Welcome to Level Select! The new series that explores and pays tribute to some of gaming’s most memorable moments. In this entry, we’re covering one of the most beloved stages from the Sonic The Hedgehog series: City Escape.
The opening level of Sonic Adventure 2 is nothing short of iconic. Surfing down the bustling streets of Central City accompanied by the level’s awesome rock soundtrack evoked a feeling of excitement and freshness Sonic fans just hadn’t felt since the Blue Blur’s 16-bit days. Some powerful ingredients must have come together in the game development mixing pot to make City Escape so unique – But what were they?
Being the final Sonic game to ever be hosted on a SEGA system, Sonic Adventure 2 had some pretty big shoes to fill. Conversely, its release on a Nintendo console marked the end of SEGA and Nintendo’s console war throughout the nineties, and issued in a new generation that would see Nintendo fans finally introduced to the world’s fastest hedgehog. If Sonic’s legacy was to live on in his new SEGA-less environment, Sonic Team needed to impress from the get-go.
When designing the look and feel of City Escape, Sonic Team was greatly inspired by the city their US Headquarters presently occupied, San Francisco, California. The team’s reverence for the slopey-hilled city accounted for the downhill game design and flowery yet urbanized aesthetic throughout the level (notice the cable cars right out of SF Sonic can send flying while riding downhill). The developers’ time in San Francisco also inspired the look of various enemy types, too: Supposedly, employees of Sonic Team were so frustrated by their experiences with public parking that they styled the drone-like enemies of City Escape after San Francisco’s parking meters.
Modern Sonic fans should be quite familiar with the grinding components that make up many sequences from the later games. What some fans might not know, however, is that City Escape introduced this gameplay element not by a stroke of game design genius, but as part of a sponsorship agreement. Soap, a company that made shoes that let the wearer grind on rails (think Heelys Skate Shoes), provided funding for Sonic Adventure 2 – under the condition that Sonic would sport his own pair of rail grinding Soap shoes. This is why Sonic’s shoes differ from the more traditional interpretations of the character in Sonic Adventure 2. Surprisingly, the grinding gameplay had a certain charm that gamers latched onto, and was implemented so well in City Escape and later levels that it became a staple feature of many future Sonic games.
City Escape is remembered perhaps as much for its level design as it is for it’s now iconic music. The fast paced bass line set the stage for the action to come, and the snare drum hit timed perfectly in sync with Sonic’s board touching ground had players’ spirits high. Written by game composer and Sonic veteran Jun Senoue and performed by musicians Ted Poley and Tony Harnell, “Escape from the City” was the first track in the Sonic series to contain a full vocal performance. This too would become a staple of future Sonic titles with games like Sonic Heroes, Shadow the Hedgehog, and Sonic & The Secret Rings all boasting soundtracks with full vocals, often performed by Poley and Harnell as well.
“Escape from the City” has found a life of its own since its introduction in City Escape. The track returned in Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games as well as in the recently released Super Smash Bros. for Wii U as part of the game’s Windy Hill stage. 2011’s Sonic Generations also featured two remixed versions of the original track, and Jun Senoue has stated that “Escape from the City” is his favourite song from Sonic Adventure 2.
City Escape was so beloved by both gamers and Sonic Team alike that it was chosen to be revisited in Sonic Generations. There, it was re-imagined twice over, both as a revamped version of the original 3D level and as a 2D side-scrolling level more akin to the games of Sonic’s 16-bit years.
City Escape is one of the unique levels in gaming where the stars all aligned in such a way to create a masterful product. It set the stage for a new style of Sonic game many weren’t yet familiar with, particularly those Nintendo fans who up until the time of this game’s release never had the chance to experience the Blue Blur’s insane speed. Sure, SEGA and Sonic Team have had a shaky twenty-five years with Sonic. Not every title in the series has been perfect, but the creativity, level design, and sense of excitement in the opening stage of Sonic Adventure 2 only go to show why Sonic has resonated so well with gamers over the last twenty-five years.