It was 2006, a full 14 years after Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s release. Yet, time had done nothing to spurn the desires of those dedicated to the Hidden Palace cause. What was once regarded by Sega Technical Institute as an unfinished, unpolished, throwaway zone had swiftly come to represent one of the Sonic series’ most valued enigmas – one that would soon be revealed in all it’s 16-bit glory. Yet, as the search for Hidden Palace Zone neared its conclusion and the remaining parts of the puzzle began to fall into place, the very best of what the zone had to offer was yet to come.
“Wow. Just wow!”, “This is awesome. AWESOME!!”, “Never did I think we’d see this… UNBELIEVABLE!!”
These were just a few of the spontaneous outcries following the announcement that, for the princely sum of $1,500, a rather unique cartridge release had been purchased and thrust into the public domain. Sonic fan forums quickly filled with images of a mysterious cartridge adorned by a stunning holographic label that depicted Sega’s blue blur and his twin-tailed sidekick. The cart’s striking physical appearance was surpassed only by its contents – the earliest-known prototype of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. It was thanks to this very same cartridge that, in 1992, Nickelodeon viewers had been amongst the first to witness Sonic 2 in its earliest and rawest form. It was with this very same cartridge that Melissa Joan Hart had committed her ring-losing, spin-dash-lacking atrocity. Indeed, it was with this very same cartridge that on the 7th November 2006, Sonic the Hedgehog returned to Nick Arcade.
As the contents of the cartridge swiftly appeared online, legions of eagle-eyed Sonic fans, with microscopes at the ready, leapt at the chance to examine the prototype. The question on everyone’s lips came as no surprise – was Hidden Palace to be found here?
What was immediately striking about the Sonic 2 ‘Nick Arcade’ build was its array of common similarities with Sonic 1 – from its physics, to its use of the debut title’s Sonic sprite. Although the beta’s level select menu depicted a complete list of Sonic 1 stages, the selection of Spring Yard Zone unveiled not a stage filled with pinball bumpers, Buzz Bombers and Roller Badniks… It revealed the as yet untitled Hidden Palace Zone.
Aside from the stage’s use of Spring Yard’s Zone’s musical theme, the Nick Arcade version of Hidden Palace is not too far removed from that seen in the Simon Wai Prototype. Containing a total of three acts, the first is identical to its Simon Wai counterpart. Unusually, act two contains the ring placement of Green Hill Zone and an additional third act contains a water-rising mechanic that can be manipulated by the player-two d-pad. As a feature that was removed in later builds, the Nick Arcade beta also includes an unused wall collision mechanic whereby Sonic recoils and falls to the floor when hitting walls at speed. Ouch!
In July 2014, the authenticity of the Nick Arcade cartridge would be all but confirmed on Twitter, as Sega of America’s ex-Director of Marketing, Al Nilsen, posted an image showing a roll of 200 holographic Sonic 2 stickers. Sound familiar? “Sonic 2 hologram cartridge label prototypes. We didn't use them. Too $$$$, but very cool,” Nilsen revealed to his followers. “It was a great idea and they looked great. But they cost way too much and really wouldn't have increased sales.”
The proto goldmine
Let’s take things back a little… The 23rd February 2008 arrived, and with it came precisely 1024 reasons why Sega retro gaming would never be the same again. Jaws dropped and minds were blown as the largest video game prototype release in history appeared online – comprising exactly 464 Mega Drive prototypes, 155 32X prototypes, 300 Game Gear prototypes, 94 Pico prototypes and 6 Gamecube prototypes. More significantly, amongst this showcase was a series of rather intriguing Sonic 2 releases…
First up came ‘Sonic 2 (Beta 4)’, dated 18th September 1992, accompanied by betas five, six, seven, and eight and culminating with the final Sonic 2 build from the 29th September 1992. At last, Sonic fanatics would be able to trace the fate of their beloved Hidden Palace – albeit without the inclusion of ‘Beta 3’, which to this day remains secluded in some far distant corner of the 16-bit universe. Still armed with a veritable goldmine of Sonic 2 resources, the hunters of the Hidden Palace went to work. However…
By the time of the Sonic 2 (Beta 4) build, Hidden Palace had sadly become no more. All that remained was a hazy, garbled, pixelated landscape, much the same as that seen in the game’s final cartridge release. The release of Beta 7 marked the final nail in the coffin – literally. In this build, Hidden Palace had been deleted from Sonic 2’s level select screen. The level was no more.
24th September 1992 – the release of Sonic 2 (Beta 7) and the day Hidden Palace Zone died.
A flicker of hope
“Hello Mr Payne. Glad to have you here with us,” the interviewer began. “What can you tell us about the elusive Hidden Palace Zone?” an eager fan interjected. “Ahh…” replied Mr Payne in a response that cut through the atmosphere like a knife.
It was the 30th July 2009, at the 14th annual online Sonic Amateur Games Expo, where one fan posed that ever recurring question to Sonic 2 zone designer and Badnik illustrator Tom Payne. Although Tom could shed no further light on the fate of Hidden Palace, it was during the discussion that he fetched an “ancient box with all my Sonic stuff in it,” as he described. “You should start drooling now,” he exclaimed as he unveiled an absolute treasure trove of designs, documents and disks direct from the development desks of Sega Technical Institute.
For the very first time, Sonic fans laid their eyes upon the very earliest realisations of Hidden Palace Zone’s prehistoric Badniks. Stegway (aka Triceratops/Stego) and Redz were there for all to see in rough sketch form, as were a series of detailed graphs that gave precise accounts of sprite composition. Alongside these, Tom Payne also released never-before-seen sketches of further unused Badniks, as well as concept art for Metropolis Zone and the unreleased Genocide City Zone. Most exciting of all was a series of backup digitiser disks containing proposed in-game sprite animation frames, including a complete set for Stegway, dated 4th April 1992. With this act, Tom Payne become one in a growing number of ex-Sega staff to show their hand, revealing the role that he had played in Hidden Palace Zone’s rise and fall.
With Hidden Palace’s past beginning to take shape, the zone’s ultimate fate would lie not in the hands of Sega, but in those of one specific Sonic fan…
An explosion of emotions
For years, Australian-born Christian Whitehead – better known online as ‘The Taxman’ – had been a fan of the 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog series. With a near encyclopaedic knowledge of the games’ inner workings, physics and mechanics, Christian soon turned his hand to Sonic fan-game development. Earning high praise for his creation of the ‘Retro Engine Development Kit’ and also for his sleek 2D fan-game ‘Retro Sonic’, it wasn’t long before Sega became aware of Christian’s potential.
In July 2009, Christian Whitehead contacted Sega directly, creating an online video showcase that demonstrated his port of Sonic CD for iPhone. Created from the ground-up, using his Retro Engine, and running at a full 60fps, the game was slick, maintained a perfect aspect ratio and, above all, it was gloriously fast. Sega leapt at the chance to bring Christian on-board. In 2011, his Sonic CD remaster was released not only on iOS, but also on Android, PSN and XBox Live platforms. Following on from this release, continuing to work alongside Sega, and with his co-developer Simon Thornley (aka ‘Stealth’), Christian also delivered a remastered port of Sonic 1 in May 2013 for iOS and Android.
And then came the big one...
In December 2013 came Christian Whitehead’s iOS/Android remaster of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – complete with a fully complete and playable Hidden Palace Zone.
“What was once a prototype level that never made the cut is now officially implemented into Sonic 2. It's like a love letter to my teenager self,” an excited fan wrote on the forums of sonicretro.org. “I cannot wait to see the utter explosion of emotions tomorrow,” wrote another on the eve of the game’s release. “My body is ready,” remarked one slightly over-eager individual.
As news of the release filtered through the net, toucharcade.com became one of the first to post screenshots of the newly realised Hidden Palace Zone. Of greater interest, however, was one of the comments left by a guest user upon the site: “I hope they do this right! I've been waiting over 20 years for this. I was the original artist for 'Hidden Palace Zone'. Needless to say, it ticked me off when the level was cut just a few days before the final release of the original Sonic 2. The art for this particular level has always been my favourite art (that I created) for any Sonic game.”
The ‘original artist?’ ‘Hidden Palace Zone?’ ‘Sonic 2?’ This ‘guest’ was none other than the zone’s original artist Craig Stitt.
The palace revealed
Accessible by taking a plunge into what once was Mystic Cave Zone’s famous spike pit, the newly realised Hidden Palace Zone for iOS and Android contained an entirely new layout, yet retained Stitt’s artwork throughout. Filled with a host of familiar features – steep slopes, glowing bridges, prehistoric Badniks, cascading waterfalls and twisting green pipes – a scattering of ‘Master Emeralds’ also made an appearance, each revealing yellow and red springs upon their destruction. Further to its familiar sights, the zone came complete with a host of new additions, including winding loops, underwater segments, water rapids and sinister electrifying jellyfish Badniks. Furthermore, in an unanticipated twist, the zone was not accompanied by the mysterious sound test track #10, but instead by Mystic Cave Zone’s two-player theme. “We felt that the track didn't fit the pace or prehistoric feel of the level,” Christian Whitehead would later reveal. However, the biggest surprise of all was saved until last…
Hidden Palace 2013 was host to an entirely new Dr Robotnik encounter. In a mish-mash of influences –from the Phantom of the Opera to the Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City – the battle took place against a backdrop of a vast emerald-green pipe organ. Hand-in-hand with this musical influence, Robotnik himself came complete with a trombone-clad Eggmobile, which summoned falling spike balls as the instrument was played. It was unique, and it was was unexpected but it certainly left its mark.
As a fitting conclusion to the Hidden Palace saga, it was revealed in May 2014 that the official iOS and Android Sonic 2 release hid one further secret – a cheat code that revealed none other than the original Simon Wai/Nick Arcade Hidden Palace Zone in all its prototype glory. Fittingly, the stage was named ‘Proto Palace Zone’. The Sonic the Hedgehog completists’ dreams had finally become realised.
And so it came to be that Hidden Palace was ‘hidden’ no more. All it took was 21 years, an army of dedicated Sonic fans, a group of generous Sega artists and developers… and Melissa Joan Hart, lest we forget. It was an epic, and exhausting journey, but it was one of video gaming’s greatest adventures and it was worth it – every sprite, every object and every last pixel.
Now, what’s this about Genocide City Zone?
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