Memories, News, Retrospectives, Sonic The Hedgehog

The 1990 Tokyo Toy Show and beyond — unearthing new Sonic the Hedgehog pre-release evidence

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There are few games that conjure the sense of intrigue and mystery as Sonic the Hedgehog’s Mega Drive debut in its alpha and pre-release form. While discoveries of Sonic 2 prototypes have continued to be unearthed over the years — as recently as November 2019 — in the decades since Sonic 1’s release, not a single playable prototype ROM has been found or is known to exist, not even one. As the hunt goes on, MegaBites has discovered valuable insight and pieces of the puzzle that have remained hidden… Until now.

A little context

Bursting onto the scene in mid-1991, Sonic the Hedgehog’s debut on the Mega Drive took the video game industry by storm. Where Alex Kidd and countless mascots before him had failed, in Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega finally found a hero to take on the mighty Mario and Nintendo. With his attitude and blistering speed combined, the blue blur came to define an era. But not all legends are born overnight.

Beginning development in April 1990, the first title in the Sonic the Hedgehog series underwent countless aesthetic and gameplay revisions before its release little over a year later. Since that time, eager Sonic fans have trawled the internet for insight into Sonic the Hedgehog in its pre-release format, taking technology showcases, TV spots and toy shows as vital sources of previously unseen screenshots and video clips of the game in its raw and unfinished form.

The earliest public showing of Sonic the Hedgehog was at the now infamous 1990 Tokyo Toy Show, held between 6th–10th June 1990 at the newly-opened Makuhari Messe convention centre in Mihama, Chiba.

Makuhari Messe

It was here that Sega unveiled an early single-level alpha build of Sonic’s Mega Drive debut. At the time, news of the game was shared by Japanese video game magazines including Beep Mega Drive, Mega Drive Fan and US publication Electronic Gaming Monthly. In the years since, the images shared in these articles have been widely distributed on the internet.

The famous screenshots from the event displayed a number of graphical differences that wouldn’t make it into the game’s final build, including alternate badniks, level assets and seven-layer background scrolling.

Tokyo Toy Fair Screenshot 1
Caption translations (L–R):
A comical action with cute characters flying around!?
So, wait for a while for the release!
Red text: “Debut approaching

We’re not claiming to have discovered anything new with the above. These images are widely available with a mere Google search, and many more screens just like these from the event exist. But still, no tangible playable version is known to exist. Sonic lead programmer, Yuji Naka, has confirmed that all known builds of the alpha are lost.

Undeterred, countless Sonic fan sites, such as Sonic Retro, and video game research resources, including The Cutting Room Floor, have spent years gathering and analysing every possible pixel of Sonic’s earliest prototype builds, including the above images.

While information on Sonic’s first showing at the Tokyo Toy Show has been scarce, what has also been hard to come by are visuals of Sega’s presence at the show.

That was until this site conducted a little research…

Continue reading “The 1990 Tokyo Toy Show and beyond — unearthing new Sonic the Hedgehog pre-release evidence”

Developer Profiles, Hardware, Interviews, Memories, Retrospectives

Japansoft an Oral History — a MegaBites review

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They didn’t see the need for a single developer to take the spotlight for a product,” revealed a Sega employee with the pseudonym ‘Ossale Kohta’. “They felt that the company should get the credit. If too much attention was given to the creator of a hit title, there was always the possibility that another company would poach them. Of course, I wanted to be recognised for my work”.

In the early years of the Japanese video game industry, Ossale Kohta’s story wasn’t uncommon. Even the most prolific of programmers, planners, artists and directors hid their identities behind alter-egos enforced by their employers. From Sega, to Capcom, Enix and Konami, the credit screens of arcade and console titles of that era were populated with mysterious nicknames such as ‘Phoenix Rie’, ‘Chanchacorin’ and ‘T. Oka’, to name but a few. But who were the talents behind them?

‘Ossale Kohta’ was none other than Kotaro Hayashida, the creator of Alex Kidd and the mind behind the very first concepts and gameplay mechanics of Sonic the Hedgehog. His is just one of the many incredible names whose stories and history are compiled for the very first time in Japansoft an Oral History.

The origin of the Japansoft title itself can be traced back to 2014 and the release of a series of books entitled The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers by video game journalist and writer, John Szczepaniak. Released in three volumes, Szczepaniak’s trilogy was a treasure trove of tales from the relative unknowns of Japan’s early gaming industry, filled with stories of unreleased consoles, games, and tales of the rise and fall of the country’s most prolific development houses. Funded by Kickstarter campaigns, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers spanned three volumes. Certainly a passion project for Szczepaniak himself, for all its merits, the series was somewhat text-heavy, and lacked the polish, lustre and aesthetic it so rightly deserved. But as they say, you should never judge a book by its cover.

Continue reading “Japansoft an Oral History — a MegaBites review”

Memories

Aladdin 26 years later — is Capcom’s title the rightful heir to the sultan’s throne?

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Since its release in 1993, Aladdin for the Mega Drive has been widely regarded as the superior of the platformer’s 16-bit outings. But 26 years later, could it be that favour is shifting towards Capcom’s Super Nintendo edition, including, incredibly, my own?

Prompted by the Sega title’s anniversary, and its recent 2019 remaster for modern consoles and PC, I approached the SNES version for the very first time for a balanced consideration of the argument and a glimpse into a whole new world — of video gaming, that is.

(N.B. This article references the original 1993 edition of Sega’s Aladdin throughout.)

To this very day, Aladdin on the Mega Drive has remained one of my favourite platformers on the console. Since its release in 1993, I’d even go so far as to say it’s remained one of my top platformers, full stop.

Then a strange thing happened. Earlier this year, Disney released its live action version of Aladdin in the cinemas. Rather than convince me to buy a cinema ticket, it drove me to blow the dust from my cartridge and revisit my Mega Drive edition of Aladdin.

And it seems I wasn’t the only one…

Around the time of Aladdin’s 2019 cinema release, the Retronauts podcast released an episode rather temptingly named ‘Aladdin Games’. Its online notes read:

“Virgin Interactive’s Genesis game mostly overshadowed Capcom’s SNES interpretation thanks to still-impressive technical tricks, but the conventional wisdom about the Sega version being superior might not hold together 2.5 decades later.”

So I gave the Retronauts episode a listen. To my surprise, the Sega version came off worse — by a very, very wide margin. Then it dawned on me — I’d never played Aladdin for the Super Nintendo.

Was Retronauts right? Could it be possible for the SNES version to rival its Sega counterpart? There was nothing for it, I had to see for myself.

I had to play Aladdin for the Super Nintendo.

Continue reading “Aladdin 26 years later — is Capcom’s title the rightful heir to the sultan’s throne?”

Hardware, Memories

The Mini Tower of Power – A Mega Comparison

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The Mega Drive Mini is Sega’s first official in-house console launch since 2001. Bringing the Sega Mega Drive back to the masses in miniature format, the release has also resurrected a cult hardware combo — the awe-inspiring ‘tower of power’. Read on as MegaBites dives in for a close-up aesthetic comparison of the 2019 ‘tower’ and its mid-90s original.

Name a famous tower — the Eiffel Tower, the tower of London, the leaning tower of Pisa perhaps? Ask the same question to a retrogamer and the answer is likely to be Sega’s ‘tower of power’.

But what was the ‘tower of power’? In essence, it was a 32-bit CD upgrade of the Sega Mega Drive — a powerhouse made possible by combining the Mega Drive with the Mega CD and 32X. In essence, it was the Mega Drive at its most potent and powerful, if not a tad cumbersome.

Sega’s towering hardware combo promised so much — advanced 32-bit gaming, 3D graphics, smooth FMV, CD audio and the unique ‘Mega CD 32X’ disk format. For all the expectation, sadly, this tower toppled.

While the Mega CD had been available since 1991, the tower was only made possible following the release of the 32X in 1994 (Japan/USA) and 1995 (Europe). By this time, however, the Sega Saturn had already become Sega’s 32-bit showpiece, and the gaming industry at large was singing to the tune of Sony’s shiny new Playstation 1 release.

Requiring a combined investment in the range of £400 (!), young Sega fans at the time were looking at a lifetime of paid household chores to afford the ‘tower of power’ unit and its compatible titles.

With all these circumstances combined, Sega’s almighty tower was simply unrealistic and unattainable for the masses. Even today, the hardware remains an obscure anomaly to track down — until now.

Well, sort of…

 

Mini by name, mega by nature

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Fast forward to 2019 — a miniature replica of the ‘tower of power’ has been made available as an add-on for the Mega Drive Mini.

At the time of writing, the accessory is only available to the public as a Japanese variant… at least for now. However, Sega has unleashed European and US formats of the mini tower to a select few social media influencers and members of the press.

With my own full size European ‘tower of power’ in tow, and the odd piece of Japanese hardware thrown in for good measure, how do the elements of the ‘mini’ shape up against their 90s counterparts?

  Continue reading “The Mini Tower of Power – A Mega Comparison”

Memories

Tom Payne and the Box of Sonic 2 Development Disks

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Thank you to Frank Cifaldi (of the Video Game History Foundation), Bob Morgan, Jessie Perez and @DickWhitehouse (Twitter) for all their hard work to reverse-engineer the Sega digitizer format.

For decades, the rumours and tales surrounding the making of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 have fascinated fans of Sega’s blue blur. From famously deleted zones such as Hidden Palace, Genocide City and Dust Hill, to discarded badniks and revelations of time travel, the early development of Sonic 2 and the beta revisions and prototypes discovered since have provided rich pickings for digital archeologist, coders and fans of all things hedgehog. To date, a total of nine Sonic 2 prototypes are in the public domain, each a fascinating insight into the game’s development process. Incredibly, the most recent of these betas was discovered as recent as February 2019.

Aside from the prototypes, Sonic fans have reveled in discoveries of concept art and the insight from the developers at the now defunct Sega Technical Institute (STI). Names such as Craig Stitt, Hirokasu Yasuhara and Yuki Naka have all shared valuable tales from behind the doors of Sega’s California HQ circa 1992.

In a 2004 interview, and later in 2009, Sonic 2 zone artist, Tom Payne, shared information on the game’s deleted zones and enemies – details that can only be described as a revelation. “You should start drooling now,” Tom explained in 2009 as he spoke of his ownership of “an ancient box with all my Sonic stuff in it”. What followed was the reveal of a floppy disk with the title ‘Sonic Enemies’ scrawled in rough biro. Portions of the disc’s contents were shared online by Sonic archivist IceKnight. Upon his website, SonicDatabase.com, Iceknight shared original digitizer artwork direct from Tom Payne’s Sega workbench. For the very first time, the deleted badniks Gator, Dinosaur and Snail were revealed to the world in their raw form.

But whatever happened to the remaining contents of Tom’s box? Continue reading “Tom Payne and the Box of Sonic 2 Development Disks”

Demoscene, Developer Profiles, Memories

Overdrive 2 – A Voyage to the Boundaries of 16-Bit (Part 2)

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A GIGANTIC construction moves serenely through space where, though the night never ends, there’s always enough light to see strange objects… shots of blinking instrument panels, of wildly bleeping computers, of cryptic messages clattering in square type-faces across television screens… a gothic set in space‘.

…So were the words of Vincent Canby of the New York Times in his 1979 review of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’. Fast forward some 40 years and the same passage could equally be applicable to a work of its own groundbreaking nature – welcome to the final part of Megabites’ series, describing the behind the scenes tale of the making and release of TiTAN demogroup’s Overdrive 2 for the Sega Mega Drive.

In part one of this article we left the group on a cliffhanger. Nigh on two years had been spent by TiTAN’s members to realise a sequel to their groundbreaking demo ‘Overdrive‘, a pulverising powerhouse of a demo, whose follow-up saw its genesis with the discovery of a groundbreaking graphical technique hidden deep within the recesses of the Mega Drive’s video chip. New discoveries, new possibilities, stunning graphics, and nail-biting deadlines ensued. TiTAN had an awe-inspiring 16-bit vision. But could it possibly be realised?

Let’s dive straight in and catch up with the group members Kabuto, oerg866, Medo, alien and Neoman. Overdrive 2’s first public unveiling at Cologne’s Evoke 2016 demo party was mere hours away. Yet, a tough decision had to be made.

Continue reading “Overdrive 2 – A Voyage to the Boundaries of 16-Bit (Part 2)”

Demoscene, Developer Profiles, Interviews, Memories

Overdrive 2 – A Voyage to the Boundaries of 16-Bit (Part 1)

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Saturday 29th October 1988, a time when 8-bit was at its pinnacle, a time of the Famicom, a time of Mario – a time that was dominated by three awe-inspiring syllables, Nin-ten-do. Saturday 29th October 1988 – Super Mario Bros 3 was only seven days old, and a Nintendo console could be found in one in three Japanese homes. Saturday 29th October 1988 was the day that all of that would change – the day that saw the release of the Sega Mega Drive.

It would be two years before Nintendo would respond with the release of the Super Famicom – a machine that boasted a superior palette of 32,768 colors, advanced audio, increased RAM and pseudo-3D rotating graphics. On paper at least, the ensuing console war could arguably have turned into a one-horse race.

For years, the Sega Mega Drive simply had no viable (or at least affordable) response to the raw graphical capabilities of its Nintendo counterpart. Sure, hardware innovations such as the SVP chip, the Mega CD and 32X all brought advanced graphical capabilities to the humble Mega Drive base unit – but at a significant financial cost.

Little did we all know, that under the Mega Drive’s sleek exterior sat dormant hardware capabilities with the power of equaling, and possibly surpassing the SNES’s graphical wow factor. Even now, some 30 years after the console’s release, the Mega Drive is still revealing its true potential – all thanks to modern day programmers, coders, composers and artists such as the TiTAN demo group. Continue reading “Overdrive 2 – A Voyage to the Boundaries of 16-Bit (Part 1)”

Developer Profiles, Memories, Retrospectives

Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge – MegaBites on RetroCollect.com

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Mega Drive fans, for what you are about to read, I sincerely apologise. MegaBites Blog has written about Nintendo. Shock, horror, blasphemy! I know, I know… But it’s for a good cause; my latest contribution to RetroCollect.com – Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge – Episode One. Despite such treachery, you’ll be glad to hear that the piece is evenly balanced with a heavy dosage of Sega goodness, and a brief appearance by our Lord and saviour, Mr Tom Kalinske. Phew!

During the console generations spanning the 8-16 bit era, no matter if your allegiances sat with Sega, Nintendo, SNK or NEC, as gamers we all shared one thing in common: the cartridge medium – video gaming in its most physical form. Continue reading “Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge – MegaBites on RetroCollect.com”

Memories, Retrospectives

Sega and the Console from Mars

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Misaligned, mistimed and ultimately misunderstood, sadly, the Mega Drive 32X will forever go down in history as one of the greatest failures in video game history. Although the tale of the 32X’s release and its rapid downfall remains a well documented piece of gaming folklore, much less is known about the hardware’s earliest conceptions. Read on as MegaBites takes a tantalising glimpse behind the closed doors of Sega of America’s development labs, to reveal a previously forgotten piece of hardware from a time before the 32X as we knew it – the Sega Mars Development Aid System.

It was the evening of the 8th January 1994 – the eve of that year’s Winter CES – as Hayao Nakayama (Sega CEO), Tom Kalinske (Sega of America President), Joe Miller (Sega’s Senior Vice President of Product Development) and a host of other top-level Sega personnel gathered in a Las Vegas hotel room. The night’s discussion centred around Sega’s strategies of introducing the gaming public to the brave new world of 32-bit gaming. Continue reading “Sega and the Console from Mars”

Memories, Retrospectives

Finding the Hidden Palace – Part 2

Finding-The-Hidden-Palace-Part-2As this humble blog continues to expand its horizons, fans of Sonic the Hedgehog can read the latest episode of MegaBites’ Finding the Hidden Palace on RetroCollect.com.

In a continuation of part one’s epic tale, the second chapter in the series picks up from the events following the fabled ‘Sonic2s Day’ – the North American and European release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. After months of publicity, previews and speculation, the 1992 release of Sonic 2 hailed the release of what is arguably the series’ finest release.

Homing in on the period 1992–1999, part two continues to document the myths, unravel the cryptic clues, and decode the conundrums, behind one of Sega’s greatest hidden enigmas; Sonic 2’s unreleased level – Hidden Palace Zone.

And here’s a little taster for you:

It was early 1999 and Canadian Sonic fan Simon Wai embarked on an online Sonic beta hunt. As far back as 1992, in Hong Kong, Simon had been one of the early few to play a black market copy of the Sonic 2 toy show beta. Now, seven years later, he had a renewed determination to rediscover it.

Beginning his journey on Chinese ROM sites, Simon soon came upon a lone Geocities page. It was here where he located the rather a inconspicuous file named ‘MD8123.smd’ – uncovering the syntax of which provided valuable insight into the file’s origin and identity.

‘MD’ stood for Mega Drive, ‘8’ represented an eight-megabit file, ‘123’ identified the file as the 123rd in its sequence and the ‘.smd’ extension identified it as a file created by a Super Mega Drive – a piece of hardware with the ability to extract a Mega Drive cartridge to floppy disk. It was only when he came to load the file that its true identity was revealed. Simon Wai’s memories came flooding back in an instant.

(Read more on RetroCollect.com.)

Be sure to visit MegaBites soon, as we have a further set of ‘mega’ exciting posts lined up, which you simply will not want to miss!