When it comes to new information about early versions of Sonic the Hedgehog titles, we here at Sonic Retro get very excited. If you’ve been here long enough, you may remember that this whole community was birthed because a certain fellow stumbled across the Sonic 2 Beta many moons ago. In the interim, we’ve been able to get our hands on even more Sonic 2 prereleases, not to mention early builds of Chaotix, Sonic CD, Sonic Spinball, and who can forget the interviews and concept art that have been gathered over the years…but there has been a holy grail that is still elusive to this day. Something that, until last summer, we didn’t even know existed. What I am talking about is the very first playable version of the original Sonic the Hedgehog designed specifically for the Tokyo Toy Show back in June of 1990. The only shots of that build we had for ages were of Sonic standing in a pose not seen anywhere else, and Sonic running next to a sign that we still don’t have a clear shot of. But today, that all has changed.
Now to give this some context. The two shots I mentioned earlier were originally in two separate issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly, with little context aside from “Sega is making a new video game! Will this be the one to finally defeat Mario?” While many hoped that it was from some playable build, many came to the consensus that they were more than likely conceptual screenshots, similar to how the first screenshot of Emerald Hill was not from a playable build of the game, just assets slapped together for promotional purposes to build hype. Same with the first Hidden Palace shot and the elusive Dust Hill. The fact the shots contained an art style clearly different from any other promotional screens, along with insider stories about how Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was developed, made people accept that what happened for the early promotion of the sequel had to be the same for the first game. After all, why would it be vastly different?
Fast forward to Summer of Sonic 2011. Though the convention had existed for a few years by that point, that was the first time anyone involved in the original game had attended: Yuji Naka, the original programmer of the Mega Drive games and future president of Sonic Team. This allowed an unprecedented access to one of the original creators, with numerous questions being asked that had been burning in the minds of fans who had been curious as to the evolution of the original Sonic concept. Though some questions still remained, one of the private interviews of the evening revealed something startling. Justin Towell of GamesRadar.com knew time was precious, so when his allotted slot came, he handed scans of those early Green Hill Zone screens and asked Naka to explain. The story he told was one that helped fill a gap in the development history, something that had been lost in time until then.
In 1990 the team created a demo for a toy show. There was no TGS, so the major show to go to at the time was this toy show. So they used this as a playable demo to show what Sonic would be like and to show the breakneck speed that Sonic has. This actually has got seven layers of background scrolling – the trees one layer… a lot of effort went into creating it. I am looking for this ROM. It’s gone. Nowhere to be found.
This changed everything. These weren’t just conceptual screenshots of unfinished art. This was the first publicly playable build of the original Sonic the Hedgehog. The rawest, most primordial version controllable with a gamepad. And we had no idea it existed.
Of course, hearing that it was essentially lost was disheartening. This wasn’t just some random build of a game that came and went. That code, the art…those were the beginnings of an extremely important cultural moment in the 90’s. Sure, Sega might not be the force it once was, but back in the early 90’s you couldn’t get away from the hedgehog. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 would go on to sell over six million copies. The character would star in two concurrent animated series, be featured in various comic books across the globe, and would at one point be more recognizable than Mickey Mouse in the United States. And to think that the earliest playable code which looked so vastly different than what would come out in the end was missing…even if it did still exist out there, there was no way any normal person could get their hands on it. Buried deep within Sega of Japan’s vaults in some mislabeled box, or making its way to some private collector, it would not be something easily stumbled upon. Which was a shame, since this was something that should have been preserved. Something readily accessible if needed. The most tangible form of the creative process in a specific point in time.
That could have been the end of it. To be fair, we still haven’t gotten our hands on the build, or even know if it exists anywhere. Would be great if it did. If it were to suddenly appear out of the blue, the Internet would go into hysterics. I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone about the flurry of interest that happened a few weeks ago when some footage was uploaded on YouTube claiming to be the real deal. We now know its completely false, but at the time people were hoping for the best. Filming the footage being played in a dark room, it wasn’t long before the entire film was being torn apart frame by frame. Comparing pixels to scanned material. Studying the movements of Sonic, his collision detection with how he jumped onto a ledge, the clouds scrolling at the top…even Yuji Naka was drawn right into it, certain people remembering his desire for the recovery of the original game. At first, Naka’s comments on his Twitter pointed to him wondering if it was the real deal, though he questioned some of the object placement. With the third and final video, it was more than clear that the entire thing was a forgery, Naka confirming that fact even though the added elements made it abundantly clear. The slightly off title screen, the easter egg credits being proudly displayed, and the clearly false sign were more than enough to put the entire thing to rest.
One good thing did come out of this clear hoax, though, which brings us to the present day. Even though it was now known those screenshots from EGM were clearly from a playable build, no one knew if any other shots existed. If they did, they would more than likely only exist in Japanese gaming publications from 1990, which are definitely not the easiest to come across. Luckily enough, at the time of this most recent insurgence of interest, a quick look at YouTube came across a video of a man flipping through a copy of BEEP! Mega Drive from around the time the Tokyo Toy Show would have been covered. Lo and behold, though barely acknowledged in the video, there sat two never before seen screens of the original playable build of Sonic the Hedgehog.
To satisfy the curiosity of the Sonic Retro message board, some quick photographs of the pages were taken, with the promise of clearer scans in the coming days. Sure enough, those clearer scans were provided by the man who owns the magazine, Ian, and were subsequently put up on the Sega fanblog MegaDrive.me. Even though we haven’t found the missing link, we have finally captured him on film.
For those who look into such matters, it is clear that the original concepts for Sonic were a bit different than what we got in the final product. Filled with organic enemies and a bumblebee-clad Eggman bouncing about in the background, it was a far cry from the story of a man who captured animals and placed them inside robots to assist him in his quest to find the Chaos Emeralds and take over the world. But another misconception that many people held for many years is that those sketches, from the six fingered hand to the girlfriend Madonna to the strange, demonic being hovering behind the landscape were nothing more than concepts that never went off the drawing board. This wasn’t even challenged when Yuji Naka was shown the concept art, who just reaffirmed that they were simply unused concepts. So while it was believed the Tokyo Toy Show build more than likely contained something we had never seen, no one was expecting this guy:
Yes indeed, that is the large jawed enemy from that now-classic piece of concept art, now fully realized in sprite form. While we have no idea what he would look like standing, or even what would happen if Sonic were to jump into him, this goes to show the progression of Sonic the Hedgehog was something certainly gradual. Remember, by the time this build came out, the game had only been worked on for about two months. Things were still early. Things were still evolving. It would be a while before even the build playable at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1991 would start to form. But now, more than ever, it shows that these early concepts weren’t just some random, quick doodles that were quickly discarded. They are the building blocks for which everything else was to come. Who knows what other secrets might be hiding out in that playable build, what other unused enemies might be standing in the foreground ready to get in Sonic’s way. It is fascinating to think about, for while we have gotten more answers, it might be a while before we’re able to satisfy the new slew of questions that have come our way.
This is where the story ends for now, but that doesn’t mean the book is closed. Who knows what other Japanese magazines may be hiding out containing even more never before seen stills? Or a person from the press who had the foresight to actually film the event, and capture even a few scant seconds of the proceedings? And of course, there is the eternal hope that, one day, that once long forgotten build of Sonic the Hedgehog will once again be found, allowing those hills to once again be traversed. After all, these are the dreams that keep Sonic Retro running.
Interested in learning more about the development of Sonic the Hedgehog? Then check out our Game Development page on the wiki!