Uncovering Sonic 2's Secrets: Finding The Hidden Palace - Part 1

Finding-The-Hidden-PalaceWhen it comes to classic levels, few video games can beat the iconic arrangement of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. From the lush palms of Emerald Hill, to the murky waters of Oil Ocean and the intergalactic immensity of the Death Egg, Sonic 2 had the lot, emeralds and all – or did it? Of the six million gamers that purchased Sonic 2 during the Mega Drive’s lifetime, the chances are that most were blissfully unaware of perhaps the greatest level of them all, the stage that never was – Hidden Palace Zone.

Picture the scene, it’s 2014 and you’re playing through the latest release of Sonic 2 on your iDevice. You’ve made it to the second act of Mystic Cave Zone, where spike pits, twisting vines, and glowing badniks await. The act begins – you bring down a collapsible bridge, breeze through awkward rotating crates and burst past a crushing rock obstacle. Things are looking good. A pit approaches, above which is a lever. You leap to activate it, but miss. Sonic falls into the pit, deeper and deeper. Reaching the bottom, an underground chasm is revealed. Its walls are encrusted with green emeralds, as waterfalls cascade onto its golden rock surface. You’ve accidentally stumbled upon the legendary Hidden Palace – but it wasn’t always this easy to get here.

Rewind back to the early days of Sonic 2‘s development on the Mega Drive. Hidden Palace was originally proposed as a secret level – the source of the Chaos Emeralds, the origin of Super Sonic’s powers and a place that could only be accessed upon the attainment of each and every emerald. Although it was designed and conceptualised, Hidden Palace was never realised in the original 1992 release of Sonic 2. The truth behind its existence remained a closely guarded secret. What followed in the ensuing years was an epic pursuit for the truth, one surrounded in mystery, riddle and intrigue, as Sonic fans tried all they could to unlock the secrets of a legend.

Behind palace gates

Hidden-Palace-Stegway

Following the runaway success of Sonic the Hedgehog, Lead Programmer Yuji Naka was swiftly enlisted at the American HQ of Sega Technical Institute (STI). Alongside Sega Japan and Sega of America’s greatest talents, it was here that Naka set upon the development of the game’s sequel – Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

In a process of trials, tests and relentless beta revisions, it would be several months before the game would take shape to become the Sonic 2 that we have all come to know and love. Part of this team from the beginning was Artist, Craig Stitt, whose earliest work on the project was the design of none other than Hidden Palace Zone.

Originally planned for a two-act structure, Stitt was tasked to illustrate Hidden Palace’s scenery and background – a layout that would host numerous level-exclusive Badniks, including a wheel-driven triceratops by the name of Stegway, a small t-rex-like dinosaur Redz and a bat that was aptly named BBat. Most intriguing of all was the presence of a huge and mysterious green Chaos Emerald within the zone’s first act. Could this mysterious stone have been the source of Super Sonic’s powers?

Stitt’s work on Hidden Palace was fraught from the outset, as scheduling and issues of cartridge capacity soon came to the fore. The two-act structure rapidly diminished as badniks, level art and layouts were shifted with each successive revision. Hidden Palace was vanishing at a rapid pace and time was running out.

Secrets from the arcade

“Get ready for the ultimate video challenge,” an announcer cries. “As two teams go head to head with the maze of electronic obstacles for the right to face one of our game wizards in the Video Zone! Get Ready, here comes Nick Arcade!”

Nickelodeon Studios, Orlando Florida. It’s early 1992 and the filming of video game themed children’s game show Nick Arcade is about to take place. More importantly, its contestants – although they don’t know it yet – are about the bear witness to the earliest known beta version of Sonic 2.

Over the course of its development, several Sonic 2 beta revisions were realised, which today provide valuable insight into the evolution of the title and the experimentation that took place behind closed doors. The earliest of these betas to public knowledge was the version exhibited on Nick Arcade, which, years later, became fittingly known as the Nick Arcade Prototype.

Aired in April 1992, this particular episode of Nick Arcade was attended by stars of Clarissa Explains It All Jason Zimbler and Melissa Joan Hart. Reaching the show’s Video Challenge stage, Melissa was set a task to collect 25 rings in Emerald Hill Zone Act 1 – a task that she failed epically. Despite this, one of the key significances of this early beta version was not Melissa Joan Hart’s participation – who was neither teenage, nor a witch by this point – but the fact that it contained one of the earliest revisions of Hidden Palace Zone.

Accessible only through the game’s level select screen, the Nick Arcade Prototype is Hidden Palace Zone in its rawest form. With only one playable act, which culminates in an incredibly steep and impassable slope, the two acts that follow are largely unfinished – and vastly unplayable. The version of Hidden Palace Zone on this prototype also features the theme tune from Sonic the Hedgehog’s Spring Yard Zone and object placements from Green Hill Zone Act 2. Interesting indeed. But Hidden Palace Zone’s intrigue certainly didn’t end there!

Toy show troubles

Mid-1992 – Yuji Naka stands at Sega’s booth at a New York toy fair. Upon a stand sits a Sega Genesis, slotted into which is something rather special; the latest beta revision of Sonic 2 and the first to be available for public viewing – one that later became known as the Simon Wai Prototype.

Although the majority of Sonic 2‘s zones were present to varying capacities by this point, many of their names were still to be finalised (Neo Green Hill, anyone?). Also on this particular cartridge were early – if not broken – realisations of the soon to be scrapped Wood Zone and Genocide City Zone, which were only accessible through the use of a level select code.

Much like its Nick Arcade cousin, the Simon Wai Prototype also contained only a single playable act of Hidden Palace Zone. Containing only minimal visual tweaks and the omission of a third act, this revision also shared a rather interesting similarity with the current iOS/Android release of Sonic 2 – its theme is the prehistoric-sounding two-player Mystic Cave Zone tune, something which would famously change in later game revisions. In any case, let’s go back to the toy show...

Even though the event undoubtedly played host to a number of the industry’s leading toy and electronic manufacturers, a certain individual had only one company set in their sights – and not for the right reasons. Although exact details of what transpired at this particular toy show remain fragmented, one thing is for sure – the Sonic 2 prototype on display was stolen! As a result, the hugely anticipated sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog was pre-maturely released into the public domain and along with it went its greatest secrets. For all Yuji Naka’s dismay – a sentiment that he is quoted as feeling to this day – if it wasn’t for this single event, Hidden Palace Zone could well have remained shrouded from public view forever.

A pirate’s life

Sonic-2-Simon-Wai-Prototype

In a sorry tale of events, the Simon Wai Prototype became the victim of a mass piracy ploy. From Asia, to Brazil Sonic 2 – in beta form at least – was ripped, copied and sold on the black market months before the game’s official release. Despite this, the public of the day remained completely unaware of Hidden Palace Zone. No one had yet figured out that all-important level select code, let alone its existence.

Meanwhile, back at Sega...

The combined forces at STI, Craig Stitt included, pushed on with the development of Sonic 2 and Hidden Palace Zone. For Stitt, the zone’s background art would prove to be of constant concern, as he was never quite satisfied with the designs he realised. Try as he may, his efforts to perfect the zone were in vain.

Although Hidden Palace was listed on the level select of the subsequent Sonic 2 beta, it wasn't selectable – nor was it in any way playable. Instead, the level resided deep within the deepest, darkest recesses of the beta's code, existing only as a tangle of pixels and mixed-up pallets. Hidden Palace had been wiped from existence. All was seemingly lost.

Until readers started to notice the appearance of some rather unusual Sonic 2 screenshots in their favourite video game magazines...


Last Updated ( 10 February 2015 )  

MegaBites

Writer, collector and player of retro, and a master in the art of cartridge blowing. Raised on trashcan chicken, with an unexplainable obsession for gold rings, some might say that he has an unhealthy obsession with the Sega Mega Drive. Writer and owner of the MegaBites blog.

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