Gaming Literacy: How Sega Spun "Lock On" Technology into a Success

If Sega was anything in the 16-bit era, it was a master of marketing. WIth marketing terms like, “Blast processing,” and “Sega does what Nintendon’t,” everything Sega did was carefully spun to portray them as the cutting edge of video game cool.

My favorite example of Sega marketing genius was “lock-on technology,” found in only one game, Sonic & Knuckles. Lock-on technology was Sega’s brilliant attempt to turn repeated failure into marketing gold. It was one of the only examples of cartridge “expansion packs” and, in a way, could be considered one of the first instances of DLC-like content… just without the download. Strange as it may seem now, behind this gimmick was a genius design idea, one with so much potential that we never pursued, all coming out of the inability to meet a deadline.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

It All Started with Sonic 2’s Failures

Before we talk about lock-on technology, we have to talk about Sonic 2 and how it almost wasn't the game you think it is. The original concept had many more levels than the final product. It also had a time-travel theme which would later be revisited in Sonic CD, but time and budget constraints prevented Sega from fully realizing this concept. Several levels were cut and the game was quickly retooled to ditch the time-travel theme entirely. Remnants of unfinished levels can still be found in Sonic 2’s code, and some of them would go on to be redesigned for later Sonic releases.

Sonic 2’s release was a success but its development process wasn’t. The vast amount of cut content proved that Sega was biting off more than they can chew. Piecing together an incomplete project into a marketable game was a risky strategy at best.  Other games were critically panned for the same practice, since they felt broken and incomplete in their final release. For some reason Sonic 2 didn’t feel that way. Its mish-mash of thematically disparate levels were somehow tied together by Sonic’s speed and attitude alone.

Repeating the Same Mistakes

Fast forward to the development of Sonic 3, where Sega made the same mistakes again (this was the beginning of a long standing tradition of Sonic Team making the same mistakes over and over.) Their release deadline was coming up and they simply could not complete all the content that they wanted to develop. Once again they were put in the position of choosing what content to cut and what to salvage.

That’s when Sega had a fantastic idea. Instead of cutting content, they would simply finish it later. The game would be split into two. All the assets that were finished would be released as Sonic 3, while the rest of the game would be released later in the year as Sonic & Knuckles. As a bonus, Sonic & Knuckles would be released as a cartridge that had a flip open top that you could plug Sonic 3 into. Doing so would get you Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the Sonic 3 experience as originally intended.

It’s a common misconception that Sonic 3 was split up because it was too big to fit on one cartridge. On the contrary, Sonic & Knuckles just crams two ROM chips into the space of one when Sonic 3 is plugged into it. The Genesis reads it like a single big cartridge, something it couldn’t do if the game was “too big” for a normal cartridge. In fact, if you locked on Sonic & Knuckles with a game that would make the combined ROM too big, it would boot into Sonic & Knuckles as normal, as the Genesis could not read the extra game data.

Like Four Games in One Expansion

Sonic 3 probably would have survived on its own if Sonic & Knuckles was never released, but Sonic & Knuckles was barely worth playing without Sonic 3. It didn’t have a save feature, which was a step backward since Sonic 3 had one. It was short compared to other Sonic games. It just felt incomplete.

It did have one thing Sonic 3 didn’t have: Knuckles. Players were introduced to this red echidna earlier in the year in Sonic 3, but only as an unplayable villain. Sonic & Knuckles made him playable with his own special move-set and level layouts. Players went absolutely nuts over the idea of controlling a completely new character; remember this was before Sonic was drowning in his multi-colored furry friends. That alone was a selling point for the Sonic & Knuckles cart, despite its relative lack of content.

Since Knuckles was the major selling point of Sonic & Knuckles, Sega decided to shove knuckles wherever they could.

All the code for controlling Knuckles was in the Sonic & Knuckles cart. This allowed Sega to do some pretty nifty things with games that ran on similar engines as Sonic 3. For example, connecting Sonic & Knuckles to Sonic 2 would get you “Knuckles the Echidna in Sonic 2.” This amalgamation does what it says on the tin. It’s Sonic 2 except you controlled Knuckles instead of Sonic.

The game still read levels and enemies from the Sonic 2 cartridge. This is why Dr. Robotnik doesn’t wear a mask in Knuckles in Sonic 2, while he does in every Knuckles level in Sonic 3. Sonic & Knuckles provided a small bit of “patch data” that converted stages into a form Knuckles could play. This wasn’t a whole lot of data. It was mostly a few edits to prevent problems with his gliding ability and some hidden items that only Knuckles could reach. This patch had to be specifically developed for Sonic 2, however. This is why Knuckles could not be played in Sonic 1, and why attaching Sonic & Knuckles to any other game booted the player to an error screen.

This error screen held a couple secrets. Pressing A, B, and C at this screen brought the player into a randomly generated Blue Sphere bonus level. It generated these levels based on the cartridge that was plugged in, so you could go through your entire Genesis collection trying beat all the unique levels they generated. Just be sure not to use a game that has a battery backup, as sometimes locking on would wipe saved data. Oops.

The genius of lock-on gimmick was that everything it did was simple. The assets of Sonic & Knuckles were partially complete by the time Sonic 3 came out. They cost very little extra money to finish and release as a separate game. Yet Sega charged full price for Sonic & Knuckles, making double the profit than they would have if they released Sonic 3 as one cart.

It was because Sonic 3 & Knuckles felt much bigger than its components. Sonic & Knuckles alone might have been a short experience, but Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Knuckles in Sonic 2, and ability to play pseudo infinite Blue Sphere bonus stages, felt huge. It was like you were getting 3-4 games in one! But these games weren’t actually all that big on the cart. The Sonic 2 patch was small and mostly re-used Sonic 2’s assets. The code for Blue Sphere was simple and randomly generating stages required almost no work for the development team. It was a ton of content for very little effort and, more importantly, very little financial investment.

It’s All About Image

Sonic 3 & Knuckles could have crashed and burned but it survived due to Sega’s manipulation of its image. If this was marketed as an expansion pack, Sega would have been at the end of a controversy. Gamers would be complaining about how incomplete Sonic 3 was and how Sonic & Knuckles was a cash grab. But it wasn’t marketed that way. It was marketed as the world’s first “backward compatible” video game, and gamers do love their backward compatibility. It wasn’t an incomplete half to another incomplete game. It was a new game that gave your old games new features.

After Sonic & Knuckles the entire gaming industry just stopped pursuing lock-on technology. Granted, there’s nothing to lock-on anymore, since cartridge media has gone the way of the dinosaur. Still, the concept of new games giving older games new content isn’t a bad idea. Imagine playing through Sonic Generations with your custom avatars from Sonic Forces. Imagine playing new characters from Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Imagine playing around with Cappy’s possession powers in Super Mario Galaxy! Our age of digital downloads seems like a perfect time to patch older games this way.

This is what makes Sega’s lock-on technology so interesting. On one hand, it shows us that marketing can make or break a game. It was a marketing gimmick that turned an incomplete game into two of the best-selling Sega products of all time. On the other hand, the idea of backward compatible games was an amazing idea that no one ever pursued further. It could have changed the landscape of gaming and downloadable content as we know it.

It’s a lesson that perception is everything and that gimmicks are sometimes more than what they seem, and a part of video game history that we can still learn a lot from.