If you have been reading along with me through the past few posts, you know I am a fan of the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Not every entry in that series has found its way into my heart, however. I have a special distaste for the abomination that is known as Sonic Adventure 2, and I hope here to show you why.
Nothing about SA2 is more discordant than its tone, and this is something that is only striking when viewed in the context of the entire franchise. When Sonic the Hedgehog was created in 1991, there were many details put into both the game and the character. Some ideas were scrapped – for example, the zones were originally organized in an order from more natural to more artificial, so Labyrinth Zone was second in the list before someone realized that that difficulty curve was the size of a humpback whale – whereas others were off the wall, such as Star Light Zone being inspired by the desire to put Sonic in space, just because. The quirky designs of the worlds Sonic visited had much to do with the Big Three at Sonic Team back in the day: Naoto Ohshima, Yuji Naka, and Hirokazu Yasuhara. Ohshima designed the character, originally a blue hedgehog named Mr. Needlemouse with a blonde girlfriend named Madonna. Most of the games’ aesthetic came from him, most prevalently in Sonic 1 and Sonic CD. If you ever played Sonic 2 and felt there was something about it intangibly different from its predecessor, it is because Ohshima did not work on Sonic 2. By comparison, Sonic 1 and Sonic CD had a fantastic feel to them that has not been replicated since. Naka was the programmer charged with making Ohshima’s wild visions become realities. The physics engine that made the Genesis/MegaDrive trilogy legendary is owed to him. Yasuhara came up with the ideas of implementing the platform challenges, pushing Sega’s hardware more with each game. Even if such history means little to you, suffice to say that Sonic was adequately characterized as a tough guy with a fierce independence streak. His attitude was depicted with silent impatience, from his trademark finger wagging to his classic foot tapping idle animation. Sonic had no time for nonsense; he had friends and a world to save, and if you were not going to help him, at least in Sonic CD, he would not wait for you and would end the game. Sonic was brash, smug, cocky, and cool: the epitome of everything one wanted to be in the 90s. In the anime OVA released that decade, Sonic upturned his middle finger at Robotnik. Though censored in the North American release, that gesture summarized his attitude. He had neither tolerance for anyone who messed with him or his friends nor any words to waste (probably because he did not use any until 1999). Yet there was a subtle undertone of morality mixed in with an environmentalist message. Only Sonic stood between a world of green and a world of gray, ruled by Dr. Robotnik, which was most starkly highlighted in Sonic CD.
Flash forward to 2001. So much of SA2 strays from a tight formula that made the original games great. Right out of the gate, Sonic’s cheesy dialogue detracts from his attitude. Even forgiving the speech as a product of its times, Sonic’s chatter reaches nonsensical heights, such as his shriek of, “Teriyaaaaaah!” in a cutscene with the Egg Golem. That was but one example of several egregious instances of Engrish in the game. These moments are cringe-worthy yet certainly not the most offensive missteps of the game. That dubious honor belongs to the level design. Yasuhara designed the original trilogy to exploit Naka’s physics engine. Hence, even a moderately talented person can clear Emerald Hill Act 1 in 29 seconds, but it requires precision. Yasuhara also understood the need for variation in pathways. There was always so much unseen variety in the routes to the goalpost. As early as Sonic 2, some purists protested that the levels were too large. SA2 fundamentally lacked coherent level design: Sonic/Shadow levels were one-way race tracks that made backtracking difficult or impossible, Tails/Eggman levels were clumsily-designed railshooter/platforming hybrids, and Knuckles/Rouge levels were so tremendous that they quickly became horrific nightmares. I remember failing Security Hall for the first time (and second and third times) and nearly having a stroke from sheer outrage at the thought that someone thought the only thing better than making a really big level in which to hide three tiny, magical maguffins was constraining the player with a five minute timer. To be fair, Sonic Adventure had its fair share of lousy level design as well, but SA2 did nothing to arrest the backward slide and indeed arguably hastened its frantic decline into rigorous linearity.
By the way, did anyone notice that Sonic Adventure 2 was a complete misnomer? Sonic is not the protagonist in that story. Instead, the nominally titular hero is upstaged by Shadow, a character whose sole purpose is to appeal to the angsty teens ostensibly targeted by the game. Sonic was on the sidelines, having a fairly meaningless conflict with Eggman, while Shadow was busy soliloquizing about his pretentiously tragic backstory, remarkable for the fact that there is no one who could reasonably relate to it. Shadow broods from start to finish and then steals the show with a whiplash-inducing change of personality, sacrificing himself for the greater good. The plot turns on his lapse of memory. He spends most of the game trying to kill all humans, only to remember at the end he was designed to make humans happy. What else could scream that this is a bad story but an antagonist whose motivation is undermined by forgetfulness? The writing is in its own tier of dreadfulness on this point alone and only escalates. Shadow’s idiocy inspires Eggman to blow up half the moon, something that is not exactly fixed with spackle and a new coat of paint. The attempt to invert Sonic with a gothic and tortured edginess is patently obnoxious and reflects poorly on Sonic as well, who comes off as a brainless action hero. Amy, Tails, Knuckles are superfluously stapled onto the plot and Rouge’s double agent maneuverings are inconsequential distractions probably better served in the plot of another game. There is no need to dwell on the quizzical idea to give an anthropomorphic bat girl sex appeal in a game made for children.
Oh, and we can also write off the final boss. The Biolizard is a thing that comes from nowhere and is not built up at any point in the story prior to its appearance. There is also something deeply absurd about how it, a tremendous dinosaur, is the prototype of the ultimate life form and Shadow, a black hedgehog, is purportedly that ultimate life form. What did any of this have to do with Sonic saving his friends or the environmentalist message of earlier games? Until Eggman accessed the Eclipse Cannon, there were no stakes in SA2. In prior games, his malevolent, mechanical influence was evident from the start. There was no reason to feel anything about any of the characters or their actions in SA2, which even a decent score could have masked. However, the music was mostly forgettable and wanders from the basics. Any Sonic fan probably can distinguish the older games’ tunes in two notes, whereas the only song anyone remembers from SA2 is “Escape from the City,” and that song is awful (unless mashed with the theme of Ghostbusters).
I can only conclude that SA2 is given a pass by virtue of the casual gamer’s nostalgia (a sentiment shared by YouTube personality ProJared). Many hardcore Sonic fans gave this game a scarlet letter a long time ago for the above reasons and more, and rightly so. Nothing says failure about this game more than it being the last Sonic game before Sega dropped out of the console competition. If wishes are eternal, I will continue to wait until the day SA2 is universally recognized as the thoughtless stream of muck it is when compared to the glittering emeralds of the original tetralogy.