There are few icons that personify the 1990s quite like Sonic the Hedgehog. Originally created to give Sega a mascot that could rival Nintendo’s Mario, it took several designs until the team at Sega landed on the blue spiky mammal known today, complete with a personality meant to exemplify “90’s coolness”. And the Blue Blur was a quick commercial success, with the first game on the Sega Genesis selling 2 million copies in its first year and having sold over 30 million units since. The game’s success led to TV shows, movies, and of course sequels.
Sonic the Hedgehog received two sequels on the Sega Genesis, with both aiming to be more ambitious with adding new features and characters like Miles “Tails” Prower and Knuckles the Echidna. But one ambitious move for 1994’s Sonic the Hedgehog 3 has been long rumored and is all but confirmed.
Sonic 3 as well as it’s companion title Sonic & Knuckles were both well received, with compliments going to its gameplay, level design, and of course, music. However, even from the early days of release some eagle-eared fans recognized similarities between the Sonic 3 soundtrack and songs by another notable face of the 90’s, the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Jackson had previously worked with Sega for 1989’s Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, a game featuring his likeness and music, but it was unexpected to hear his tracks on a Sonic game.
As time went on, more and more fans noticed similarities between songs from Sonic 3 and Jackson’s catalog. In 2003, Sonic fan Ben Mallison argued in an early-internet forum dedicated to Sonic that Sonic 3’s “Carnvial Night Zone” sounded awfully similar to “Jam”, the first track on Jackson’s 1991 album, Dangerous. And upon hearing the two tracks side by side, the similarities are apparent, with Sonic 3 seemingly taking Jackson’s beat and mixing it with the well-known public domain carnival music. And more and more similarities were brought forth. The Sonic 3 end credits theme seemingly was the base of Jackson’s single “Stranger in Moscow”, which released in 1996, three years after Sonic 3 launched.
The idea of Jackson potentially working on a Sonic game was astonishing to fans, and many sought confirmation, leading to a common issue on the internet; fans would look for email addresses and phone numbers of staff who worked on Sonic 3 and would send hundreds upon thousands of calls and emails, asking for answers, but spamming someone with lots of emails is a quick way to make sure you never hear from them.
The fans finally got a glimmer of hope, however, when Roger Hector, director of Sega Technical Institute and the man who oversaw production of Sonic 3, entered an online forum and alleviated some questions. According to Hector, Jackson did in fact work with the Sonic team to develop the soundtrack as Jackson was a fan of Sonic, though the work was later scrubbed. The reason for this is not 100% confirmed, but the two most repeated reasons were Jackson’s disappointment in the Sega Genesis’ sound capabilities, and Jackson’s scandal. In 1993, the well-known and publicized child sexual abuse accusations against Michael Jackson were made public, and it seemed that this led to Sega wanting to distance themselves from Jackson.
As time went on, a few more people came forward and spoke about Jackson’s involvement with Sonic 3. Brad Buxer, who was credited as one of the game’s composers and who was also a long-time friend and collaborator of Jackson, conflicted Hector’s report that the Sonic 3 soundtrack had a very “Michael Jackson sound”, with Buxer instead saying that only 1 of the 41 tracks in the game was worked on by Jackson. He also said Jackson’s unhappiness with the Genesis’ sound was the reason why his name went uncredited in the game.
Sega themselves commented on the situation a few times, with them stating that any collaboration with Jackson would have been made without their knowledge. And even Hector would later in 2013 back down on some of his claims, instead saying that any similarities between the game’s sound and Jackson’s music was purely coincidental.
The Sonic the Hedgehog games would get rereleases on various platforms over the years, yet Sonic 3 would often get left out. Christian Whitehead’s team proposed a remaster of Sonic 3 & Knuckles for mobile devices, but the plan was shot down by Sega despite the team having already remade the first two Sonic games for mobile and would later create the critically acclaimed Sonic Mania in 2017. After Jackson’s death in 2009, it seemed that the game was being rereleased less and less, likely due to problems with his estate.
In 2022, Sonic Origins released, a compilation of many early Sonic games, including the first rerelease of Sonic 3 & Knuckles in over a decade. However, it wasn’t long until fans noticed that many of the tracks in the rerelease were replaced with songs from the Sonic 3 prototype which was discovered in 2019. All of these tracks were the ones that fans or the dev team thought Jackson worked on, which seemed like the final confirmation of his involvement. This was cemented even more when, in an interview, Yuji Naka, former president of the Sonic Team, producer and developer of Sonic 3, and co-creator of the Blue Blur, confirmed that Jackson had worked on the game and even that the development team visited Jackson’s home. He was even surprised that the music was taken out of the rerelease in Sonic Origins.
While it seems unlikely that either the team at Sega or the estate of Michael Jackson will confirm the unexpected collaboration, it is all-but-confirmed of the two’s crossover. And it seems that this collaboration might’ve led to the Sonic Team collaborating with more artists in future games such as Crush 40 or Hoobastank’s Doug Robb. And there would be even crazier examples of sampling, such as Hideki Naganuma sampling a Malcom X speech for the final boss theme of 2005’s Sonic Rush.