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The 'Sonic Adventure 2' Soundtrack Was Era-Defining and Awesome

Between its awkward hip-hop and national-anthem worthy pop-punk, it introduced a generation of kids to new genres. And "Escape from the City" still rips.

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Aug 6 2017, 9:20am

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When I was 10 years old, my parents sent me to a boarding school in Suffolk—a picturesque part of eastern England that was recently immortalized in the annoying Ed Sheeran song "Castle on the Hill." Despite sounding like the premise to a screenplay residing in the wastebasket of Wes Anderson's imagination, my memories from then are mundane and decidedly un-twee. I remember feigning excitement during the 2002 World Cup; I remember using deodorant for the first time and being made fun of for not knowing how to rollerblade. But most of all, I remember playing a shit-ton of Sonic Adventure 2: Battle on the Nintendo Gamecube, a mildly enhanced port of the Sega Dreamcast game released in June 2001.

Fifteen years later, and my early, illustrious English education has clearly paid off. At the time of writing this, I am unemployed and addicted to Postmates. I am also about to beat Sonic Adventure 2 for the first time in over a decade, and have been forced to reconcile my nostalgia with the harsh reality that it is not a terrific game: The controls are frustrating, the "treasure-hunting" levels dramatically upset the game's pace and the Doomsday plot reads like a Bob Books Armageddon.

But the soundtrack is definitive.

Pop culture pundits will tell you that the quintessential piece of video game music is the theme to 1985's Super Mario Bros. To '80s kids, that's probably still the case. But to a generation of gamers who came of age in the late '90s and early '00s—especially those who were reared on primordial, "All Your Base Are Belong To Us"-esque meme culture— Sonic Adventure 2's "Escape from the City" is an epochal anthem. It's a song cherished by so many that some have even fought to have it replace the Star-Spangled Banner as the United States' national anthem.

"Escape from the City" isn't technically Sonic Adventure 2's theme song—that would be "Live & Learn", another scorcher—but it's typically the first "real" song a player will hear in the game. (Assuming they choose to start the game as Sonic and not his cold-as-ice antithesis, Shadow the Hedgehog.) Moreover, "Escape from the City" is a statement of theme.

Sonic Adventure 2 exists in a world where hair metal never died, and I mean that literally: Some of the vocalists featured in the game's soundtrack include Ted Poley from Danger Danger (who scored a minor hit with 1990's "Bang Bang"), Paul Shortino from Rough Cutt (an obscure '80s metal band from Los Angeles with one of those Wikipedia pages so strange and hagiographic that it must have been written by someone in the band), and Tony Harnell of Norwegian glam band TNT and (briefly) Skid Row.

But this pop metal influence has been crossed with the leaner sensibilities of punk and whatever was being classified as "alternative" at the time, resulting in a strain of ass-rock that sounds surprisingly evolved. "Escape from the City" in particular—with its breakneck tempo, metallic bass intro and chunky power chords—brings to mind peak-era pop-punk; it's even genuinely sort of edgy.

Multiple composers are listed in the credits to Sonic Adventure 2, but the game's principal musical force is arguably composer and guitarist Jun Senoue. Senoue—who has been writing music for Sega games since 1993, and who cut his teeth on projects like the obscure 1994 RPG Dark Wizard and the Worldwide Soccer series—was chosen as the main composer for the original Sonic Adventure in 1998.

While composing music for NASCAR Arcade in 2000, Senoue formed the half-real rock band Crush 40. The project technically consists of Senoue and vocalist Johnny Gioeli, although the Crush 40 tag informally refers to Senoue and whoever. ("Escape from the City" appears on a standalone album the band released in 2003, for example, even though it features Ted Poley and Tony Harnell on vocals, not Gioeli—and unlike its in-game counterpart, it unfortunately does not loop for eternity).

Pop-punk indebted nü-rock might constitute the bulk of the Sonic Adventure 2 soundtrack, but it's not everything. The music in both Sonic Adventure games can be split into two categories—"character themes," which are leitmotifs akin to pro wrestler entrance music, and level-specific songs like "Escape from the City."

These character themes highlight the scope of both games' soundtracks. Tails "Miles" Prower—Sonic's insecure, scientifically-minded sidekick—gets "Believe In Myself", a self-affirming Bangles sendup made "modern" by Senoue's chugging guitar. Heroine and Sonic mega fan Amy Rose gets the faux-funk of "My Sweet Passion," which features the soundtrack's most inscrutable set of lyrics. (Granted, "I know that your lucky color is that cool shade of blue / Won't mind painting myself blue for you" wouldn't seem out of place on Blonde on Blonde.) One of Sonic Adventure 2's most memorable non-rock moments is Knuckles the Echidna's "Unknown From M.E.," a hilariously literal hip-hop track that is equally adored and derided by fans. (The version which appeared in the first Sonic Adventure boasts the iconic line "You can call me Knuckles / Unlike Sonic, I don't chuckle.") It should be noted that, despite contributing some of the game's most noteworthy performances in "Unknown From M.E." and Knuckles' level music, rapper Hunnid-P claims to have received no royalties and "little acknowledgment from Sega" for his work.

The games' commitment to exploiting musical trends of the era was made even more apparent in Sonic Adventure 2 with the "dark" character themes: Dr. Eggman's "E.G.G.M.A.N." is probably what would happen if a Dio impersonator broke into Trent Reznor's recording studio, and Shadow's theme "Throw It All Away" sounds like a very polite Rob Zombie. An exception is Rouge The Bat's lounge-inflected "Fly in the Freedom," which couldn't be less Family Values Tour if it tried. It's one of the best songs on the soundtrack, which is not a coincidence.

Sega has a long history of making—or attempting to make—games that feel "current." This is both the company's defining trait and ultimate undoing; it gave them a competitive edge in the '90s when a game starring Michael Jackson didn't seem totally insane and terms like "Blast Processing" and "Xtreme" carried a semblance of cachet, but it's also resulted in some horrible miscalculations.

Sonic Adventure 2's soundtrack represents the perfect amount of zeitgeist pandering. And while it may sound grandiose, it was also something of a gateway: As a prepubescent youth with only a passive interest in contemporary popular music, this was my first extended exposure to anything in the vicinity of punk or hip-hop—and if drunkenly bonding with strangers over the merits of "Escape from the City" is any indication, my experience isn't unique. The music in Sonic Adventure 2 made me feel cool at a point in my life when that was all that mattered. For a video game, that's a pretty impressive feat.

Morgan Troper is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.