News/What Was Once Old Is New Again

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Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (CENSOR prototype)
Gauntlet (CENSOR prototype)
Discuss this release on the boards here!

What was once old is now new again!

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On June 23, 1991, Sega began selling the first Sonic the Hedgehog game in the United States. The game was an immediate success, and with that success Sega was able to grow as a company - enabling them to expand their offices globally while also acquiring new partners for their upcoming projects. With this success came the inevitable circumstance of ROM copiers flooding the market later that year which introduced a more accessible way into the console piracy scene. Along with the surgence of ROM copiers (such as the Super Magic Drive) there was also a sharp increase of users with access to the Internet, due in part because of the low cost of computer hardware with network connectivity. While limited, users were able to share files and post on simplified message boards called BBS (bulletin-board systems).

The first Super Magic Drive (.SMD) ROMs began appearing on a few BBS numbers in early 1992 and quickly spread to other numbers throughout that year. At the time, certain groups of users had already became notorious in the computer software scene for cracking and releasing software for personal computers (such as the Commodore Amiga and Apple Macintosh). These groups would eventually give themselves names and would release software with text files that would advertise the group along with the BBS numbers that they would often post files to. Some groups would even go as far as to modify the software itself to include “intros” or watermarks that would provide similar information. Some of these groups became so notorious that some began posting prerelease software.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was announced for the first time at the Summer Consumer Electronic Show (SCES) of 1992 which was available to the general public during the last week of May that year. The prototype that was featured on the show floor was not allowed to be directly photographed and details on the game itself were purposely kept from being shown until the Fall of that year. Media outlets were also given limited access to information on the game, with many getting review copies of the game but fewer getting copies meant for “preview”. The preview versions of the game were usually similar to the ”Simon Wai” build (named after the original user who discovered it) while review versions were similar to the fourth “Beta” that was included in a Sega QA archive backup.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 received a lot more media coverage than the first Sonic game ever did before. The game was “previewed” in the United States in shows like Nickelodeon's Nick Arcade and big name magazines such as Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) and GamePro. The game was also getting media coverage around the world as well, especially in European countries. Prototypes were shown in multiple electronic/toy expos all around the world all throughout the Summer and into the Fall.

Thus it was inevitable that the game would be leaked before release especially due to the circumstances surrounding the game at the time. Some time in September, the ”Simon Wai” prototype became available for download on certain BBS numbers. Not much is known about the circumstances that lead to the prototype being leaked, but Yuji Naka (the game’s main programmer and one of series’ original creators) had claimed for many years that it originated from a stolen cartridge that was featured at a toy show in New York. At the time, however, certain magazines reported that the leak was sourced from a specific magazine, which is more likely given the exposure that preview/review copies were given. The ”Simon Wai” prototype wasn’t the only prototype that was leaked at this time. The prototypes for The Super Shinobi, Streets of Rage 2, and the unreleased Mega Drive version Ninja Gaiden were also leaked around the time of the “Simon Wai” build as well.

Shortly before the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, there were many scene groups looking to be the first to release the final version of the game. The first scene group to release the actual final version of the game was a group called MAGICAL on November 20th, 1992 (just one day before the game was released). Since the full retail version was now out, the MAGICAL release would be one of the most widely distributed releases for the years to come. All other release attempts made before would be discarded in favor of this one.

The attitude toward unfinished software was different back then in comparison to what it’s like today. Those who operated a BBS at the time were less interested in archival and were more interested in having the latest software, and being the first one to offer them as well. As a result, prototypes like Sonic 2 and Shinobi 3 were quickly forgotten in favor of the fully functioning final builds. However, the other attempts that were made at the time would eventually find their way out of the Internet and onto the bootleg market. Bootleg cartridges and compilation CDs were created that would often use the ROM files that were first made available by the scene. This was likely because the bootleggers would grab the first available release so that they could print and beat the retail release to market as quickly as possible.

For a long time, the bootleg copies were the only means of accessing these prototypes. The original ROMs that were used as the source for the bootlegs were, for the most part, long gone. Most of the prototypes that were made into bootlegs were eventually rediscovered over the years thanks to the efforts of Cowering (who is responsible for GoodTools) that went and archived every single ROM that was ever released - warts and all. Most of the prototype ROMs that were featured in the earliest days of GoodSet came from archives made from various BBS lines and from various other sources in the Hong Kong bootleg circuit.

Due to the fragmentation and obscurity of the scene in it’s early days, not all ROMs were able to be identified properly. Even when these prototypes were new releases, they were often misidentified as “final” or “100%” completed versions. The prototypes were distributed for a time and then quickly discarded when the actual final versions were made available. Because of this, there was a huge chance that not all potential prototypes were archived in a way that they could be properly identified later.

Which brings us to today.

Recently, we have started looking into old archives of scene releases researching the origins of various prototypes that have been out since the 1990s. Lately, a few collections have been made available. Some of these archives included many of the original scene releases which haven’t been seen since they were first published on the Internet. We have been reanalyzing the scene releases from these archives and have already discovered several unidentified prototypes of both released and unreleased games. We were in the process of looking into one of these archives and noticed something strange. The archive in question contained many ROMs that had already been identified by someone else, but many of the identifications were incorrect.

One of those ROMs was Sonic the Hedgehog 2. The filename of the ROM itself was simply Sonic2.smd, which seemed innocent enough. However, the file timestamp was November 9th, 1992, a few weeks prior to MAGICAL’s release as well as the release of the final game. Curiously we opened the ROM in a hex editor and aside from changes made by whoever released this, the ROM did not match any available dump of the game. We quickly booted the game up and were immediately greeted with an intro by the ROMs distributor - CENSOR. After the intro, the game booted up proper to the Sega logo and we were greeted with this:

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Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (CENSOR prototype)

What we had just discovered was a long lost prototype of Sonic the Hedgehog 2! And not just any prototype, this prototype is potentially what “beta 3” would’ve been if it had been included in the QA archive!

There are a few differences in comparison to ”Beta 4” but there are many differences in comparison to the final game. All the changes in comparison to the final game and Beta 4 still apply here as well, but there are some differences between Beta 4 and this newly rediscovered prototype as well. Wing Fortress and Sky Chase see the most differences in this version, which are both sporting object layout differences. The mapping data for both Chemical Plant and Wing Fortress/Sky Fortress is different, since this build still includes slanted slopes in Chemical Plant Zone (which were changed to their final equivalent in Beta 4).

As mentioned before, this ROM has been modified from its original dump by CENSOR themselves. Not only did they add their own intro, but they also changed the information located in the header (name, serial, checksum, and entry point address). The name was likely changed for convenience with certain ROM copiers that would often read the header in the ROM to display in a menu when selecting the game. The entry point was modified to jump to the added intro, and some parts of the code in the beginning of the ROM were modified to circumvent the copy protection. The serial and checksum were also modified since people believed the source of the ROM could be identified through that number, so it was altered to use the serial from Wani Wani World. In this release, we included the original .SMD ROM, a normal .bin version of the unaltered ROM, and a .md ROM that attempts to revert the changes made by CENSOR in an effort to make the ROM as close to the original dump as possible.

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Along with the Sonic 2 prototype, we also discovered a prototype of Gauntlet for the Sega Mega Drive. Ironically, this prototype was also released by CENSOR. It was released around the same time as the final Japanese release. This game was also known as “Gauntlet IV” for some reason. This prototype features a lot of differences in comparison to the final release, including different music arrangements, localization changes, layout changes, and more! Be sure to check this out as well.

In the coming months, SNESCentral and us will be going through the scene release archives and rerelease what we find. We have been identifying ROMs currently in circulation against their original scene releases and noting them down in the Old Scene (BBS) lot. The investigation is still ongoing, so be sure to check this page once in a while to see what might be popping up.

With that said, until next time!