How Bad was Sonic 3D Blast, Really?
Does the game’s stellar soundtrack make up for it’s ill-conceived gameplay?
In a way, Sonic 3D Blast is the best version of 3D Sonic. There’s no voice acting, a very manageable story, and, for Sonic purists, he still has black eyes.
When it was released in November 1996, 3D Blast was met with some of the same criticism that jabs modern Sonic games. Complaints about janky controls, an off-kilter camera, and poor pacing were only partially assuaged by the title’s strengths. Graphically, 3D Blast offered some of the best visuals the Sega Genesis had to offer, and musically, well, it paved a legacy of its own.
Though it was originally supposed to be a final fanfare for the Genesis, 3D Blast became the gold standard for 3D Sonic. Just shy of two months' work brought the Genesis game to completion, with a Saturn port released alongside it in the US. Like it or not, Sonic 3D Blast was unavoidable, being the lone, mainline Sonic game until Sonic Adventure in 1998.
Whenever I return to Sonic 3D Blast, it's at a crossroads. I don't view it as a member of the traditional 3-Dimensional series, what with its isometric point of view and lack of dialogue. But it's also a step beyond the classic games, diverting from the side-scrolling action in favor of non-linear exploration.
Still, in revisiting the game, I don’t hate it as much as I thought I did. Yes, 3D Blast is rough around the edges. Its obtuse camera angle is a greater challenge than anything the game has to offer, and the lack of speed pushes the gameplay closer to a primitive Crash Bandicoot than a true Sonic game.
Despite being largely forgotten in favor of Sonic’s true 3D debut, Sonic 3D Blast lives on in the Sonic Adventure soundtrack. A few songs from the Genesis game make a reprisal, earning homages not unlike the ones 3D Blast pays to its predecessors. But even if the gameplay is viewed as better left unplayed, Sonic 3D Blast’s soundtrack is a crash course in what would power the blue blur’s gameplay for years to come.
Sonic has a sticky habit of not being able to shake the past, and 3D Blast is no different. Where Sonic 3D Blast differs, however, is in the game’s ability to showcase its reverence for the classic games while sprinkling in new features that would pop up in future games.
The checkerboard pattern that welcomed players to Green Hill Zone is abundant in 3D Blast. The squares are scaled up such that at first glance it might seem like Sonic's movement is grid-based (it's not). This visual cue is paired with both functional and non-functional scenery, like the balloons in Spring Stadium that harken back to the helium bubbles of Carnival Night Zone.
These throwback touches are complemented by the 3D Blast soundtrack, which upgrades classic Sonic sound stylings for a more modern palette. The OSTs for the original, 2D games were an experiment in genre diversity. Sonic became a pop icon not only for his edgier attitude compared to Mario, but for his music, which borrowed from sounds of the day.
Spring Yard Zone, for example, in Sonic 1 is a punchy, New Jack Swing track in the vein of Janet Jackson's 1986 album, Control.
But the 3D Blast genesis songs don’t stop at recreating the magic of years gone by. Rather, they rely on the Genesis’ old school sound tools to create some of the most forward thinking Sonic music to date.
While the Sega Saturn version saw Europop composer Richard Jacques take the 3D Blast soundtrack to new and jazzy heights, the Genesis version’s music was composed by the Sega Sound Team. Relative series newcomer Jun Senoue led a team of musicians that included Tatsuyuki Maeda, Masaru Setsumaru, and Seirou Okamoto.
By 1996, Senoue, Maeda, and Setsumaru had lent their talents to the Sonic series, having participated in the creation of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Truthfully, the 3D Blast sound was largely credited to Senoue and Maeda, who composed and arranged the overwhelming majority of the game’s music.
What’s most interesting about the game’s soundtrack is how Maeda and Senoue managed to adapt Sonic’s musical identity - which relies heavily on the merging of relaxing natural sounds with frenetic mechanical noises - to 3D Blast’s relatively divergent gameplay. Being an exploratory game at its core, the music of 3D blast had to account for increased playtime. While players can usually speed through a zone in somewhere around two minutes, 3D Blast’s levels can last anywhere from five to seven minutes.
Fittingly, these songs are long. Green Hill Zone from Sonic 1 loops after just 37 seconds, which, if you know what you’re doing, is about 10 seconds longer than it takes to finish the first act. Comparatively, Green Grove Zone in 3D Blast loops after a minute and 25 seconds, giving players more robust background music as they hunt for flickies.
I doubt that Senoue or Maeda felt that composing for this game was a competition, but the soundtrack feels like both are trying to woo the player with their own, distinct styles. In Diamond Dust Zone, Maeda continues with his generally more funky sound choices, punctuating the melody with twinkling accompaniments that play up the level’s shimmering snow and ice.
By contrast, Senoue’s compositions definitely favor more complex melodies than drum patterns, and for good reason. In the years that followed, Sonic 3D Blast, Senoue would earn recognition, if not a level of meminess, for his electric guitar virtuosity. Through Sonic Adventure 1 and 2, Senoue’s music would redefine the hedgehog, turning the lovably potbellied woodland creature into an even edgier, spinier teenage terror. His music would help the aging fan base - six-year-olds who played Sonic 1 at release would be 16 when Sonic Adventure two dropped - rediscover why they love the sporty mammal so much.
I’m pleasantly surprised in returning to Sonic 3D Blast after all these years. For a while, I fell into the trap of thinking that all the game was good for was introducing the homing attack and a few Sonic Adventure songs. Sega wouldn’t return to the isometric style until Sonic Battle for the Gameboy Advance, so going back to play 3D Blast is always a test of my patience. But hearing how well the music panned out given that the game was rushed to meet deadlines helps raise my tolerance for its shortcomings.
Though I would have loved to have gotten Sonic X-treme, it might be for the best we didn’t. That game purportedly was to feature a longer, more narrative-driven story, in contrast to the classic series no-text affairs. I’m not sure the world would have been ready for a story-heavy Sonic game, especially considering how the increasingly involved campaigns of the 2000s eventually led Sega to dumb down their narratives right around the time of Sonic Unleashed.
In other words, Sonic 3D Blast is the game we deserved. It’s not perfect - no Sonic game is - but there was just enough good to keep the fan base from completely turning on the hedgehog before Sonic Adventure. At the very least, Sega Sound Team redefined what was possible for Sonic music, and helped pave the way for future games that would take inspiration from the classic synths and samples and orchestrate them on an entirely new level.