The nature of video games is such that drastic changes are possible in development up to the very last minute. Despite this, the press and public need to see the game in action in order to build awareness and anticipation, so it’s incredibly common for promotional materials to depict preview builds that vary significantly from the finished product. The Sonic series is no exception, and its history is rife with examples, from the celebrated Hidden Palace Zone appearing in countless magazines representing Sonic 2, to screenshots from prototypes being used for the games’ own packaging and instruction booklets. (If you have a North American box for Sonic 1 or Sonic 2, look at the back – the screenshots on Sonic 1 say “RING” instead of “RINGS”, and Sonic 2‘s show Sonic’s whirling feet from the beta.)
While Sonic 1 doesn’t have any axed content as high profile as entire zones, it has a large number of unused sprites and objects, from Splats the bouncing bunny Badnik to odd UFOs in the background of Marble Zone (original graphics for both of which have been recovered). One of the most interesting of these objects, and the subject of today’s Sonic Second, is the chequered ball:
The screenshot above comes from a sidebar in an unidentified issue of Official Sega Magazine from the UK. Seeing this screenshot on the internet was the first I’d heard of the ball, and the bit about it being reused as Robotnik’s weapon made enough sense that I just accepted that narrative.
This giant ball eventually found a home as Robotnik’s weapon at the end of the Green Hill Zone.
However, there’s evidence to suggest it wasn’t as simple as repurposing graphics from an unused hazard. In the Game Players Encyclopedia of Sega Genesis Games: Volume Three, both the ball and the Green Hill Zone boss are shown, presumably meaning that they coexisted in the same build. (Unfortunately the screenshot of the boss shows a completely brown wrecking ball; in the finished game the wrecking ball flashes between completely brown and chequered frames, so I’m going to assume that’s the case here.)
Again, the ball isn’t chequered, so it’s conceivable that the wrecking ball was plain brown until the chequered ball was cut, and then its graphics were repurposed to create a flashing ball for the Robotnik boss.
All that aside, the coolest thing is that we’ve now got moving footage of the ball object in action, thanks to a YouTube upload of the Nick Arcade TV pilot. Here’s just the relevant part for your viewing pleasure (the ball appears at 0:54):
It shows video of this section of Green Hill Zone Act 1, shown here in a partial map from Brazilian magazine Videogame:
Interestingly, Sonic doesn’t have to give the ball a push to make it go; much like the Robotnik signs at level end, it’s activated by Sonic jumping over it. It lurches to life and begins rolling forward, giving Sonic an object with physics very similar to his own to race or chase.
The caption from the Game Players Encyclopedia screenshot above makes the following claim:
Don’t underestimate that big ball. It can squash our hero like a bug. The slightest touch will start it rolling, so Sonic shoves it to the left and keeps moving.
This suggests that touching it also activates it, and that it’s capable of harming Sonic. In the video, Sonic seems to be pushed by the ball for a few frames without being hurt, so it’s possible the only danger is if the ball crushes Sonic against a wall or other solid surface.
An interesting thing to note is that the object, which so far everybody’s been calling a “ball”, has the exact same colour and pattern as the ground in Green Hill Zone. So perhaps it was intended to simply be a boulder, made out of the same rock from the region that mysteriously sports a regular chequerboard. Once I thought of it as a boulder, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a very similar object in a game that takes a few cues from Sonic: Chomp Rock from Yoshi’s Island, which also appears in its respective game’s first level.
(There’s even a level in Yoshi’s Island called “Chomp Rock Zone”!)
Boulder or ball, the Nick Arcade video shows that the object seemed to be working well, so why was it cut? Was it a test object that was never meant for the finished game? Did it cause obscure glitches? Or was it just considered too challenging and confusing for the pleasant rolling hills of the first zone? We may never know why Sonic Team – if you’ll pardon the pun – dropped the ball.