The Sonic Second: The Chequered Ball

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.)

Adding more support to the idea that a boss with a wrecking ball was always planned is this image from Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works (image from Azukara at Sonic Retro):

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.


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The Sonic Second: Sonic CD vs Sonic 1

Sonic 1 was groundbreaking, critically acclaimed, and a bestseller. Crafting a direct sequel to follow such a title is a pretty tall order, but Sega actually did it twice, simultaneously – Sonic 2 and Sonic CD‘s development overlapped, with each game handled by a separate team, working on opposite sides of the ocean. Sonic 2 was headed up by two of Sonic’s three co-creators, programmer Yuji Naka and game planner Hirokazu Yasuhara, working with the Sega Technical Institute in America. Sonic’s designer, Naoto Ohshima, remained in Japan and oversaw the creation of Sonic CD.

According to Ohshima, although the teams did communicate with each other, discussing game design and the aims of their projects, the games were intentionally two very different beasts.

Sonic CD was made in Japan, while Sonic 2 was made by (Yuji) Naka’s team over in the U.S. We exchanged information, of course, talking about the sort of game design each of us was aiming for. But Sonic CD wasn’t Sonic 2; it was really meant to be more of a CD version of the original Sonic. I can’t help but wonder, therefore, if we had more fun making CD than they did making Sonic 2 [because we didn’t have the pressure of making a “numbered sequel”].

– Naoto Ohshima (Gamasutra, 2009)

Because of this, we can see two distinct takes on the task of succeeding Sonic 1. While Sonic 2 took Sonic to a new island and expanded the capabilities of the Chaos Emeralds, Sonic CD sent Sonic to another planet, and replaced the Chaos Emeralds with another set of powerful gems, the Time Stones. Where Sonic 2 was brighter and more cartoony, Sonic CD went for an edgier, anime style. Sonic 2 gave Sonic a young admirer who became his sidekick – his “Luigi” – but Sonic CD gave Sonic a young admirer in need of rescue – his “Princess Peach”. Sonic 2 introduced 2-player gameplay, allowing Sonic and Tails to cooperate or go head-to-head, but Sonic CD introduced Time Attack, allowing players to compete by taking turns, trying to shave a few centiseconds off the timer and immortalise their name – or at least three letters of it – in the Sega CD BRAM.

Probably the most obvious and overriding stylistic difference between the two games is how they approach the level tropes. Sonic 2 has a new take on the classic Green Hill Zone, and a couple of spiritual successors – for example, Metropolis Zone’s nods to Scrap Brain Zone – but largely covers new territory, inspiration for the environments fueled by Sonic Team’s travels in America. Sonic CD‘s zones, however, despite taking place on a literal alien world, are noticeably rooted in the tropes of the original Sonic, opting to refine and polish familiar ground.

Astute players of Sonic CD can notice similarities between its zones and Sonic 1‘s that run far deeper than just the visuals. With Ohshima’s words above, “[Sonic CD] was really meant to be more of a CD version of the original Sonic“, it’s tempting to speculate that this is evidence that the game began as a literal “Special Edition” of Sonic’s debut outing. Whether that’s the case or not, Sonic CD‘s conservatism in level tropes winds up being appropriate – with Sonic’s ability to time travel and see multiple variations on each level’s theme, the use of familiar themes helps anchor the “Present” versions of the levels. The game can go as wild as it wants with atavistic pasts and dystopic futures, but each one remains recognisable, as though the traditional zones of the original Sonic itself are being reinterpreted.

I’ll now, with a liberal smattering of screenshots, list the similarities. I’ll hardly be exhaustive, because there’s so many I’ve probably missed some, but this will be an illustrative sample.

Green Hill Zone / Palmtree Panic

Emerald Hill Zone from Sonic 2 is also clearly harking back to Green Hill Zone, but Palmtree Panic revisits quite a few more elements. The rocks, the crumbling walls and ledges, the swinging platforms, the twisting chutes, and the mountainous background with waterfalls.

Spring Yard Zone / Collision Chaos

Collision Chaos is quite a bit brighter than Spring Yard Zone, but its “Present” version shares the latter’s purple, brown, and green colour scheme (complete with cyan metal lattices), as well as the star bumpers, floating neon signs, and lower interior paths with rotating sets of spiked balls. Most interesting is the presence of two signs and exits in the second zone, a distinction it shares only with Spring Yard Act 2. It’s hard to chalk this up to coincidence.

Note also that Collision Chaos was originally going to be the third round before the infamous “Round 2” was cut, which would put it at the same position as Spring Yard Zone in the level order.

(Find the full maps at Zone: 0)

Labyrinth Zone / Tidal Tempest

Tidal Tempest’s pink corals strongly recall the crystal clusters from Labyrinth Zone, and the type of blocks in both the background and foreground are incredibly similar in style. They also share many of the same gimmicks and hazards, and their bosses both involve chasing Robotnik through vertical watery shafts (although only one of them culminates in a fight). Furthermore, they both wrap vertically, allowing Sonic to fall down endless waterfalls.

Of course, these are also the water levels in their respective games.

The original idea for Labyrinth Zone’s background, with rocks and crystals, could have been recycled for this cool introductory background for Tidal Tempest’s first zone.

Wacky Workbench and Quartz Quadrant have no direct analogs in Sonic 1, but the final two levels match up quite well.

Star Light Zone / Stardust Speedway

In addition to sharing starry skies (and names), these levels are both made of twisting, looping metal roads suspended over a beautiful city at night. They both make use of the cool effect of having tall structures pass intermittently in front of the scene, although in Stardust Speedway’s case the effect is limited to the third zone instead of all throughout the level.

Scrap Brain Zone / Metallic Madness

Unique amongst the levels of their respective games, these both have unique backgrounds for each of their three stages. There are also many gimmicks and hazards in common.

Special Stage

Finally, Sonic CD originally had a bonus stage (perhaps an early form of its special stage), that looked very similar to Sonic 1‘s. Note the “R” block, and the “U” block, which might have been the same as the “Up” blocks from the original.


Yes, most Sonic games have similarities, but I think that in this case of Sonic CD and Sonic 1, the sheer number of them, their odd specificity, and especially the order in which they appear, are definitely compelling. I don’t think they make a conclusive case for anything in particular, but they are interesting to consider from the perspective of Sonic CD as glimpse of where the franchise might have gone if Sonic 2 had never existed.


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The Sonic Second: Sonic 1’s Secret Credits

In gaming’s early days, the practice of crediting a game’s developers using only pseudonyms made things needlessly mysterious. When I beat Sonic 1 or Phantasy Star II for the first time and saw alphabet soup like YU2, BIGISLAND, STRESTELESS and MUUUU YUJI, it was anticlimactically jarring. What was with all the fake names, and who were these talented folks really?

Fortunately, games like Sonic 2 and Sonic CD, released later as Sega’s habit of obfuscating the identities of their talent started to fall away, would finally reveal full names, with their old pseudonyms helpfully provided as a parenthetical.

Sonic 2 [U]_003

Long before this revolution, however, good old YU2 himself provided a full and proper list of credits for Sonic 1, hidden in the game itself. Way to stick it to the man!

But where is this secret list, you ask? Well, you look right at it every time you boot up the game, on the “SONIC TEAM PRESENTS” screen. Like the purloined letter, it’s hidden in plain sight. Sort of.

You see, the names are written in the same colour as the background, rendering them invisible. But with a little palette trickery, like magic they appear.

Sonic 1 [U]_000

If you’re using hardware, you can do the above by using a Game Genie and the code TD79-86AC. If you’re using an emulator like Gens, the patch code is FFFB02:0E80.

That’s not the only way to access them. According to Sonic Retro, there’s a cheat code built right into the game that will make them show up, and even remove the “SONIC TEAM PRESENTS” text that’s in the way.

In either ROM, with the region set to Japan, press C, C, C, C, C, C, Up, Down, Down, Down, Left, Right; you should hear a sound confirming this. Then, when the demo starts, hold Down + A + B + C and either press Start or wait for the demo to end.

I was only able to get this to work with my Japanese ROM; using my USA ROM with the region set to J didn’t work. But I might have been doing something wrong.

Sonic 1 [J]_000

(Another interesting thing is that the “PRESS START BUTTON” object loads properly after you do this.)

Sonic 1 [J]_000 (2)

Okay, so this is all very well and good, but those credits are in Japanese…. Can’t an anglophone get a translation around here?

Very well:

Program

Yuji Naka (a.k.a. YU2)

Plan

Hirokazu Yasuhara (a.k.a. Carol Yas)

Design

Naoto Ohshima (a.k.a. Bigisland, a literal translation of his family name)
Jina Ishiwatari (a.k.a. Jinya)
Rieko Kataoka (a.k.a. Phenix Rie, later Rieko Kodama (through marriage, I assume))

Sound Produce

Masato Nakamura (of Dreams Come True, the only one here to get proper credit at the end of the game)

Sound Program

Hiroshi Kubota (a.k.a. Jimita)
Yukifumi Makino (a.k.a. Macky)

Sega’s efforts to conceal these folks’ identities seem ludicrous in the internet age. Now we can all look up their works and give them the credit they deserve!


Here are some bonus points of interest:

  • The pseudonyms used in the game credits apparently weren’t just hastily thrown in. In Sega Players Enjoy Club, a Japanese newsletter for Sega fans that was written and drawn largely by the developers themselves, they use the same pseudonyms, almost like nicknames or alter egos.
  • Sonic 1 isn’t the only Sonic game to have a secret credits screen. Sonic CD has one, too – it’s shown after you beat the secret 8th Special Stage.
    Sonic 3_019

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The Sonic Second: Sonic de Amiga

Shortly before the release of Sonic 1, British video game developer U.S. Gold, already known for porting Sega hits such as OutRun to home computers, announced that they had the home computer rights to Sonic 1. This was reported in the June 1991 issue of British gaming magazine Computer and Video Games as a sidebar amidst a preview for the Mega Drive version of Sonic 1:

ComputerandVideoGamesJune1991_2
image from info.sonicretro.org

SONIC SPECTRUMS?
Just before this issue of CVG went to press, US Gold announced that they had the home computer rights to Sonic the Hedgehog! This means that the cuddly little hedgehog will be appearing on the Spectrum, C64, Amstrad, [Atari] ST and Amiga! No programming team has been signed up yet to carry out the conversion, but as soon [as] we get any more details (like when it’s coming out, for example), expect an update here in CVG!

It’s possible that when they list Spectrum, C64, Amstrad, Atari ST and Amiga they are merely speculating. The only version to have any confirmation is on the Amiga: In the September 1991 issue of the Italian version of a different British gaming magazine, The Games Machine, this sidebar was run:

TheGamesMachineItalian_Issue34_September1991_03full
image from info.sonicretro.org

Il grazioso personaggio in stile Disney creato dai programmatori della Sega per il Megadrive stà riscontrando un enorme successo in molte parti del mondo (tra cui l’Italia), grazie alla grande velocità e fluidità con cui si muove tutto il gioco. Già negli ultimi mesi del 1990, quando “SONIC the hedgehog” fu presentato alle varie fiere di computer/videogame americane nelle sue prime schermate, molti lo definirono come il più probabile miglior platform game mai visto sino ad oggi; e vi assicuro che non si sbagliavano!
SONIC è stato creato per contrastare il ré delle piattaforme, che come sapete è (era NdP) MARIO, e secondo me non dovrebbe avere problemi in proposito! Ultimamente la SEGA ha deciso di riprodurre SONIC in versione arcade (non capita spesso di vedere un gioco da casa convertito poi in coin-op!), e di concedere la licenza alla US GOLD Per la ricreazione del gioco nei vari formati per computer; Non credo che su computer (ad eccezione del PC) si potranno raggiungere gli stessi livelli di velocità che potete vedere su console, comunque sia dalle foto che ci sono giunte in redazione della versione per Amiga in programmazione, sembra che ce la stiano mettendo tutta! Speriamo… In attesa di ulteriori notizie su queste attesissime conversioni cuccatevi la recensione di SONIC per sua eccellenza il Megadrive in questo stesso numero; e non svenitemi davanti le foto!
Curiosità: Chi fosse interessato può procurarsi le magliette con su il faccione di SONIC: purtroppo sono molto costose! (Particolare che non poteva sfuggire a un Gabibbone come il nostro Gabriele NdP) (Paolo, cosa vorresti insinuare?!!).
Bye, bye.
Gabriele Pasquali.

(I’ve reproduced the text so that it can be copied into Google Translate easily.) They discuss Sonic’s success, mention the U.S. Gold deal, express doubt that home computers could handle Sonic’s speed, but go on to say that the Amiga screens they received show promise.

TheGamesMachineItalian_Issue34_September1991_Title
image from info.sonicretro.org
Sonic1AmigaGHZ
image from info.sonicretro.org

It’s not known whether these are merely mock-ups or if U.S. Gold actually had something running; if the latter is the case, it would be amazing if the ROM could be found someday. The graphics appear to be completely redrawn, and one can only guess as what the music would have sounded like converted to Amiga chiptunes.

It’s also not known why it never saw the light of day. U.S. Gold seemed to manage lots of other Sega ports in 1991, such as Shadow Dancer, Bonanza Bros, and Alien Storm, so why not Sonic? Was the engine too hard to recreate, or did Yuji Naka perhaps put the kibosh on it like when he grew uncomfortable with his code being used for Sonic X-treme? We may never know.

As it turned out, when Sonic finally did make his way to home computers with Sonic CD and the Sonic & Knuckles Collection, they could pretty much handle the games as they already existed and only needed minimal changes. It would be very interesting to see a PC Sonic from an earlier era, especially for me as I grew up around Commodore computers and the Atari ST and always wondered what one would be like.


h/t Sonic Retro

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The Sonic Second: Sonic’s Narrow Escape

Note: This post is a reworked post from my now defunct blog.


In February of 2012, images from the Japanese magazine BEEP! showing screenshots of the earliest known prototype of Sonic 1 were posted at megadrive.me.

The shot that interests me the most, however, is this one:

98f4p0

That blobby thing to the left of Sonic is almost certainly the butt-chinned baddie from the lower right of this concept image:

Sonic_Gems_300

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:

palette

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.


h/t Sonic Retro

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