One of the greatest stories in the genre of Sega Genesis lore involves the theft of an early unfinished version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 from a toy fair in 1992. That stolen cartridge went on to be illegally distributed in Asia as the finished version of the game featuring fragments of levels that did not make the cut for the final product such as the Wood Zone and the mysterious Hidden Palace Zone. The latter zone was hyped in the gaming magazines of the day, leaving many fans confused when the finished Sonic 2 did not include it. Jump ahead several years and you'll find this version of the game circulating the Internet in smokey backrooms where devoted Sonic fans dig through its code like archaeologists excavating a tomb. Heidi Kemps wondered if Yuji Naka (formerly of Sonic Team) had any idea that all of this was happening, so she went straight to the source to find out. Did Naka know that fans were digging through his team's old work and exploring unfinished, cut content?
The Hidden Palace Zone was well-known among the Sonic faithful, but did Naka know the extent of what fans had already dug up?
“Actually,” I replied, “that ROM’s data is out there. Online.”
Naka seemed pleasantly surprised. “What? You're kidding! Tell me more. I had no idea.”
Was this really happening?
“I have it here with me,” I continued. “On my laptop.”
“Do you, now?” He smiled again. “Somehow, I’m not surprised. You’re truly quite the fan.”
I turned on my laptop, booted up my Genesis emulator, and clicked on the file. It didn’t occur to me at first that I would be showing a top Sega executive my copy of an illegally duplicated development ROM on my PC. The thought didn’t even cross my mind until the title screen, the one different from what we all saw in 1992, appeared.
“Ahhhhh, yes,” said Naka, recognizing the early image.
How wonderful to reunite Naka with his older work in this manner. I wonder if other developers would be so gracious. As for the Hidden Palace Zone itself, after becoming a curiosity and a conversation topic amongst the Sega faithful, it finally showed up in the iOS and Android remakes of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 as a proper, completed level. Even the company itself is in on propagating the legend. I absolutely love stories like this one. I've watched this story unfold over the past twenty years, following it from those original mock-up screenshots in Electronic Gaming Monthly to the online dissemination of the unfinished ROM all the way to the end. I feel like I have closure at last.