Last week, I covered the character concept art from the Sonic the Hedgehog Material Collection, and this week I want to talk about something similar – more concept art from Sonic 1‘s development, but this time of zones.
The first 8 of these images are scans generously donated by Tom Payne.
The writing in Japanese at the top of the image helpfully includes a number, so this is considered the first drawing, although I don’t know if that indicates that it was literally drawn first. The text refers to the background being styled like Southeast Asia, and also describes “gold-coloured plating”.
The second image ought to be familiar to anyone who has seen Green Hill Zone in the Sonic 1 beta, with those layers of foreground rocks and trees:
Further indicating its connection to Green Hill Zone is the notation at the top, describing it as a “CG styled stage”. Even though Green Hill Zone was designed by hand, Sonic Team was intentionally going for a computer graphics look. This is confirmed by Yuji Naka himself in the Sonic Jam Official Guide (translation by G Silver):
This is the stage that took the designers the longest to get properly arranged, and from the beginning of development the graphics were probably redone 4 or five times. The art and maps for this zone alone took half a year to produce! At the time, we were aware of computer graphics, but we tried to get that look by hand (laugh)
So it’s entirely possible that the drawing above is the first image of Green Hill Zone to ever exist… pretty heavy.
The third image is a “rocky mountain and underwater stage”. The caption refers to using the jump to cross the water – an ability that never made it into the 16-bit games but was present in many of the 8-bit ones – and also makes it clear that it would be a Japanese styled stage, as if a giant Mount Fuji in the background wasn’t obvious enough.
Given Sonic Team’s strong desire to make Sonic popular and palatable in the West, I would speculate that this and the other Asian styled level were dropped early on. It’s a real shame, too – I think something like this would have been really cool, and I would be interested in particular to know how Masato Nakamura would have approached the BGM for the zone.
Image number 4 is a “stage where the ground shakes”. It seems at first like a concept of Marble Zone, but the ground shaking idea wasn’t used until Hill Top Zone in Sonic 2 and then again in Marble Zone’s spiritual successor Marble Garden Zone in Sonic 3.
Image number 5 shows a “cosmic stage”, with stars, shimmering aurorae, and beams of light that remind me of the searchlights from Stardust Speedway. It’s possible that the white hills depict snow, to go with the aurora in the sky, but the description of a “cosmic stage” might also suggest it could be an alien environment with silver moon dust.
Even more interesting is the caption’s reference to a 2-Player mode, showing that the idea was considered even before Sonic 2 – when Miles “Tails” Prower was not yet a twinkle in Judy Totoya’s eye.
The caption also suggests that Sonic would be able to jump higher in this stage, I’m assuming because of lower gravity. (This concept was used in Super Mario Land 2 on the Game Boy.)
Image number 6 is described in the caption as a “spirit world stage”, which sounds like something straight out of the Goemon series, complete with spooky mist and ghostly spirit fire. It really is amazing how much more patently Japanese a lot of these concept drawings are than the finished game.
Image number 7’s caption calls it a “stage of laboratory equipment”, and and we can see steaming pipes and boiling chambers in the drawing.
It’s easy to miss, but in the upper middle is a 3-digit rolling counter much like an odometer. It’s cute, but if implemented it would take a lot up a lot of VRAM unless the tiles were dynamically loaded.
Image number 8 is quite clearly the basis for what would eventually become Scrap Brain Zone. The caption calls it a “megalopolis stage”, which of course will remind one of Metropolis Zone and Gigalopolis (Gigapolis) Zone.
The caption talks about how it’s tricky to get inside the rotating sections.
So that accounts for the first 8 images, but we’re not done yet. Though these are the only images provided by Tom Payne, there are others in the set that have popped up in different places over the years.
In the Sonic Jam Official Guide, on page 127, we can see on the middle left there is a new image, this time showing what looks like Labyrinth Zone, complete with gargoyle heads and pouring water.
Here’s a slightly better image from my personal copy of the guide (it’s hard to get a good shot without cracking the spine, so please forgive the quality):
Mostly consisting of reprinted Archie Sonic comics, it’s notable for having a “Complete History of Sonic the Hedgehog” page which gives us a look at even more of these zone concept drawings (scan first posted by JenHedgehog):
Here’s a closer look:
No, I have no idea what “PLAELY” means either, but it reminds me of the “Welcome” sign from Green Hill Zone in the Sonic 1 beta:
And now for detail shots of the other zones:
This one is labeled as though it is supposed to be Star Light Zone, but it bears very little resemblance to the final version. It’s possible that the magazine is just making an assumption.
Maddeningly, none of these images beyond the first 8 have captions. I wish we could find proper scans somewhere.
And this one – Marble Zone – is the final image that I know about.
Despite image number 4 bearing such a resemblance to Marble Zone, this image is clearly the exact zone, so I have to assume that the two concepts were fused for the final version.
We can see even more similarity to Marble Zone in another version of the image, which was displayed at the Sonic the Hedgehog 25th Birthday Party Anniversary Exhibition from 2011 (image discovered here by Orengefox):
Above the temple, the floating squares from the beta version of Marble Zone can be clearly seen.
Surrounding the Sonic 1 concept drawings you can see ones that appear to be for Sonic 2 and – judging by the style – are possibly drawn by Yasushi Yamaguchi. These have never been fully documented or completely seen, and they are surely as fascinating as the Sonic 1 ones. But that would be a subject for another Sonic Second altogether.
So, what else can be said about these cool concept drawings? Well, for one, I find it intriguing that out of all the ones we have none appear to be concepts for zones from the 8-bit Sonic 1, which could suggest that those zones – Bridge Zone, Jungle Zone, and Sky Base Zone – were dreamed up by the creators of that game and were not leftover ideas for Sonic Team’s 16-bit version of the game. Of course, since we can’t be sure we’ve seen all the concept images that may exist, this is only speculation.
It’s also not confirmed who drew these Sonic 1 concept images. It’s possible it was Naoto Ohshima, but we don’t know for sure – it’s equally possible they were drawn by Hirokazu Yasuhara (with whom Tom Payne, who donated the first 8 scans, worked directly, unlike Ohshima). It’s also logical that they may have been drawn by Rieko Kodama or Jina Ishiwatari, the zone artists for the game. The best evidence right now is the Japanese text in the Sonic Jam Official Guide, which – according to Google Translate – says that Ohshima provided the treasured images during the interview.
If you have any knowledge about these images, or have seen any that I might have missed, please let me know in the comments.
P.S. The Sonic Jam Official Guide is hella cool, and it’s not that hard to get your hands on one from eBay. I got mine from this seller and it was a fantastic experience, so if you want a piece of Sonic history, go for it!)