Friday, May 20, 2011

Sonic youth(ful) nostalgia

This week I had not one, but two (unrelated) interactions brought upon my retention of frivolous Sonic the Hedgehog facts from my early 90's gaming days. That is twice as many frivolous-Sonic-fact-caused-interactions in the past week than I've had in the past 16 years! (but that other previous interaction is a post for another day)

The first interaction this week came from my meeting with a video game composer who worked on the Sonic games 18 years ago. A few months ago I read an article about a local art school. The article briefly mentioned the President of the school, Spencer Nielsen, composed music for Sega games. Upon looking him up, I realized not only did I know much of his music but he wrote the soundtrack for "Sonic CD" which was my favorite soundtrack of the Genesis era. I talked to my coworkers who previous worked at the art school and this week I finally got to meet Spencer.

The conversation was amazing and we discussed various topics, both old and new. As the meeting ended I finally was able to ask the question that bothered me for 18 years: "What were the voices saying"?

Sonic CD was the first CD based game I owned and also the first to have a "Red Book Audio" soundtrack which meant the music played from an audio portion of the CD as opposed to a synthesizer chip from inside the game cartridge or system. As such, the soundtrack used actual recorded instruments and vocals when most soundtracks of the era were rudimentary beeps and bops. To celebrate the occasion, I bought my first pair of speakers and plugged them into the Sega CD system to enjoy the game's music in glorious stereo. Hearing the music out of multiple sources allowed me to pinpoint various instruments, vocals, and tracks in each of the soundtrack's songs. And after playing a specific level a few times I noticed something odd: in the background of "Tidal Tempest" music I heard voices speaking.

(listen to the left track at 1:03- 1:06, headphones help]

Now, much like earlier generations thought they heard secret messages hidden in LPs, my 11 year-old self was sure I had stumbled upon a secret code that I could use to "cheat" in the game (infinite lives, level select, etc)! Games of this era were notorious for hiding cheat codes in the least-expected places of the game for players to find (which incidentally is was led me to my second encounter detailed below). Unfortunately, I couldn't tell what the voices were saying so I had no idea how to use the "code". I listened to the music over and over and eventually, as in months later, gave up and moved on to the next game. But I never forgot the "code" and the question of "what the voices said" stuck in the back of my mind in the "will likely never know" folder. That is, until I met the composer of the song.

Eighteen years later, Occam's Razor had taken hold and I assumed the voices were from a conversation unintentionally picked up on mic. But I still wanted to ask the composer just in case... Spencer did not know of the voices I mentioned and assured me there was no way a conversation was accidentally recorded. But upon sending him my digitized copy of the song he conceded that was exactly what it was and was surprised anyone could hear it (no one had noticed it up until now). He also gave me a personalized signed copy of one of his out-of-print CDs; not for finding the "secret code" but just because is an overall awesome guy!

And so my Sonic-knowledge-event ended for the week, or so I thought.

As mentioned above, games of the 80's and 90's hid secret codes in the least expected places to reward "superfans" who found them (and to allow programmers to use them to skip to various levels in the game to bug test). Many games also offered a special menu for players to listen to every piece of music in the game, which sometimes numbered over 100. And Sonic 2 is notorious for hiding its codes in the "music test" option. If players listened to track 19, then 65, then 9, and then 17 a special sound occurred which allowed the player to select any level from the game (the numbers are actually the birthday of the director of the game - 9/17/1965). Other combinations of track order playback opened up other secrets, but this was the most famous.

So this week while reading one of my favorite webcomics, Sam and Fuzzy, a throwaway line caught my attention. One character yelled a computer command, "Command Code 1965917", which caused all the robots in the scene to attack the heroes. My guess is most people "read" the first two numbers of the sequence then glossed over them to the next word with the understanding that is was just a string of numbers. But for some reason the numbers stuck in the back of my mind and when I read them again the memories of selecting any level I wanted in Sonic 2 came flooding back. So I e-mailed the artist to point out his hidden geekery (another Sonic "superfan") and a few days later he posted my e-mail and his reply on his website.

I'm not sure I have many more frivolous-Sonic-facts left that could lead me to intersting interactions, but you never know what the future holds...

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