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

Finding-The-Hidden-Palace-Part-2Tuesday 24th November 1992, otherwise known as ‘Sonic2s Day’, marked the North American and European release date of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Following the hype and the backing of a multi-million dollar marketing campaign, the work of Yuki Naka, Craig Stitt and the team at Sega Technical Institute was complete. Sonic 2 was out, minus one significant factor – Hidden Palace Zone.

“I’m confused,” Matt Lane, of North Carolina, wrote in the June 1993 issue of GamePro magazine. “For Christmas I received Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Genesis. Since then, I’ve finished the game a number of times, with and without the Chaos Emeralds. In the November issue of GamePro and in another video game publication, I saw pictures of a zone that never appears in my version of Sonic 2. What’s the story?” As query that was repeated in the letters section of countless video game magazines, Matt was not alone in his plight. But what had he seen exactly?

Prior to, and following the release of Sonic 2, video game magazines of the period were rife with news, reviews, features, and previews of Sega’s stunning sequel. Each page was filled to the brim with art, illustrations and screenshots that detailed the game in all its 16-bit glory – plus a little something extra.

In addition to the screen grabs detailing the brand-spanking new Emerald Hill Zone and 3D-esque special stages, readers were un-knowingly treated to shots of levels that didn’t make the final cut, including – you guessed it – Hidden Palace Zone.

Sonic-2-Hidden-Palace-In-Magazines

For the very first time, the public were subject to Hidden Palace in (almost) all its glory. A mixture of screen grabs and mock-ups displayed green gems shining amongst deep cavernous surroundings, whilst Sonic and Tails traversed glowing bejeweled bridges. Waterfalls fell all around as the Badniks BBat, Redz and Stegway stared out from amongst the pages. Hidden Palace was there for the taking, it seemed so alive, but unknown to the readers, it was already long gone. Or was it?

It wasn’t long before gamers of the period discovered a rather peculiar anomaly in Sonic 2’s options menu. A flick through the sound test to track number 10 revealed a musical sequence not heard in any level, special stage or menu within the game. Upon playback, the infamous track revealed a rich, slow-tempo trumped-filled sequence, almost majestic in its tone. Only one conclusion could be drawn – this was the theme for Hidden Palace Zone. How could it not be?

As the ghostly echoes of Hidden Palace Zone continued to haunt Sonic 2’s menu selections. Nothing was seen, nor heard, of the zone until precisely the 2nd February 1994. It was this day that marked the US Sega Genesis release of Sonic 3 – a title that, thanks to the tiniest of oversights, provided a huge new piece in the palace jigsaw.

The mystery of the green emerald...

For those possessing the superhuman dexterity to unlock Sonic 3’s level select, Sonic Team provided players with some rather interesting in-game imagery. For reasons not altogether clear, Sonic 3’s level select menu was built using data extracted directly from the Sonic 2 betas. To further complicate matters, each level within the menu was accompanied with corresponding art icons for Sonic 2 – Angel Island displayed art for Emerald Hill, Hydrocity for Chemical Plant and so on. However, it was the ‘two-player versus’ selection within Sonic 3’s level select menu that provided the greatest source of interest. Upon its selection, the player was presented with an icon depicting a giant green emerald, placed within a cavern-like surrounding. Could this have been the Hidden Palace level select icon originally intended for Sonic 2?

Hidden-Palace-Zone-Level-Select-Cheat

Following Sonic 3's release, Mega Drive gamers had only eight months to wait before the next installment in the Sonic-series – Sonic & Knuckles. Providing not only lock-on technology and the use of Knuckles as a playable character, this particular game was also responsible for the reveal of a remarkably named, and eerily familiar, fifth level.

A challenger approaches...

Lava Reef Zone – the aftermath of a Robotnik battle: Following an epic molten encounter, Robotnik’s latest mechanical creation sinks into a lava-filled grave. Sonic leaps and exits Sonic & Knuckles’ Lava Reef Zone, as he speeds into a small rocky corridor. Before him stands a short one-act zone – a dark Badnik-less cavern, paved with green marble and mosaic. The act concludes with a final showdown with none other than Knuckles the Echidna. Dazed and weakened, Knuckles leads Sonic into a cave filled with chaos emeralds. Knuckles shakes his fist as Robotnik returns, making off with the largest gem of them all – the master emerald.

Caverns, rocks, emeralds... sound familiar? The name of this level was Hidden Palace Zone – but not as we knew it.

Although it wasn’t the exact same Hidden Palace as that proposed in Sonic 2, what Sonic & Knuckles’ portrayal did represent was the faintest glimmer of hope, one that assured gamers that all was not lost. Sega hadn’t forgotten about its cavernous creation. Yet, there was still one nagging problem...

At the time of Sonic & Knuckles’ release, Craig Stitt – the original Sonic 2 Hidden Palace Zone artist – had long since left Sega. Now employed at Insomniac Games, Stitt would later enjoy renewed success with the Spyro the Dragon series. Moreover, from Sonic 3, through to Sonic & Knuckles, not a single member of Sega America – short of the odd sound engineer and music composer – had a direct involvement with the titles. The main Sonic canon had been handed back to Japan's Sonic Team. On the Mega Drive at least, the series had returned to its roots, as did Hidden Palace, which would remain completely out of sight for a long time yet.

A link to the past...

Fast forward to 1998. 2D platformers were considered a bygone pastime in an era obsessed with Black Mesa, Shadow Moses and Umbrella Corporation. A year had passed since the discontinuation of the Mega Drive, the Sega Saturn had been and gone and Japan was about to greet Sega’s latest creation – the Dreamcast. Meanwhile, an Australian gamer by the name of André Dirk was about to awaken a relic from the past and single-handedly change the course of the Sonic series forever.

...a Japanese pirated cartridge copy of Sonic 2; a prototype with its origins traceable to one significant event – Yuji Naka’s 1992 toy show theft.

André Dirk had a friend known only to the gaming world as ‘Jono’, who owned a copy of Sonic 2. Nothing too out of the ordinary there, you may think. However, this particular release of Sonic 2 was of an altogether different nature. Jono was in possession of a Japanese pirated cartridge copy of Sonic 2; a prototype with its origins traceable to one significant event – Yuji Naka’s 1992 toy show theft.

Not only this, but with his friend’s game in-hand, André Dirk made an astonishing discovery. He cracked the greatest code of them all – the Sonic 2 beta level select. André and Jono had free reign and were about to become the very first members of the gaming public to play Hidden Palace Zone.

Armed with a camera, André Dirk became responsible for the first imagery of Hidden Palace since the magazine shots all that time ago. Utilising his desktop copy of Microsoft Publisher, he hosted imagery on his newly created website ‘Secrets of Sonic the Hedgehog’ (SoStH). For the world to see, SoStH displayed this unusual release's alternate realisations of Oil Ocean Zone, Mystic Cave Zone, Metropolis Zone and Casino Night Zone, in addition to unreleased music takes and photos of the Sonic cartridge itself. The site also showcased the unreleased Wood Zone and the utterly unplayable Genocide City Zone, which the site creator had no hesitation in describing as “a load of old cobblers”. Of particular interest was a particular shot depicting Sonic stood beside a Tails 1-up monitor – an image that served only to deepen the zone’s mysteries.

Sonic-2-Andre-Dirk-Pirate-Prototype

Needless to say, the Sonic community had an absolute field-day. Yet, for all his pioneering discoveries, André Dirk had no technology at his disposal to directly access the data upon his friend’s pirate release. Unable to directly source the beta cart’s ROM file, seemingly, the Sonic community was at a dead end.

As it just so happened, a fellow Sonic fan by the name of Simon Wai was about to make what would become one of the most important discoveries in the history of Sonic the Hedgehog.

The key to the palace...

It was late 1998 and Canadian Sonic fan Simon Wai – no doubt piqued by the findings of SoStH – embarked on an online Sonic beta hunt. As far back as 1992, in Hong Kong, Simon had been one of the early few to play a black market copy of the Sonic 2 toy show beta. Now, years later, he had a renewed determination to rediscover it.

Beginning his journey on Chinese ROM sites, Simon soon came upon a lone Geocities page. It was here where he located the rather a inconspicuous file named ‘MD8123.smd’ – uncovering the syntax of which provided valuable insight into the file’s origin and identity.

‘MD’ stood for Mega Drive, ‘8’ represented an eight-megabit file, ‘123’ identified the file as the 123rd in its sequence and the ‘.smd’ extension identified it as a file created by a Super Magic Drive – a piece of hardware with the ability to extract a Mega Drive cartridge to floppy disk. It was only when he came to load the file that its true identity was revealed. Simon Wai’s memories came flooding back in an instant.

Super-Magic-Drive-Mega-Drive-Floppy-Disk-Adapter

What had been discovered was the very same beta edition of Sonic 2 that had been so cruelly snatched from Yuji Naka all those years ago and the exact same beta that had been subjected to André Dirk’s camera lens. However, this time there was a significant difference. Simon Wai had access to a read-only memory computer file – one that was ripe for dissection and would soon come to be regarded as the Rosetta Stone of the Sonic gaming world – ‘The Simon Wai Prototype’

It was only a matter of time before the secrets of Hidden Palace would be unlocked. Quite literally, everything was to play for.


Last Updated ( 09 October 2014 )  

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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Comments 

+1 (Link to this comment) suedehatbats 2014-03-11 21:54
Interesting story of the hidden level. Awesome article. :D
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