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Game Development:Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (16-bit)

From Sonic Retro

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 went through many ideas and changes during the development process. What follows is a collection of items related to the game's development.

Development Process

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Behind the scenes of the Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Japanese commercial.

After the tremendous success of Sonic the Hedgehog, it was only natural to expect a sequel to the game. Though many would have assumed the original team would be already scheduled to spearhead the second entry in the series, right off the bat, problems arose that would turn the production of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 into the words legends are made of. Yuji Naka, the man responsible for the engine of the first game, had run into issues with the management of Sega of Japan. Though the game had been a success, the powers that be at the company were not happy with how everything turned out, among the disagreements the amount of time that had been spent programming the project. Growing weary of politics, Naka quit Sega, intending to look for work elsewhere.

Back in the United States, Mark Cerny, the man who had come up with the gaming classic Marble Madness, had been hired by Sega to create a new gaming studio for the company, the Sega Technical Institute (STI). The general idea behind the studio was to hire talented individuals who were only getting their start in the industry and teach them the ways of the gaming development world, not only with the talent already established in the U.S., but by talent originating from Japan who had proven themselves in a far different commercial environment. Placing advertisements in local newspapers, the resumes began pouring in, with such people as Tom Payne, Brenda Ross, and future-creator of Spyro the Dragon Craig Stitt becoming employees of this new experiment in game development.

During the production of the original Sonic the Hedgehog, Mark Cerny had already secured Hirokazu Yasuhara, the director of that project, to come out to the United States and work for STI once his job back at Sega of Japan was done. However, when Cerny learned of Yuji Naka's departure from the company, he immediately called up his long-time friend, attempting to persuade him to come out to America as well, and become a part of his venture. With the promise of a better salary and more executive power, Naka took Mark up on the offer, hiring back into the Sega fold.[1]

Though the American staff of STI cut their teeth on the game Kid Chameleon, with the arrival of Naka, Yasuhara, and a handful of other Japanese staff members, Cerny was sure Sega would give the team their biggest and most obvious assignment - the sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog. With two of the three main people behind the success of the first game (the third, Naoto Ohshima, stayed behind and eventually directed Sonic CD) it only made sense to devote the entire studio to Sega's biggest franchise. Even though the Japanese staff arrived in September, it would be two months until work on the sequel began.

I'd managed to reunite two of the three key Sonic Team members...at my Sega Technical Institute. They were ready to start work on their next project, and so I asked marketing the obvious question, "would you like another Sonic?" Bizarrely, the response was, and again I kid you not, "no, it's much too soon." So we found another game to make, and in November, as we were getting started, marketing came back and said "oops, we do need that game, and we need it now." So the team lost two months out of an eleven month schedule!

— Mark Cerny, programmer for Sonic the Hedgehog 2[2]

Filled to brim with ideas, one of the first elements the team decided on was that they wanted a new main character to be introduced in the game. Before Yuji Naka agreed to become a part of the Sonic 2 team, one of his requests was that there would be a two-player mode, a feature he wanted to include in the original title, but did not have the time to implement. An internal competition was held within Sonic Team and STI to find the best character that could be used for this new addition to the franchise, and though many entries were submitted (including one from artist Craig Stitt for a flying turtle named "Boomer"), it was Yasushi Yamaguchi who won with his two-tailed fox character. Originally wanting him to be named "Miles Prower," the rest of the team felt his name should simply be "Tails," to match the simplistic nature of Sonic's name. Unhappy with this idea, Yamaguchi (who became the lead zone artist in the game) decided to sneak the name "Miles Prower" into various concept art and in the game, making both names legitimate in the end.

Being nothing less than ambitious, the original plan was to make a sprawling, 18-zone epic, revisiting the unique level tropes Sonic Team had created for the first game, putting their own spin on traditional platformer levels like desert and snow worlds, and even come up with some ideas that would be totally new. Emerald Hill, Hill Top, Oil Ocean, Hidden Palace, Dust Hill and the never-formally-titled Winter Zone were some of the first levels to be worked on, the concept of time travel also being talked about in early production meetings. However, it became obvious early on that if they were to have the game ready for the Christmas season of 1992, they could not finish every world that was on the drawing board. The time travel concept was dropped almost immediately, and Dust Hill and its winter counterpart were some of the first zones to be put on the chopping block, much to the chagrin of Brenda Ross, the artist responsible for their appearence.[3]

Though the two sides of STI tried to work together, the language barrier proved to be too much at times. Most of the meetings for the direction of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 were done in Japanese (Mark Cerny being fluent in the language), leaving the American side in the dust. Trying to mesh the two cultures and work ethics became a challenge in itself, with some members unable to get along with Yuji Naka's intense personality. Tom Payne, who himself never had any issues with the Japanese half of the team, recalled in an interview later the stark differences between the American mindset of a nine-to-five job and the Japanese mindset of working almost all hours of the night, with members like Yamaguchi and Yasuhara being extremely passionate with the quality of the whole:

Well for me-- this was my first job so I only had Sonic 1 to go by & tried to make it match that style. I'd say [that] it was Yamaguchi who laid out the look. He would stay all night & fix everything that we did wrong. Quite an amazing fellow.

— Tom Payne, Zone Artist for Sonic the Hedgehog 2[4]

With the American and Japanese teams having very different approaches to using color in the zone art and in creating the level layouts themselves, it was up to the senior members of the Japanese staff to help unify the look of the final product, cutting through the cultural differences to provide the best product they could muster in the time allowed.

The much-discussed Hidden Palace Zone.

Even if tensions could rise as the leaders of the project demanded perfection, work on Sonic the Hedgehog 2 continued unfettered. With each passing day, the hype behind the project grew more and more, immense pressure being put on the collective team. Not content with just the random screenshot from time to time, Sega wanted to advertise the game in as many ways possible. Getting in contact with the children's TV network Nickelodeon, a special cartridge was put together to be played on the gameshow Nick Arcade, featuring an early version of Emerald Hill. This prototype, later referred to as the "Nick Arcade prototype," was eventually leaked onto the Internet in 2006. Sometime after the airing of the show, another early build was put together to help drum up interest, being a playable demo to the public at a New York toy show. However, security was not up to snuff, and at the end, the cartridge was stolen. Later to be known as the "Simon Wai" prototype (named after the man who discovered the ROM image on the Internet back in 1999), it was this build that was the source of many prerelease information related to the game.

Even knowing early on they would not have enough time to work on everything they had set out to in the beginning, as the release date drew nearer, it became more than obvious that the team would have barely enough time to finish the eleven zones that ended up in the final game. Cyber City Zone, a one-act level that was meant to follow Metropolis Zone (and was briefly called "Genocide City", but was changed once the Japanese staff fully realized what the word meant), was scrapped, most of it being converted into the third act of Metropolis. The very last level to be removed was one of the first that had been worked on, the Hidden Palace Zone. Conceived as an area Sonic would warp to after collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds, both game flow and deadlines forced the team to drop it, instead awarding the power of Super Sonic immediately after the seventh special stage was completed.

My only complaint was that if art had to get cut out it always seemed to be the American's on the team who's art got cut. Sometimes this was because the art wasn't working, but on other occasions, I don't believe this was the case. (such as with Hidden Palace, although I never was happy with the far background).

— Craig Stitt, Zone Artist for Sonic the Hedgehog 2[5]

Sega of America's CEO Tom Kalinske along with a plethora of early 90's TV stars, gathered to promote the release of Sonic 2.

To make the deadline, Sega of Japan, only a few weeks before the Christmas selling season, had thirteen additional Japanese staff members fly out to San Francisco to iron out any issues or problems the game had. Details, such as the title screen, were changed days before it was to be certified, and even the game credits were thrown together at the last minute, causing some people to be miscredited in terms of what they contributed to Sonic 2.

The game was released simultaneously in the United States and Europe on "Sonic 2sday." A marketing campaign promoting the concept of "blast processing" was pursued, while back in Japan the campaign focused on the introduction of "Tails." The entire team, both American and Japanese, celebrated together on November 23rd, 1992, proud of the game that, against the odds, would not only be the biggest selling Sonic game on the Mega Drive, but the best selling game of the 16-bit era.

Just like the first game, Masato Nakamura, leader of the band DREAMS COME TRUE, was in charge of creating the soundtrack to Sonic 2. Wanting to stay faithful to what he had done in the first game, but give the audience even more, Nakamura felt the pressure of writing music that would satisfy fans of the first. With the game released and receiving all sorts of praise, Nakamura decided to give something back to the team that had given him the chance to create the music in the first place.

[A]fter finishing all of the tracks for the sequel, Nakamura sent me a fax saying, "I've got a present for you. It's a surprise!" The other members of Sonic Team and I tried to figure out what it might be, but we could never have guessed that Nakamura reworked the ending theme that he provided for us for Sonic the Hedgehog 2 into a song entitled "SWEET SWEET SWEET" for inclusion on the DREAMS COME TRUE album that he worked on in London. I remember how ecstatic and moved all of us on Sonic Team were upon learning of our "present." That particular song remains a huge favorite of mine, and continues to hold very strong memories for me. For that, I am truly grateful.

— Yuji Naka, Chief Programmer for Sonic the Hedgehog 2[6]

Also of note is the fact the game contained references to some of the biggest pop culture phenomenons on both sides of the Pacific. The Death Egg, Eggman's ultimate weapon in the game, was modeled after the Death Star, the superweapon featured in the Star Wars trilogy. Meanwhile, the seven Chaos Emeralds and the introduction of Super Sonic were homages to the well-known Chinese fable The Golden Warrior and its then-current interpretation being published in Japan, Dragon Ball.

It is also possible that a Mega CD port of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was planned early on in the development cycle, but it was decided that the team should remain focused on the Mega Drive cart.

Time travel

In May 2017, Sonic 2's "planner", Hirokazu Yasuhara detailed some of the earlier stages of Sonic the Hedgehog 2's development as part of a game design presentation at Digital Dragons 2017[7]. Of particular note is the idea that Sonic 2 once incorporated a time travelling mechanic - a feature that was never mentioned in public at the time, but found itself in a different guise as part of Sonic the Hedgehog CD.

However, Sonic 2's version of time travel was something very different - time zones would be accessed in a more linear way, and rather than appear as re-skinned and slightly tweaked versions of the same levels, each time period would have an entirely new set of stages.

Yasuhara's presentation featured four slides containing planned time periods, and a rough idea of how they linked together:

The plot is believed to have been much the same as Sonic CD - Eggman travels into the past, and his actions damage the future. Sonic's task would be to follow Eggman into the past and right the wrongs. To travel through time, Sonic would go to a "warp point", though the precise mechanics are not understood. Arrows suggest the levels were set to be tackled in a clockwise direction.

Early names of levels are detailed in these slides:

"Present"

  • "Greenhill Zone" - expected to have become Emerald Hill Zone
  • "Woods Zone" - likely scrapped stage, Wood Zone
  • "Sand Shower Zone" - a potential desert-themed level
  • "Metropolis Zone" - Metropolis Zone
  • "Ocean Wind Zone" - a potential water-themed level

"Medieval"

"Ruined present"

  • "Dust Hill Zone" - a level whose theme is unknown
  • "Rock World Zone" - a potential rock-themed level that may or may not differ from the above
  • "Oil Ocean Zone" - Oil Ocean Zone

"Anicent"

  • "Hill Top Zone" - Hill Top Zone
  • "Blue Lake Zone" - a potential water-themed level
  • "Rock World Zone" - a potential rock-themed level
  • "Tropical Plant Zone" - a potential tropical-themed level
  • "Olympus" - a potential tropical-themed level


Yasuhara's plans here are very early, likely debuting before any meaningful development work had begun on the game. The concept is believed to have been dropped prior to the game's public announcement, but these initial plans still shaped the final product. For example, Hill Top Zone contains volcanos and dinosaur enemies, something usually associated with the distant past, and graphics are shared with Emerald Hill Zone, its present counterpart.

Early cartridge labels

On July 1st 2014, Al Nilsen posted on his Twitter account, early holographic labels for Sonic 2. They were not used on the final game due to the amount of money it cost to produce the labels, but one label was used for the Nick Arcade prototype of Sonic 2.

Concept Art

Character Art

Enemy Concept Art

Level Concept Art

Metropolis Zone

Assorted Levels

Objects

Miscellaneous Documents

Promotional Screenshots

Early Mock-Ups

In the early months of 1992, Sega released a small handful of Sonic 2 "screenshots" alongside confirmation of the game's existence. However, under closer inspection you can see that these are not screenshots at all, but instead mockups using what few assets were currently available at the time (and sprites from Sonic 1). In all these mockups, Sonic is off-centre, the layout does not exist in the final game, and enemy and ring placements are strange.

Summer 1992 Screenshots

Over the summer, possibly for Summer CES 1992, Sega released a handful of "real" Sonic 2 screenshots. They appear to be consistent with the "Simon Wai" prototype, with different graphics and Tails showing signs of his older AI scripts. However saying that, it is fully possible he was being controlled by the second player, in order to get the best possible screenshot composition.

This marks the first time Sonic 2 was shown to the general public at large - the "Nick Arcade" prototype was likely shown to journalists behind the scenes at Summer CES 1992 (and of course appeared on Nick Arcade, as well as being teased in Sega Visions), but cruicially, this is the first time Tails was seen on-screen.

In North America, Sonic 2's box art uses three of these screenshots, rather than images from the final game.

Later Prototypes

Between the "Simon Wai" and "beta 4" prototypes lies at least one, but likely two prototypes sent to the gaming press to promote Sonic 2. Beta 4 and all later prototypes were only used internally - the following likely shows the last non-final Sonic 2 ROM to be covered by game publications.

In all of these screenshots, Sonic and Tails have their final animations, but are often seen in zones which were altered (or scrapped!) before release. This prototype was also used for the game's manual in North America.

See Also

  • Sonic Panic! - A ten minute look into the creation and development of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, featuring Yuji Naka. Was given away in Japan to those who had preordered the game.

References

  1. Tim Skelly interview by ICEknight (August 2004)
  2. Mark Cerny interview by Sega-16 (December 5, 2006)
  3. Brenda Ross interview by Deviance (February 2001)
  4. Tom Payne interview by SageXPO (July 30, 2009)
  5. Craig Stitt interview by ICEknight (January 2001)
  6. Sonic the Hedgehog 1&2 Soundtrack#Scans
  7. https://twitter.com/necrosofty/status/866702759357292544


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