Behind The Scenes: Sonic Adventure
As Sonic Adventure is reportedly readied for Xbox Live Arcade release, director Takashi Iizuka speaks to games™ about the making of the most pivotal game in Sonic Team’s flagship series
Sonic the Hedgehog and the third dimension. It’s a relationship that’s never quite achieved perfection but has nevertheless fascinated gamers for over a decade. Where Sega’s chief mascot was once considered Mario’s equal, with the release of Super Mario 64 the balance of power shifted as Nintendo created the mould for 3D platform games and Sega awkwardly shuffled its feet. The Saturn console came and went without a Sonic platform game; it was left to Dreamcast to realise Sonic’s 3D debut. But what a debut. Visually superior to Super Mario 64, featuring character-based quests and blisteringly fast gameplay, it was classic Sonic and much more besides. And while the last decade of 3D Sonic games has been a mixed bag, the 1998 original remains the finest non-2D work to date.
The pioneering Sonic Adventure was directed by Takashi Iizuka, the man responsible for the level design of NiGHTS Into Dreams, who subsequently rose through the ranks of Sonic Team as Yuji Naka took to a more hands-off role. Tellingly, Iizuka pinpoints 1996 – the year of Super Mario 64, Tomb Raider, and NiGHTS – as the year he began work on what eventually became Sonic Adventure. “It all started when I mentioned that I wanted to create a Sonic action game where you could play and enjoy the story together,” he recalls. “At that time Dreamcast didn’t exist and we started to experiment on Sega Saturn. However, as soon as the console prototype was complete, we shifted to Dreamcast.”
With the specifications of Sega’s newest console still under discussion during Sonic Adventure’s pre-production phase, Iizuka had to be careful not to make the game too ambitious but also found that the flagship title gave him some influence over hardware development. “We were working together when Dreamcast was still a prototype,” Iizuka recalls, “and had to imagine what form the final game would take, such as how many polygons we could use and how fast processing would be. Of course, there were times when we had to restart from scratch. However, with the hardware still in development I think it was a merit for the Sonic Adventure team as we could send requests to the hardware side. The analogue stick was developed as per our request from the software development side. In Sonic’s 3D game, where things change dynamically, the analogue input was a requirement. The VMU, however, was a suggestion from the hardware development side. Although it was small, being able to carry a device with a monitor was an interesting idea so we used it for nurturing the Chao in Sonic Adventure.”
Despite Sonic Team’s late start, truly 3D games were still in their infancy around the mid- to late-Nineties and Iizuka was aware of the form’s limitations. “At that time, 3D action games still had problems,” he explains. “Regardless of the merit of being able to walk in 360 degrees, it had created a difficulty in gameplay as users did not know where to go. So, in Sonic Adventure, without losing where the destination is in 3D, we aimed to create an exhilarating game that would provide players with a sense of 2D action. The dynamic changes of the camera system were integral to this motive so we had a huge trial-and-error process to make them work.”
Using these techniques, Sonic Team was able to transform the rollercoaster gameplay of Mega Drive Sonic into 3D quite successfully, yet Iizuka wanted Sonic Adventure to be more than just a pure platformer. “During the planning stage, we had been calling the game Sonic RPG. That’s how much we had been aiming to make an action game where stories progress through adventures around the world.” Sega didn’t just want to create a sequel, it wanted to expand the Sonic universe, giving players the opportunity to explore the fictional world and get to know it in a way that was not possible in the 2D games. To realise such ambition, Sonic Adventure needed a landscape that players would want to explore and so Sonic Team set about creating a series of rich tropical environments for which it took inspiration from real-world locations.
“When we completed the original plan and story outline, six team members went to see the ancient ruins in Latin America,” recalls Iizuka. “Travelling through countries such as Cancun in Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru we visited the famous Maya and Inca ruins. We did not have the internet at that time so we had almost no information about the locations. However, in order to create a 3D environment, we had to see them for real so we could make full use of them for 3D model textures. Of all the places we visited, the Tikal ruin in Guatemala and Machu Picchu in Peru had the greatest influence on Sonic Adventure.”