Reasonable Assessment: The Case For Shiro Maekawa

Reasonable Assessment: The Case For Shiro Maekawa

by January 28, 2017

I can divide you into three camps right about now.

Group A: Oh yay. Shiro Maekawa was cool.

Group B: Ew, gross. Anything but Shiro Maekawa. Come on, Noah! You’re better than that.

Group C: Who the heck is Shiro Maekawa?

For those in Group C, Shiro Maekawa is most known for writing several Sonic The Hedgehog games, notably Sonic Adventure 2. He left Sonic Team some years ago and is now working…somewhere else?

For those of you in Group B, this is part where you roll your eyes while I say positive things about Maekawa.

Let me just come out and say it. I love Sonic Adventure 2. And I don’t care if you don’t. Along with S3&K, I’ve bought it several times on several platforms and I’m still having fun playing it after all these years. Go ahead and whine about how it supposedly “hasn’t aged well,” or whatever you think that means. Have fun playing Ocarina of Time again.

Regardless of what you think of SA2′s gameplay, I’ll still contend that the story is an absolute blast.

Yes. I said it.

The story of SA2 is great.

“Ugh, Noah! You got to be kidding me! That story is an edge-fest and waaaay too serious!” 

No. Absolutely not.

The story is great.

The very first cutscene of the game has Sonic skydiving out of helicopter while making one-liners about airline food, for crying out loud. [sarcasm] Gee. So dark! [/sarcasm]

What game did you people play?

Yes, it had darker/serious moments and undertones, but the story (as a whole) was very campy, over-the-top summer-popcorn action. It was great.

No, it’s not thought-provoking Oscar stuff and it never aimed to be. It’s fun, cinematic, and outrageous, the way an Indiana Jones flick is. And who doesn’t love a good Jones flick?

Speaking of Indiana Jones, I think you can learn a lot about a creative person by who they are influenced by. Maekawa’s opening Babylon cutscene of Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity is clearly influenced by the Spielberg classic Raiders of The Lost Ark, which is just as fun and pulpy.

Yes, these stories are over-the-top, but you can still get invested in them. You absolutely can.

You can take it seriously and have fun with it all at the same time. But if you expect to be in the same sort of place that you are when you would watch A Beautiful Mind, then what the heck is up with your expectations?

Many compare Sonic Adventure 2 to 2005’s Shadow The Hedgehog spin-off game, claiming that both games are examples of the franchise taking itself way too seriously. I don’t understand these comparisons at all. Yes, Shadow The Hedgehog, which was not written by Maekawa, is an overly-serious edge-fest, but Sonic Adventure 2 is not. If you can’t see that, that’s either a lack of critical analysis on your part or foggy memory. If it’s been a while since you’ve played either, revisit them and you’ll see the difference. It’s night and day, the difference between a Marvel movie and a DC movie. One is fun and exciting, the other is an overly-gritty slog.

The epitome of forced edge. (from Shadow The Hedgehog)

Really, Maekawa is a science-fiction writer, clearly influenced by blockbuster Hollywood films. Ever notice the similarities between Sonic Adventure 2’s climax and the climax of Armageddon? (the latter of which, came out in late 1998, right around the time Sonic Team had finished the first Sonic Adventure and were getting ready to start the sequel)

Both feature a giant space rock heading to impact Earth in mere minutes, before our hero has to sacrifice his life to stop it. The only difference is that one hero is a black hedgehog and the other is Bruce Willis. Some of the shots, including the celebration sequence, are similar. If that sounds like I’m stretching, you should take a look at some more gif’s.

Is Maekawa’s writing the most original and cutting-edge stuff ever known to man? No.

Is it still enjoyable? Yup!

“But Noah, what about all the plot holes in SA2? Are you just going to ignore those?”

Excuse me, plot holes? What plot holes? Let’s make it clear, there’s a difference between a “plot hole” and “something that’s left unexplained.”

A plot hole breaks a story’s own internal logic by contradicting something that was previously established. I find that most of things in SA2 that get called a plot hole, aren’t irreconcilable impossibilities, but rather things that are simply left unexplained.

If you don’t know, SA2 was made in barely over a year with a core team of only about 17 people. It went through radical changes in gameplay during development. I imagine that there was a lot of story and exposition that was cut during such a relatively quick dev-cycle. Judging by the unused voice clips found by data miners, we know for a fact that several cutscenes were omitted before the final release. Perhaps the loose strands of the plot were explained in a cut scene that got axed.

Plus, recently-retranslated scripts of SA2 show that the original Japanese dialogue explains more things. This game suffers from poor localization, not poor writing.

Again, for comparison, Shadow The Hedgehog has actual plot holes and inconsistencies. SA2 doesn’t. Maybe people are just mixing up these two games like some sort of “Sinbad-in-a-genie-movie” level of collective memory error?

And really, the biggest thing holding back Sonic Adventure 2’s story isn’t the writing, but the cutscene’s terrible presentation. The timing is off, voice actors’ lines come in too late and go on too long. But then again, this was years before you had devs like Naughty Dog making cinematics based a human actor’s performance in an extensive/expensive motion capture studio. None of that was commonplace yet. In 2001, things were different. Nevertheless, I want to make a clear distinction between writing and presentation for the sake of critical analysis.

But enough about SA2, let’s move on to another Maekawa-penned story. Sonic & The Black Knight, while ranging from mediocre-to-terrible in the gameplay department, has some decent writing. You can always tell when Maekawa is writing a Sonic game by how good the characters feel. They’re natural and have personality. Nothing feels forced.

(from Sonic & The Black Knight)

One particularly memorable moment is when Sonic encounters a child whose village was attacked by a dragon. If you’ve played the game, you know what moment I’m talking about. In brief, Sonic completely abandons his own mission and inconveniences himself to help those in need. Because he “plays by his own rules.” This is one of Sonic’s save-the-cat moments that really makes you like Sonic’s character and his profound desire to help others deep-down.

I also find that Black Knight has Jason Griffith’s best performance of his career as the voice of Sonic. And I think he owes that in part to having solid writing to work with.

Speaking of good characterization, can we take this time to address how Maekawa seems to be the only writer that cares to remind us that Knuckles is, in fact, a treasure hunter? While both SEGA and Pontac/Gaff seem to have forgotten this, there was a time where any character description of Knuckles The Echidna had the words “treasure hunter” somewhere. Nowadays, he’s unfortunately become the village-idiot.

In Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity, Knuckles can read the ancient Babylonian language when no one else can (he’s not only literate, he’s freaking bilingual). He’s also the only one familiar with the ancient temple called the Gigan Rocks, claiming, “It’s a pretty famous ruin among us treasure hunters.” It’s a small detail, but it’s the kind of detail that shows Maekawa understands Knuckles. In other words, he knows that Knuckles is not an all-brawn-no-brain meathead. (In fact, Knuckles derogatorily refers to Storm The Albatross as a “meathead” in the very same game!)

 


Tasteful Blend (Part of a Well-Balanced Breakfast)

Back on SA2, another accomplishment Maekawa managed was his blend between humor and action. I am careful to avoid the word “balance” in this context, because it seems to be a trigger word in this community. Many people have pointed to Pontac & Gaff’s Sonic Colors writing as an example of balance because it has jokes and action. But really, Colors isn’t balanced at all because it’s at least 90% comedy. The subject of comedy in Sonic is an ongoing argument, and could easily be it’s own article (and perhaps will be someday).

Nevertheless, I think Maekawa handled comedy well. (I think I just made people from both sides of this argument mad with that sentence).

Shiro on the left, Pontac of the right.

“Seriously, Noah? SA2 has absolutely zero comedy! It isn’t ever funny and it has never made me laugh,” says both sides of the debate.

See, that’s the thing. SA2 never forces comedy or brings attention to it. It never turns to the audience and says, “oh look! I made a pun! Did you catch that?” But comedy is still there, it’s just a different kind of comedy. Pontac comedy is obvious, Maekawa comedy is more downplayed. That’s why it’s tasteful use of comedy. It’s Aristotelian comedy, not Three Stooges. It doesn’t get in the way, but it does help the story feel less weighty. It makes the story more like a well-blended Empire Strikes Back kind of a story, and less like a A New Hope kind of story. (Does that make the Pontac games the Prequel Trilogy? I see Jar Jar fitting into that analogy somehow).

The comedic moments of SA2 stem naturally from character interactions, not from an array of cheeky punchlines (*cough* Pontac and Gaff). Amy Rose, in particular, is the designated comedic relief character of the whole game.

She freaking rhymes, for Pete’s sake.

Throughout SA2, Amy always seems to be the butt-end of every scenario. She gets ignored. She gets left-behind. She gets rejected by Sonic. And it’s always light-hearted and in good fun because the stakes are never high for her. Her main goal isn’t to save or destroy the world; her goal is to simply follow her hopeless love interest around like a little school girl. She’s there to contrast herself with the heaviness and darkness of the main plot. She acts as a nice a breather to keep the constant action/drama from becoming repetitive Chinese-water-torture. A tasteful contrast, if you will.

 


The Stain of 2006

“Okay, that’s all fine and dandy, Noah. You’re still failing to address the biggest mark against Shiro Maekawa.”

Ok. Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about Maekawa’s involvement with Sonic 06.

Same. (from Sonic The Hedgehog 2006)

Now, if you know me, you know that I don’t like Sonic 06. In fact, I punished myself live on TSSZ’s twitch page by watching all 2+ hours of the game’s cutscenes because I lost a bet. The story, in particular, is pretty bad in that game.

So it appears I’m caught in a trap, and those in Group B are licking their lips right now. I said that I like Maekawa’s writing, but I hate Sonic 06′s story (as does a huge portion of the fanbase). How could I possibly convince you that Maekawa’s writing is good when he has this big stain on his resume?

Well, I think we need take a closer look at what Maekawa actually did for Sonic 06.

While I can’t say for certain how Japanese game studios do it, there is a creative role distinction you’ll commonly see in the American film and television industry: the “story by” and “written/script by” distinction.

Ever watch the opening credits to a TV show and see something like this?

Yes, this is from Batman: The Animated Series.

Story by Alan Burnett. Teleplay by Steve Perry. Basically that means that Alan Burnett (story by) came up with overall plot, the outline, the events/scenarios, and the general idea. Meanwhile, Steve Perry (teleplay/script) took that idea and actually wrote down specific dialogue and what-not in a physical screenplay.

Well, look at what we have here for Sonic 06, according to Sonic Retro.

 

Story by Shun Nakamura. Script by Shiro Maekawa (and Kiyoko Yoshimura).

This distinction is huge. 

Maekawa was likely not responsible for a lot of the executive narrative decisions of the game. And if/when he was, he shared that responsibility with another writer (Ms. Yoshimura). Sonic 06 really seems to belong to this Shun Nakamura guy, as he was also chief game designer in addition to being credited with director, game title, and game story. That’s a lot of influence coming from Shun, and not from our good pal Maekawa.

Plus, there are three different stories being told in Sonic 06. There’s Sonic’s story, Shadow’s story, and Silver’s story. Frankly, I’m just spit-balling here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Maekawa was mostly responsible for Shadow’s story. Free of cringey hedgehog-princess relationships, Shadow’s story actually features some great character moments from the black hedgehog, including his defiant speech shortly before the credits. Against all odds, Shadow’s characterization in 06 is his only post-SA2 depiction that isn’t a dumb misinterpretation of his character. After all, Maekawa was instrumental in creating Shadow, so it makes sense that he would return to handle his own character properly.

But I could be wrong. Maybe Maekawa simply dropped the ball with Sonic 06 and made some bad decisions. It’s entirely possible for a creative person to make both good works and bad works. Do I need to bring up Indiana Jones again and its terrible fourth movie?

Sonic 06’s story is bad and I don’t like it. But I do like Maekawa’s other works. And guess what? That’s ok!

The terribleness of Sonic 06‘s story shouldn’t affect anything other than Sonic 06. All of Maekawa’s other stories are separate entities. And surely there is one of those stories that you liked.

Or maybe there isn’t. Maybe you hate all of them. I don’t think Maekawa is a bad writer. I think he found a good tone for the series and I don’t mock people who praise him. If you disagree, that’s fine. I still think there’s a fair case to be made in favor of Maekawa. That’s my assessment. I hope it’s a reasonable one.

What do you think? Having a different opinion? I’m not just saying that. I do read the comment section, I really do. If you leave a comment, I will read it, and may feature it in Noah’s Comment Spotlight. It’s all good, fam.

BIO: Noah Copeland is a somewhat-interesting human. He makes music, makes films, and stands at exactly average height. You can find him on his TSSZ author page, or on Twitter@NoahCopeland, where he posts his creative works and slightly less-thought-out essays of 140 characters.