Sonic the Hedgehog has been around for 25 years, and in that time the series has produced some totally fine games. Some of them (Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic Colors) even border on being great.
But in 25 years, Sonic has only managed to put forward one true masterpiece, and it’s not a game. We’re talking about "Escape from the City," the true artistic high point of Sega’s life in general and Sonic’s in particular.
[Note: This opinion piece is a collaboration between Allegra Frank and Phil Kollar.]
Keep movin’ on
To understand why this song qualifies as a masterpiece, you need to know its context. "Escape from the City" is the theme to the opening level of Sonic Adventure 2, the hedgehog’s final outing on Sega Dreamcast. That level is called, appropriately, "City Escape," and it’s fantastic right from the start, where Sonic falls from a military chopper onto the world’s steepest highway, which he blasts down (at the speed of sound) on a makeshift snowboard.
"City Escape" represents the epitome of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s fast-paced, full of secret pathways and more than a little absurd. Y’know what Sonic made that snowboard out of? The side of a military helicopter that had held him hostage until he bust out of it in mid-air. Oh, and at the very end, Sonic has to outrun the world’s biggest 18-wheeler. It’s infinitely replayable, too — we’ve run through the course hundreds of times, at least once in under two minutes flat.
As the introduction to Sonic Adventure 2, "City Escape" seems to suggest that you’re in for a very good, very Sonic-like time. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case. For a certain vocal subset of Sonic fans, the game brought on the end of an era in the series. You don’t just play as Sonic, pushing the speed limit in dozens of levels; in fact, Sonic’s parts make up just a sixth of the game. The rest is devoted to annoying gem fetch quests or awful mech segments starring Sonic’s friends and enemies.
It’s hard to remember if any of the other levels in Sonic Adventure 2 are any good. Certainly none of them come close to the level of pure, perfect, high-speed action that "City Escape" achieves. We’ve put well over 100 hours into the game. We’ve played it like it was a part-time job. But it’s hard to recall the rest of Sonic Adventure 2, obfuscated as it is by Knuckles’ dumb puzzles and Tails’ stupid attempts at a third-person shooter.
But "City Escape" — man, "City Escape" is unforgettable. And its magnificent theme is a major reason why. Songs with a full lyrical treatment, songs that sound like something you might hear on the local pop radio station are still rare in games today; in 2001, they were essentially unheard of. The game opens with this surprise that acts as an immediate shot of adrenaline.
Maybe you don’t like the pop-punk leanings of "Escape from the City." That would be fair. But there’s no denying that the pounding beat and frenetic energy of the song work perfectly to drive you through the level.
And besides, if there’s any musical styling that perfectly captures the mix of family-friendly and edgy that Sonic personifies, it’s bubblegum rock. In fact, everything about this level encapsulates the Sonic ‘tude perfectly. It’s the music, it’s the dumb one-liners, it’s the Soap Shoes ads and product placement.
To not understand the appeal of "City Escape" is, in our opinion, to not understand the appeal of Sonic at all. If there’s any promise for Sonic the Hedgehog to be great, it’s on display in this level, and especially in this song.
Trusting in what you can’t see
The early-‘00s pop-rock music of "Escape From the City" is great, but the song would not work without its words. You cannot ignore the beautiful, ethereal lyrics.
For one, they’re instantly charming. "Rolling around at the speed of sound," the song begins, kicking things off with a simple but unforgettable rhyme. "Got places to go, gotta follow my rainbow" is the next line, and that’s when the song’s thesis statement becomes apparent.
"Escape from the City" is overwhelmingly positive. Despite it scoring a stressful level — Sonic’s on the run from the military and a massive truck, remember? — the song is self-assured, confident and affirming. It’s full of optimism at its catchiest and most assertive.
Not all of it is sunshine and rainbows, though. The resounding message is hopeful, but there are some darker moments. At one point, the vocalists cry out, "Got no other options — only one thing to do!" The repeating internal monologue of "Must keep on moving ahead; no time for guessing, follow my plan instead" also speaks to something more nefarious than the outward positivity. But these lines only help to make the song even more relatable to Sega’s gotta-go-fast mascot. Life is inexplicable and unknowable, and sometimes all you can do is keep running forward. "Escape from the City" doesn’t shy away from that.
The song pushes forth a powerful message, the same emotion that the Sonic games are always chasing. "Follow me," they sing. "Set me free. Trust me, and we will escape from the city." There is a way out of the darkness — and it’s catchy as hell.
Take my lead
By this point, you may be wondering where this all came from. Like, okay, yes, "Escape from the City" is objectively amazing. We’ve determined that. But who created this bit of genius?
Though it’s often attributed to the band Crush 40, "Escape from the City" is actually primarily the product of that band’s guitarist and mastermind, musician Jun Senoue. With his Crush 40 project, Senoue has made some of the most memorable butt rock tracks from Sonic history (and the history of video games in general). For more evidence, you can see Crush 40’s 2011 live performance of "What I’m Made Of" from Sonic Heroes in the video above.
However, contrary to popular belief, "Escape from the City" was not a product of Crush 40, love them though we may. This brilliant track came from Senoue himself, with performances from Tony Harnell (the lead singer of metal band TNT) and Ted Poley (a singer for rock band Danger Danger).
What happened? Why did Senoue craft his greatest accomplishment but not perform it with his own band? Those are the kind of powerful mysteries that have left "Escape from the City" in our minds for over a decade. What’s a timeless rock classic without lingering questions that we may never have the answers for?
(Alternatively, we could probably just interview Jun Senoue and get the answer. It’s probably something boring and simple. But we’re here to celebration "Escape from the City," not disarm it of intrigue!)
One thing is for sure: Whatever its origins, "Escape from the City" has had a lasting impact, both on fans and on the Sonic franchise. The song has been reused in multiple Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games titles. It appeared in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. Most recently, there was a pretty killer remix of the song in Sonic Generations (below).
But even more than its devotion to reusing the track, "Escape from the City" remains in sight as something aspirational. This is what Sonic the Hedgehog should be. These are the speeds he can climb to. This is what awaits in the brightest timeline - an escape from the city of shitty cash-ins.
We’ve lived with mediocre Sonic games for years. Heck, even the game "Escape from the City" is featured in isn’t great. But when we listen to this track, we can’t help but remember everything Sonic should be.
And maybe he will be again. All we have to do is ... follow him.