A Quest for the Secret Origins of Lost Video-Game Levels

How I returned a pirated Sonic the Hedgehog game cartridge to its original architect
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Heidi Kemps/Sega

If I could have told my fifth-grade self that one day I’d be sitting in lobby of storied video game maker Sega’s central building, waiting to meet with Sonic the Hedgehog creator Yuji Naka, I think young me would have imploded with excitement.

Sonic creator Yuji Naka (Heidi Kemps)

And yet there I was, in the oppressively hot and humid Japanese August of 2005, preparing for an interview with Naka. I’d met and interviewed him a couple times before, but it had always been with a partner or in a roundtable setting. Naka had a reputation for being a difficult interview when he was still at Sega, but I had never seen him as aloof during my time with him—he had always been eager and willing to answer my questions. He was a creative type. He loved programming, relishing the ability to create entire worlds and realities from scratch through the simple act of entering words and commands into a computer. I respected him greatly, and I think he could see that I understood his underlying passion.

I was escorted by a spokesperson to Yuji Naka’s office several floors up. When we walked in, he smiled.

“Ah, it’s you.” 

* * *

I wasn’t really like the other girls I knew in 1992. Instead of reading Tiger Beat and gossiping about boys, I read Electronic Gaming Monthly and gossiped with boys about games. I was the odd one out in my class, but I was also a repository of gaming knowledge. I had a place on the grade-school nerd social ladder that couldn’t be usurped.

Using my Christmas money that year, I had to make what seemed like a Sophie’s Choice to a middle-class 10-year-old: picking between a Super NES and Genesis as my first 16-bit console. After painful deliberation, I went with the Genesis, as it seemed like the better value to a cash-strapped preteen at the time. The first game I brought home with my new console: Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I replayed it constantly, exploring every stage again and again, finishing every level multiple times. When someone posted the level-select cheat code on a Prodigy gaming bulletin board well before it appeared in gaming magazines, I used the cheat to get to all of my favorite stages quickly. (I also made sure to print it out and share it in class, further cementing my nerd cred.)

I knew the game so well that, eventually, I realized something was missing. There was a piece of music in the game’s sound test that didn’t appear in the game itself. On top of that, there were screenshots in magazines of a stage I’d never encountered. Before the game’s release, Sega had sent out a batch of press images for media to use. A few screens stood out, portraying a strange, rocky-looking level called the Hidden Palace. I had sunk countless hours into Sonic 2, but I had never seen anything that even resembled these screens.

A few people wrote to magazines asking about the Hidden Palace, and editors would apologetically explain that the stage had been removed from the final version of the game. But, to me, there was a conspiracy afoot, a secret that Sega was keeping, and the proof was in those screens and that unused music. 

 

Letters like this often appeared in '90s game magazines. (Game Players Sega Guide/GamePro)

Time passed, and eventually more Sonic games were released. They, too, had conspicuous bits of missing content. I moved on from obsessing about the Hidden Palace to trying to figure out why Mushroom Valley in the Sonic 3 stage select didn’t work. But I never forgot about it—and neither did an entire group of fans. 

* * *

Around this time, one of the early types of console-game piracy had emerged in the form of game copier devices. These machines originated in Asia, and worked by copying the contents of cartridges onto floppy disks. The floppies could then be loaded and played back through the device as if they were a legit game cartridge. Even with the high cost of floppy disks, this was a far better value proposition than buying the games themselves.

If you didn’t have a cartridge to copy from, obtaining games for use with these devices was surprisingly easy: You just had to dial into underground servers and bulletin board systems using a PC modem to get game files to transfer onto disks, all while hoping mom wouldn’t try to make a phone call while a three-hour download was running over shaky dial-up. Copy the downloaded file onto a set of floppies, and presto: A brand-new, illicitly acquired game was yours, ready to play.

As the 16-bit generation waned, the World Wide Web emerged as a driving force of communication, especially among tech-savvy game nerds. And with it came a surge of interest in console emulation. Emulation, in computing terms, is simulating the operating conditions of one set of hardware on another—typically much more powerful—computer system, allowing for software to be run as though it was on a different platform. Emulators had already been written to allow classic arcade and console games to run in DOS, and were quickly adapted to the modern Windows platforms. The emulators being released for consoles like the NES and Genesis, though still early, offered functionality beyond what the consoles themselves could provide. 

Emulators were worthless, however, without game files—known as ROM images—to run on them. A ROM image was an exact duplicate of a game, represented as a computer file. But plenty of ROMs already existed online, thanks to game copiers. Files that had once seemed obsolete in the new era of primarily CD-driven consoles were suddenly useful again, letting people load up and play classic games on modern computer systems.

* * *

As the Internet rose to prominence in the mid-to-late 1990s, communication evolved beyond Prodigy’s plain text bulletin boards, and the art of game rumormongering took new forms. While anybody could string together a free GeoCities fansite, getting your opinion taken seriously was a different matter. No longer could you simply make up a cheat code or claim to your classmates that you had an uncle that worked for Nintendo in Japan (“where they’re already up to Mario Bros. 18”)—online info spread fast and far, and rumors were more quickly debunked.

But it was through those fan sites—and through the underground emulation subculture—that interest in older games persisted. Passionate webmasters would detail as much as possible about their favorite classics, while visitors and contributors who stumbled across these pages could discover interesting facts they never knew about childhood games. For those who grew up loving Sonic, one of the key fixations was the Hidden Palace Zone. Old magazines were scanned, a scant handful of screenshots were painstakingly overanalyzed, and bizarre theories as to why it disappeared were bandied about. 

By 1998, there had been a resurgence of interest in the Sonic franchise. Sega was about to release the Dreamcast, its last hope as a console manufacturing company, and with it the first new Sonic game in years. Memories of Sonics past were being rekindled, and fans were revisiting not just the old games, but the mysteries that went with them. Around this time, a string of rumors began causing a stir among Sonic devotees. Someone online was claiming that they had a friend with a really weird Sonic 2 cartridge, one with a different title screen and stage select code that let them play not only the Hidden Palace, but other stages with names like “Dust Hill,” “Wood Zone,” and “Genocide City.” It sounded like the typical made-up game hype that was everywhere during our childhoods—the mysterious “friend” with a special cartridge with different levels was a story heard a billion times before, and “Genocide City” sounded completely out of place in a game about cute animals fighting a mad scientist.

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​Heidi Kemps

Heidi Kemps is a journalist who covers the video-game industry.

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