From Sonic Retro
Magazine Preview #03 - Desert Level Mock-Up Screenshot
Alt. Source: GamePro, and others
This is the only picture released by Sega showing the desert level. There's nothing to compare to, because quite obviously this level doesn't exist in either of our prototypes or in the final version.
If Sonic's off-centerness, plus wrong zone's enemies, plus the seemingly impossible trajectory for Sonic to grab the two rings don't convince you the above image is fake, the following analysis will.
Scale the desert level picture so that the HUD has the same size as the one captured in Sonic 1 by an emulator. Superimpose it with a Sonic 1 screenshot, and notice the desert level picture's life icon is misplaced. What does it prove? The screen size of the desert level picture is not correct -- unless Sega moved up the life icon by 12 pixels, which was extremely unlikely. Therefore this picture is believed to be a mock-up.
Still don't believe it's a mock-up? The zone artist confirmed it when asked about Sonic's off-centerness:
|“||He was just dropped in for placement for the marketing folks. It was totally random and has nothing to do with any real gameplay.||„|
Showing doctored pictures of games in development to the press is a common and acceptable practice within the game industry.
The crocodile in the picture can be found in our prototype ROM:
Seeing that Emerald Hill buzzers do appear in this picture, it's questionable whether the crocodile was really intended for this desert level or not. Brenda Ross, artist for this zone, said the following when asked why there'd be a crocodile in a desert:
|“||I don’t think there was one. It’s been 9 years, so I might not remember.||„|
— Brenda Ross, Dust Hill Zone Artist, Sonic Database
This crocodile might belong to Hidden Palace instead.
|“||It was used in HPZ when it was at an earlier stage in development, but since then the palette has changed, so some of the colours are incorrect.||„|
— Nemesis, ROM Hacker, Nemesis' Sonic hacking site
Therefore the existence of this enemy doesn't really prove there was ever a playable Dust Hill level in an earlier prototype.
Interestingly, on the drawing board, this desert zone might have featured a palette change and turned it into a winter zone.
|“||The desert zone was as you see in that image, with cactus and assorted plants. It was designed to have a palette change, which turned the sand into snow, and you’d have a winter scene. We had to be fairly ingenious with such a limited palette. In the winter zone, (that’s what I call it), instead of cactus, I had created Christmas trees, which I thought looked kinda cool.||„|
— Brenda Ross, Dust Hill Zone Artist, Sonic Database
Desert Level = Dust Hill Zone
Though for a time it was believed the connection between the name "Dust Hill Zone" and the desert level mock-up was a fan invention in the early days of the Sonic research scene that just wouldn't disappear, the link between the two was proven once and for all on September 13th, 2008. Community members Tweaker and Sik, with help from former Sega Technical Institute employee Chris Senn, were able to get in contact with one of the pivotal members of the Sonic the Hedgehog 2 team, Director and Game Planner Hirokazu Yasuhara.
|“||Tweaker and Sik: What significance did the name "Dust Hill" have in regards to Sonic 2's development? Was it the original name for Mystic Cave Zone? Or was it supposed to be a conceptual name for the scrapped Desert Level?
Yasuhara: "Dust Hill" was one of dropped levels from original plan of Sonic 2. Sega of America did want to sell the game at Christmas time of that year, I had no choice, but decided to cut some levels out from original plan. So if Sega allowed me to use enough time to pursue the plan, The Dust Hill zone would be in the game.
Tweaker and Sik: What kind of level was Dust Hill Zone? Did it represent any of the following images? If not, can you give any details about what it was supposed to be like? [images of both Dust Hill Zone and Mystic Cave Zone are linked] Also, feel free to give out any other information you might want to share.
Yasuhara: Ok, the Dust Hill Zone is like [the Desert Level mockup image and video of hack].
What had once been a hotly debated issue had now become fact, the idea that the name "Dust Hill" belonged to any level aside from the desert level being put to rest. What follows is the original reasoning for questioning the name "Dust Hill" as it appeared on the original Sonic 2 Beta Page.
|“||While S2B has long abolished examining unprovable theories in favor of documenting provable facts, an exception is made in this case. The widespread belief that "Dust Hill is the desert level name" warrants investigation and documentation. This assumption can be traced back to as early as the time even before the prototype ROM was released to the western public. It is unclear who started calling the desert level Dust Hill.
Despite the fact that selecting Dust Hill Zone loads Mystic Cave Zone in our prototype, some believe "Dust Hill" was the intended name for this lost desert level instead. Their reasoning is that "common sense" would tell you the name "naturally" "fit" a desert theme, and the programmers had merely switched out the pointers at some point in development. The apparent association of "Dust Hill" with the desert level was also made in the interview with Brenda Ross, but the reliability of this interview has been questioned by some people for various reasons, such as misleading questions, bombardment of pre-interview fan mails that used "Dust Hill Zone" and "desert level" interchangeably, and scene politics (not Ross' fault).
To this day, there is no solid evidence to prove the theory of Dust Hill Zone being the name of the desert level. Although one can argue there's no way to disprove this theory either, many believe disproving it is logically unnecessary since the burden of proof would be on the wrong side, and the simplest, least-assumptions "Dust Hill is the prototype name for Mystic Cave, as shown in the ROM" argument would prevail by default ala Occam's Razor. On the other side of the fence, some argue simple human common sense is more applicable here than pure logic, and it would be simply intuitive to call the desert level Dust Hill Zone.
It's worthwhile to note that the desert level picture was never accompanied by the caption "Dust Hill Zone" in any magazine. On the other hand, the term "Dust Hill Zone" has been used to describe Mystic Cave Zone on several occasions, such as in the picture below (source??), and in a GamePro magazine (M05).
Based on all the knowns and unknowns, we can make the following statements: