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 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: Sonic Music… From the ’80s?!

Hello all.

Because I’m a little pressed for time, this week’s Sonic Second will be somewhat brief. I’ll cover something that’s already well known, plus something a little more obscure and cool.


Even though Sonic the Hedgehog is a property from the ’90s, some of the music from the games was composed many years before – in the ’80s.

The first example is Ice Cap Zone from Sonic 3, the BGM for which is directly based on a song by the short-lived Arizona New Wave band, the Jetzons. The song is called “Hard Times”, and it’s from 1982 – but it was not released until Fervor Records issued The Complete Jetzons boxed set in 2009.

Now, if you are a Sonic fan, you’ve probably already heard of this unless you’ve been living in Antarctica or something. But here it is again, because I can’t get enough of it:

It may seem weird that Sega would use an unreleased song by an obscure American band for a zone’s BGM, until you realise the common thread – Sonic 3 composer Brad Buxer was the keyboardist for the Jetzons.

The second example is by a composer we all know and love – Masato Nakamura.

While it’s fairly well known that the ending theme to Sonic 2 is based on Dreams Come True’s song “Sweet Sweet Sweet”, it goes deeper than that.

“Sweet Sweet Sweet” is from their 1992 album “Swinging Star” (which was being recorded in London at the same time Masa was composing the Sonic 2 soundtrack) but a demo of the song – simply titled “Sweet” – exists. This demo predates Dreams Come True itself, hailing from a time when they were still calling themselves Cha Cha & Audrey’s Project, which puts it at 1988 at the very latest.

Cha Cha 1
Cha Cha 2
Cha Cha 3

The demos on this tape are extremely hard to find, but I got lucky and snagged some MP3s. Here’s “Sweet”:

The thing that I love about this demo version of the song is that – unlike the album cut – Masa himself is singing the duet with Miwa. I mean, it’s Masa, singing Sonic music, years before the game even existed. It’s way past cool!

It makes one think – are there any other Sonic songs that are partially or wholly from the ’80s and we just don’t know it yet?


h/t Sonic Retro, tatatarzan

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The Sonic Second: Sonic Patents

This week on Sonic Second, it’s a really sexy and exciting subject: Exhaustively technical documents full of figures and impenetrable jargon! That’s right, for reasons that are largely opaque to me, Sega of America patented some of Sonic the Hedgehog‘s mechanics, and thanks to Google Patent Search we can slap our greedy eyes on all the juicy details.

Okay, so maybe it’s a pretty dry subject after all, but as the creator behind the totally-not-dead-I’m-still-working-on-it-honest AeStHete Sonic engine (yes, I’m that Mercury), the info in these patents is kind of fascinating. It’s really the closest thing we have to detailed explanations of these parts of the Sonic engine from the creators themselves.

Ultimately none of the info in these patents has been of any practical use in the creation of my Sonic engine, given that modern computational power has allowed me to base mine on fundamentally different principles, but it’s still interesting to look at for a historical perspective, and also to see where my solutions and those of the original programmers have converged somewhat.

Come to think of it, I guess the existence of these patents means that recreating a Sonic engine constitutes some kind of patent infringement, but hey, it’s fun to live dangerously. 😛

So without any further ado, let’s explore the inventions of Messrs. Yuji Naka, Masanobu Yamamoto, and Susumu Nishikita.

“Video game with spiral loop graphics”

US Patent No. 5,411,272

US5411272-18
My luxurious moustache is precisely 64 dots in height

To quote from the abstract:

A method is provided for controlling the appearance of a video game character, as the character traverses a path displayed on a display screen; wherein the method is used in a video game system which includes a graphics controller, digital memory and a display screen, the method comprises the steps of: displaying a banked path segment in which the game character is displayed upright at at least one location on the banked path and is displayed upside down at at least one other location on this banked path; storing multiple sprite patterns representative of the appearance of the character at different locations on the banked path as the character traverses the banked path; tracking the character location on the banked path as the character traverses the banked path; retrieving the stored sprite patterns that portray the character at different locations on the banked path; and displaying a character using the retrieved patterns such that the character has different appearances at different locations on the banked path.

Uh… yeah. What they’re trying to describe, in their own adorable way, are those twisty corkscrew paths from Emerald Hill Zone (that would later be rehashed ad nauseam in the Dimps titles). I really don’t envy anybody who has to work in the field of patent law, having to deal with this kind of bloated legalese all the time. The abstract quoted above is actually a pretty straightforward and readable example, but much of the text is far worse. I know what they’re talking about and it’s still practically impossible to understand.

US5411272-19
Original character, do not steal

One of the great things about this is that nowhere are the helical structures referred to erroneously as “Mobius strips” (a pet peeve of mine that I still encounter all too often), but as “corkscrews” and “spiral loops”, or even “sloops” as shorthand. Remember folks, there is only one side to the Mobius strip debate. 😛

“Multi-player video game with cooperative mode and competition mode”

US Patent No. 5,405,151

US5405151-38
It’s the XKCD / Sonic crossover game I’ve always dreamed of!

This one covers Tails’ AI – his ability to mimic Sonic by reading stored input data, jump over obstacles when necessary, and catch up by flying back on screen when he gets left behind. Also, the drop-in, drop-out co-op feature that switches to player control when the second control pad receives input, and then reverts to AI control when there hasn’t been any input for 10 seconds.

US5405151-40
Everything you need to write the machine code! …Right?

Split-screen video game with character playfield position exchange

US Patent No. 5,411,270

This one covers those stupid “Transport” monitors from the two player split screen of Sonic 2 that swap the two character’s locations. Yes, this is patented. Were they just especially proud of it? Did they go temporarily patent crazy? Who knows.

Multi-player video game apparatus with single screen mode and split screen mode

US Patent No. 5,470,080

This one covers the interlaced split-screen mode from Sonic 2.

Video game with switchable collision graphics

US Patent Nos. 5,513,307 and 5,963,218

This one covers Sonic 2‘s clever system of using two separate planes of collision data with plane-switcher objects to allow Sonic to traverse paths that cross one another, a huge technical leap over Sonic 1‘s system of specialised chunks.

Data processing system, method thereof and memory cassette

US Patent No. 5,941,775

lockon
That is the worst drawing of a Sega Genesis I have ever seen

This one’s pretty cool – it’s essentially the patent for Sonic & Knuckles“Lock-On Technology”. They never did anything else with it, sure, but it definitely heightened the coolness factor of that game by quite a bit. It wasn’t just a game, it was a phenomenon! A patented phenomenon, as it turns out.

***

h/t Gamespot

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