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 3 & Knuckles Special Stages

The Special Stages in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles have their fair share of secrets. Let’s take a look.

First of all, if we’re gonna be talking about the Special Stages, it would be nice to be able to play them at will. Unless you have an emulator and the relevant save states on hand, that can be bit tricky. Even though the game has a Level Select, there are only two slots listed for the Special Stages, so how can you get to them?

level select

(We’ll be using the combined Sonic 3 & Knuckles throughout this article.)

Fortunately, there actually is a way to access any specific Special Stage from this Level Select screen. First, enter both the Level Select and Debug Mode cheats. Now, highlight “Sound Test” and use ← and → to choose a number from 0 through 7. This is how you specify the ID of the Special Stage you want to play. Then highlight “Special Stage” either 1 or 2, for Sonic 3‘s or Sonic & Knuckles‘ Special Stages, respectively. While holding A, press Start and the Special Stage of your choice will begin.

Choosing an ID higher than 7 will just loop around – 8 is the same as 0, 9 is the same as 1, and so on. The attentive amongst you may have noticed that 0 through 7 is actually eight Special Stages, even though there are only seven Chaos Emeralds (or Super Emeralds) in the game. That’s right – just like Sonic CD, both Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles have a bonus Special Stage that’s not accessible through normal play.

Sonic 3‘s is a spiral gauntlet that will test your patience and – as it reaches its dizzying conclusion – your reflexes.

Map from

Oddly, its palette is different in Sonic 3 alone, but it’s the same stage.

Sonic 3_000
Sonic 3 extra Special Stage
Sonic 3 and Knuckles_008
Sonic 3 extra Special Stage (when locked on to Sonic & Knuckles)

The first one is too low contrast, whereas the second is eerie, bordering on nauseating. I wonder why the change?

Sonic & Knuckles‘ 8th Special Stage is a riot of Orange Spheres, protecting a tiny cluster of Blue Spheres in the centre.

Map from
Sonic 3 and Knuckles_007
Sonic & Knuckles extra Special Stage

The Chaos Emeralds awarded by these stages don’t have any effect – they don’t summon Ashura, nor transform Sonic into Super Duper Sonic. I guess these stages were made because the developers were particularly enamoured with the whole Blue Sphere thing, and were just making some fun tricky layouts to play. Given the fact that locking Sonic & Knuckles on to Sonic 1 makes nearly infinite Blue Sphere stages, I’m gonna guess that somebody somewhere liked them maybe a bit too much. I can’t blame them; they’re probably my favourite Sonic Special Stages, too.

Have you ever noticed something a little familiar about the colour schemes in the Special Stages in Sonic 3? Each one corresponds quite neatly to one of the 7 zones (counting Flying Battery in its original position between Carnival Night and Ice Cap). Of course, the Special Stages aren’t made out of many colours, so in particular they match up with the colours of their zones’ sky and ground tiles.

Special Stage #1 / Angel Island Zone
Special Stage #2 / Hydrocity Zone
Special Stage #3 / Marble Garden Zone
Special Stage #4 / Carnival Night Zone
Special Stage #5 / Flying Battery Zone
Special Stage #6 / Ice Cap Zone
Special Stage #7 / Launch Base Zone

Given how perfectly they line up, it’s extremely improbable that this is mere coincidence. It’s odd though – any Special Stage can be accessed from any zone, so why bother making them correspond? Were they at one point intended to be tied to each zone, like the Sonic Advance series later explored?

In any event, the idea of matching the palettes up seems to have been abandoned by Sonic & Knuckles, because I just don’t see how (all of) these fit without really stretching. It seems to go well starting with Mushroom Hill, but then goes somewhat awry.

Special Stage #1 / Mushroom Hill Zone
Special Stage #2 / Sandopolis Zone
Special Stage #3 / Lava Reef Zone
Special Stage #4 / Lava Reef Zone (Part 2)
Special Stage #5 / Hidden Palace Zone
Special Stage #6 / Sky Sanctuary Zone
Special Stage #7 / Death Egg Zone

Although I could see how maybe the bonus 8th one could line up with Doomsday Zone?

Special Stage #8 / The Doomsday Zone

Regardless, the matching Sonic 3 ones are pretty cool, because an attentive player could have deduced a missing zone between Carnival Night and Ice Cap without ever having to pull off the notoriously difficult Level Select cheat.

And finally, a little bit of unintentionally funny “Engrish” from the Sonic 3 prototype that was sadly caught by testers. The Blue Spheres are called “Blue Balls” (ブルーボール) in Japan – check the manual if you don’t believe me – and according to game tester J. Pataki, the “Get Blue Spheres” imperative we’ve all seen countless times originally read “Get Blue Balls”.

However, in one of the Sonic games, Sonic had to hit a
lot of blue balls. The game screen said “Get Blue
Balls” and our (mostly male) testing team sniggered
all over the place, as will happen, because that was
just funny. The text was later changed to “Blue

See Yuji, it pays to work with a partly English team! 😛