This has scared me like nothing else I’ve written about all spooky season; it’s the one game I honestly don’t want to look at screenshots of if I can help it, the one heart-stopping experience that eclipses all of Umbrella’s zombie disasters and soundly beats any ghost-filled high school. The game I’m about to discuss sparks a fear response so deep it almost feels primal, the same sort of gut reaction that normally kicks in when I see too-big spiders skitter across the living room floor or when unknown terrors lightly brush against my face in the dark.
This is a blog post about a world falling apart.
This is a blog post about Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
I, like millions of other people worldwide, have been fond of Sega’s blue blur for a long time. I played the adventure game books, watched the (pretty awful) cartoon, went to school with a Sonic pencil tin in my bag, and wore a lot of Sega branded t-shirts that on reflection were not great fashion choices even for a child of the nineties. Sonic 2 had the honour of being the very first Mega Drive game I ever owned, and as such I happily spent a lot of time learning how to build up momentum in its loops and lanes, launching Sonic over seas of shimmering blue or off into star-filled skies. I knew every last inch of that game – I’d even used the debug mode’s (1,9,9,2,1,1,2,4 – remember?) ability to freely zoom around and carefully trace out new routes through the rollercoaster-like stages, practising every twist and turn until even the most arduous zones flew by in record time and with a full compliment of chaos emeralds collected at the earliest possible moment. With so much time spent poking around the game it was inevitable I’d eventually notice the mysterious song known only as “10” in the sound test menu, wondering what it was for and what I’d need to do to hear this tune played within the game itself. For all my efforts Sonic 2 clearly still had secrets hiding within, even if I had no idea of what they were or how to access them.
My interest in this mystery was soon sent sky-high by tiny screenshots of the legendary unused Wood and Hidden Palace Zones included in a guidebook bought from a school book fair, so when I saw an Action Replay code to access the latter in a magazine not too long after that – more than likely Mean Machines Sega – I was beyond excited. I loved the game and I already had an Action Replay for my Mega Drive… this was destiny. This was a magical chance to finally uncover the truth behind this haunting tune and that tantalising screenshot, to run through a brand new area I was never supposed to play.
I was never supposed to play.
I was just a child all alone in my room at the time, bathed in the warm glow of a small black CRT TV with a circular aerial at the back, the slightly wobbly tower of carts sticking out of my console ready and waiting to show me sights I thought I’d never see. The code was in. The Action Replay was activated. I stared wide-eyed at my TV as the Hidden Palace Zone’s title card appeared – I’d done it, I really was going t-
I was never supposed to play.
The scene I was greeted with had none of the promised remote waterfalls tumbling down cool coloured cave walls. No vast gaps connected by green bridges that lit up as Sonic walked over them. No giant emeralds to find. No undiscovered badniks to bop. There were no palaces either, hidden or otherwise. What I saw instead was a visual cacophony of lost data, a mess of corrupted nothings and indecipherable scrolling objects, chunks of absent graphics still pulsating to an unknown rhythm against an expanse of broken information. This was all made so much worse by the way Sonic helplessly fell through this chaos the instant the level began, the debris of leftover code flashing before my eyes as he plunged into the water below (of course the sodding water would still work) and died as soon as he touched the bottom of the screen.
Then the level automatically restarted and he did it again.
Sonic – and I, the young girl who’d unwittingly brought this hellish landscape upon herself – had nowhere to go, nowhere to escape to. Every direction was a scrolling mass of wrongness somehow amplified by Sonic’s familiar blue form falling down the center of the screen and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do to make it stop. I was horrified – this brave adventure into uncharted territory wasn’t supposed to end up like this – and all I could do was hurriedly hit the reset button on my Mega Drive and hope it would fix this mess… the Mega Drive with the Action Replay still in it and the little metal switch on the side flipped to the “active” position. Funnily enough games don’t like being reset when they’re in the middle of doing something they’re not supposed to do, so rather than calmly reboot to the title screen Sonic 2 just plain crashed, and at that moment it felt to my younger self as if the wrongness I had summoned had somehow spread into the very bones of my precious console, perhaps never to be undone.
İ̷̡͈͙͙̚̚ ̵̨̦̥̯̅͗̐̃ͅw̷̨̥͔̩̔̉͝a̶͉͒̄̌̚s̶̯̦̞̓͑̀̕ ̶͓̞͆̏͋ṉ̶̡̝̣̦̔͛́ȩ̴̡̦̱͊͌̀v̷͎̠̱́̎e̸̡̩͕̞̐̋͜ȑ̸̡̛͙̥̀ ̸̩͔̗͌ͅs̶̥̫͚̬̈u̸̙̜̝̽p̶̥̥̪̲̟̕p̶̟͐̾͜ȍ̷̻̞̪̰̾̏͑s̶̖͝e̶̝͓̖̬̐͝d̵̳͕̮̠͂̈́̀̚͠ ̶̮̃́̀̊t̶̜̣̬̑͊͛͐͘ơ̴̧͎̤̯͙̈̎͋͘ ̴͎̣̲̈́̔̊͌͝p̵̡̤͋͆́̂̃l̵͍̰̿́̄͊a̸̲͐̐́y̷̢̲̙̻̝͋̌̓͠.
Now acutely aware that the fine line between a working game and a friendly mascot character with their own licensed comics and Happy Meal toys forced into a terrifying abyss was just one alphanumeric code copied out of a magazine, it may come as no surprise to learn that the Action Replay went back in its box after that harrowing adventure and never saw the light of day again, all of those other “fun” codes designed to cause unintentional effects left untouched and untested lest I awaken another glitchy beast.
And yes, I really am still scared of the Hidden Palace Zone.