth the wait,” says Iizuka.
Sonic Team knew that a new Sonic game would have to be radically different to previous entries, as a 2D game like the Mega Drive classics just wouldn’t cut it with the audience of the late Nineties. However, Iizuka had envisioned what a 3D Sonic game might look like as early as 1996, with a ‘Sonic RPG ’ proposal – little more than a one-page sketch showing how typical adventure game elements might work in a Sonic environment. Unfortunately, actually trying to implement this soon caused problems. “We made the first prototype for Sonic Adventure on the Saturn. However, when we set out to create a 3D world for Sonic to be able to run around in freely we hit a wall with what the Saturn was able to do,” explains Iizuka. “That’s when we heard of the new Dreamcast hardware that would excel in representing a 3D environment. The Sega Saturn
was very good at utilising manipulated sprites to present a display that represented polygons, but the Dreamcast was a true 3D processing machine, so it was perfect for developing Sonic Adventure.”
The timing of the new game with the new hardware project turned out to be fortuitous, as Sonic Team could shape the Dreamcast to match its needs. “To create a 3D stage where Sonic could run around at high speed, we needed a lot of internal memory on the hardware,” says Iizuka. “Since the Dreamcast was still in the planning stages of development, we were able to spec out the design for Sonic and then were able to put in a request to the hardware team about the required memory we would need in the machine, which really helped us execute on the design of the game.” Of course, working on incomplete hardware also has its disadvantages, as Iizuka reminds us. “We started developing the game when the hardware was only about 30 per cent complete, so we were constantly trying to imagine what the final spec for the machine might be as we were creating the content.”
Indeed, even with the ability to request plenty of memory, technical constraints were a real issue when creating Sonic Adventure’s stages. “Because the world you run through is a 3D world, all the stages had set heights and lengths. At the time, we all had Sonic’s height marked down at one metre, but having Sonic that large and running that fast for a couple of minutes, one stage would have to be many kilometres long and the data required for a stage would get to very large sizes,” explains Hoshino. “While it may seem obvious to state that we’d have to split up the levels into pieces that would fit the allotted memory size we had to work in, then read in the data for the next part of the stage on the fly and get rid of the parts of the stage that you passed by, a lot of that know-how and technique took a lot of time to research and figure out back in the day.”
T“we were constantly trying to Imagine what the final spec for the [Dreamcast] might be” takashi iizuka
he art direction for the stages was easier to figure out. “As a Dreamcast launch title, we needed to be able to present the abilities of the machine in an appealing way to consumers. That was what our team was ordered to do. When we asked ourselves, ‘What graphics give you the impression of being high-spec?’ the answer we decided upon were graphics that were realistic,” explains Hoshino. Although Sonic would still visit forests and coasts, he’d also run through cities and ruins, without the abstract representations of previous games.
The game called for such environments due to its story, which flashed between the present day and an ancient echidna tribe’s past interactions with the water spirit Chaos. In order to enhance the game’s realism, Sonic Team took an international trip. “Game
development up until then was all done with artists drawing all the textures by hand, but when developing on the Dreamcast, we were able to take real-life photos and use them as textures”, Iizuka continues. “Because this was possible, we planned to take a trip out to not only see ancient ruins that were a key story point to the title first-hand, but also use it as a trip where we could gather assets for the game. We went to the very famous ruins in Central and South America: Chichen Itza, San Gervasio, Tikal, Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines, and more. We took photos of the walls and materials in the real ruins and used those real photos as the assets in the game.”
Having figured out how to create a large and detailed world for Sonic to explore, a bigger problem remained. Sonic had never inhabited a full-3d world before, and working out the game design required to make that enjoyable was a challenge. “For 2D classic Sonic games, if you kept going right, you’d be able to clear the goal line. Because there was that defined direction inherent in the gameplay we were able
to create the high-speed progression,” says Iizuka. “Once we went to a 3D world where you could run in any direction, you ultimately were never sure of where to go. This sort of gameplay required a completely different type of level design. In the very beginning we were building out the model for the stage, playing, then throwing out to remake, replay and throw it all out again and again till we got it right.”
Solving the problem required the use of a tool that hadn’t been particularly prominent in 2D game design. “When we were right in all the trial and error for level design, I picked up on the role and functionality of the camera,” Iizuka recalls. “2D Sonic would always be moving to the right of the display, and in a similar way, if we had the camera showing the direction that 3D Sonic should be running towards (into the world) in front of you, I thought we should be able to make any sort of complex 3D stage that you could get to the end of by continually going ‘up’ on the controller (moving forward in the world). After thinking up this camera system, we tried it out on Speed Highway and found it was successful!” Where other 3D platform games always show a view from behind the character, Sonic Adventure’s camera system is more heavily directed by the game designers, corresponding more to the stage progression than the player’s direction of travel. You’ll be pointed around bends as the camera turns to face your next destination, and the camera often pulls out for spectacular shots during loops or other obstacles.
Although the stages were primarily designed around Sonic’s need for expansive locations, the game features five other characters with their own styles of gameplay. “It took so much more time to create the 3D worlds for Sonic to run around in than we ever imagined. We felt it was a waste if Sonic just quickly ran through the levels that we spent so much time creating, so I thought of ways we could leverage our assets effectively, and from that was born the six playable characters each with their unique playstyle,” says Iizuka. “Now that we had unique characters, I figured they should each have their own stories to follow and goals to accomplish, then I thought it would be interesting if all the stories had some connection to each other, so we wrote a story and then told that story through the six perspectives of the unique characters.”
The first three characters were all familiar to Sonic fans. Tails’ gameplay typically adapted portions of Sonic’s stages into one-on-one races. Knuckles’ game was designed to contrast with Sonic’s. “Since the gameplay for Sonic was about running through the various set routes, I wanted to add gameplay elements where you could move around in any direction inside of the 3D space. Since Knuckles’ original bio had him as a treasure hunter, I instantly had the idea of making some treasure hunting gameplay in the 3D universe,” explains Iizuka. Amy Rose also became playable for the first time, with Iizuka choosing a less combat-oriented style despite her squeaky hammer weapon. “The other characters all engage in aggressive behaviour as the core ‘fun’ and emotional satisfaction in the game, so I wanted to include some gameplay that was more about the thrill of technical gameplay,” explains the designer. “Hiding out of sight from pursuers, having to run and hide after an enemy pops out of nowhere – I wanted this game to
have thrills and tension that wouldn’t exist if the playable character was Sonic.”
Two new characters were also added, including E-102 Gamma – the first playable character to explore Eggman’s side. “The first thing I thought about for Gamma was gameplay. I wanted some type of satisfying gameplay that couldn’t be done with Sonic – that was shooting. When thinking about what sort of character would shoot, having one of Eggman’s robots be a playable character first came to mind,” says Iizuka. “Looking back, the story was very interesting because we were able to express the feelings of a robot following Eggman’s orders, as well as showing the animals locked inside.” The most unusual inclusion was that of Big The Cat, who brought something truly unique. “We had high-speed action, treasure hunting, shooting – tons of content to really challenge the level designers and creators, so I wanted one of the games that was going to be something fun and completely different from the other types of gameplay being offered,” explains Iizuka. “That’s when I thought, if we have water on the map we can present the player with a fishing game. I told the character designer I wanted a giant, relaxed character so the players wouldn’t mistake the gameplay on the level as something intense.”
In order to provide hub worlds to join up those action stages, the team implemented Adventure Fields, which were a new concept in the Sonic series. These also provided locations for story events and boss fights. “Sonic Adventure, just as the title suggests, was a platform action game with the addition of adventure elements, and we wanted to deliver that feeling of experiencing an epic story and epic adventure,” Iizuka explains. “We implemented the Adventure Fields as somewhere you could ask locals about things,
“It took more time to create the 3D worlds for sonic to run around In than we ever Imagined” takashi iizuka
gather power-up items, and create places to explore and get lost in. The Adventure Fields were there to draw the players deeper into the world.” These power-up items were also a new concept, giving characters new attacking and movement options as the game progressed. “In the spirit of an action RPG, we wanted to make locations that could only be accessed after receiving some new power, or by making certain difficult areas passable with a new ability – that was the inspiration behind the power-up items,” Iizuka continues. “I was probably inspired in some way through the Legend Of Zelda series that I loved so much.”
The existing characters had been tricky to represent well in 3D. However, the feeling that Sonic’s design was dated allowed the art team to give the entire cast a refresh. “Space Invaders and Pac-man were becoming popular again as retro games and characters, and they were popping up in indie music and urban ‘street’ fashion, so they were very interesting and attractive,” Hoshino recalls. “It made us jealous, and we wanted Sonic to also become popular with this edge of subculture, or at least have some cool T-shirts being made with Sonic on them. I was thinking that, and there were other designers that were thinking the same thing, so we all got together to try and find this new graphic style for Sonic.” New illustrations were produced, with
characters sporting longer limbs and twisted styles. “What it boiled down to be was a graphic style and pose that was more aware of the fashion trends. The artwork was a good fit for the club music I was really into at the time,” says the art director.
These weren’t the only adjustments made to characters, as Sonic Team decided to try to introduce common international naming – which controversially meant renaming major characters, including Dr Robotnik. “In Japan, his name was always Dr Eggman, so as Sonic became more popular, we wanted to try and unify the names across regions,” explains Iizuka. “The same actually applies to Miles ‘Tails’ Prower, who was known more commonly as ‘Miles’ in Japan – we changed it from the Japanese standard and started using ‘Tails’.”
Though the illustrations were 2D drawings, their new style helped when representing the characters in 3D. “The new Sonic design had longer arms and legs, but one could say the bigger solution to the problem was the ability to pose the character where everything looked good from a variety of angles,” says Hoshino. This is a common issue when adapting character designs into full 3D. “Characters posing in 2D can be very easily faked to look cool, but there are a lot of instances where you try and represent the same pose with a 3D model and it really can’t be reproduced,” he explains. “An example would be Sonic crossing his arms. That was so difficult.”
Artistic design was also of key importance when creating the game’s antagonist. The team wanted to create something that could only have been realised on the Dreamcast, and came up with a creature named Chaos, who appears as a boss throughout the game. “What I was most excited about was the ability to represent semi-transparencies in-game. On the previous generations of hardware, it was difficult to represent something beautiful, so all the semitransparent effects we made for Burning Rangers took a lot of time to implement. However, this new machine was able to easily implement and use these effects wherever you wanted them,” explains Hoshino. “One of [the] key benchmarks for quality videogame graphics is the representation of water. No matter what hardware generation you are developing games on, we have been working on techniques for representing water, and are always looking at how other companies and other teams are representing water in the games they make. We thought Chaos, who is a strong, yet fluid and beautiful representation of water, would be a perfect symbol for the game on this new hardware.”
For audio, the decision was made to include full voice acting for the first time, with Jun’ichi Kanemaru and Ryan Drummond chosen to voice Sonic himself. Musically, lead composer Jun Senoue decided to retain some of the classic Sonic sound while adding a harder edge. Jingles he’d composed for Sonic 3, including the act clear music returned, and a couple of his tracks from the Mega Drive version of Sonic 3D were repurposed for Twinkle Park and Windy Valley.
However, the original tracks showcased Senoue’s background as a guitarist with a new hard rock
“characters posing In 2D can be very easily faked to look cool” Kazuyuki hoshino
sound, with character themes featuring vocals from Ted Poley (Danger Danger) and Tony Harnell (TNT). Hardline’s Johnny Gioeli provided the vocals for the main theme, titled Open Your Heart, beginning a long partnership with Senoue – they continue to perform together as Crush 40 today.
Sonic Adventure was released in Japan on 23 December 1998, arriving within the first month of the hardware’s release. But it wasn’t quite the game that Sonic Team had wanted it to be. “Sonic Adventure was a launch title for the very first release of the Dreamcast hardware in Japan, so the schedule for the title was tight. Even though there were issues we wanted to fix with the game content and more polish we wanted to put into the title, but the position we were in made us give up on addressing everything we wanted to – we had to deliver the game on time,” laments Iizuka. However, Sonic Team had the chance to improve the game post-launch, a rare opportunity in those days. “Shortly after, when we were creating the English version of the game, there was plenty of time before the release of the Dreamcast in the western market and we had a lot of staff who were eager to work. So we didn’t just do a straight-up localisation of the title, we included a lot of improvements and polish to the game that wasn’t in the original Japanese release.” This version accompanied the American release of the console on 9 September 1999, and was rereleased in Japan as Sonic Adventure International.
Sonic Adventure drew critical acclaim from the press. Arcade praised the game for “performing graphical trickery at a level never before seen on a home console,” while CVG liked the fact that the six characters allowed you to enjoy the same stages in different ways. Dreamcast Magazine praised the action stages, noting that they “really can take your breath away,” and Edge also felt that “level design is strong, although the best moments […] are left until later areas.” Some criticisms were offered – Dreamcast Magazine noted that “the 3D camera angle fails at times”. Arcade felt that “occasionally you feel like a passenger on a rollercoaster”, and Dreamcast Magazine described
Big’s minigame as “slightly less exciting than looking at grass”. In summary, Edge noted that “Sega hasn’t made the mistake of attempting to turn Sonic into Mario, instead building on what made the previous Sonic titles a success, and in the process recreating the true feel of a classic 2D platform game in 3D for perhaps the first time.” Review scores include 90% from Dreamcast Magazine, 5/5 ratings from both CVG and Arcade, and 8/10 from Edge. While the Dreamcast was ultimately not a commercial success, Sonic Adventure definitely was – it was the format’s bestselling game, selling 2.5 million copies.
Such an important project is bound to have some sentimental value attached to it, and both Iizuka and Hoshino have fond memories of making Sonic Adventure. “For me, the location scouting trip to Central and South America is a very important experience. While the trip was extremely valuable to the development of the title, I was able to go to countries I wouldn’t easily be able to travel out to, and I was able to see just how people live in these countries,” says Hoshino. “I gained a lot of knowledge from that trip and
“I was so nervous I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest ” takashi iizuka
felt like it enabled me to break out of the cultural and societal norms I grew up in, which has enriched my personal and professional life ever since.”
For Iizuka, the game’s announcement at Tokyo International Forum was a highlight. “The most memorable moment for me was the announcement of Sonic Adventure. The hall fit 5,000 people and I was up there three times, but that was the first time I had ever been on stage in front of consumers and I was so nervous I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest,” recalls the director. “I was on stage to play Speed Highway in a live environment. On my first stage event I was able to play really well and made no mistakes, so I was able to calm down, but the other guys told me, ‘Hey, if you are too good, people are going to think we are just playing back a recorded demo video. Can you make a mistake next time?’”
20 years on, plenty of fans still have fond memories of Sonic Adventure too. But what do the creators think keeps people coming back? “If I think of what the appeal of the title is, as a fan myself, I would have to say it is because each of the characters has such a deep story,” says Hoshino. “The story continues still to this day and seems to be expanding instead of coming to an end. For example, one could probably still think, ‘I bet Big is probably fishing right now.’ In addition, I’m sure there is also the expectation that someday in the future we would make a sequel or continuation in the series.”
Iizuka believes that it’s the totality of the game, rather than any individual aspect. “It was the first highspeed 3D action game that also featured a scenario highlighted with six different stories, the A-life Chao, six unique styles of gameplay – it is a unique game offering even 20 years after its release. At the time, it also wasn’t just a solitary software release, it was the title to bring people to the Dreamcast and we were given the budget to make something to showcase the hardware,” says the director, clearly proud of the team’s accomplishments. “However, it was the very first 3D game that we worked on and looking at it now I can see the rough edges it has, which really makes me want to remake it again,” he adds with a laugh. That comment is sure to bait the fans – and can you imagine Sonic Adventure’s ambition realised with today’s tech? It’s a tantalising prospect. Consider us on the hook, too.