Welcome back to Caelestis’s 25 year retrospective on Sonic the Hedgehog. For me, this was an intensely personal period of time. On Christmas 1994, I unwrapped a Sega Genesis bundled with a copy of Sonic 2. Thenceforth, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Sega fan. I shunned Nintendo vigorously. My best friends and I at school would talk about how daunting Lava Powerhouse in Sonic Spinball was, how unique the flying boss of Marble Garden Zone in Sonic 3 was, and how we wanted to design our own video games. When I saw Super Mario 64 come out, I was waiting for Sonic to bounce back with a smash hit of his own. I would continue to play my Sega Genesis from elementary school until college with religious fervor, mastering debugging and cheat codes that I learned online. Herein is chronicled the beginning of that age for a young Caelestis.
1994: End of an Era
Actually, we have to look to Nintendo in 1992 to understand what was going on at Sega in 1994. A small, Western company called Argonaut Software had been working with Nintendo since the NES days and was committed to pushing real 3D graphics on the SNES. Argonaut hired developers and programmers to realize this dream and soon produced the Super FX Chip, a coprocessor unit for graphics. Nintendo showcased its huge leap in technology by using the Super FX Chip in a new title coming out for the Super Nintendo in 1992. This game would use the chip to demonstrate the impressive polygonal graphics rendering without slowdown and would go on to become a staple in the Nintendo library of intellectual properties: StarFox. Back at Sega, Yuji Naka salivated at the chance to use comparable technology in another Sonic game, rendering the hedgehog in real 3D. Sega executives, however, demanded another Sonic game right away and the technology in Sega’s R&D department was not ready. Sega’s answer to the Super FX Chip, the SH-1, was never as impressive or had as much impact, only ever being used on the Genesis game Virtua Racing.
As we saw last time, Sega had been urging Sonic Team over in America to crank out another Sonic game for 1993. Naka was naturally tapped to lead the third Genesis installment of Sonic the Hedgehog, but Naka issued a list of demands: he wanted a promotion and the opportunity to work with the Japanese half of Sonic Team more or less exclusively, for the differences between the American and Japanese halves of Sonic Team during the production of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 were more than he cared to tolerate. Sega agreed. As stated before, Naka was also itching to produce a game in 3D, and although Sonic the Hedgehog 3 would not be in 3 dimensions, its lingering effect is still visible in the design of the special stages, as seen above. Naka and Hirokazu Yasuhara went to work, coordinating with STI director and project executive coordinator Roger Hector.
Sonic 3 became bigger than anything before seen in franchise history. Sonic Team envisioned a massive game, bigger than Sonic 2. However, the pesky East vs. West rivalry reared up again when the Americans started pushing for a quick turnaround time. The Yankees had just entered into a series of high-profile deals with big names: Nike, McDonald’s, and Michael Jackson. Each had a significant influence on Sonic 3‘s trajectory. Another internal character design contest was held at Sega. The new character was a green, spiky mole designed by Takashi Yuda. The lumbering mole emphasized strength over speed, bashing things down with his formidable fists. The design was tweaked so the mole would be red and would wear the distinctive Nike swoosh across his chest. Thus was born Knuckles the Echidna. Sega of America worked with McDonald’s to launch a massive Happy Meals toy campaign for Sonic 3, putting massive pressure on Sonic Team to have the game ready by 1994 (I personally remember getting the toy of Sonic running with wildfire behind him, with a button that would fire Sonic away at top speed using a spring mechanism).
Most significantly of all, Sega dropped Dreams Come True as composer for the third Sonic game. Sega of America had been contacted by Michael Jackson, the legendary pop star, because of his fondness for Sega and Sonic. Jackson and a few men who worked with him went to put to music to the game, yet Jackson was never credited as a composer. In order to understand why, consider that the big scandal accusing Jackson of child molestation happened between his initial contact with Sega of America and the release of the final product. Also, Jackson was reportedly displeased with the sound hardware of the Genesis. Technologically, the Genesis had inferior sound hardware compared to the Super Nintendo and Jackson preferred not to produce anything than have something come out sounding unpolished. Sega of America was quick to distance itself from Jackson in this time and both sides disavowed Jackson’s involvement in the final product, but who said what and when has become a moment of true mystery in the development of Sonic 3. In Sonic 3, the theme for Knuckles is a hip-hop, percussive beat that even seems to sample one of Jackson’s trademark shouts:
Curiously, this same percussive beat is heard in Michael Jackson’s “Blood on the Dance Floor” at 1:37:
Notably, though “Blood on the Dance Floor” came out in 1997, it was actually written for Jackson’s 1991 album Dangerous with new jack swing artist Teddy Riley. So although “Blood on the Dance Floor” was unknown to the world in 1994, it had already been written well before Sonic 3 hit stores. Then, there is the phenomenon of Carnival Night Zone:
Any Jackson fan (as well as anyone with working ears) would easily identify the similarities to “Jam,” also on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album (listen at 3:12):
And there is also Ice Cap Zone:
Does that sound familiar? Well, one of the men on Jackson’s sound team at the time was Brad Buxer (who is credited as a composer for Sonic 3). Buxer was earlier part of a band called The Jetzons, who produced a song called “Hard Times.” Tell me what you hear:
AND THEN there is the Sonic 3 credits music:
Do I smell a little “Stranger in Moscow” right here?
To be sure, “Stranger in Moscow” was not heard until Jackson’s album HIStory dropped in 1996, but it was recorded in 1993, right when the press went into its wild sensationalism over the child molestation allegations. That would mean it was already written by the time Sonic 3 was in production. All of that seems like an incredible amount of coincidence, especially considering STI composer Howard Drossin was asked to rewrite Knuckles’s theme in the follow-up game and Carnival Night Zone, Ice Cap Zone, and the credits theme were rewritten in the PC port of the game known as Sonic & Knuckles Collection in 1997. Strange, isn’t it?
With pressure on from America to release the game in 1994, Sonic Team realized it would never finalize the game on as grand a scale as it hoped. The game was halved, with the first part called Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and released in America on Groundhog Day (now Hedgehog Day) 1994 and the second part called Sonic and Knuckles, released October 18, 1994 worldwide. This tactic may have forecasted episodic gaming, but to ensure maximum profitability, Sonic Team enabled Lock-On Technology in Sonic & Knuckles, allowing Sonic 3 to fit its cartridge in the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge to yield Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the game as fully intended to be made. “Sonic 3 as you imagined it,” this full game was being built up for release on one cartridge in Japan but this project was ultimately shelved. The Lock-On Technology also retrofitted Sonic 2 to allow Knuckles to be playable in that game. Similar plans for Knuckles in Sonic 1 were considered but canned due to time constraints. Connecting Sonic 1 with Sonic & Knuckles allows a player to enter a code to play several levels of Blue Sphere, the special stages from Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Sega also reached out to, of all people, Right Said Fred (yes, of “I’m Too Sexy” fame) for a song to boost European sales.
Naka had had strong reservations about being on the third game from the start, which is why he demanded more from Sega. He engineered special compression on the game to allow room for extra polish. He and Yasuhara, once done with the games, would part ways for good. Naka returned to Japan while Yasuhara stayed in the United States. Naka had zero intention of working on another Sonic game, wanting to find somewhere else to use his creative efforts. A follow-up game on the Sega Game Gear, called Sonic and Tails 2 in Japan and Sonic the Hedgehog Triple Trouble in the West, would come out later in 1994, featuring Knuckles and another character known as Fang the Sniper in Japan and Nack the Weasel in the West. A Japanese-exclusive game for the Game Gear, Sonic Drift, would mark the first (but not last) time Sonic would be in a car for a racing game. Sonic Drift used the levels from Sonic 1 as the inspiration behind its courses and would square off Sonic, Tails, Amy, and Robotnik against each other. The development of this game was alluded to in hidden artwork in Sonic CD featuring Tails in front of a go-kart, signed by Yasushi Yamaguchi under the name Judy Totoya.
Storm clouds were on the horizon for Sega, though. Several years earlier, Nintendo had contacted Sony in the interests of creating a CD-based game console. Sony had seemed ready to accept and Nintendo was supposed to announce the big partnership at a press event…only to tell the media that it had partnered with Phillips instead. What was supposed to be the Nintendo PlayStation quickly dropped out of the journalists’ buzzwords. The Nintendo-Phillips partnership yielded those bizarre Zelda CD-i games, mah boy, and an opportunity for Sega to nurse Sony’s wounds. However, a suspicious Sony saw a better future by carving its own path. Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske had carefully courted Olaf Olafsson, a talented Scandinavian developer and programmer connected to Sony, only for Olafsson to advise Kalinske that the deal had collapsed. Sony executives were persuaded by clever engineer Ken Kutaragi that Sony could make its own console and get into these console wars itself. The handwriting was on the wall. Sonic 3 & Knuckles, though successful with its 2 million units sold, was still dwarfed by the success of Sonic 2 at six million units sold. Sega had also been damaged by releasing the bloodier version of Mortal Kombat on the Genesis, prompting Kalinske to push the Videogames Rating Council, the forerunner to the ESRB. Sega had fought tooth and nail to carve a niche out in the market, but the cost was high: many of Kalinske’s top allies in Sega of America were jumping ship, looking to explore new opportunities. Sonic had never scored so well in Japan as he did in the West, and this weakness prompted Sega of Japan to start looking at being the first man into the next generation of consoles. This was the subject of a discussion that left Kalinske in a shouting match with Sega of Japan CEO Hayao Nakayama, and Nakayama was not prepared to let the Americans run loose any longer.
Things were coming apart amongst all of the politics internally at Sega and externally with Nintendo and now Sony. 1991 to 1994 had been a two-man race. Was the market big enough for the approach of a new challenger?
To be continued…