News/Sonic Month Part 5 - Before Hard Times - Sonic 3 (MD)
Remember when I said that Sonic 2 Nick Arcade was going to absolutely beat anything that I would ever dump? Well, turns out I'm not a very good fortune teller.
Behold, a prototype of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 for the Sega Mega Drive. And not just any Sonic 3 prototype, that prototype.
Development of Sonic 3 officially began sometime in January of 1993. Sega Technical Institute (STI) had just completed Sonic the Hedgehog 2 just a few months before in September and were ready to move on to their next project. This time however, Yuji Naka (who had now just became a producer rather than just a programmer) opted to have the team comprised of only the Japanese side of STI - leaving almost all of the Americans completely out of the development of the game. The game was originally developed to be an isometric 3D game (like Sonic 3D Blast) that could allow you to turn and rotate the game screen. The game would’ve also had a special stage with a 3D rendered Sonic running around in a figure-eight shaped arena. To pull this off, the game was originally going to incorporate the Sega Virtua Processor (SVP), which was in development specifically for the Virtua Racing port for the Sega Mega Drive that would be released the following year.
Development came to a halt sometime in June of 1993 when development on the SVP chip had been delayed to sometime after 1993. To make matters worse, Sega had planned a promotional tie-in campaign with McDonald’s to help support the release of the game in February the following year. Since the game had to be released on February of 1994 no matter what, all progress that had been made up until that point had to be completely discarded and started again. The decision was then to take what was done with Sonic 2, and attempt to make a direct sequel with the same style gameplay that could top all previous efforts in every way.
The Sonic 3 that many of us are familiar with originally started as one game, but it became apparent that the game would not be able to deliver on all its design goals in time for when the gold master ROM would be needed for manufacturing the carts. At this point, it was decided that the game required more personnel to help bring the game closer to completion - and so some outside contract work was done in an attempt to get the game together in time. One such area that was contracted heavily was the controversial sound and music production for the game. By the end of development, SEGA had received music from many people both inside and outside the company, with one rather infamous source being Michael Jackson’s song writing crew (under the direction of Brad Buxer).
Sometime during the early Fall, it was discovered that the game would not be able to reach all of its intended goals in time for release. So a decision was made very late in development to split the game into two parts, with one part being able to “lock-on” with the other to form the complete experience. Originally given the title “Sonic 3 Part 1”, development on the final version of the first half of Sonic 3 would be officially complete on November 20th, 1993. Development on the second part (originally titled Sonic 3 Part 2) would later be completed on June 19th, 1994 and released in October of 1994 under the title “Sonic & Knuckles”.
Development had been plagued with problems since the very beginning in almost every aspect, and only a few select people within SEGA were aware of this. When it became apparent to the public that the game would not release until the following year, the only statement given officially by SEGA at the time was that the game was experiencing “programming difficulties”. Because of this, and to prevent similar leaks that occurred during the development of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, SEGA was especially strict with how the game was perceived in media while the game was being made. Sonic 3 failed to appear at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show (SCES) of 1993, which was always where the debuts of many Sonic games were made. The game would make its official debut at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show (WCES) in 1994, which used a (pre)final version burnt on EPROMs. Absolutely no media outlets were able to see or comment on the game while it was in development.
SEGA had begun to implement measures to prevent prerelease ROMs from leaking to the Internet at the time of Sonic 3’s development. When SEGA was ready to allow the media to see and play Sonic 3 for the first time before release, SEGA tried to prevent having to send early samples to magazines directly by instead flying them out to the company itself to play the games. SEGA insisted on having complete control over how the game was presented in the media, and even prevented many media outlets from using their own screenshots and instead had to be given approved screenshots issued by SEGA themselves which at the time were sometimes distributed on picture slides (this was the case for the few Sonic 3 prototype shots featured in Sonic the Comic). Journalists would be sent over to SEGA to play prototypes of games to help with their drafts for timed publication, and then SEGA would either send screenshots or a finished build on EPROMs shortly before release (but well after production on the first half of the game had finished). If you go back and read some of the articles written in these magazines, you’ll notice that some of them mention details that you cannot find in the final version - such as Flying Battery, “unfinished music”, and the “helper” mechanic - all mentioned in reviews bundled with final version screenshots. All of this was done in an attempt to hide the severe blemishes that Sonic 3 had that persisted until literally a few days before the final ROM was to be built. Almost no magazine was able to publish a preview of Sonic 3 in 1993 for this exact reason…
The first (Jan 94) issue of SEGA Magazine (UK) was available for sale on December 10th 1993, shortly after the final Sonic 3 ROM was built. A version written in German was also published under the same name, but the contents of both are exactly the same (while the German version was always an issue behind the UK one). While this wasn’t the first and only SEGA centric magazine in the UK, this magazine was significant since it was backed by Sega of Europe. As a special treat for those who picked up the first issue of the magazine when it came out, the magazine came bundled with a mini companion magazine. The mini magazine included a brief history of Sonic up until that point, but ended with one of the most extensive preview coverages of Sonic 3 ever published!
Interestingly, the UK version of the preview stated that the game was 40%-50% complete at the time of writing the article - but the German version of the same preview (which was published as a companion guide to the Feb 1994 issue) revised the translated sentence to state that the game was 80%-90% complete instead.. The preview covered every zone that was intended to be present in the game at this point while intentionally leaving out any screenshots that might have hinted at the incompleteness of the game. The preview itself features screenshots of every zone, including a brief mention of the Competition mode. The quality of the screenshots themselves are superb, while other preview shots were either from an analog video recording or from slides, these are direct capture shots.
While this wasn’t the only piece of media released in 1993 to contain preview shots, this magazine contains the only extensive preview that’s explicitly sourced and written for this build of the game. As far as prototypes featured in the media go, this is by far the earliest you can go. It’s no wonder, then, that given the circumstances surrounding the development and marketing of the game that prototypes might be impossible to find. It almost seemed like finding a Sonic 3 prototype would always be something that was nearly unattainable.
That brings us to today.
Through the support of The Cutting Room Floor and a couple of very close friends, we were able to acquire the real deal. Not only is the prototype burnt on EPROMs, the prototype itself matches the same exact prototype seen in SEGA Magazine (UK)! Don’t believe us? See for yourself (credits go to Sazpaimon for these comparison shots).
While the date written on the EPROMs is just a few weeks away from the final ROM build date, there are many significant differences between this prototype and the final game. From cut zones, different music, art, level layouts, leftover data, and a lot of incompleteness - this prototype suggests it reflects something a bit earlier (perhaps in October as the ROM header suggests). As such, the date given on the EPROMs is potentially a burn date, and not a build date for the data itself.
And oh man, those differences. These are the things people dream of when they think of prototypes. This prototype reflects a moment in development when the game had just begun to split itself into two parts. Flying Battery is still here complete with bosses, with Lava Reef present in left over data buried deep within the ROM. Programming for many objects, badniks, and bosses for the other cut zones hasn’t been removed yet, and are still present inside the ROM. All three bonus stages are present, although all of them are unfinished. The special stage(s) are nothing more than programming tests at this point. Oddly enough, Angel Island contains the most differences despite being the first level in the game.
The best thing about this prototype is that it presents more questions than answers. Why does the game have a drop-dash like ability for Sonic? Why is there a second unique style of special stage? Was Flying Battery going to be part of Sonic 3 Part 1? And above all, why is all the music for the later stages completely different and based on the tracks from the PC port. Where’s MJ?! In many ways, it feels like playing Sonic 2 Simon Wai in 1999 all over again.
What secrets could there be within the ROM itself? Only time will tell.
Well folks, this is it. We hope these past few weeks were just as fun for you as it was for us. We never thought we would get as far as we have gotten today. While Sonic Month might be over (hopefully just a little while), we still have many more things to share with you in the times ahead. With your support, there is nothing we can’t accomplish.
Until next time, Happy Sonic Month! :)