Uncovering Sonic 2's Secrets: Finding The Hidden Palace - Part 3

Finding-The-Hidden-Palace-Part-3“Hidden Palace Zone was lost quite some time ago. Seriously, though, the most we ever had finished and playable was the first part of the level. You could run around on floors, maybe even cross a bridge or two! And then you'd wind up in a portion that wasn't complete yet, and had nothing there and then you'd die. Exciting stuff, huh? I'm not sure why people would want to play that.” Yuji Naka – Lead Programmer, Sonic the Hedgehog.

Contrary to his belief, Yuji Naka himself would certainly have been taken aback by the pivotal events that took place in December 1998 and the discovery of the ‘Simon Wai Prototype’. Heralded at that time as the earliest-known beta of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, this beta ranks amongst the Sonic series’ most significant landmarks, yet one of its least prominently documented. Despite its rough edges and imperfections, the Simon Wai Prototype exposed Sonic 2 at its most experimental, revealing some of its most valuable and sought-after content, including – you guessed it – Hidden Palace Zone.

To understand how this latest phase in the Hidden Palace saga came into being, we must first travel back to 1992, to an otherwise inconspicuous Hong Kong video game store, where a young Sonic fan by the name of Simon Wai had just made a rather unusual purchase.

As he stepped out from the store, Simon Wai held his latest acquisition in his grasp – a 3½-inch floppy disk, labelled ‘Sonic 2’. Although there was certainly nothing official about this release, the magical words written upon its surface all but sealed Simon’s purchase. A test of the disk on his Mega Drive’s disk-compatible Super Magic Drive peripheral was simply too hard to resist.

Arriving home, he loaded the game. Simon’s TV screen lit up with a version of Sonic 2 unlike any other he had experienced before. Lacking not only in its legendary ‘Se-ga’ start-up sequence and showcasing an alternative title screen, Simon Wai was thrust straight into a barren, Badnik-free realisation of Aquatic Ruin Zone – Sonic 2’s third level. Where was Emerald Hill? Where was the gameplay? What was this disk? Unpolished, unfinished and largely unplayable, Simon’s purchase failed to inspire and the disk was swiftly erased… but not forgotten. Little did he know, but many years later, he would become reacquainted with the unusual file contained upon that disk – one that would come to be regarded as one of the most significant missing pieces in the Hidden Palace puzzle.

Faster than a spin dash

It was Christmas 1998 when Simon made his discovery of filename ‘MD8123.smd’, the self-same ROM file that he had loaded upon his Super Magic Drive six years previous. As he swiftly shared the news of his beta discovery upon the alt.binaries.emulators.sega newsgroup, word spread faster than a spin dash. Whereas Hidden Palace was previously confined to hazy magazine screenshots, black-market cartridges and André Dirk’s camera lens, in the blink of an eye, the once reclusive level was there for all to explore.

Inhabited only by the Badniks BBat and Redz, the zone also played host to the Mystic Cave Zone two-player music theme, the Tails 1-up monitor, spectacular glowing bridges, a huge insurmountable emerald-green slope and the reveal of a mysterious oversized jewel that would later come to be regarded as the ‘Master Emerald’. Overnight, the name ‘Simon Wai’ gained instantaneous synonymy amongst Sonic fans, who swiftly dubbed the ROM ‘The Simon Wai Prototype’ – high praise indeed.

Hidden-Palace-Slope

Within weeks, the prototype’s discoverer launched ‘Simon Wai’s Sonic 2 Beta Page’, to provide an online resource and archive of every level, each Badnik and every last pixel contained within the freshly unearthed beta. Coincidently, it was also around this time that André Dirk sold his own cartridge copy of the prototype. Although it fetched a princely US$150, the momentum was clearly with Simon Wai, who had provided a widely accessible file that was ripe for dissection. Not since Sonic2s Day had Sonic fans had it so good.

Rise of the Robots

Hex editors, coding, save states and uncompressed art. At this juncture, the tale of Hidden Palace took on a rather more technical twist, as an army of dedicated bedroom hackers, coders and programmers descended upon the Simon Wai Prototype. In the retro gaming equivalent of an archeological dig, not a single graphic, tile layer, or sprite was left unturned as the newly born ‘Sonic 2 Beta’ community unearthed the riches hidden deep within the prototype’s code – each providing a valuable clue to determine the processes undertaken during Sonic 2’s development. In addition to Hidden Palace, the unreleased Wood Zone and Genocide City Zone were also readily accessible to all, alongside early realisations of the zones that would eventually make it to the final cartridge release. Yet, it was the treasures hidden below the surface that truly took everyone by surprise.

Hidden-Palace-Badniks

Contained within the Simon Wai Beta was a host of unused sprites and tiles. Amongst these was a set of previously unseen Badniks, each created by Sega Technical Institute during Sonic 2’s development, but sadly discarded along the way. In addition to a robotic piranha, a three-eyed jet-propelled fish and a wheel-clad crocodile, most astonishing of all was a reacquaintance with a rather familiar wheel-driven triceratops by name of Stegway (aka ‘The Dinosaur’, ‘Stegosaurus’, or the mis-spelled ‘Triceretops’, depending on which concept art/development art is referenced). As a Badnik that was present only in screen shot mock-ups prior to Sonic 2’s release, this was the very first time that Stegway had been seen in all its pixellated glory. “Many of those enemies were designed by Tom Paine [Sega Technical Institute Artist].” Hidden Palace’s Art Designer Craig Stitt would reveal many years later. “I don't know why they were cut. Possibly because his style wasn't close enough to the Japanese artists’.” Nevertheless, now that these resources had become thrust into the public domain, the Sonic fan-base was whipped into a frenzy. And the revelations certainly didn’t end there.

Game Genies

“It wasn't until about two-to-three days before we shipped the game that I found out Hidden Palace Zone had been cut. At the time I was told it was because there wasn't room on the cartridge. Of course we all know that was not the truth, since an unfinished version of Hidden Palace Zone is in fact on the original Sonic 2 cartridge.” - Craig Stitt.

ACLA-ATD4 – a code that, on its own, bears no significance. Combine that, however, with a Game Genie, a retail copy of Sonic 2 and what do you get? A playable version of Hidden Palace Zone… Well, almost. In the wake of the Simon Wai Prototype, the multitude of Hidden Palace revelations were not only limited to betas and prototypes. As Craig Stitt attests, the famous zone had indeed left its mark on each of the six million cartridge copies of Sonic 2.

Hidden-Palace-Game-Genie

Through the magic of a Game Genie (or Action Replay cart), the selection of Death Egg Zone on Sonic 2’s level select reveals a title card, reading the immortal words: ‘Hidden Palace Zone’. The lettering swipes off-screen to reveal a mysterious level design, filled with corrupt artwork and distorted tiles. A complete lack of collision detection, however, means that the experience is over in an instant, as Sonic & Tails plummet into watery depths to be met with a swift death. The only hope of navigating through the mass of scrambled pixels is through the use of debug mode, which reveals a sole recognisable object amongst the scrambled terrain – the Tails 1-up monitor. In a further twist, all items placable in this level’s debug mode are extracted from Oil Ocean Zone. Why? Oil Ocean was also drawn by Craig Stitt. Throwing a further spanner in the works is the zone’s musical accompaniment – Sonic 2’s mysterious sound test track #10, which served to add further fuel to Hidden Palace’s musical conundrum. What music had truly been intended for this zone?

Although it arguably created more questions than answers, thanks to the Game Genie, Mega Drive/Genesis gamers were offered a first-hand glimpse at the haste that Hidden Palace was torn away from the gaming public. A sad, but true fact in an otherwise perfect game.

Over the years that followed, Sonic scene programmers made efforts to complete Stitt’s work, releasing their own fully playable versions of Hidden Palace Zone. Most notable was October 2004’s Mega Drive/Genesis ROM ‘Sonic 2 Long Version’, a loyal fan recreation of Sonic 2, complete with a two-act Hidden Palace Zone that culminated in an encounter with the Mystic Cave Zone Robotnik battle. Further stages in the ROM included realisations of Dust Hill, Genocide City and Wood Zone – truly a Sonic 2 completist’s dream.

However, unbeknown to all, the Sonic sequel was about to unleash yet another of its deepest secrets, one that would take Sonic fans to a time before Simon Wai, before André Dirk and prior to Yuji Naka’s toy show loss. As the hunt for Hidden Palace Zone neared its conclusion, it was time for a return to Nick Arcade.


Last Updated ( 06 September 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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