Sonic the Hedgehog 3's soundtrack saga adds another chapter

A newly-unearthed prototype has added another wrinkle to the mystery surrounding Sonic 3's music.

Sonic the Hedgehog fanatics have had much to be excited about over the last few weeks. Game archivist collectives The Hidden Palace and The Cutting Room Floor have been delivering a plethora of unseen prototypes from several classic Sonic games, including the earliest-known prototypes of Sonic the Hedgehog CD, early builds of the 8-bit game Sonic Chaos and yet more of the seemingly endless well of prototypes that exist for Sonic the Hedgehog 2, in a collaborative initiative dubbed "Sonic Month 2019", and their final release of the month is perhaps the most exciting: a pre-release version of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 that paints a fascinating picture of the game's frenzied development and overturns long-held theories about some of its music.

This prototype, physically dated November 3, 1993 but possibly compiled slightly earlier, shows the game in the early process of being divided into two; with large chunks of the content that would later comprise Sonic & Knuckles still present in various states of completeness. (For the unaware, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles are but two halves of the same game, split into separate games and released months apart for several reasons, not least of which being as a compromise to meet a non-negotiable Sonic 3 marketing deadline with McDonalds.)  Even the content earmarked for Sonic 3 is far from complete, with frequent collision issues, broken cinematics and transitions, incomplete bosses and a significant amount of unfinished and placeholder art, including Sonic and Tails' sprites which are still holdovers from Sonic 2, more or less — all typical stuff for a pre-release build, of course, but when compared to another previously-dumped prototype from just a few weeks later that's essentially complete, it demonstrates just how much progress Sonic Team was able to make in such a short amount of time, and probably under extreme duress.

As well as offering a snapshot at the construction of the final game, this prototype also gives a glimpse at some of the experimentation that didn't make the final cut: Sonic has a few peculiar new commands, including a ring-throwing projectile attack and an aerial spindash buffer with an eerie resemblance to Sonic Mania's drop dash, and this build also includes a more fleshed-out demo for the pseudo-3D "red sphere" effect, remnants of which remain in the final game's debug mode with no apparent purpose until now. There's also the more immediate difference concerning the music: not only is much of the instrumentation different — often deliberately, sometimes not — but quite a few of the tunes are bound to be brand-new to the ears of most, but notorious to the ears of a few.

One of the eternal mysteries surrounding Sonic 3 has been just precisely who composed the music — in a nutshell, Sega publicly announced the participation of Michael Jackson as composer but hastily withdrew that announcement due to MJ's high-profile court scandal, and while both parties have steadfastly insisted MJ's tunes never made the final cut, there's an overwhelming amount of evidence to suggest tunes penned by Jackson (or at the very least, composers then under his employ) were indeed included in the final game, and recent revelations about certain compositions seems to be a factor in Sega's reticence to reissue the game in any form.

For many years, one of the most damning pieces of evidence was the Sonic & Knuckles Collection, a 1997 PC port of Sonic 3 & Knuckles that conspicuously replaces several of Sonic 3's more contentious tunes with original compositions; these tunes were long presumed to be hasty replacements for songs Sega was no longer confident in reissuing but, as demonstrated by this newly-discovered prototype, those "replacement" tunes were in fact the original tunes written by Sega and later swapped out for Jackson's contributions. Carnival Night Zone, Ice Cap Zone, Launch Base Zone, Knuckles' theme, the versus mode jingle, even the credits theme...those songs weren't slapdash substitutes for MJ's tunes, they were the originally-composed tunes that MJ's tracks replaced!

Frankly, one of the reasons people were so willing to accept the notion that these tracks were last-minute substitutes is that they're not especially interesting compositions when compared to the songs they replaced or the other songs present in the game, but the versions present in the prototype are certainly more appealing than the MIDI conversions present in the PC version, at the very least. The November 3 '93 prototype soundtrack for Sonic 3 is already available for separate listening, so even if you'd rather not bumble through a nominally-playable prototype, you can at least take a listen to tunes old and new and reflect on what may have been. Either way, this discovery serves as a reminder than when it comes to the topic of Sonic 3 and Michael Jackson, the story may never be definitively settled.