This may sound like blasphemy to my hardcore gaming friends, but I've never been a fan of the "big" classics in games. I'm more a fan of the obscure, the underrated, the unique. Call me a hipster if you want, but I never really saw the appeal in the mainstream hits. Everyone already thinks that they're great, so you don't get the same feeling of discovery playing, say, Mega Man as getting hold of a copy of Xexyz. As someone who aspires to be a game designer myself, someday, I've also always felt that taking inspiration from the same games as everyone else was no way to set myself apart. It was because of this that I wasn't exactly excited when a friend of mine called me up to rave excitedly about how a local comic shop, that also traded used games from time to time, had turned up a rare Japanese cartridge of Sonic the Hedgehog for the Mega Drive.
Eventually, however, my friend (who I'll refer to as "Sam") got me to come down and take a look. I'll admit, I wasn't expecting much. I planned to go down, confirm that yes, it was indeed a Sonic game, tell Sam I wasn't interested, and make her take me out to lunch. This was a good plan, and one I probably should have stuck with. Instead, I found myself handing over fifteen dollars to the disinterested man behind the counter for the game. It was a dinged up old cartridge, with nothing but a fairly plain white label affixed to it, bearing some printed Japanese text. It was because of the text I decided to buy it. Sam had been studying Japanese for the past couple of years, planning to take a trip there, and swore the label identified this game as a prototype build of the original Sonic the Hedgehog.
If you think that was enough to get me to buy it on the spot, you would be mistaken. There was actually a lot of talking it over between us before I agreed to make the purchase. Sam's motives weren't entirely altruistic, as she was the unabashed Sonic fan that I was not, but due to my interest in unusual titles, I had a console that could play Japanese-only cartridges, while she did not. So, in the end I negotiated a date out of her - a matinee feature and dinner at the Chinese buffet, split 60/40 in my favour - in exchange for buying the game and "giving it a shot" before she came over to play it after our date.
I'll admit, the chance to see what ideas a successful team tried before hitting on their "winning formula" did have my interest, but I never would have played without the promise of a date with Sam to motivate me. We'd always been "just friends", but not from lack of trying on my part. She'd teasingly said to me in the past that it was mostly what she called my "weird game snobbery" that made us incompatible. That and my undue love of tentacle foods, so I made a note to avoid the octopus on our date. However, for the weekend, I gamed.
The cartridge was too dirty to play at first. A thick layer of grunge had built up inside, and I had to carefully clean the contacts to make it work. Once I had, it started up fairly normally, though. While not a Sonic fan myself, I was Sam's friend, so I had played the games, and knew basically what I was in for. Or so I thought. As expected for a development version of a game, it wasn't as polished as the finished product. The menus and HUD elements weren't present at all, with white Japanese text on black boxes filling in. Interestingly, the timer was entirely absent. Although the titular hedgehog was a bit faster than I remembered him, there didn't seem to be any pressing need to reach the goal, a factor which I actually welcomed, as it gave me a chance to explore.
There were other differences as well. For instance, Sonic had a lighter colour pallet, and no matter how many rings you collected, there were no bonus stages. In addition, it was possible to strike certain stage objects, such as the palm trees, to drop coconuts, rocks, or other objects, which Sonic could then pick up and use as a projectile, though he was unable to roll while holding one. These could be used to take out enemies at a distance. It was a useful thing to have since many of the enemies were not fully animated, and the hit detection was spottier than in the finished game. Though, this actually brings me to another difference, one which I didn't even realize right away. Defeating enemies didn't give any points. The robots would be destroyed, and give off a few explosion effects and disappear, and that was it. The little animals didn't jump out, and your score didn't increase, though occasionally an enemy would drop a few rings.
Instead, to increase your score, you had to destroy machines scattered throughout the level. I think that they replaced the "item monitors" from the final game. Finding them was quite a challenge, as the stages were much larger, and had more hazards than the final game, both environmental, and enemy placements. Though clearly unfinished, I was actually quite surprised and impressed by how much content was in place. Was this the difference in a big game, I remember wondering. Though the music was clearly just place-holder loops, and the backdrops were nothing more than coloured gradients, the developers had still managed to pack in a lot of atmosphere. Each of the game's three zones captured a different feeling, and the levels themselves told a story.
First there was the forest, which began green and blue. With each act, the set changed just a little bit. In act two there was more grey in the backdrop, and some trees were only trunks. The water changed from blue to a greyish green. There were also more spikes in the second act, and underground areas often had an industrial feel, with crushing plates and flame jets. By the final act, some of those industrial features were out in the open. The backdrop looked more purple than blue, but a washed-out pastel that faded to grey. It reminded me of the sky the one time I'd been to Los Angeles on a family trip, years ago. Many of the trees looked burned, and the water was almost black. As I reached the boss arena, the grass transitioned into darker colours as well. I couldn't help the impression that I was leaving the forest and entering a paved lot. This is where I encountered the biggest change.
Instead of Robotnik's air car, as I was expecting, the enemy that came out was a large robotic bear, riding on one of the giant crushing balls. The fight was actually quite clever. The bear-bot would try to run Sonic down on the ball. Sonic had to avoid being crushed, and to stagger the bear, so that they fell off, at which point he could turn the tables, riding the enormous ball and using it to score a hit. After the first hit, the bear would sometimes jump up and down on the ball, causing rocks to fall that would hurt Sonic if they hit him, but could be thrown back if the bear didn't run them over first. After the second hit, he would occasionally hop off and kick the ball at Sonic, before leaping back onto it. Although the animation was choppy, it had very impressive AI, and took me some time to beat. It was obvious that some programmer had put a lot of effort into this boss, and it seemed a shame that it had been cut.
When I finally beat the boss, it billowed out fire, then blinked out, along with the ball. I can only assume that the death animation wasn't finished. Where the bear-bot had stood, there was a character somewhat like Sonic laying on the ground. They were differently coloured, and clearly not a hedgehog, but it seemed perfectly obvious that this was meant to be one of Sonic's woodland friends. There followed a brief scene where Sonic kneeled down by other character, and their mouth moved as though talking. Then Sonic stood, seemed to nod in agreement to whatever they'd told him, and walked out of the stage.
The next level was like a factory, mostly machines and lots of moving platforms. The levels had areas where machines churned out enemies, making it harder to progress. This stage didn't change as much during the acts, and I had the feeling that most of the work in this build had been in the first stage. Gradually, it introduced lava, more conveyor belts, and sections where spikes or crushers had to be evaded with careful timing. To tell the truth, this stage had the least favourable impression on me, though the dark background, with increasing touches of fiery tones as the stages went on, did as good a job of setting scene as the ones in the forest zone had.
I admit, my disinterest was probably due to it being the most frustrating zones to progress in. However, I did at last reach the boss, a robotic salamander of some sort, that clung to the walls and ceiling and launched fire at Sonic, as well as shooting spikes and trying to grab with his sticky tongue. Although not as polished as the bear, and prone to getting stuck in pathing errors, it was still a challenging fight, with conveyor belts and mechanical hazards worked into the arena. Once again, a character was there after the fight, a crocodile this time. At least, I assumed it was a crocodile, recalling Sam mentioning how the voice for a character named "Vector" was in the game's code, once. Once again, Sonic listened to the character speak, slowly nodded his head, and moved on.
The last stage was an advanced lab of some sort, with lots of computers. There were less enemies in this stage, and more environmental hazards. Among them, new machines that would shoot electricity, and other mechanical defences. The backdrop was primarily a dark green, streaked with brighter, almost neon green, that put me in mind of an old computer monitor, enhancing the cybernetic feel of the compound. In the later acts, the stage also contained areas that seemed to represent security checkpoints, where I had to wait for one of the infrequent enemies to open a path, then zip past them, and other areas where what I assume to have been alarms would trigger, and I found myself forced to fight off enemies for a time before I could move on. This wouldn't have been so bad, were it not for one of the more detailed background elements. Up to this point, I had assumed that they simply didn't have the idea of all Robotnik's robots being powered by animals until later in development, but minimally animated displays in the background proved me wrong. They showed crude schematics of the various enemies, including the animal that was the core of each. Even though I told myself that it was just due to unfinished graphics that the animals weren't shown escaping when you defeated an enemy, I have to admit it made me feel uncomfortable.
One other element stood out in this zone. Starting in the third act, Robotnik himself appeared, riding in his air car. Like in one of the levels I had watched Sam play, he constantly ran from Sonic. He was not always on screen, and would sometimes release hazards to slow my pursuit. Whereas in the games I had seen Sam play in the past, Robotnik seemed always to be taunting Sonic, this was his first appearance in the prototype. I actually felt it gave his presence a lot more impact. I found myself genuinely wanting to catch him, to make him pay, even though I wasn't exactly clear on what I was getting revenge for. I just knew that it was his fault, and as the player, that was motivation enough. When the fight came, it was...honestly not much. The air car didn't have many attacks, and Robotnik mainly relied on calling for backup from his various creations. Odd enemy spawning caught me a few times, but I soon worked out the trick of it. Much to my surprise, the game had an ending.
First, flashes of explosions covered the screen, serving as a transition. A mournful tune played, the first real music I'd heard from the cartridge. I didn't recognize it, but guessed it was probably something public domain in Japan, possibly a traditional folk song. Sonic stood alone on a cliff. The landscape around him was scorched, much like the latter parts of the first zone, with broken bits from the second and third thrown in, some of it on fire. Even with the somewhat unfinished tiles, the land looked ravaged, almost desolate. The backdrop was even a bit more detailed than that of the stages, adding the silhouette of some sort of factory/fortress to the sunset coloured gradient, and the occasional smoke sprite drifted slowly up between the fore and backgrounds. Sonic looked up to the sky then hung his head, and the screen faded to black.
It was only as I sat there, thinking about that final scene, that I understood. Sonic hadn't been getting advice on where to go next from those other characters, as I had assumed. He had been hearing their final words, and then holding a moment of silence in their memory before moving on. They had been the "cores" of the bosses, friends he was forced to strike down on a quest, not to save the forest, but to avenge it. In the end, he had won, but lost everything for his victory.
I never did go on that date.