In 2013, the newly released iOS and Android port of Sonic 2 contained a little surprise for fans of the original game. After falling down the hole in Mystic Cave Zone that once led to the infamous inescapable spike pit, players instead found themselves being transported to the Hidden Palace Zone, an ostensibly entirely new level that was never featured in the Mega Drive original.
However, that fact is not technically true. The Hidden Palace Zone was a level that was designated for the original release of Sonic 2 back in 1992, but was left out due to time constraints. Many assets for the level still existed on the released cartridge, such as track #10 in the sound test. Meanwhile, the stage had previously featured in many of the pre-release prototype carts that were distributed around trade fairs and demoed for press coverage. In fact, many industry magazines at the time featured images that were not found in the final release at all. Of course, players noticed that much of the pre-release material they had been consuming over the few weeks and months prior to the game’s launch was nowhere to be seen in the final release.
As Sonic 2 was released back in the early 90’s, there was virtually no way to investigate these discrepancies, as the internet was not yet a staple in most people’s homes. While many Sonic fans had noted these omissions from the final build, not many had the facilities to investigate further. It seemed that this cut content would be lost forever.
Simon Wai Prototype
In the late 90’s, the popularity of bulletin boards meant that people were able to collaborate and create communities around lost video game content. A thriving community was built up around this, with a lot of interest around the missing levels of Sonic 2.
Additionally, as PC computing power increased, so did the possibilities for emulation, allowing players to play games from the previous generation on their PCs. When these two elements combined, it provided the perfect opportunity for these communities to start cataloguing and even restoring cut content from video games. While there was (and still is) a school of thought that just wants to archive this content for interest’s sake, there are modders that are more interested in recreating this content, to restore the game’s potential and recreate it “as it was meant to be”.
Sonic 2 proved to be a tough nut to crack for the community. Not only was it an insanely popular game, but many people remembered those old magazine scans of levels that were never featured in the final product, and wondered what they were about. Despite millions of cartridges being out there, technology was not quite at the stage where dumping the game’s code in a format that could be read was an easy or quick proposition. Nevertheless, many people attempted it in the hope of bringing some finality to the mysteries surrounding the game.
Just as the community began this process, a certain individual on a bulletin board claimed to have a Sonic 2 cartridge that had quite a few unfinished levels that hadn’t been seen before. Naturally, his claims were treated with a healthy amount of skepticism, until he began uploading screenshots of the Hidden Palace, and a new, previously unknown level called the Wood Zone. Once the community had this information, it was only a matter of time before the ROM was dumped, and the community began picking it apart. This particular version of the game became known as the Simon Wai Prototype, after its discoverer, who claimed that his friend had snagged the cart from a trade show before the game’s release.
With the actual code now in the hands of community, Sonic 2 began to unveil its secrets. While several other prototypes have been discovered since, the Simon Wai prototype sparked an online investigation that gave us insight into the development process of one of Sega’s most enduring games.
Hidden Palace Zone
The Hidden Palace Zone was the most high profile discovery in that some of the level’s assets were available without having to scour the game’s code. Not only was the stage music in the sound test, but with the use of an Action Replay cart, it was possible to change the level select icon for Emerald Hill to one for Hidden Palace. In fact, the level was so near completion that the first act in the Simon Wai prototype version was playable, and was one of only two levels to have finalised enemy placements in it. It is speculated that it was one of the first levels to be designed for Sonic 2, but that its production was stopped early in the development process.
The former head of Sonic Team, Yuji Naka, revealed in an interview that the level was originally a place where Sonic would warp to after obtaining all of the chaos emeralds. Here, he would discover the ability to turn into Super Sonic, but the idea was soon abandoned, as was the entire level.
The Hidden Palace Zone itself is an underground cavern featuring a few underwater sections and rocky outcrops. There are several new badniks in this area, such as a red dinosaur and a bat that swoops down at Sonic when he comes too close.
Despite not making it into the final cut, Hidden Place Zone makes an appearance in Sonic & Knuckles as the area where Robotnik steals the Master Emerald (and as a hub leading to the Super Emerald Special Stages in Sonic 3 & Knuckles). It seems that, although the area was removed from Sonic 2, the development team wanted to revisit some of the ideas behind the zone, and eventually brought it to life two years later.
Wood Zone is about as self-explanatory as you could care to imagine, featuring a maze of treetop bridges as you race across the canopy. Again, the stage is playable in the Simon Wai prototype, but is nowhere near finished in this version.
This level seems to be linked in some way to Metropolis Zone, in that the prototype version uses the same music. Similar to Sonic CD, it was speculated that Sonic 2 was supposed to have a time travel gimmick early on in development, meaning that Wood Zone could have been intended as a past version of Metropolis Zone. If this was the case, it would make sense that this level would have been dropped when the time travel idea was abandoned.
While the first act is playable in the Simon Wai prototype, most of the level’s assets were stripped out of the final build. While use of a Game Genie can be used to access the zone in the released version of the game, only the music data and palette information remain.
Genocide City Zone
While most Zones in Sonic 2 only had two acts, for some strange reason, Metropolis Zone had a third act. This seemed rather incongruous to most players, until the existence of Genocide City was discovered.
Accessing the level select on the Simon Wai prototype reveals the level, but it is completely empty and unplayable as a result. Genocide City was initially meant to be a futuristic, single act level, similar in theme to Scrap Brain Zone in Sonic 1. According to interviews with Tom Payne, the zone’s original artist, although the team had designed the level, it was scrapped before it was ever implemented in the game. As such, the unused level map was re-purposed into a third act for Metropolis Zone.
The name Genocide City may seem somewhat violent for a game about a hedgehog freeing his woodland friends. The name was chosen purely due to a misunderstanding by the predominantly Japanese development team, who mistranslated the word “dangerous” into “genocide”. They soon realised their mistake, and intended to change the name to “Cyber City Zone”, before they scrapped the level entirely due to time constraints.
Dust Hill Zone
Dust Hill Zone is one of the other main zones that featured in a lot of pre-release material, with mock ups of the level being sent to publications ahead of release. It was revealed very early on in the development cycle of Sonic 2 and was one of the first zones the team worked on. The level would have featured sandy, desert regions with some underground cave sections, too.
Despite having this head start, development of the level was never fully finished, even though the level design was virtually complete. According to an interview the level’s designer, Brenda Ross, she completed her work on Dust Hill Zone before moving on to Wood Zone. The level would also have featured a palette swap, meaning that it would either transition into a winter-themed zone halfway through, or that a snowy-themed zone with the same assets would have featured later on in the game (ala Emerald Hill’s palette swap, Hill Top Zone).
The reasons for it being cut remain unclear, but probably have something to do with the fact that Dust Hill Zone is linked to a couple of other lost levels such as Rock Zone (a planned prehistoric version of the level) and the aforementioned Winter Zone. It seems that despite the team putting a lot of work into the level, a final design was never implemented and it eventually fizzled out. The desert and snow themes would eventually return in Sonic & Knuckles’ Sandopolis Zone and Sonic 3’s Ice Cap Zone respectively.
While it’s clear that Sonic Team had very ambitious plans for Sonic 2, many of the ideas that were scrapped eventually returned in the game’s sequels. Still, this hasn’t stopped fans speculating on what the game may have looked like if the developer’s initial designs had come to fruition.
However, thanks to Christian “The Taxman” Whitehead and Simon “Stealth” Thomley, the men behind the recent iOS remake, we are finally able to play an officially sanctioned version of the Holy Grail of lost video game content, the Hidden Palace Zone.