Although Sonic’s fortunes since going fully 3D have been mixed, some of his supporting cast and hangers-on have had it far worse; few more so than poor old Shadow the Hedgehog.
Sonic Adventure represented a number of firsts for the series, among which was an inaugural attempt to furnish proceedings with a meaningful narrative. The resulting yarn was by no means atrocious, but even the most ardent zealot would concede that there was definitely room for improvement; clearly, a sequel would need to up the ante considerably. Some manner of ‘evil Sonic’ had arguably always been on the cards, and on what better occasion to pull out all the stops and finally make it a reality than the centenary of the series’ Mega Drive debut?
Sonic Adventure 2‘s original teaser trailer hinted at what would become its central theme; the contrast between good and evil. In it, the phrase Ultimate Life Form is spliced with profile shots of the then unnamed Shadow the Hedgehog. It was an exciting time to be one of the SEGA faithful, even if by that stage it was clear that the Dreamcast wasn’t going to go the distance, and that Sonic Adventure 2 would likely be the last game in the series to grace the short-lived console.
One of Dreamcast era Sonic’s undisputed triumphs is Yuji Uekawa’s glorious complimentary artwork. Such a thing does not a good game make, of course, but everybody loves a bit of eye candy. In his original, anime-style concept, Shadow looks pretty badass, and is clearly intended to starkly contrast Sonic’s, bright, chirpy demeanor and clean-cut look. Sadly, subsequent installments have largely relied on loveless, sterile renders as promotional assets. It should be noted that although Uekawa was tasked with bringing Shadow to life from a visual standpoint, he was actually the brainchild of director (et al) Takashi Iizuka.
Shadow’s back story and onscreen persona were pretty cliché; he was portrayed as a dark and moody sociopath, but one made so by circumstance rather than a fundamental ‘wrongness’. Compared to the embarrassing Saturday morning cartoonisms of the rest of the cast, though, Shadow positively oozed personality. He was was central to the very premise of Sonic Adventure 2, and his presence shook things up so as to make the game very distinct from its predecessor, yet it still remain recognizably ‘Sonic’.
With Shadow being billed as Sonic’s darker, more serious analog, it was unsurprising that their stages played identically; in fact, there’s a mod for the PC version of Sonic Adventure 2 that allows them to enter one another’s, and even before then the same could be achieved in the GameCube iteration via an Action Replay cheat system. Fans had few qualms regarding the two characters similarities, as the ‘high-speed 3D action’ stages (in the game’s tutorial’s words) were Sonic Adventure 2’s best bit.
After a final, climactic orbital battle with the oddly monickered ‘Final Hazard’ alongside Super Sonic, Shadow plummeted to Earth, and his death, you’d be forgiven for assuming. Ironically, this would have been a far more dignified end for the upstart anti-hero; bowing out as a one off pseudo-antagonist just passing through for the series’ 10th anniversary, dignity intact. Sadly, it was not to be.
Shadow was resurrected in short order for multi-platform curiosity, Sonic Heroes, which explained his miraculous survival away with a temporary and convenient nostalgia, and later (spoiler alert, as if you care) the implication that you’d actually been controlling a robot all along. As bad an omen as this was for Shadow’s future, vain hope remained that this may simply be an isolated error of judgement on SEGA’s part.
Released in 2005, Shadow The Hedgehog thrust our broody, dark-spined friend into the limelight, for what will likely be the first and last time. The game’s cardinal sin was inexplicably adding guns to the, by then, well-established 3D Sonic paradigm. This and a great many other missteps, such as the eyebrow-raising revelation that Shadow was created from alien DNA, yet somehow came out hedgehog-shaped, and the utter ridiculousness of said aliens’ leader, Black Doom, who sounded like Darth Vader might if he smoked 40 a day, contributed to the utter ruination of Shadow’s credibility.
Things went from bad to worse, as the down-on-his-luck ‘hog was awkwardly shoehorned into subsequent Sonic games of all shapes and sizes. Admittedly, he wasn’t too out of place in oddball Game Boy Advance brawler, Sonic Battle, but the unmitigated train wreck that was 2006’s attempted series reboot, for example, removed most of Shadow’s speed, seemingly granting him access to mid-air martial arts and a slew of vehicles that looked like Pound Shop (99c store) toys by way of recompense. The intention was to clearly to preemptively allay concerns of the game’s all-hedgehog cast playing too similarly, but as stated earlier, Shadow works best as a thematic and aesthetic counterweight to Sonic; more of a change of scenery than a different beast entirely.
It’s kind of ironic that Shadow’s starring in his own game was what really started him down the path to obscurity. His original concept was strong, and really added something to the game in which he debuted. Sadly, SEGA really didn’t know when to stop, and now he’s just another member of the Sonic series’ bloated supporting cast, deployed as a convenient vehicle for whatever plot device as and when required – surely a fate far worse than burning up on reentry 13 years ago?
What is there left to say, except sayonara, Shadow the Hedgehog?