The shot that interests me the most, however, is this one:
That blobby thing to the left of Sonic is almost certainly the butt-chinned baddie from the lower right of this concept image:
Yes, it’s purple with yellow gloves in the concept art but blue with red gloves in the screenshot. But bear in mind this is the matter of a simple palette swap, from line 1 to line 2:
There may have been more than one version of the baddie, or maybe they hadn’t decided on which colour scheme to use yet. But I digress.
I find this discovery pretty gobsmacking. Yes, I’ve been aware of the concept art for a long time, and that it took the team a while to really nail down what Sonic and his world were going to be like. But to see an actual screenshot of the running game (albeit a prototype) that predates the concept of badniks – well, it’s awesome, but also sort of terrifying. We came this close to living in a world where Sonic did battle with proctological monstrosities instead of the metal menaces we’ve come to expect.
Maybe someone from Sonic Team played Mega Man and was inspired to give Eggman a mad scientist makeover and an army of robots. Whatever the cause, thank goodness they did. Sonic narrowly avoided a long career of being groped and probed.
Let’s travel back in time, 20 years ago to 1994. Offspring and Collective Soul were on the radio, and Sega Genesis was the hottest thing around.
In order to promote the upcoming Sonic & Knuckles, Sega sponsored a tournament – 25 players from around the world would play a prerelease version of the game, competing for a prize of $25,000. The contest would take place on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay with MTV covering the event in a TV special called “Rock the Rock”.
Almost everything about it seems ludicrous today, not least of which is the attempt to set up Sonic as a competitive game that requires exceptional skill. Street Fighter it ain’t, and it’s laughably ridiculous to see an audience ooh and ahh, intercut with footage of Knuckles trundling through Launch Base Zone.
Cheesy production values and forced excitement aside, at 5:18 in the video we do get to see something special. A short segment, barely 3 minutes long, visiting the Sega Technical Institute for a look behind the scenes of a Sonic game.
Though brief, there’s a quite a bit of interest. We get to see 3D artist Kunitake Aoki at work on the title screen graphics, editing wireframe models and also using a Digitizer.
With tools like Photoshop and GraphicsGale, it’s easy to forget just how meticulous and difficult it was to input large, detailed graphics back in the day. The fact that the Sonic games look as great as they do is testament to a huge amount of dedication on the part of the artists.
We also get to see Hirokazu Yasuhara at work, surrounded by concept art that I dearly wish we could get a closer look at.
Next up they talk to Adrian Stephens, STI Technical Director (and Brit with impeccable personal style), who is seen at a whiteboard describing a couple aspects of the game physics.
You might be thinking, “Adrian who? Isn’t Yuji Naka the programmer and the physics guy?” and you could easily be forgiven – his name appears nowhere in the credits of Sonic & Knuckles. But according to STI General Manager Roger Hector (in an interview with HXC), Stephens was truly involved in the game’s creation:
…Adrian was also an excellent technical programmer, and he did indeed contribute to the physics code in the game. As Adrian was working in the capacity of Technical Director, he provided assistance to Naka, and helped him solve technical problems. In certain areas, he was a stronger technical designer than Naka. He even wrote some underlying code that was used in the game. Naka respected Adrian (who is a Brit) quite a bit, and he was happy to be able to use Adrian’s help.
I do all the music and sound effects for the games that we do here
which is a bit of an overstatement in the case of Sonic & Knuckles, but the fact remains that he did a large part of the soundtrack in very little time, an impressive feat.
Chris Senn is also seen sketching Tiara B, showing that STI were already tossing around ideas for their next game at this point.
In another part of the video, you can see finished concept art of Tiara (and also Metal Sonic Mark V on the left).
At another point, there’s a quick shot of Knuckles that’s intriguing, because it’s practically the famous picture we’re all used to, but the colouring style is different.
He looks to be drawn like the official art from Sonic 2 (example), and his “swoosh” is the same colour as his muzzle, instead of white.
And, speaking of Knuckles, right before the STI segment of the special starts, he’s called a “wild, red dreadlocked echidna thing” by one of the hosts and this picture is shown:
That’s a pretty rare piece of Knuckles art, although he looks a little funky :P.
So, while the rest of the “Rock the Rock” special is not that thrilling, there are a couple minutes that are pretty cool. It whets the appetite for a much longer “making of” for the classic Sonic games, and I wish such a thing existed!
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.
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!)
^ 1. Here I am assuming that the rough translations provided here are basically correct.
Following a live chat interview at the 2009 SAGExpo, Sonic 2 zone artist Tom Payne kindly donated a large number of miscellaneous scans to the Sonic community . Amongst the items he provided was an art reference document for Sega’s internal use known as the “Sonic the Hedgehog Material Collection” (a direct translation of the kanji on the front page).
It contains quite a few original line drawings, many of which are the basis for famous Sonic images from box art or game manuals.
Here are a few more examples of drawings that were later cleaned up and coloured for the Japanese Sonic 1 manual:
There are even drawings that became pixel art in the games. For example, Sonic with a microphone, which was used for the credits of the 8-bit Sonic 1.
And here’s reference for the spinning feet from Sonic’s running animation:
The frames of the title screen animation are here, too:
But of course there’s plenty of drawings in the collections that don’t correspond to art from the finished art from the games, and a lot of it is really cute.
On a page titled “Sonic Head Construction”, examples of Sonic’s many moods are shown. He’s hardly ever this expressive anymore, and it’s a shame.
Sonic’s spines have looked weird from the front and back since day one, apparently:
Judging by these sketch “screenshots”, which clearly show Green Hill Zone as it appears in the prototype version of Sonic 1, much of the material in this collection may have been drawn before the game was even very far along in development.
Also of interest is the CMYK colour key which indicates Sonic’s blue as quite a bit more cyan than he is today, just like the Japanese Sonic 1 manual art and other early sources. You can plug in the values and convert the colours to RGB yourself, but be mindful that it’s not going to be exact and they’ll look a little weird on a computer screen.
It’s possible, though, that these scans aren’t exhaustive, and don’t represent all the material from the time. For example, not all of the Badniks are represented. However, some of the material has been officially reproduced in the bonus artwork gallery of Sonic Generations, where concept sketches of the remaining Badniks can be found (image from Pencil Hill Zone):
I’ll close with easily the weirdest thing in the collection – a drawing of a creepy Sonic costume, accompanied by the “Don’t just sit there and waste your precious time…” blurb.