Bob Branning Remembers 1991
(This is a guest article.)
There’s a game that has an anniversary this year, and I have a story about it. Hi I’m Bob Branning. I’ve been in the games industry for a long time, but you wouldn’t know, because I use a lot of acronyms, like this one. I’ve seen a lot of things, and you might say I’ve led an interesting life, filled with video games, substance abuse, seedy bars and many conflicts with the biggest people in the industry. What follows is one of my oldest stories.
It’s been nearly 20 years ago since the nightmare, but it’s still just as fresh in my mind as it was when I first encountered it. I lost my innocence to the nightmare.
I remember it as clearly as something that happened to me but a few minutes ago. It all began on a particularly sunny day in June. It was the school holidays and I was at home sitting on the floor watching cartoons with my Mother. My Father came home from work and under his arm he was holding a big black box. If only he’d knew what horror was lying inside it.
He crouched down next to me and gave me the box. I was overjoyed when I saw it was none other than a Sega Mega Drive, a device I had dreamed about ever since I saw the adverts on TV. That was joyful enough for me as it was, but I soon discovered that not only was there a console inside but a game. Sega called it the Mario killer. It was none other than Sonic The Hedgehog.
I just stood and stared at the game box for about 5 minutes, particularly looking at the back and all of the different levels that it contained. My Father smiled at me and said “Well are you going to spend AGES looking at it, or are you going to play on your new SEGA?”. The pun did not go down well but I did as I was told and hooked up my new system to the TV. I then put the Sonic The Hedgehog cartridge in and got ready for a great time. I had to blow the cartridge and connector first but that has nothing to do with this story.
To begin with, it was everything I had dreamed of. The cheery man inside the system shouted SEGA! and then I saw the vibrant and cool Sonic pop up himself. And to begin with, nothing seemed wrong. After reading the instruction manual (because they were actually worth reading back then) I quickly progressed through the colourful Green Hill Zone, the ancient Marble Zone and the bright lights of Spring Yard Zone. It was the best game I had ever played in my short life. Of course at that age I thought everything new and shiny was the best thing ever. And that was before I discovered hard drugs. Anyway, then I came to it. Labyrinth Zone.
Just the word sends shivers down my spine. The people who created Labyrinth Zone can only have come from a place for the forsaken. It’s ten times worse than the numerous overdoses I’ve had in my time, that’s for sure. Everything is all well to begin with. Ok, this looks like an ancient underground temple, it should be fine. But then you get to the water.
Hedgehogs were clearly not meant to touch such liquid. Maybe if it was alcohol he might have been fine, but the lightning fast Sonic instantly became slow and non-reactive, as his poor spine ridden body tries to traverse through the depths. I came to quickly realise what atrocity I had committed. I had doomed the blue Hedgehog.
The music, oh god the music. Spend too long inside Satan’s swimming pool and you hear the dreaded underwater death theme. The game tortures you as try your best to get to a life saving bubble, only to have you wait as a large bubble forms that Sonic could inhale. But by the time that happens, you’ve ran out of time and you watch Sonic’s lifeless body fall to the very depths of his underwater grave.
Through much trauma on my part, I managed to get to the third act. If I thought the water was bad, it was kids stuff compared to those god damn waterfalls. Even now, with all the things I’ve seen in the games industry, I still toss and turn at night, dreaming of myself in Sonic’s place, falling down waterfalls that never end. In the actual game, it’s only by luck you jump at the right moment to find a switch to stop the madness, but in my nightmares, it’s not there. No amount of hard liquor and drugs can stop them. The waterfalls just turn into rainbows.
You can eventually get through Labyrinth Zone, and after that the game returns to normal. However by then your soul has been destroyed by the zone. Sega actually compensated Sonic 1 owners a few years after the game came out for the trauma inflicted upon them, but it was very hush hush. Mainly because Sega found out that the members of the development team who worked on Labyrinth Zone were actually a Satan worshipping cult and the level was their attempt at calling the Anti-Christ. Or maybe it was Cthulu worshippers. I don’t know, my memory is fuzzy these days. Either way, it wouldn’t have been very good PR. Not that Nintendo can take the moral high ground, but that’s for another day.
It was that day that I decided I was going to become a Games Journalist, because I wanted to prevent gamers being exposed to such horrible things. Of course when I actually got to that point in my life, I found out Gaming Journalism was much more seedy and corrupted than it appeared to be and that’s partly why I’m now a substance abusing drunk journalist, to try and forget. Anyway, every Sonic game after that had perfectly normal zones. Even the water zones. But no matter how many times Sega port the first game, Labyrinth Zone will always remain the same.