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What remains of "Happy Hills" in the final game.

back in 1987, Sega was developing a 16 bit console entitled “Project GS-16”, which eventually became the Genesis. Various test games were made for this console, to see if the hardware actually worked.
One of the test games had a ball that rolled on curved grounds and hit enemies. Sega kept this idea in mind, just in case they wanted to turn it into an actual game. In August ‘88, a meeting was held. Sega noticed that nobody really cared about Alex Kidd anymore, as most people preferred Mario. The developers were then told to make a game with fresh, new, concepts. Various mascots were also doodled. One of which was a hedgehog drawn in the style of old-timey rubber-hose cartoons. This was approved by Sega.

Various test cartridges were made. Sega approved these carts as well and started development on Sonic 1. Because of this, various prototype cartridges were made. I happen to own one of the prototype carts. It’s an October 1989 build of the game, to be specific. And this would be a really cool find, and I’d be HAPPY to dump the ROM online for you guys to play, if it didn’t scar me for life.

Allow to me to explain; I was shopping at Goodwill for some old Genesis games. My nephew’s birthday was coming up so I decided that it would be nice to introduce him to the stuff I played as a kid. Scurrying through the store, I found a cartridge. The cartridge had the label scratched off, but the store label said it was Sonic 1. I shrugged it off, as this was probably due to aging. I brought it home for a test spin. When I booted it up, there was no Sega screen OR title screen. Just white text that said “FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY. DEMO BUILD 10-15-89.” It cut to the game. The level was titled “Happy Hills”, and I could see why. The scenery looked an awful lot like Green Hills Zone from the Game Gear port of Sonic 2, but bubblier and happier. The music was cheerful as all hell. It kinda reminded me of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme in a way. Sonic’s design was also a bit different. His muzzle and arms were white, and his shoes were a bit shorter and rounded. There was no white streak on them either.

There was various unused enemies as well, such as

  • a beaver, who could turn wood into sharp projectiles

  • the infamous Splatts the Rabbit

  • an unused frog enemy

  • and an earlier design for the Motobug

After thinking about it for a few minutes, I realized that I was playing a Sonic 1 prototype. The level had a great design and I finished it in a minute. And then Act 2 happened.

The scenery looked dull. The plants and trees were dying and starting to droop. The grass was now grey. The badniks were now slightly rusted and malfunctioning. The music was slowed down and sounded a tiny bit corrupted. Sonic looked a bit nervous as well. However, this did not stop me from playing, but got me curious. I then saw a red ring. Having no idea what it did, I jumped and got it. It teleported me to Act 3, and Act 3 was the worst of them all.

The scenery was twisted and distorted and the palette was just greys and reds, the clouds were melting, and the trees and flowers had crudely drawn happy faces on them. There we no badniks present, either. The music was a slowed down, 16-bit loop of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin. Sonic looked absolutely terrified, he was shaking and, I swear to god, I could see a single tear come out of his eyes. But I had to be brave. I walked and saw such messages as “BE HAPPY”, “THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS”, “SMILE”, and “ISN’T IT GREAT TO BE HAPPY?” After a minute, the music started slowly speeding up and the background did a weird warping effect, like the water in Labyrinth Zone. This went on for at least 5 minutes. And then Sonic just stood there. The music came to an abrupt halt. Sonic slowly started walking toward some spikes. He then jumped in the spikes, as a loud scream played. The game then reset. After a few minutes, I thought “......what the hell did I just play?”

Was this some kind of developer joke? Was Sonic originally targeted to adults? I kept asking myself these questions. Upon research, I learned that Sega disapproved of the game, but wanted the character to stay. The infamous Tokyo Toy Show tech demo was then made. The developer who was responsible for Happy Hills act 2 and 3 was put in an asylum.

He was shot a week later.