News/Dreams Come True: Sonic 1 (MD) Prototype
If you had asked us at least ten years ago if we would ever find a Sonic 1 prototype, we would have thought you were crazy. But ever since we found a prototype of Sonic 3, we knew that it would only be a matter of time before we would eventually find a Sonic 1 prototype. Little did we know that just a little over a year later, not only would we eventually receive one, but it would arrive with no hassle or expense to us or to the community. The story of the search for this white whale is a very personal one, so this article will be a bit different from what we usually write. Given that it has been a little over 15 years since our search began (and even longer if you consider the Sonic community itself), we have a lot to say.
In the late 1980s, there was only one true household name in the video game industry - Nintendo. The video game industry up until this point had just suffered through a heavy string of downfalls and uphill battles that almost killed the entire industry. However, even after all of that, Nintendo remained. Saying that Nintendo and its properties was a pop culture phenomenon would be an understatement. Nintendo had a presence everywhere. Nintendo characters were on your television screens, in your magazines, toy stores, and even on your cereal boxes across the entire world. They were a force to be reckoned with, a fact that remains true to this very day.
Many companies who wanted in on the video game business came and went during the time of Nintendo’s trending success. Failure after failure, none could hold a candle to the fun and personality Nintendo offered to everyone. While Nintendo weren’t the only ones creating high quality games, other companies within the industry couldn’t come close to capturing an audience the way that Nintendo could. To this very day, what separates Nintendo apart from every other company in this industry is their “brand”. Nintendo had many iconic characters with innovative game play to match (for the time). When a person thinks of a fun platformer, they instantly think of Mario. When people referred to “video games” back then they often referred to other consoles as “the Nintendo”. In the late 80s, most gaming companies weren’t entirely sure how Nintendo achieved such great success almost through branding alone.
Nintendo, being a video game company that originates from the Kyoto Prefecture in Japan, approaches game design from the point of view of an entertainer. Nintendo games and hardware are designed primarily, and purely, to entertain. The characters they created aided them in that goal, and it paid off in spades. Of course, other companies were fully aware of this fact, and Nintendo made it no secret. So it was inevitable that other companies would try to find a character that they could call their own. Most video game characters whose sole purpose was to be the mascot for a video game company would often combine traits that represent that particular game company. This character would not only serve as that company’s mascot, but would also attract existing players and newcomers to try that company’s other games.
However, having a character to call one’s own isn’t enough. It takes the work of many talented people to not only craft the right character that would not only be appealing, but could be backed up by entertaining products. This is where many companies failed at the time. Many companies would think that they would gain success just by having characters under their belt, but without the software to captivate and entertain people, most efforts were in vain. Sega was no exception to this.
Sega (known back then as Sega Enterprises, Ltd.), were primarily in the business of developing coin-operated games and slot machines. As time went on and opportunities arose, this venture led to Sega getting involved in the video game arcade industry. Sega certainly understood appeal. They created products that drew your attention away from everything else around you. In an era that had long since gone, walking into an arcade before 1985 would’ve been somewhat depressing. But how would you feel if you saw this when you walked by an arcade one day?
(Source - Arcade-Museum.com.)
(Source - Arcade-Museum.com. Credit - Morden)
Or even this!?
(Source - Arcade-Museum.com.)
That was Sega’s strength. Sega knew how to make a product that caught your eye and drew your attention away, even if it was just for a few seconds. Those few seconds were crucial, so they made games for the arcades that had technological appeal. No doubt, this was entertainment that you couldn’t find anywhere else. If you went near any of these arcade machines, you were going to experience something that you never experienced before. These games were big, fast, fun, addictive, impressive, and above all else - they were cool. Their arcade games proved that being “cool” was Sega’s most important quality, as well as Sega’s most important prospect going forward.
But Sega had issues translating these qualities to their home video game market. In comparison to their success in the arcade industry, Sega had issues gaining traction with their attempts into the home console game. In Japan, Sega had put out the SG-1000, but were quickly outmatched by Nintendo’s more successful Family Computer (Famicom). Just like every other company at the time, Sega was left to wander in the shadow of Nintendo’s huge success story. Both the American and Japan divisions of Sega knew that they needed to offer something unique in comparison to Nintendo, something that Sega could easily capitalize on and something that Nintendo simply couldn’t.
However, both branches had very different approaches to the solution to this problem. This was one of the main catalysts behind the animosity between the two sides of the company. Due to cultural differences, the Japanese and American branches of Sega often couldn’t come to an agreement as to how to make the company as successful as Nintendo. While both the Japanese and the American branch both initially put emphasis on bringing their arcade hits somewhat accurately to the home console market, the American branch believed that they could take on Nintendo through marketing and appealing to the markets that Nintendo failed to capitalize on (like sports, Michael Jackson, and other American licenses, etc). But both sides of the company agreed that the company needed a mascot character, or something that could serve as an icon that best represented all of Sega’s best qualities, like Mario did for Nintendo.
And so in late 1989, a company wide competition began that encouraged people from all branches of Sega to submit ideas for characters that would best represent Sega, specifically to its American audience. Many ideas for characters were submitted, like wolves, rabbits, bears, humans, etc. One designer’s creation, a small hedgehog, proved to be the most appealing character based on design alone. This hedgehog character was created by designer Naoto Ohshima, an artist who was employed at Sega designing games such as Phantasy Star and Fatal Labyrinth, under the pseudonym “Big Island”. After the hedgehog design was voted favorably among all other proposed designs, Ohshima teamed up with Yuji Naka (YU2), who worked on Phantasy Star as the lead programmer, to create the game that would ultimately become Sonic the Hedgehog.
While Ohshima created the design for Sonic, it was Naka who came up with the idea of making Sonic the fastest character among all other video game characters. It was from this quirk that the basis for Sonic’s character began to take form. Sonic was initially thought up to be a bit of a “smart-aleck”, whose high speed antics would be more akin to the Road Runner. His initial design had a much more menacing look, with sharp fangs and sharp spines down his back. He also originally had a sexy girlfriend named Madonna, a precursor to Amy, a pink hedgehog who would serve to be Sonic’s semi love interest throughout the series.
Sega of America’s marketing team for the project, headed by Al Nilsen and Madeline Schroeder, took the character and did market research to determine how to best broaden the appeal of the character itself. What makes a character like Nintendo’s Mario work is that the character is appealing to all age groups. Mario is neither too juvenile or too ‘edgy’ of a character that would favor just one specific age group. In order for Sonic to compete against Mario, Sonic had to be a character that could also be just as appealing as Mario was, from children to adults. So it was Sega of America’s insistence to urge the Japanese branch to tone down the character to the Sonic that we know of as of today. Sonic still has hints of his original character - he’s still a tad ‘edgy’ and a bit of a smart-aleck, but was more appealing due to the removal of the human girlfriend and menacing design.
(Source: Yuji Naka)
Shinobu Toyoda, producer, served as the communication link between both the American and Japanese branches of Sega during the development of Sonic. Toyoda was also the boss of the newly formed “Sonic Team”. By the end of 1990, the Sonic Team also consisted of Hirokazu Yasuhara (“Carol Yas”), who served as the game’s main designer and planner (another word for ‘director’). Jina Ishiwatari (“Jinya”) and Rieko Kodama (“Phenix Rei”) also joined the project as designers, responsible for creating more art for the game. Yuji Naka was the lead programmer on the project, responsible for possibly most of the game’s code excluding the sound driver. The game’s audio driver/programming was handled by Hiroshi Kubota (“Jimita”), whose audio driver we previously covered earlier this year in another article. Yukifumi Makino (“Macky”) provided sound effects and additional music cues for the game (such as the “drowning” and “emerald” music cue). Masato Nakamura of Dreams Come True fame was hired sometime in late 1990 to compose the game’s music, and often helped market the game in Japan while the band was on tour.
Programming began sometime in early 1990 while Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker was in development for the Sega Mega Drive. The game along with the character premiered for the very first time to the public at the 1990 Tokyo Toy Show (1990東京おもちゃショー) that was held on June 7-10 by the Japan International Toy Fair Association in Mihama, Chiba. The game’s demo was somewhat rushed to meet the reveal at the show, with the majority of the assets seen in the demo created specifically for it. The demo was primarily to introduce the Sonic character and his defining traits to the general public. Surprisingly, while the game was introduced first in Japan, it would be half a year later until the United States (as well as the rest of the world) would formally see the character for the first time, despite the character being designed with American audiences in mind. This decision was most likely made intentionally by both the American and Japanese branches at Sega as an attempt to time the game’s full unveiling with the launch and marketing of Nintendo’s upcoming Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). As a result, almost no media outlets mentioned or covered Sonic outside of Japan during 1990, except for the few magazines that were able to attend (such as Electronic Gaming Monthly).
“[...] a less-renowned hedgehog.” --Stewart Cheifet (Image: Chris Bieniek (@vgephemera))
It wouldn’t be until January 10th, 1991 that the media outlets that existed outside of Japan got a peek at what Sonic the Hedgehog was all about. Sonic made his first “official” debut at the Winter International Consumer Electronics Show of 1991 (WCES 1991), which ran from January 10th to the 13th at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Unlike the Summer CES (SCES) of 1992, this event was only held for invited guests of the press and was not open to the general public.
The game was warmly received in magazines across the world as early as many magazine’s February issues, which predominantly featured some coverage of the demo present at the show. The media would receive their first preview cartridges sometime around February/early March for their late March, April, (and sometimes) May issues. Many, many, many magazines had an opportunity to preview the game as at this point Sega had nothing to lose and everything to gain, as the threat of game piracy that plagued the Sonic 2 release hadn’t emerged yet. Most of the previews were relatively extensive, usually taking up at least two pages on average. Magazines would often fill the pages to the brim with prerelease screenshots of unfinished levels and features, sometimes even with debug mode on! The game’s incompleteness was rarely brought up, as the game by itself provided enough content for editors to write about. The first final revision of Sonic was finished either on April 30th, 1991 or May 1st, given its inclusion in the Sega Final ROM archive. Most magazines would also receive a near-final cartridge for review, just in time for the June or July issues that same year.
While Sonic the Hedgehog is modeled after a typical platformer, the implementation of the gameplay as well as its mechanics helped give the game a unique identity in comparison to its contemporaries. Despite many who claim that Sonic is “all about running fast”, the original game (which, while developed with Americans in mind, was developed with a wholly Japanese culture) is more or less a “character platformer”. The game isn’t necessarily about going fast so much that it’s a platformer that features a character who can run fast. As such, while only some of the stages take advantage of Sonic’s speed, there are many stages that feel more puzzle-like/labyrinthian (no pun intended), where speed isn’t always a focus.
Despite having an appearance at the WCES, Sonic made another debut at the SCES later that same year. SCES 91 was held on June 1st and ran until the 4th in Chicago. The build featured at the show was a near final build, but contained the “PRESS START BUTTON on the title screen. This time, the game was featured predominantly at the show as a response to Nintendo’s announcement of the SNES. The game was infamously shown side by side next to Super Mario World, underlining the fact that Sonic was way faster than Mario and that you could only find Sonic on Sega’s Genesis/Mega Drive.
Sonic the Hedgehog was finally released on June 23rd, 1991 in the United States, with Europe and Japan following a month later. Sonic was released to critical acclaim and was a great hit upon release. While Sonic alone wasn’t enough to dethrone the SNES’ release, it paved the way for Sega to have a chance to dominate the home console market for a brief moment in the early 90s following Sonic’s release. Tom Kalinske, who was the CEO of Sega of America following Michael Katz, was a brilliant leader who helped propel Sega of America from being an underdog to go beyond its contemporaries and even passed Nintendo for a short while. He famously bundled Sonic with every Sega Genesis sold in America instead of packaging it with Altered Beast instead. He even decreased the price of the console, providing an exciting rush of competition amongst the company’s other contemporaries in the video game industry. While this decision was met with unfavorable reactions from the Japanese branch of Sega, this decision alone sold many consoles and gave many households the ability to play Sega’s library of games, with even better ones on the horizon.
Sonic the Hedgehog is a perfect representation of the company image that Sega wanted to give to its audience. In his first game alone, Sonic the Hedgehog showcases what people should admire when they think of Sega. The original game is a technical showcase, showcasing smooth horizontal/vertical multilayered scrolling, momentum based character movement, rotation effects in the special stage, and much bigger levels that would be found in other games made around the same time. In a way, Sonic is Sega personified - an embodiment of ‘cool’. Sonic himself has a more distinct personality that is showcased in the game itself, especially through his animation. It demonstrates the talent and technical skill that was employed at Sega at the time. While looking at the original game today is difficult considering that the following installments would arguably go to improve the game design in almost every way, for his first title, it’s amazing that Sonic was able to hit all the right notes on its first try.
Of course, to say Sonic changed Sega forever would be an understatement. Before Sonic was released, Sega was a drastically different company that we would eventually see throughout the 1990s. Sega (at least the Japanese branch) put much more emphasis on its tried and true arcade games, with America following suit. There was a time in Sega’s life that competing against a large adversary like Nintendo was nothing but a pipe dream. After Sonic was released however, it opened up the floodgates for not just Sega, but for gamers in general. Sega became a worthy adversary to Nintendo, who severely underestimated Sega’s influence on gamers and the needs of the growing market. With Sega’s success, we saw more emphasis on bigger games with bigger budgets, expanding on what can be done with the medium. Developers who were frustrated working with Nintendo had an alternative that provided more freedom to create the games they wanted to make, paving the way for titles and genres that may have never been made on Nintendo’s hardware under their policies. While Sega might not necessarily have such an outward influence on gaming in the modern age, the decisions it made in 1991 changed the course of gaming forever, as we knew it then. You can thank Sonic for that!
"I'm ready for Sony, sure, I look forward to the battle." -- Tom Kalinske (Next Generation Magazine)
Gaming itself has changed so much through the 90s, and even more so in the decade that followed. Even as we move on, we should remember the past. The Sega as we know it today is nothing like it was in 1991. You could make an argument that the Sega of 1996 was nothing like the Sega of 1991 either, or 1999, or 2001, 2006, and so on. Even after its departure from creating home consoles and its debut as a third party developer, there are still communities that still have fond memories of Sega. These communities have lasted for many years, and no other community like the Sonic community has persisted for this long.
One can argue that the Sonic community itself birthed many other niche communities that have blossomed over the years. Sites like Hidden Palace have all had their roots in the Sonic community, more specifically the Sonic hacking community. The fascination with reverse engineering games, prototypes, prerelease screenshots, etc can all be attributed to the earliest days of that community. Ironically, it was the infamous Simon Wai prototype that practically started it all.
Looking back on the earlier days of the Sonic hacking community, it was a relatively innocent time when it was fueled more by fantasy than reality. We thought about why certain screenshots and the like were different in comparison to the versions of the games we were familiar with, but we never thought that there would ever be a day where we would actually play them for ourselves. You have to remember, the earliest days of the community (2000-2001) only had a few prototype ROMs and somewhat passable emulation with debugging. Barely anyone knew Motorola 68000 assembly, and even ROM hacking itself was up to trial and error.
After a while, there was a sudden surge of interest in pursuing the origins of whatever mysteries were presented to us. People began researching things, interviewing people, etc. just to find some semblance of an answer. The Sonic community, specifically the hacking/prototype subset of the community, never stopped dreaming of one day receiving a Sonic 1 prototype. What makes Hidden Palace different from other communities is that we make efforts to find what we’ve been searching for, rather than waiting for opportunities to come to us. We didn’t wait for the day that we would achieve our goal by simply doing nothing. We knew even from the beginning that if someone hadn’t bothered to make the effort, then the chances of the community receiving anything would be next to zero. Since this site’s inception back in 2005, we have been constantly searching for it. Despite preserving other prototypes since the site’s creation, a prototype of Sonic 1 was always the number one goal. We never stopped searching. Not once.
We must've spent at least 15 years trying to find a prototype of Sonic 1. In our searches for it, we found a prototype of just about every other game out there. But for some reason, this one always eluded us. We found almost a dozen prototypes of Sonic 2 (including the original build featured on Nick Arcade all those years ago), many unreleased games, an early prototype of Crash Bandicoot, Tomb Raider, Spyro, and even a prototype of Sonic 3 of all things! But...no Sonic 1.
And believe us when we said that we tried. We had so many leads, false starts, and carts that appeared from many legitimate sources but turned out to be identical to the final revision. Over the years, we joked that this particular game was cursed. After 15 years, even you would start to believe it!
The worst was when the lead was promising, but the circumstances that led to the discovery were more tragic than anything. To give you an idea of how bad things could really get, let us give you an example. There existed a magazine in the early 90s that, like all other magazines, received a preview cartridge of Sonic 1. Normally, after previewing the cartridge, a review sample would be sent that would generally be more reflective of the final game. In most cases, it was the final game burnt on EPROMs just shortly before the game hit stores. However, this magazine never appeared to receive a review cartridge. What's more, this magazine continued to create screenshots, cheat codes, etc. from the preview cartridge they had - well into 1992. When we discovered this magazine, we went down the rabbit hole, and eventually discovered that the former employee still kept after all of these years, among other prototypes. However, by the time we could communicate with this employee, they had discarded all of the them.
This was just one of many times we were left with disappointment. We would find people who may have had a cartridge, but they can't, or won't share for various reasons. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. These cartridges are 30 years old now. They were not meant to last forever. Their owners are getting older, some might've passed away at this point. The situation was dire, and we couldn't stand to think what our chances might've been like a few years down the road.
When this site began in 2005, we were happy to get anything at all. The list of things we were able to save since then is absolutely staggering. What started as a tiny website has grown into an amazing community of people. We have so many great wiki contributors, a great crew of people helping out with running the site and our Discord server. But what has exceeded our expectations over the past few years are the individual contributions from generous people that we receive now. What was once an uphill battle of seemingly endless, lonely work, eventually reached an inflection point where you, the readers, have started contributing back. We knew after Sonic Month last year that it was only a matter of "when", not "if".
Then one day out of nowhere, it finally happened. On a day just like any other ordinary day, Buckaroo generously appears with exactly what we were searching for since we began all those years ago. Thank you for making this release possible!
But it's been 15 years. The burnout is real. We didn't think that we would ever get this far, but here we are. We considered retiring, but we're excited to see what the next decade brings. Between The Video Game History Foundation, Gaming Alexandria, The Cutting Room Floor, Borman's work at the Museum of Play, Obscure Gamers, and many more - the future is very bright. So we don't think we'll be going anywhere. :)
And that, as they say, is that! We couldn’t have done it without the cooperation of Xkeeper, Rusty, and the whole TCRF crew who have stuck with us for the whole ride. We’d also like to thank Sazpaimon (this is our wedding gift to you!), franz, ehw, the Hidden Palace crew and all of our contributors for helping the website grow. Without you guys, there is absolutely nothing we can’t do!
Have a happy holiday, a happy new years, a happy 30th for Sonic. Let's see what the next year brings!
See you next game!
Drx & ehw
(Credit: MasterEmerald and PixoPoxo)
Keep a lookout for the next issue of Retro Gamer! It'll cover the history of the cart and how this find came to be. Don't miss it!