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Game Development:Sonic the Hedgehog 3/Music

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Unlike other Sonic games, the music of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 stands as an ongoing controversy for Sega due to the choices made during development. It is not fully understood how much of the soundtrack is owned by the company, having outsourced its production to third-parties, some of which have chosen to distance themselves from the project in later years.

Masato Nakamura, responsible for the soundtracks to the first two Mega Drive Sonic games games, was at the time having a great deal of success with his band, Dreams Come True, leading him up his demands for working on a possible Sonic 3. Nakamura wanted more money; both for his contributions in this new game and for if Sega chose to reuse his compositions for any future Sonic titles. Sega declined, and decided to look elsewhere for the composition power needed in Sonic the Hedgehog 3.

Like Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was set to be developed in the United States at the Sega Technical Institute, where a chunk of the original Sonic Team (including Yuji Naka and Hirokazu Yasuhara) were still situated. Answering the call, Sega are thought to have been approached by pop sensation Michael Jackson and his team. Jackson had a history with Sega (most notably producing Michael Jackson's Moonwalker early in the Mega Drive's lifespan) and had visited Sega's offices in Japan some months prior. He liked video games, he liked Sonic the Hedgehog, and Sega accepted immediately.

And you wouldn't believe the celebrities who did cameos. Dustin Hoffman, Michael Jackson...of course they didn't use their real names, but you could tell it was them.

— Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons episode 9F03, "The Itchy & Scratchy Movie"[1]

However, Michael Jackson is not credited in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (or indeed Sonic & Knuckles - the eventual "second half" of the adventure). Instead, credits go to the following "music composers": Brad Buxer, Bobby Brooks, Darryl Ross, Geoff Grace, Doug Grigsby III and Scirocco (and in addition, Sega's internal sound team are also thought to have composed music for the game). The omission, particularly in the early 90s when only the core team of developers usually made it into the credits, was perhaps not surprising, but still curious as several staff members have mentioned the star by name.

Jackson had a history of going uncredited (or using pseudonyms) in productions, often due to contractual complications. Reportedly Jackson's record label at the time, Epic Records refused permission for the star to sing for any of its potential rivals. The most famous example of this is third season episode of the American animated sitcom The Simpsons, Stark Raving Dad (1991), where despite guest starring as "Micheal Jackson", the credit is given to "John Jay Smith", a person that does not exist[2]. This was later referenced in a season four episode of the show.

But more likely, however, is that in 1993, Michael Jackson became caught up in child sexual abuse allegations. Having cancelled the final leg of his Dangerous World Tour due to health concerns, Sega likely chose to distance themselves from the composer during this period, and while Jackson was never proven guilty, the negative press was not something Sonic 3 wanted to be assocated with.

However, to this day the story is not fully understood. Some of the team deny Jackson's involvement, others claim his work was scrapped, and others appear oblivious to the situation. Nevertheless, Sonic 3 is generally met with more obstacles when Sega attempt to re-release it. With Jackson's death in 2009, the full story may never be known.

Michael Jackson evidence

Roger Hector interviews

Sonic 3 (also called Sonic & Knuckles) was a lot of fun, but it was also very difficult. Michael Jackson was originally brought in to compose all the music for the game, but at the very end, his work was dropped after his scandals became public. This caused a lot of problems and required a lot of reworking. But the game turned out great in the end.

— Roger Hector, General Manager of the Sega Technical Institute[3]

In an interview in August 2005, Roger Hector, the "executive coordinator" of both Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, confirmed that Michael Jackson composed all the music for the game, but was dropped due to the 1993 scandal[3]. This was backed up by a separate interview two years later, claiming that the Jackson soundtrack was never heard by the general publicMedia:Makingofs3kpg4.jpg[4].

While Hector was not directly involved in Sonic 3's development, his role was to manage all projects at STI, and was usually involved with high level discussions (Jackson's signing and dismissal being two of them).

The music fitted perfectly for the game, and they had a distinctive 'Michael Jackson' sound. We had it all ready and integrated into the game when the first news stories came out accusing him child molestation, and Sega had to back away from the collaboration...It was too bad nobody outside ever heard the Michael Jackson music.

— Roger Hector, Executive Coordinator, Sonic 3 & KnucklesMedia:Makingofs3kpg4.jpg[4]

Howard Drossin interview

Howard Drossin and his guitar. From the MTV Special "Inside Sonic & Knuckles."

According to Roger Hector, Howard Drossin is said to have been brought in to replace Michael Jackson's musicMedia:Makingofs3kpg4.jpg[4], but also goes uncredited in Sonic 3. He is, however, the main composer behind Sonic & Knuckles (and is credited there).

Drossin, when recollecting his involvement in the soundtrack in August 2008, was adamant that Michael Jackson had nothing to do with the final product, but went on to say that he was not responsible for the bulk of the soundtrack as Roger Hector claimed, but only a handful of his tracks made it into the final product, most exclusive to Sonic & Knuckles[5].

When locked onto Sonic 3, Sonic & Knuckles creates Sonic 3 & Knuckles. When this occurs, the miniboss and Knuckles themes (and most of the jingles) from Sonic 3 are replaced with their Sonic & Knuckles counterparts, most of which were composed by Drossin. So in this context, some Sonic 3 tracks were replaced by Drossin's compositions, but the true reasoning for why remains unclear.

Brad Buxer interview

Brad Buxer, credited in Sonic 3, was a long-time contributor with Michael Jackson. He is the co-writer of the 1996 hit, Stranger in Moscow, and was also involved with the production of Jam and Who Is It, all of which are thought to share similarities with the Sonic 3 soundtrack.

Buxer shed some light into Michael Jackson's involvement in a December 2009 interview with Black & White Magazine. In this interview, Buxer confirms that the final release of Sonic 3 does contain at least one piece of work by Michael Jackson:

B&W: Can you clarify the rumor that Michael had in 1993 composed the music for Sonic 3 video game, for which you havel been credited?

Buxer: I've never played the game so I do not know what tracks on which Michael and I have worked the developers have kept, but we did compose music for the game. Michael called me at the time for help on this project, and that's what I did.

And if he is not credited for composing the music, it's because he was not happy with the result sound coming out of the console. At the time, game consoles did not allow an optimal sound reproduction, and Michael found it frustrating. He did not want to be associated with a product that devalued his music...

B&W: One of the surprising things in this soundtrack is that you can hear the chords from Stranger in Moscow, which is supposed to have been composed later...

Buxer: Yes, Michael and I had composed those chords for the game, and it has been used as base for Stranger in Moscow. [...]

— An excerpt from the Black & White Magazine interview with Brad Buxer[6]

According to this statement, Jackson did not wish to be credited by name in the game because he was unhappy with the quality of sound the Sega Mega Drive's Yamaha YM-2612 sound chip produced. Buxer's statement also confirms that the similarity between Jackson's "Stranger in Moscow" and Sonic 3's ending credits song are not a coincidence, and that the credits theme indeed uses chords originally composed by him and Buxer.

However, these statements directly contradict what Roger Hector has said.

Cirocco Jones discography

A discography of another musician (or "music consultant") working on the game, Cirocco Jones (appearing as 'Scirocco' in the Sonic 3 credits), lists a "levels 2 & 3" as being composed by Michael Jackson and belonging to "Sonic The Hedgehog"[7]. While "levels 2 & 3" could be referring to Hydrocity Zone and Marble Garden Zone, respectively, it could easily be referring to prototype level ordering, or indeed the order in which the group composed music.

The other "composers"

In addition to Brad Buxter and Cirocco Jones, other credited composers are known to have worked alongside Michael Jackson in the early-to-mid 1990s.

Robert Green "Bobby" Brooks was working with Michael and his siblings as an audio engineer, possibly from as early as their Motown years. Darryl Ross was also an engineer working with the star, Geoff Grace a composer, and Doug Grigsby III produced some of Jackson's material during this time period. All four were involved in the creation of Michael Jackson's next album, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I which released in 1995, and none are known to have previously worked in video games (or indeed since in most cases).

Sonic & Knuckles Collection

In 1997 Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were brought to Windows PCs in the form of Sonic & Knuckles Collection.

In this edition of the game, six of the tracks (Carnival Night, IceCap, Launch Base, the credits to Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Knuckles' theme in Sonic 3 and the Competition menu) were replaced with entirely different compositions, and the Mini-Boss theme is always the Sonic & Knuckles version, with the slot for the Sonic 3 version being replaced with an entirely different (and unused) song. The reasoning for this has never been clearly explained, and has not applied to subsequent Mega Drive re-releases of the game(s).

This is the earliest suggestion that Sega may not own the full rights behind certain songs, or have been wary of using them in later games.

Audio similarities

While it has yet to be confirmed which tracks were influenced by Michael Jackson, there are definitely some clues left in the game.

Knuckles' theme

The 4-bar swinging hiphop beat that plays when Knuckles comes on-screen, one conveniently replaced in Sonic & Knuckles and the PC release of the game, contains samples that sound identical to "Blood on the Dance Floor".

Carnival Night Zone

Both acts of Carnival Night Zone share similarities to "Jam", most notably in the use of a horn-based "downwards fall" (played directly before Heavy D's rap in the Jackson song):

Michael Jackson Jam and Carnival Night Zone comparison.png

(identical notes between the two songs are highlighted in red)

Ice Cap Zone

Much of the Ice Cap Zone theme was composed by Brad Buxter, as an unreleased 1982 track by new wave band the The Jetzons[8]. "Hard Times" was unheard by the general public until 2008, when it appeared as part of The Complete Jetzons compilation[9].

While it is unlikely Michael Jackson had any direct involvement in this one, a good portion of Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" shares a chord structure similar to that of the first act 1. This is especially noticeable in the version that plays in the Moonwalker movie, which isn't found on the Bad album. Roughly six minutes into the song, following the bass solo after the quiet orchestral section (as Jackson and the gangsters perform the Anti Gravity Lean), the bassline and string section clearly changes to a piece of music very similar to Ice Cap Zone. After the main bassline returns, a keyboard continues to play the Ice Cap chord sequence until the end of the song.

Jackson's "Who Is It" is also very similar to the zone. The keyboard section under the chorus, when sped up, has an almost identical chord structure and texture to that of the Sonic 3 level.

Credits theme

Sonic 3's credits theme is extremely similar to a faster-paced "Stranger In Moscow", another Buxter-Jackson collaboration. The synth/strings section, as heard in the intro before the lyrics start, is identical to the sequence that plays during the first section of the ending theme to Sonic 3.

Particularly unusual about this find is that Stranger In Moscow was not released until a full two years after Sonic 3. It has been suggested that the Sonic 3 credits theme may have been a prototype to this song.

Current issues

In the modern age, video game companies have become increasingly wary of re-releasing games in their back catalogue that they may not own the full rights to. The changes seen in Sonic & Knuckles Collection would suggest the music in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 has been presenting a problem since at least 1997. Sega is not thought to have been challenged on the use of Sonic 3's music, but it remains a thorny issue to this day.

No subsequent Sonic game has ever revisited Carnival Night, Ice Cap or Launch Base Zone. Sonic Generations and Sonic Mania avoid these levels, and likewise, the music accompanying Knuckles or the mini boss has never been heard outside of Sonic 3. Curiously, however, some of the replaced Sonic 3 jingles have turned up in newer games (such as the title screen and 1-up theme), which would suggest Sega owns the rights to those, but a game like Sonic Pocket Adventure, whose entire soundtrack is lifted from Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles has no signs of the so-called Jackson tracks.

Despite being offered by Christian Whitehead, Sega chose not to offer remastered mobile versions of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in a similar manner to the 2013 releases of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Likewise while other mobile versions of Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 were commissioned, none were released for Sonic 3.

Sonic 3 is less widely available than its Mega Drive counterparts - while included where it is expected (e.g. Sonic Jam or Sonic Mega Collection), it is often neglected in budget Mega Drive consoles made by AtGames, and is missing from the 2018 release of Sega Mega Drive Classics, despite virtually every other first-party Mega Drive game making an appearance.

There is no concrete evidence that the music holds Sonic 3 back, however there have been similar cases where the publisher has been reluctant to re-release games that may present legal issues. Nintendo's Earthbound on the Super NES is one such example - the Virtual Console release was held back for years because much of the game's soundtrack samples popular songs from The Beatles and elsewhere.

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