New Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) prototype uncovered by preservation groups

A prototype of Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) was showcased by a video game preservation group in a New Year’s Eve livestream.

After 15 years, one of the rarest builds in Sonic the Hedgehog history has been found. A prototype of Sonic’s first major outing, Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), was unveiled to the public Thursday evening.

Video game preservation groups Hidden Palace and The Cutting Room Floor showcased their newest discovery in a special New Year’s Eve livestream to the surprise of fans around the world. It was a follow up to Wednesday night’s presentation of three never-seen-before prototypes of Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Spinball, and Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine.

“Dreams come true”

Preservationists ‘Drx’ and ‘ehw’ expressed gratitude to their respective teams and a user named ‘Buckaroo’ who helped uncover the rare prototype. The collective effort closed the long-sought journey to find the rare build that lasted for almost 15 years.

“One day out of nowhere, it finally happened,” said the preservationists in a statement published on Hidden Palace. “On a day just like any other ordinary day, Buckaroo generously appears with exactly what we were searching for since we began all those years ago.”

The title screen of the Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) prototype. (SEGA via Hidden Palace)

The changes

The Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) prototype saw a number of changes in level design, object placement, and characters animations, among others.

The UFOs in Marble Zone, first seen in magazine scans in the early 1990s, were seen in action for the first time. The build also saw a rolling ball hazard in Green Hill Zone, and a completely redesigned Star Light Zone and Labyrinth Zone. Both Spring Yard Zone and Scrap Brain Zone saw major level changes and donned provisional titles, ‘Sparkling Zone’ and ‘Clock Work Zone’, respectively.

Among the changes presented in the build, the biggest ones are:

  • The “SEGA” scream is absent.
  • The “Sonic Team Presents” screen is completely absent.
  • The title screen has a “PRESS START BUTTON” prompt. This is absent in the final version, even though it’s still present in the game’s code.
  • Level select can be activated by pressing A+START on the title screen. For the final version, a level select code is used instead (UP, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, A+START). There is no code for a level select cheat. Debug mode can still be entered by holding A button while selecting a level from the level select.
  • The level contains a rolling ball hazard that goes unused in the final game. The rolling ball itself is modeled after Robotnik’s wrecking ball that’s used for the boss in this level. If Sonic moves over the ball or moves against it, the ball will chase after him. If the ball rests on a cliff, it will move in Sonic’s direction even if Sonic runs underneath it. If the ball falls on top of Sonic, it will crush him to death. If the ball hits Sonic as it’s rolling on the same platform as Sonic however, it will only push him (it doesn’t hurt to the touch). The ball cannot be controlled if Sonic is on top of it. However, the ball does seem to react to when Sonic’s on top of it.

Green Hill Zone

Elements present in this beta are familiar to Sonic fans, thanks to Gaming Magazines from the 90s. (SEGA via Hidden Palace)
  • There are some extras spikes placed in Green Hill Zone, that aren’t present in the final version.
  • The level order consists of Green Hill Zone (Acts 1, 2, 3), Marble Zone (Acts 1, 2, 3), Sparkling Zone (Act 1), and Star Light Zone (Act 1). This suggests that the final level order has been decided at this point. The levels presented are all the acts that have been finished to a point where they could be completed. The game resets back to the SEGA logo after completing Star Light Zone Act 1.
  • Each level contains significant level layout differences, with Green Hill Zone and Marble Zone containing the least and Star Light, Labyrinth, Sparkling, and Clock Work containing the most.
  • The boss in Green Hill Zone is the only boss in the game.
  • Lives can be received after receiving 50 rings. In the final, you must collect 100 rings to receive an extra life.

Labyrinth Zone

Labyrinth Zone features a brand new background. (SEGA via Hidden Palace)
  • Labyrinth Zone contains a completely different static background in comparison to the final version. The prototype takes place under an open cave with light shafts. In the final, the level takes place in an area with mostly ruins and architecture.
  • Labyrinth Zone completely lacks water and bubbles. It appears that water has barely been programmed in the game yet.
  • Labyrinth Zone is completely devoid of objects and badniks in any act. However, art and code for the Jaws and Burrobot badniks exist in the game’s object table, but go unreferenced.

Marble Zone

Marble Zone also has significant changes compared to the final version. (SEGA via Hidden Palace)
  • Marble Zone background contains UFOs that animate in the sky all throughout the level. This was removed from the final.
  • This level contains the Spikes badnik instead of the Caterkiller badnik. Caterkiller doesn’t seem to exist in the ROM yet.
  • Inside the debug mode’s object list is the Splats badnik, which was cut from the final (only the art remains in the final version).
  • There is a gimmick that goes unused for the final where Sonic has to repeatedly jump on a crushing platform to reach the other side. This was replaced by a platform that can be lowered with a switch.

Star Light Zone

Star Light Zone presents some level design changes. (SEGA via Hidden Palace)
  • The stage is more difficult overall in comparison to the final build, containing more opportunities for Sonic to fall into a bottomless pit.
  • The background art is slightly different.
  • The loop de loops contain lights on the top.

Spring Yard Zone

The name “Sparkling Zone” is well known to Sonic fans that have looked into Sonic 1’s development. (SEGA via Hidden Palace)
  • The Sparkling Zone name is used for Spring Yard Zone, also featuring different background art for the zone.
  • The Roller badnik is present in the object list and is completely functional, but goes unused.
  • Act 3 is completely devoid of any objects.
  • You don’t earn points from hitting bumpers.

Scrap Brain Zone

“Clock Work Zone” is also a name that is well known by Sonic fans. (SEGA via Hidden Palace)
  • In the prototype, Scrap Brain Zone is referred to as Clock Work Zone.
  • The title card for this stage reads “CLOCK ORK ZONE” instead of “CLOCK WORK ZONE”. This is because the art for the “W” does not exist.
  • The background in Act 1 is completely different in comparison to the final version. Act 1 is actually using Act 2’s foreground as part of the background.
  • All acts are completely devoid of objects.
  • None of the acts can be completed.

Special Stage

Special Stages feature a completely new level design and more changes. (SEGA via Hidden Palace)
  • The unique level fade in and out does not exist in the prototype. Instead, the normal level fade in and out is used.
  • Uses just one level layout, which looks nothing like any of the layouts used in the final version. It doesn’t appear that other layouts exist in the ROM.
  • The Goal spheres do not cause Sonic to exit the Special Stage.
  • The rotation can be controlled by pressing A and B, each button slowly increases the speed in the opposite direction.

Players can download the build by visiting the Hidden Palace’s article on the Sonic the Hedgehog prototype.

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