I’ve been a fan of the Sonic franchise for almost my entire life. Over the years, I’ve seen Sonic’s ups, downs, and all-arounds, either first-hand or from a safe distance. The franchise’s difficulties with maintaining relevance in the modern day have produced an incredible amount of debate as to what works and what doesn’t work for Sonic games. Fans have argued over every aspect of the series: game mechanics, storytelling, character redesigns, and so on.
One particularly controversial figure in the Sonic series is Shadow the Hedgehog. Shadow is simultaneously a fan-favorite character, often ranking in the top five in popularity polls, and a symbol of everything wrong with the series post Dreamcast era, with many fans citing him as an egregiously clichéd “bad Sonic”.
So is Shadow a bad character? Is he just a cheap and cliched “anti-Sonic” or does he bring something of his own to the series? Let’s take a closer look are the Sonic franchise’s resident antihero to find out.
While I will admit there are many legitimate issues one can take with Shadow’s characterization (convoluted, self-contradicting back-story; inconsistent characterization; the entirety of Shadow the Hedgehog, etc.), when it comes to the question of whether or not Shadow is a walking cliché, I think the issue isn’t as open and shut as many like to make it out to be.
Trope vs. Cliche
Let’s start by establishing some terminology. A trope is an identifiable narrative element or technique, often recognizable across multiple works, such as the damsel in distress or magical ancient swords destined to slay evil. A cliché—at least for the purposes of this article—is what happens when a trope is overused to the point that the audience is distracted by its inclusion, and is often a mark of lazy, uninspired, or simply unskilled writing. As you can guess, tropes aren’t really good or bad, just tools to tell stories. Clichés—on the other hand—generally should be avoided like a hackneyed idiom.
With that out of the way, let’s get back to Shadow. Is he really an example of a cliched “bad Sonic” archetype? Well, it’d be foolish of me to try to argue that Shadow doesn’t fit the “evil counterpart” role. Even his name was chosen to convey that he’s a dark reflection of Sonic. That said, is this just an example of a trope or is it a cliché?
It’d be foolish of me to try to argue that Shadow doesn’t fit the “evil counterpart” role.
Let’s examine the evil counterpart trope. The trope occurs whenever the hero has an enemy that is similar to thonself in one or more notable ways, often times backstory and/or abilities. This trope is appealing for a couple of reasons: it gives a chance to explore what a character would be like without thon’s guiding principles and it allows the hero to fight an opponent that’s similar in ability to thonself (thus requiring thon to exploit thon’s own weaknesses). The latter reason is probably what makes it so popular in video games; it gives players a chance to face an opponent with their own abilities, which isn’t common in single-player and non-competitive games. Other examples from gaming include: Wario to Mario (and Waluigi to Luigi), Akuma to Ryu, Dark Samus to Samus, Liquid Snake to Solid Snake, Dark Link to Link, Bass to Mega Man—like I said, it’s a popular trope in video games.
So what does it look like as a cliché? Well, where the line lies between respectable trope and cliché is a bit murky, as are most things in fuzzy, subjective disciplines such as literary critique. With that in mind, there are observable commonalities between uses of the trope and—by extension—symptoms of the cliché. In a sense, the common elements between cliched instances of the evil counterpart trope are themselves evil counterparts to the common elements of the normal trope. Keep in mind, not every instance of the trope is going to exhibit these tendencies, and some perfectly good evil counterparts may even have one or two elements from the cliched side of the table.
|The character’s origin is somehow tied to the hero: similar upbringing, former ally, etc.||The character’s creation is somehow tied to the hero: the E.C. is a clone, an alternate universe version, or a robot built to mimic the hero.|
|The character has similar abilities to the hero, though often times with subtle differences or emphasizing a contrasting element/field.||The E.C. has the exact same abilities, except possibly even more powerful than the hero’s.|
|The E.C., being evil, is brought into conflict with the hero.||The E.C. is obsessed with defeating the hero, often (though not always) to establish some sort of legitimacy (i.e. better than the original).|
|The E.C.’s personality, while often sharing some traits with the hero’s, ultimately serves to contrast with the hero’s.||The E.C. is basically the hero without the hero’s virtues and/or with the hero’s vices exaggerated.|
I should stress that this isn’t a comprehensive list of every common trait of the E.C. character archetype; these are just the ones that I think are most pertinent to the analysis of the cliched side of the trope. For instance, there’s certainly discussion to be had on how a character’s appearance factors in. Unfortunately, with the possible exception of just scribbling a goatee on the original character, I’m not sure if there’s an easy delineation between the trope and the cliché on that front.
But I digress, let’s examine where Shadow sits on each of the above issues.
How Does Shadow Compare?
Let’s go through each of the above points, starting with Shadow’s origins. And right off the bat, Shadow not only defies the cliché, but even the trope itself! Shadow’s backstory has absolutely nothing to do with Sonic what-so-ever. For those of you unfamiliar with Shadow’s backstory, he was created fifty years before the events of Sonic Adventure 2 by Dr. Gerald Robotnik in an attempt to create the ultimate life form, decades before Sonic was even born. Usually an evil counterpart’s origins at the very least have some parallels to the character thon is an evil counterpart to, not here. Come to think of it, that might explain why Shadow seems so bemused by Sonic insisting he’s a faker when they meet on Prison Island.
Right off the bat, Shadow not only defies the cliché, but even the trope itself!
Next up is Shadow’s powers and abilities. I admit, this item has the finest line between the basic trope and the cliché (in general, not just regarding Sonic and Shadow) so opinions may differ. It’s true that Shadow does usually have all of Sonic’s abilities, mostly for gameplay reasons (though to be fair, this is more or less true for the entirety of the cast in the 2D games). That said, I’d argue there are two important details to note. Firstly, the source of his speed: he doesn’t run fast like Sonic—and just about every other rival to Sonic—does, he skates. To me, this illustrates that at least some thought and effort was put into distinguishing him from Sonic.
Okay, admittedly that’s a bit superficial. What isn’t superficial is Shadow’s other notable power: chaos control. While it’d be easy to dismiss this as being the “but even more powerful” part of the cliché, the fact that’s not an ability or even similar to an ability Sonic ever possessed prior to Shadow’s introduction in Sonic Adventure 2 means it does differentiate Shadow’s skill set from Sonic’s. Well, until Sonic copies chaos control at the end of S.A.2, at least.
Alright, so we’ve looked at some subtle distinctions between Sonic and Shadow’s physical abilities, but what about their mental attributes? How do their personalities stack up to one another? Well, first of all there’s the obvious differences between the characters. Sonic is brash, impatient, a thrill seeker, and likes to live foot-loose and fancy free. Shadow—on the other hand—is far more reserved, contemplative, and less expressive.
These differences are especially evident in how the two character approach solving problems. Sonic prefers tackle issues head on; if strategy is required, he typically defers to others to come up with a plan of action. Shadow, by contrast, is shown to be quite the schemer: after being freed by Dr. Robotnik (Ivo, not Gerald) in the beginning of the Dark Story in Sonic Adventure 2, Shadow quickly identifies Dr. Robotnik as a valuable asset and recruits him—and later Rouge—in searching for the Chaos Emeralds. Of course, if you’ve reached the end of Sonic Adventure 2, you know this was actually just a ploy to get revenge on humanity, and Shadow was just playing Eggman like a fiddle. So while Shadow isn’t adverse to getting his hands dirty, he clearly shows a greater inclination toward plots and strategy than Sonic.
Sonic typically defers to others to come up with a plan of action. Shadow, by contrast, is shown to be quite the schemer.
Between the differences in their outward behavior and approaches to problem solving, I think it’s safe to say Sonic and Shadow’s personalities serve to contrast each other. Really, the only major personality trait that they share with one another is that they’re both exceedingly self-confident. As such, Shadow’s personality falls more in line with the standard trope rather than the cliché.
Finally, let’s examine how Shadow and Sonic’s relationship compares to the above trends of the trope and the cliché. Interestingly, their dynamic is actually inverted from what it would be for a cliched main character/evil counterpart pair. Throughout Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic’s actually obsessed with finding and defeating Shadow to clear his own name and prove Shadow’s the “fake”. Meanwhile, Shadow mostly ignores him, regarding him as little more than a nuisance until their final confrontation.
So from all of that, we can see that Shadow only half-qualifies for one of the aforementioned traits of a cliched evil counterpart. In fact, looking at many of the character’s traits through the lens of the commonalities of his character archetype reveal that Shadow isn’t a cliché, but that he actually subverts much of what we’d expect to see in such a character. So we can conclude that Shadow the Hedgehog—whether by design or by simply by fluke—is actually an interesting and fairly original take on the evil counterpart trope.
Well, at least he was…
Attentive readers may have noticed something a bit off about my analysis of Shadow as a character: I only ever cited his portrayal in Sonic Adventure 2.
After S.A.2, Shadow became quite a hit with much of the fanbase. As such, Sega brought him back for subsequent games. Since Shadow had already undergone a redemption arc in S.A.2, Sega decided to revise him as an anti-hero. Now, keeping an evil-counterpart in a series by making thon an anti-hero is already bordering on cliché, but by time Shadow the Hedgehog rolled around, Sonic Team decided to reduce him to just being “edgy Sonic”. This was especially noticeable in Shadow’s self-titled game, Shadow the Hedgehog, best known for giving Shadow fire arms and a foul mouth. Shadow went from a reserved, level-headed schemer to being defined by violent anger.
So is Shadow a cliched evil counterpart to Sonic? No, he’s a cliched “edgy” antihero, which given his previous status as an E.C., is a cliché in it’s own right.