09 September 2011

A Musical Mystery Still Unsolved

While Michael Jackson's involvement with Sonic 3's soundtrack seems to get all the press, the mysteries surrounding Sonic 2's soundtrack by Masato Nakamura capture my interest to a much greater degree. With the release of the Sonic 1&2 Original Soundtrack imminent, I'm hoping some of these mysteries will finally be put to rest by the demo material that's promised to be included.

There are many questions I'd like answered about Sonic 2's music. For example, were the 2-Player tunes originally intended for zones that didn't make the cut, but included in their current capacity in order to avoid discarding Masato Nakamura music for which Sega had already payed good money? But today I want to discuss a single issue in particular: The strange and wonderful subject that is the Hidden Palace music.

In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that my take on all things Hidden Palace is quite aberrant due to the circumstances of my experience. Back when I first played Sonic 2 the only things I knew about the beta and the removed zones were those titbits which I chanced across in gaming magazines like Sega Visions. Any knowledge of the Simon Wai prototype and the Sonic hacking scene would have to wait over a decade for me to dip my toes into the Internet. For whatever reasons, I just never encountered any screenshots of Sonic 2's Hidden Palace, but only a brief mention of it by name in the letters section of a gaming mag. The only visual evidence of missing levels I saw was this shot (later confirmed to be a mockup made by Sega):

Completing the trifecta was an unused song in Sonic 2's sound test, number $10 (that's hexadecimal for 16, for all you non-computer-obsessed types). Between the name Hidden Palace, the screenshot of a missing zone, and an unused song, I made the only assumption I could given the paucity of evidence (and the mental faculties of a 7-year-old): All these bits of info were related to the same zone. In my defense, Sonic 3 had a 2-Player level called Desert Palace, which - using logic a conspiracy theorist would be proud of - I thought helped cement matters.

Once I found the glorious resource that is Sonic Retro years later and opened the floodgates of info on the Sonic 2 Beta, I had to update my mistaken understanding. However, this didn't help erase over a decade of picturing that desert zone with that music and that name. Boohoo for me - I used to pronounce "echidna" wrong, too. Sometimes you just have to change your mind and move on.

But I was invested for another reason. As evinced by the "about me" box in the sidebar of this blog, my main project is "a Sonic the Hedgehog fan game that retells the story of the original Mega Drive titles in unprecedented detail and depth." (If that doesn't sound bombastic, what does? =P) Part of that unprecedented detail and depth is the inclusion of material from the beta versions of the games - an idea which has been done to death by now but which I still wish to be part of my own project. If I include both the desert zone from that screenshot and Hidden Palace in my remake, I want to give them the right music. I don't want my choices to be influence by bullshit theories, not from my 7-year-old self nor from an internet forum. I want the music for each zone to be as accurate a reflection of the developer's original intent as possible (perhaps mixed with the slightest dash of what I deem to be most apposite as an artist).

Anyway, this isn't exactly the subject of this article. I've already made a thread thinking aloud about whether or not the unused track was intended for Hidden Palace or not. When I was informed that it was indeed the song associated with the zone when the zone is accessed (through hacking) in the retail version of Sonic 2, I was content with that. No, my subject is a different, but related, question about Hidden Palace's music.

This question arises because of a hack known as Sonic 2 Long Version. In this hack, Hidden Palace (among other cut zones) is restored to a playable state, and sound test $10 is the music it's given. Here's a video of it in action:

As a slavering Masato Nakamura fanboy it pains me to say this, but that song is really inappropriate for that zone. It's heavy, sluggish, boring, and feels detached from the action.

Such an assertion would fall squarely in opinion territory, if it not for some objective facts. Before I get to those, though, let's just take a look and listen at how Hidden Palace feels in the Sonic 2 beta:

Here, it has the tune which is known to players of the final build as Mystic Cave 2-Player. I would argue that this song is far more fitting, despite the fact that it is still unusual for a "zone music" from a compositional standpoint (it's a stretto fugue that lacks the emotional dynamism of other zones, perhaps because the bassline refuses to change chord throughout the song's duration).

Of course one can hardly learn anything from the music assignments in the Sonic 2 beta; Oil Ocean plays the Casino Night 2-Player theme, even though Oil Ocean's theme is present and accounted for in the sound test. If Oil Ocean Zone's music from the final was not intended for that zone from the get go, I'm a doughnut. (Some folks suggest it may have been intended for the desert zone, but that's nonsense - the desert zone is an American desert, replete with cacti and buttes, not an Arabian desert.)

It's unusual for a Nakamura "zone music" to not be fitting. As stated in this interview (and also by Takashi Iizuka in the Sonic Jam strategy guide), Nakamura didn't just compose a bag of music which was then alotted to each zone like a jolly neighbour handing out Halloween candy. He took a gander at concept art and even test footage of the zones, then composed themes for each with close attention payed to their pace and atmosphere. These songs need to encourage what Sonic does best: running and jumping. As such they are all flavoured with rock, funk, and jazz with time signatures that drive the action along. None of them do anything boneheaded like being a waltz which suggests endless circular motion; no, that's reserved for the stately rotating Sonic 1 Special Stage where it fits like a glove.

Or do they? Let's take another look at sound test $10. Yes, folks - it's a waltz. Just like the Sonic 1 Special Stage. Hidden Palace, instead of having a respectable theme that encourages the actions and motions most likely to be found in a zone, it has a slow, dragging theme that - while a beautiful tune - suggests an unchanging environment.

Yes, this is one of those objective facts I promised earlier. Hidden Palace is a waltz. Say what you will about opinions and bullshit internet theories, but it's pretty incontrovertible. Furthermore, it's the only "zone music" that is (Death Egg's music doesn't count, because it's not a full zone). The only other waltz in the Nakamura Sonic canon? The Sonic 1 Special Stage theme.

Using this passing similarity (which has been noted before) as a starting point, I decided to check deeper into the two songs to see if there were any other similarities. Perhaps I would learn something interesting; after all, Nakamura is known to reuse motifs in songs that convey similar themes. You don't have to take my word for it, either. Not only is it well known that the title theme, invincibility theme, ending theme, and Super Sonic theme are all based on the same composition (one might consider it "Sonic's theme"), but there are other examples.

Robotnik's Sonic 1 theme and Final Zone (here, the arpeggio, melody, and accompaniment are all similar):

Robotnik's theme and the final boss theme in Sonic 2 also revisit the militaristic percussion and have related structures. Nakamura knew exactly how to evoke Robotnik, in the same way John Williams might reuse instruments and motifs to suggest the Empire in Star Wars.

Super Sonic's theme and the Sonic 2 Special Stage:

That sound evokes the unbridled power of the Chaos Emeralds. It's no mistake that it's part of Super Sonic's theme and the theme of the stages in which the Chaos Emeralds that power him are collected.

So are there similarities between Hidden Palace Zone and the Sonic 1 Special Stage beyond that of both being waltzes? Well, yes. They both have similar chords progressions, as well as overall superficial similarities: they're both comparatively short, and are made of a main melody that loops twice before a much shorter coda brings them back around to the beginning (this has also been noted before). But the most damning evidence is a literally reused motif!

This is barely audible in the original song with all the other tracks going, but it's really there nonetheless!

This leaves no doubt in my mind that sound test $10 was written by Nakamura with the explicit intention to hark back to the Special Stages of the first game. I would also bet money that it was never meant to be heard behind a zone with traditional gameplay.

And that's as far as I'm willing to go... on the record. If I give myself over to speculation, I would say this: What we know as Mystic Cave 2-Player was indeed composed for Hidden Palace. But as development progressed it became clear that Hidden Palace would not make the cut - at least not as a full zone. At some point in Sonic 2's development Hidden Palace was given a makeover, giving it a purpose similar to that of the zone from Sonic & Knuckles with the same name. Yuji Naka as much as confirms this. When the zone's new purpose was decided, Nakamura was conscripted to compose a new, more suitable them for it. As the zone was involved with the Chaos Emerald lore, he composed a song which borrowed heavily from Sonic 1's Special Stage. But when it was decided to scrap the zone altogether, the newly madeover Hidden Palace was never included in the ROM, even though the song assignment was updated. The displaced song was given to Mystic Cave 2-Player, because - let's not quibble here - the zone has a very similar feel to Hidden Palace (underground, brown, green, and purple).

But relying on speculation is unwise. Like Carl Sagan, I try not to think with my gut. For all I know sound test $10 was composed for a rotating Special Stage that never made it into Sonic 2. Or maybe Nakamura had a brainfart and just composed the world's most ill-fitting tune for Hidden Palace. This is why I'm so excited for the Sonic 1&2 Original Soundtrack release. On October 19th maybe some of these long-standing mysteries will be cleared up!

Until then I will rest happy knowing that I discovered an interesting connection between two songs in Nakamura's Sonic canon. And if it's been common knowledge in the community for years now, well then won't I feel silly! =P


  1. Pleased to see I'm not the only one who thought soundtest $10 was totally inappropriate for the zone that was Hidden Palace. Personally, I always thought it evoked the perfect mood for Dust Hill but yeah, the notion of it being a cut special stage track makes much more sense.

  2. See I always completely thought $10 as fitting for Hidden Palace. It gave me a sense of wandering through a secret charmed palace. Conversely I always thought Mystic Cave 2 player was completely inappropriate for the zone.. sounds more tribal jungle adventurer music, thus right for Mystic Cave, but not the Palace.

    But of course these are just opinions. I do hope to hear $10 is demo glory on this upcoming soundtrack, and some accompanying notes clearing up the debate would be great too!

  3. Very informative and well made point, but how is this a motif? If it's barely audible with the other instrument tracks playing, too short to be memorable or interesting, and really if you hadn't told me that melody was from a Sonic game -and I'm very familiar with Sonic music - I would have never made the connection.

    Isn't the whole point of a theme song or motif to be memorable and easily reconigsable? And not some short note progression nobody remembers from the first game that's so muted out by the other tracks it's only noticeable if you're really paying attention, and doesn't even sound that theme-y after all.

    As for the musician, I don't think Nakamura was that involved in the development or worried about consistency otherwise we wouldn't have got an awesome 3 minute sci-fi theme that went mostly wasted on the 10 second in length Death Egg Zone, SWEET SWEET SWEET for the ending theme that's really supposed to be about love relationships, or a rock arrangement of Entrance of the Gladiators for a freaking cave level.

    And most of Sonic 1 was either too slow -Star Light, Spring Yard- or too heavy for its own good like Marble or even Green Hill. If you hadn't been raised on these themes you could say none of them fit at all.

    Then again if a couple of years ago someone told me Sonic 3 was made by Michael Jackson I'd call them insane, heheh. So who the hell knows, this is a cool find, thanks for bringing it up anyway.

  4. Re: the motif, the songs do sound superficially similar - similar enough for me and many others to notice. The reason why the motif is interesting is because it's evidence that this is not coincidence but that the composer did so intentionally. If it were the only similarity the songs shared it would be less important.

    "And most of Sonic 1 was either too slow -Star Light, Spring Yard- or too heavy for its own good like Marble or even Green Hill. If you hadn't been raised on these themes you could say none of them fit at all."

    Blasphemeeeeeee! You might be right though. Some of my friends who don't obsess about Sonic as much as I do (that would be all of them =P) tend to get the level musics mixed up, so the themes have certain degree of plasticity.

    I wouldn't blame Masa for Death Egg's wasted theme, though - it's entirely possible Death Egg was planned to be longer and was cut for time.