Before we get started, let’s step outside
the Pantheon for a second.
I have a lot of respect for video game musicians,
the men and women who have crafted iconic
games’ soundtracks, but I think there are
many others who simply don’t get the praise
For every Uematsu and Kondo, there are hundreds
of other composers who I don’t think get
their fair share of praise.
Video game music has undergone so many changes
that it’s difficult to know where to start,
and we’re bound to find some unsung heroes
crafting their own scores.
Today, I want to give props to one of those
unlikely candidates, a group that I feel really
gets overlooked when it comes to musical history
The irony of all this is that the community
is pretty aware and appreciative of this act.
The group has left their mark, but in a more surface-level
appreciation, and I think they deserve more
Let’s talk Jun Sunoue and Johnny Gioeli, and their band Crush 40.
With the 16-bit console wars of the mid-90’s
winding down, Jun Senoue had already established
himself as a strong composer in Sega’s arsenal,
working on several pieces for Sonic the Hedgehog
3 and Sonic 3D Blast, but once Sega named
him as the lead composer and sound director
for the Dreamcast title Sonic Adventure, all
eyes were on him.
No pressure, really; Sunoue knew how to craft
a classic Sonic track.
It would’ve been a slam dunk to use many
of the same stylistic directions that made
Sonic so popular in the early and mid-90’s.
Call it nostalgia blindness if you feel, but
I have a lot of trouble criticizing those
They’re fantastic recordings that have made
their mark in gaming history.
Those tracks melded with the stages’ atmosphere
so deliberately, and even the games that might’ve
missed the mark on a gameplay level still
had quality OSTs.
It all holds up extremely well.
But Sonic’s journey into the third dimension
came with expectations.
This was going to be the defining step for
Sonic as a character and a series, one that
was to show everyone that he’s willing to
go toe-to-toe not just with his rival Mario,
but the entire slew of mascot platform heroes
that appeared since his 16-bit heyday.
There was a lot riding on Sonic Adventure,
but as those early trailers played, it was
clear that things weren’t going to be same.
But it wasn’t just the setting, the tech,
the gameplay…what played over all of these
acrobatics and setpieces was a brand new kind
This mix of hard rock and heavy metal was
built to complement Sonic’s new design and
gameplay, and…it stuck.
This all sounded so modern.
It was Sega firing on all cylinders, kicking
things into overdrive, and giving Sonic a
brand new stylistic palette to work with.
The revving guitar riffs and those wailing
vocals from Gioeli gave Sonic Adventure an
extra jolt of aggression and intensity.
Sure, the lyrics were a bit cheesy, but they
channeled the energy of 80’s rock bands
like Guns N Roses and even Bon Jovi.
No other Sonic game had songs like these;
that theme “Open Your Heart” was such
All of it confidently demonstrated that Sega
was ready to evolve what a Sonic game could
and would be, and that Jun Senoue had every
intention to deliver a soundtrack that was
just as evolutionary.
Past Sonic games had soundtracks that, while
definitely more aggressive than their rivals’,
never leaned into the kind of territory of
Sonic Adventure’s more epic moments.
The main themes especially had a sense of
playfulness to them, which fits Sonic’s
classic character profile well.
Sonic had his moments of seriousness, but
it was always about him teasing his opponents
before blasting past them in a blur.
Sonic always was a speedster hero who was
also a bit of a troll.
The music followed this; even in its most
serious moments, Sonic’s soundtracks were
whimsical and carnivalesque (and I’m not
just talking about the casino levels).
The bouncy beats of Green Hill Zone, the slick
electronics of Chemical Plant, the chilled
atmosphere of Ice Cap, it was all fantastic,
some of the most memorable in Sonic history.
And to be fair, when you consider the entirety
of the soundtrack, Sonic Adventure didn’t
abandon that mentality.
Listening to the level themes, there’s still
a lot of old traditions lingering in that
Emerald Coast and Windy Valley still are pretty
catchy, expanding original composition directions
with enhanced production and more varied instruments.
Individual characters themes are diverse in
genres, giving an identifiable vibe to each
member of the cast.
Old tracks from classic games even got newly
recorded versions for Sonic Adventure.
Really, Sunoue and his team were daring to
mix things up with Sonic Adventure’s soundtrack.
But “Open Your Heart” had something else.
It had stakes.
As far as Sega was concerned, this was going
to be Sonic’s finest hour, because all things
considered, they needed it to be.
The Dreamcast had an uphill battle, so Sonic
Adventure needed to stand and deliver.
“Open Your Heart” as a main theme shows
the scope of Sega’s ambition; it was built
to kick things up a notch, even going so far
as being the initial theme of the game’s
true final boss.
The production for the theme was clearly taking
advantage of the Dreamcast’s capabilities,
even more than the rest of the music, but
it was that singular statement that showed
to everyone what Sonic’s future was going
to be moving forward.
The cheerful playfulness of Sonic’s past
was no longer the primary focus, and in its
place, was a battlecry from Crush 40.
Sunoue continued this direction in Sonic Adventure
2, bursting out from the get-go with “Live
and Learn”, which to this day, has solidified
its place in Sonic’s history.
As the theme of one of the series’ darkest
and most serious games, it was bound to expand
on the heightened stakes of Sonic Adventure’s
theme “Open Your Heart.”
“Live and Learn” is a feature in Sonic
Adventure 2, playing in all sorts of places,
and like “Open Your Heart”, it plays during
the true final boss fight.
From its soaring chorus, intense guitar solo,
and climax at “hold onto what if”, it’s
downright anthemic, as another major statement
from Sunoue for what it meant to be a Sonic
It just roared.
From that point forward, Crush 40 was inseparable
from the Sonic series.
With each new game came another opportunity
to blast down the doors with another anthem.
With Sonic Heroes and Shadow the Hedgehog,
Crush 40 continued to experiment, going for
more upbeat pop rock themes in the former,
and darker industrial influences in the latter.
With each new Sonic game, Sunoue and Crush
40 weren’t far behind, and despite the games’
steady critical decline, the soundtracks always
managed to shine through, with Crush 40’s
contributions standing out amongst
But with Sonic the Hedgehog for the 360 and
PS3, Sunoue’s contributions were far more
subdued, especially with the soundtrack being
handled primarily by Tomoya Ohtani.
Older tracks did make their appearance, but
Sunoue’s hard rock style of music didn’t
appear to fit in with the even grander, cinematic
ambitions that Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 was
With fewer and fewer appearances,
Crush 40 was starting to lose their inherence
to the Sonic the Hedgehog series.
Sunoue’s compositional contributions to
the series began to be reserved to spinoffs
and much of Crush 40’s presence was sectioned
to live performances at Sonic events, like
the Sonic Boom 2013 show in St. Louis, and
the disaster that was Sonic’s 25th anniversary
It was beginning to become clear that Crush
40 had an era of prominence with the Sonic
series, and like any era, it was bound to
come to an end eventually.
But I think we often forget just how big of
a deal Crush 40 were during Sonic’s 3D times.
Even though Sunoue and Gioeli were producing
music long before Sonic Adventure, it was
that opportunity to helm original music for
the game that their potential was apparent
to the masses.
Crush 40 evolved the musical identity of Sonic
the Hedgehog games, no question, but doing
that was risky.
Crush 40’s adrenaline-drenched hard rock
and heavy metal direction was not something
you’d associate with Sonic if you saw him
back in the early 90’s.
Yeah, there was an edge to his personality,
but like I said, it was playful.
During the gap between Sonic’s heyday on
the Genesis and his bold revitalization on
the Dreamcast, games were shedding away that
playful nature and trying to make something
It was clear as day with systems like the
Playstation making waves; Sega and Sonic evolved
to keep pace with a constantly changing market.
There was a push to take that risk and no
guarantee that it would go over well with
the long-time fans of Sonic.
When we look back and see just how big of
a gamble that was, it makes Crush 40’s lasting
legacy all the more impressive.
There are large groups of people who, if you
asked what musical track they’d immediately
think of when Sonic the Hedgehog is brought
up, it wouldn’t be Green Hill Zone’s theme
from Sonic 1.
Not Chemical Plant Zone from Sonic 2, not Ice Cap
Zone from 3, none of those classic era tracks.
Instead, they’d think of “Live and Learn”
from Sonic Adventure 2.
They’d think of a song that strays so far
from Sonic’s musical roots, if you played
the two consecutively to someone with no knowledge
of Sonic the Hedgehog, they probably wouldn’t
even know that the songs are from the same
They’re that different.
Praise Mario’s music as much as you want,
it does deserve that praise, but Nintendo
stayed a pretty steady course with that series
on a musical level.
There weren’t enormous earthshakers, no
dramatic musical shift from 2D to 3D Mario
Sonic, on the other hand, had that paradigm
The music changed so dramatically from 2D
I mean, think about the trailer that announced
Sonic for Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
For a character with such an extensive history
entering such a high-profile title, and being
one of the first third-party characters announced
for the series, it would make a lot of sense
to add his most recognizable music track for
the debut trailer.
But what did they play?
“Live and Learn” by Crush 40.
That was the song that defined Sonic at that
moment in time, a song so different from Sonic’s
past, but one that was ingrained in his cultural
Jun Sunoue pulled off a really tricky move.
For a series with such a footprint, it would’ve
been pretty safe to stick to the classic era’s
guns, and stick with that kind of musical
It would’ve been alright, I’m sure, but
still…a safe move.
But by taking that risk, Crush 40 didn’t
just jump the gap; they stuck the landing
and got the photo finish to boot.
While their grandest moments are still in
the past, slightly spiked by nostalgia, the
fact that they can still hold that value to
the Sonic community is something worth praising.
Sonic’s gone through so many musical changes
over the course of his entire career, from
classic 16-bit jingles in the 90’s to chiptune
throwbacks here in the 2010’s, but Jun Sunoue’s
daring leap into new territory for the series
was really the one to remember, even decades
Crush 40 changed Sonic music and I think they
deserve applause for that.