The Sonic Second: The First Sonic Hackers

19, 65, 09, 17

1, 9, 9, 2, 1, 1, 2, 4

4, 1, 2, 6

A lot of video games had cheat codes, but the codes in Sonic were the best, and the best of those were in Sonic 2. The codes were hardly secret, being circulated in most of the gaming magazines of the time, and the Level Select menu was clearly intended for players to access, with a polished user-friendly interface and unique graphical icons for each zone. You didn’t even need quick fingers to press an obtuse combination of buttons, but merely had to input a sequence of numbers into the Sound Test. The sequence of numbers was Yuji Naka’s date of birth, with the results being an easily memorable code and him having the most famous birthday of any game developer.

Entering another date (the game’s own international release day, 1992-11-24, a.k.a. “Sonic Twosday”) on this screen would give up another goodie – Debug Mode. In addition to being a great name for a 16-bit Depeche Mode cover band, it was the coolest cheat code ever; it allowed the player to turn Sonic into myriad other objects from the game and place them in the layout (where they would remain until the screen scrolled far enough way that they were cleaned up by the object manager). It wasn’t a fully-fledged level editor, but it was the next best thing.

Sega clearly wanted us to find and enjoy Debug Mode. It would have been trivial to disable it. It’s not really talked about much, but this feature really made the Sonic games stand out. They all had it, not just Sonic 2, but no other game I played at the time – or, for that matter, since – has had anything like it. Certainly not the Mario games that were the direct competition. This, plus Sega’s endorsement of the Game Genie for Genesis while Nintendo sued Galoob, made Sonic perfect for players who liked to get their hands slick with the guts of a game. With Debug Mode, we poked and prodded the running game for a response like gaming Galens.

While the leaked Sonic 2 beta would be the flame around which the hacker moths of the early online Sonic scene would circle, I believe that Debug Mode and the Game Genie were already sparking the hacking attitude in players back in the early ’90s. In some sense, you could say those who used these codes and features were the first Sonic hackers.

I honestly think that this is yet one more of the ways the Sonic series is so special. The games themselves fostered an ability to enjoy them from any angle, from front to back and inside out, and that’s part of the reason why there’s such a vibrant and talented hacking scene surrounding them today.


Next time on The Sonic Second, I’ll be counting down my favourite Sonic hacks, but for now I’ll leave you with a video of one of the silly and fun things I did with Debug Mode back in the day. (I’ve recreated it using emulation so I can record it and provide a savestate, but I used to do it on hardware.)

I love the classic physics! Here’s the savestate (for Gens). Can you jump up all the doors without falling down?


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The Sonic Second: Sonic History Video

Last time on The Sonic Second, I talked about the promotional videocassette for Sonic 2. Well, Sonic 3 got one as well, albeit one that’s less than two thirds the duration at only 6 minutes long. This time it’s not billed as a “CHIRA-video”, either, but as a “Sonic History Video”, and it focuses mostly on exactly that, with only the briefest of Sonic 3 teases at the end.

Again like last time, you can watch the whole video below, and I’ll be posting a breakdown with images of the packaging, screenshots, and my thoughts below that.

Unlike the Sonic 2 promo video, which had a paper insert in a plastic case making it look almost like a slim Genesis game, this one has a cheaper folded cardboard sleeve. It’s still cool, but for a picky collector like me it’s kind of annoying that they don’t match. (Sonic & Knuckles came in a cardboard box, though, so these are just the kind of irksome things one has to learn to move on from.) Again, the cover artwork is the same as the game’s.

The tape itself, however, does match the Sonic 2 one quite well.

And that’s it – as far as I know, no coupons or anything were included with it. So let’s get started with the video. It opens with the same “Sega!” animation as the Sonic 2 promo video.

Then oddly, there’s footage of the Sonic CD opening cartoon, complete with Sonic CD music.

This is a little confusing – if the viewer wasn’t lucky enough to know about the comparatively rare Sonic CD, they might get the impression that this cartoon and music had something to do with the game being promoted, because there’s no indication otherwise. In fact, Sonic CD music is used here and there all throughout the video.

The cartoon culminates in a deft piece of editing that has Sonic’s spinning jump smoothly transition to his jump that smashes the Sega logo in the Sonic 3 intro sequence. Then the “Sonic History Video” title is shown. Not quite as fancy as the gentle fun(?) being poked at Mario and Luigi in the previous video – just a grey background.

Like the previous video, there’s a character section that starts with Sonic, but this time they jump right into it. It’s called “All About Sonic!”, and technically, it’s more than one section, because it’ll keep coming back throughout the video for each character’s profile.

Sonic’s profile:

  • Nickname: Sonic
  • Type: Hedgehog
  • Gender: Male
  • Age: 15~16 years old
  • Weakness: Swimming

For the sake of comparison, here’s Sonic’s profile from Sonic Jam (Japanese and English versions):

(I find it interesting that neither Japanese profile commits to an age here, and the American one used 16. Sega now uses 15 according to Sonic’s profile on the official Japanese site.)

Back to the video! In the case of Sonic only, the profile goes into more detail, focusing on three of his individual traits.

For “Hair”, the Sonic 2 special stage is shown, because it’s the best 3D demonstration of Sonic’s spines.

For “Hand”, Sonic 2‘s waiting animation is shown, with Sonic looking at his watch.

For “Shoes”, footage of Sonic running – actually from Sonic 3 this time! – is shown, and the narrator mentions Michael Jackson’s “dancing shoes” from Bad. Naoto Ohshima has mentioned these as the inspiration for Sonic’s shoes in later interviews (e.g. in Gamasutra).

The next section is called “Making of Sonic!”, and whereas Yuji Naka got to talk in the previous video, this one has Naoto Ohshima.

The black and white document being quickly flipped through at the beginning of the segment has some interesting stuff in it I’ve not seen elsewhere. It’s got an odd mix of Japanese and American art – I’d love to see the whole thing, I’m sure there’s great stuff in it, whatever it is. These are terribly blurry, but you can see what looks like Sonic and Tails yawning, running, and a picture of Sonic with a telescope.

After that, while Ohshima talks, a bunch of concept art for the character contest that resulted in Sonic’s creation is shown. This video is the source for many of these images you’ll see around the ‘net.

Finally it’s narrowed down to two rough sketches by Yasushi Yamaguchi (who would later create Miles “Tails” Prower) and Ohshima himself. The latter, at the bottom of the screen, is the famous “Mr. Needlemouse”, or more technically “Mr. Harinezumi” – a Japanese compound word meaning “hedgehog” made from “hari” (needle) and “nezumi” (rat/mouse).

Once Ohshima’s design was chosen, Sonic started to take shape, resulting in his final design.

The segment ends with a mention of Sonic’s public reveal, at Dreams Come True’s Wonder 3 concert tour in Japan.

(As an aside, there’s some music throughout this video that’s not from any Sonic games, and it’s particularly striking in this “Making of Sonic” section. It sounds suitable for Sonic though, and I wonder if it’s just stock music or if someone from Sega composed it.)

The next section is “History of Sonic!”

It opens with this weird drawing of Sonic flying some vehicle (possibly the Tornado, although it would have to be awfully off-model) in pursuit of Robotnik, whose hovercraft has insect wings like something out of Studio Ghibli’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Robotnik appears to have captured Tails, and there’s also a very disturbed bird. There’s no real explanation for its inclusion here.

Next Sonic 1 is shown, and its subsection concludes with some nice drawings of Dr. Eggman.

Next Sonic 2 is shown, and its subsection concludes with Tails’ profile to match Sonic’s at the beginning of the video.

Tails’ Profile:

  • Nickname: Tails
  • Type: Fox
  • Gender: Male
  • Age: 8 years old
  • Favourite Thing: Mechanical Tinkering

Again, Sonic Jam profile for comparison:

(You may note that Prower is transliterated into Japanese in two different ways here. The video, as well as the booklets for Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, use “PA-U-WAA”, while Sonic Jam matches Sonic 2 and Sega’s current official profile with “PA-U-AA”. The Terada/Norimoto manga uses yet a third way, “PAA-A-WAA”. None of these actually sound like “Prower” – I would have gone with “PU-RA-WAA” myself (compare “power” and “flower”) but what do I know? I also find it weird that “Miles” and “Tails” are both transliterated with a “SU” sound at the end instead of a “ZU”, despite the latter being how “Knuckles” is transliterated. But I’m probably digressing way too much here….)

Next, the video finally gets to the good stuff (from the point of view of a player at the time who’s excited for the next game). Sonic 3, and the new character, Knuckles!

Knuckles’ profile:

  • Nickname: Knuckle
  • Type: Echidna
  • Gender: Male
  • Age: Older than 15
  • Pastime: Digging Holes

Again, Sonic Jam profile for comparison:

It seems a little silly that his nickname is “Knuckle”, but even the narrator of the video calls him that. Also, his age in the video is listed as more than 15, while Sonic Jam just says 15. Seems weird for him to be possibly younger than Sonic, and I guess Sega realised this too, as he’s now listed as simply 16, a year older than Sonic.

With Knuckles introduced, the video goes on to show off the three new shields.

“Thunder Shield”, called “Thunder Barrier” in the Japanese manual for the game and “Lightning Shield” in the US manual. I think it’s interesting that the video uses “shield” despite being Japanese where “barrier” was always the preferred term, even well into the Sonic Adventure era.

“Aqua Shield”, called “Aqua Barrier” in the Japanese manual and “Water Shield” in the US manual.

“Flame Shield”, called “Flame Barrier” in the Japanese manual and “Flame Shield” in the US manual.

(Because there wasn’t any reason to match what the instruction booklet said exactly, I grew up calling them the “Lightning Shield”, “Bubble Shield”, and “Fire Shield”, just because those sounded the most natural to me at the time.)

I guess the new elemental shields were something they were really proud of, because they are the only new features of Sonic 3 that get specific attention. All the other cool stuff, like Ice Cap’s snowboarding and the new Special Stages are relegated to a tiny montage at the end, and then the video is over, signing off with a cute animation and the phrase “See you next Sonic!”

And I’ll see you next Sonic Second. 🙂


h/t Sonic Retro

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The Sonic Second: Sonic 2 Promo Video (Caution: GIF heavy)

In 1992, in order to promote the imminent release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sega produced a Japan-only promotional videocassette. It was much the same thing that Nintendo of America would do a couple years later for the likes of Donkey Kong Country and Starfox 64 so that they could crow about their new technologies in long-form video, hoping to make more of an impact than print or television advertisements. (The technique worked – seeing footage of Starfox 64 from that tape made me covet the game like nothing before or since.)

But I’m here to talk about the Sonic 2 video. You can watch the whole nine and a half minute video below, and if you find yourself confused and bored because it’s in Japanese, just scroll down to read my breakdown of the highlights.

Before we get to the video breakdown, let’s begin with the physical videocassette and its packaging. The cover is very similar to the Japanese Mega Drive game box, with the same artwork and a similar logo and overall layout.

(It’s called a “CHIRA-video”. Google Translate wasn’t very helpful, but my best guess would be that it means “sneak peak video”.)

The tape itself has bold blue and white labeling.

Also included is a cashback coupon which could be used to get 1000 yen off of purchasing the game. (At least, I assume that’s its function.)

Now let’s get to the video itself. It starts with the classic “Sega~!” chant, accompanied by a stop-motion clay Sonic, just like in the Japanese TV commercial for Sonic 1.

SEGA!
The 8-bit versions of Sonic 1 also do something similar.

Then, in a move more characteristic of Sega of America’s marketing than that of Sega of Japan, there are a few comedic scenes of Mario and Luigi being menaced by Sonic and Tails in a section called “Sonic Panic” (unless the whole video is supposed to be called that – it’s kind of hard to tell).

Sonic Panic
I guess years of bopping Badniks has made Sonic and Tails capable of busting through solid metal.
Mario menaced
“Little brat!”
Luigi menaced
Poor Luigi!

There’s a very brief look back at Sonic’s popularity with some footage of a commercial for the first game, and then some hype for the new one. Then there’s a section about the characters, showing some cute art (which can also be seen in the Japanese instruction manual).

(For Tails and Eggman, Yumiko Takahashi is in the picture-in-picture. She’ll be making another appearance later.)


Then Yuji Naka talks for a while, superimposed over footage of the game being played (Emerald Hill, Casino Night, and Metropolis – there doesn’t appear to be anything special about the footage since the build being played is probably the final or something very much like it). I just wish I understood what Yuji was saying!

Yuji talks
Gah! Why so many Yujis? Early ’90s video effects have never been more terrifying.

Next, Famitsu editor-in-chief Koichi Hamamura and BEEP! Mega Drive editor-in-chief Hiroshi Kawaguchi talk about the game. I assume they’re saying nice things!

After that, actors Yumiko Takahashi and Toshinori Omi take the Sonic Challenge! It’s always good to get celebrity endorsements, right? Even though I have no idea who these two are…

Yumiko Takahashi
“Sonikku Tsuu~!”
Toshinori Omi
But will your acting skills be enough to pretend to like the game?

The next section is way too short – it’s only a few seconds – but it’s pretty cool. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of the Japanese Sonic 2 TV commercial. I always thought the landscape in the footage was entirely CGI, so it’s neat to see models of the corkscrew path with a camera running through it.

TVCM BtS 1
Filming a Sonic’s-eye view
TVCM BtS 2
A Sony monitor!? Don’t you know they are the competition?

Here’s the full commercial for reference:

Finally, there’s a adorable animation of Tails. They’re talking about a “Supersonic Action Quiz” being carried out, and then show some special offers like a Sonic 2 hoodie and talk about the included cashback coupon. It’s related to this – I guess they showed these “quiz” commercials and gave away prizes or something? Whatever, I just like the Tails animation.

Tails animation
He’s so cute. It looks exactly like the official character artwork, just in motion.

The video concludes with a notice for the game’s release date and price. Note that it’s not Sonic Twosday – Japan released the game 3 days early, foiling what would have been a global launch, much to the chagrin of Sega of America. (This story was told in Console Wars, which I reviewed in the last Sonic Second.)

So this videocassette is pretty cool all around. I’m quite happy that I own a copy personally, even though I don’t have a VCR hooked up to use it with. It’s a cool piece of Sonic history. And speaking of “history”… next time on The Sonic Second there’s another videocassette to take a look at. Stay tuned!


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The Sonic Second: “Console Wars” Review

This Sonic Second will be a little different than usual – it’ll be my informal review of Console Wars – Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris, a book that came out earlier this year but I just got around to reading last night. Despite the impartial sounding title, the book focuses heavily on Sega, mostly being told from the point of view of Tom Kalinske during his stint as president and CEO of Sega of America. Because of this, the development of the Sonic games, particularly the first and second, are crucial elements of the story and so I thought it relevant to what I usually cover here.

I’m actually in the habit of reading corporate “thrillers” of this kind, whether they cover fields in which I have some interest, like computers (e.g. Show Stopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft by G. Pascal Zachary or Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?: Leading a Great Enterprise through Dramatic Change by Louis V. Gerstner Jr.) or not (e.g. The Aspirin Wars: Money, Medicine, and 100 Years of Rampant Competition by Charles C. Mann). So I probably would have still enjoyed the book even if it didn’t cover a subject matter that’s important to me personally – but it’s a huge bonus that it does. It’s always been trivial to find documentary coverage of subjects like the Beatles, Walt Disney, or Star Wars, but those are all my parents’ (or my grandparents’) culture that I’ve inherited. To finally have the same thing for the stuff that defined my childhood, to get a behind-the-scenes look at my favourite years of video games, to read a narrative where Sonic and Tails are an important presence, is an especial pleasure. I suppose as my generation gets older, this kind of thing will become more and more common.

My favourite parts were reading about the origins of things like the “Welcome to the Next Level” ad campaign, the “Sonic Twosday” global launch, the “Are You Up 2 It?” tagline, and even the Nintendo Treehouse. These things are practically legendary, but each of them has real people behind them, and their stories are very interesting.

While the story the book tells is fascinating, it’s also frustrating – in many ways, it’s the story of Sega’s self-destruction, a senseless near-tragedy that in retrospective looks like it could have been easily avoided if the Japanese and American branches of the company had only communicated and collaborated better. As exciting as it is to read about the meteoric rise of the Genesis, it all ends on a bittersweet note with the botched launch of the Saturn, from which Sega – and their star Sonic – would never fully recover.

It’s also a little frustrating for another reason – it’s hard to hear about the heated rivalry between Nintendo and Sega. In its lightest moments, it was almost good-natured, but at other times it was brutal. For me, I grew up loving both companies and both consoles – heck, I was privileged enough to have a SNES, Genesis, Turbo-Grafx, and a 3DO – and all the fighting makes me cringe. Sales figures or market share may tell one story, but in the end both consoles brought invaluable experiences to millions, and I could never pick a favourite between them. One could argue that the competition brought out the best in them – after all, we might not have Sonic if not for the desire to outdo Mario – but I’m glad that we’ve finally seen the hatchet buried despite my misgivings about the recent direction of the Sonic series itself.

So what about the quality of the writing? I found it to be quite digestible and well-paced, with a few well turned phrases and mostly natural dialogue. I tore through the whole 500+ pages in one evening, so I guess you could say it was gripping. I have my complaints – characters seemed to have a habit of rolling their eyes, and the author found a few too many ways to unconventionally describe smiles – but they’re minor. More distracting were the handful of inaccuracies, like describing Myau from Phantasy Star as a “muskrat” instead of a “musk cat“, saying that the secret credits in Sonic 1 appeared at the end of the game, and a few misspelled Japanese words, but again these were minor and incidental. On the whole I found the journalism superior to what I’ve come to expect from mainstream coverage of the subject.

In conclusion, although there’s nothing new to get a Sonic trivia-hound’s nose really twitching, if you have an unshakable nostalgia for the days when the TV would scream “Sega!” then Console Wars comes highly recommended from me. I’m also really looking forward to the upcoming documentary and movie based on the book.


If you enjoy the book, here’s some further reading (and listening) I also recommend:

Interview with Tom Kalinske by Sega-16
SEGAbits Swingin’ Report Show #60: Console Wars with Al Nilsen, SEGA’s Director of Marketing (’89-’93)
SEGAbits Swingin’ Report Show #61: Console Wars Release Day Party with Author Blake J. Harris
SEGAbits Swingin’ Report Show #62: Console Wars with Tom Kalinske – SEGA of America’s President (’90-’96)

Also, the book Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children by David Sheff is a somewhat similar read about Nintendo that ends at about the era where Console Wars begins.


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The Sonic Second: Sonic’s Mascot Days (Part 2)

Last time on The Sonic Second, I talked about Wakuwaku Sonic Patrol Car, an arcade game in which Sonic acts like a mascot, taking on the role of a police officer. Whenever that game is mentioned, it’s a safe bet that the very similar SegaSonic Cosmo Fighter is not far behind. And so here we are – SegaSonic Cosmo Fighter.

image from info.sonicretro.org
image from info.sonicretro.org

From a top-down perspective similar to Patrol CarCosmo Fighter sees Sonic piloting a spacecraft in pursuit of Dr. Eggman, who fights back with a series of weapons including a huge multi-sprite dragon mech. The following video shows the cabinet and the gameplay in surprisingly high quality, and I’m extremely grateful that we have it because Cosmo Fighter, also like Patrol Car, has never had its ROM dumped.

Despite the similarities between the two arcade games, Cosmo Fighter is from two years later, in 1993, though from the footage shown, no characters or elements from beyond Sonic 1 make an appearance.

The graphics in the game are absolutely gorgeous, with colour palettes and space backgrounds that remind me strongly of the original Phantasy Star games. The design of Sonic’s spacecraft is also totally rad – the PUNCH configuration is like something out of Outlaw Star! Between it, the Tornado, and his car from the Sonic Drift series, I think we can conclude that Sonic digs flashy red vehicles.

spaceship
image from the video above

All in all, Cosmo Fighter is one of the coolest looking Sonic spin-offs I’ve ever seen, and it’s a travesty that I can’t play it. 🙁

Though it will probably never happen, I would love to see Sega release this and Patrol Car again on mobile devices. Heck, throw in SegaSonic the Hedgehog while you’re at it – the touch screen would be able to emulate the trackball quite nicely. My Google wallet and I are both saying the same thing: “I’m waaaiting!”


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