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Game On: Michael Jackson’s involvement in Sonic 3’s soundtrack is all but confirmed

Michael Jackson teamed up with Sega to create the game Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker in 1989 and allegedly went on to help compose music for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in 1994.  (Courtesy)
Michael Jackson teamed up with Sega to create the game Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker in 1989 and allegedly went on to help compose music for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in 1994. (Courtesy)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

There have been rumors for decades now that Michael Jackson played a part in composing the soundtrack for 1994’s Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and its companion title Sonic & Knuckles. The game has been mysteriously absent from classic-game collections since 2011 and only finally resurfaced June 23 in Sonic Origins, which suspiciously replaced a handful of songs.

The rumors started many years ago when observant listeners noticed the similarities between several songs in the soundtrack and the music of Jackson – specifically “Stranger in Moscow,” “Smooth Criminal” and “Jam.” In 2005, Roger Hector, the executive coordinator for the game, stated in an interview that “Jackson was originally brought in to compose all the music for the game, but at the very end, his work was dropped after his scandals became public.”

But it seems his work wasn’t dropped, just left uncredited. Fellow musician Brad Buxer assisted Jackson and had this to say in 2009: “Michael called me at the time for help on this project, and that’s what I did. And if he is not credited for composing the music, it’s because he was not happy with the resulting sound coming out of the console. At the time, game consoles did not allow an optimal sound reproduction, and Michael found it frustrating. He did not want to be associated with a product that devalued his music.”

That made for two reliable sources confirming Jackson’s involvement, but they cited two very different reasons for his work going uncredited.

Sonic 3 has seen many re-releases over the years, but that stopped abruptly after the Steam version in 2011. The biggest red flag was presented when Sega released the Sega Genesis Mini in 2019, a little console containing 40 Genesis games – Sonic 3 was missing from the collection, and given its legendary status, it was a suspicious omission. AtGames, which helped create the Sega Genesis Mini, claimed outright that the exclusion was because of soundtrack licensing problems.

Jackson died in 2009, leaving his fortune and the rights to his music in the hands of his estate. He was notorious for taking on odd jobs and using pseudonyms in credit rolls to avoid contractual complications with his label, Epic Records – one famous example is “The Simpsons” episode “Stark Raving Dad” in 1991, which clearly features Jackson but gives credit to a nonexistent “John Jay Smith.”

In 2014, game developers Christian Whitehead and Simon Thomley offered to remaster Sonic 3 & Knuckles for iOS and Android. Despite getting the greenlight to do just that for Sonic 1, 2 and CD years prior, Sega turned them down.

After 11 years, Sonic 3 finally made its return in Sonic Origins. And sure enough, all of the songs bearing resemblance to Jackson compositions – namely “Carnival Night,” “Ice Cap,” “Launch Base,” “Knuckles’” theme, the competition menu and the credits – were replaced with music based on the 1993 prototype of Sonic 3, reworked by veteran Sonic composer Jun Senoue.

Sonic fans have been understandably displeased – 28 years of nostalgia is a powerful thing. The resulting outcry caught the attention of Sonic 3 producer Yuji Naka.

“Oh my god, the music for Sonic 3 has changed, even though SEGA Official uses Michael Jackson’s music,” he tweeted. Days later, he claimed his comments were misconstrued because of language barriers, clarifying the tweet was in reference to the TikTok Sega shared earlier in celebration of the Sonic franchise’s 31st anniversary.

Despite apparently walking back his claims, all he’s accomplished is to keep the rumor mill running. Naka had tweeted about that TikTok before, with the message: “SEGA Official is playing Michael Jackson’s song on Sonic. I’m surprised. Is it a sign?” He clearly knows there’s a connection, but perhaps after grabbing headlines for “confirming” everyone’s suspicions, it seems he’d rather play it coy.

For PC players of Sonic Origins, there’s already a mod circulating to bring the soundtrack back to its former allegedly-Jackson-infused glory. Console players will likely never have the option, which is worth noting before giving Sega your hard-earned cash when it apparently can’t be bothered to come to a licensing agreement for the sake of preserving one of its best games of all time.

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