Some rumors last for years and years, with little more than murmurs and hearsay continuing to push them along, sometimes across generations. But one longstanding games rumor has a history of new fuel being brought to the fire, both making it feel more and more plausible, while adding to the complexity and mystique of what the actual truth could be. I’m talking about the relationship between late pop star Michael Jackson and game publisher Sega, which started with a real game that exists, and ended with Sonic the Hedgehog 3 music that may or may not.
Michael Jackson was a known video game fan, with stories about his uh, Neverland Ranch having things like arcade cabinets and the like. And, his partnership with Sega was not all legend and myth, with his likeness being used in Space Channel 5, and an entire game made starring the singer in Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. What has been up in the air and subject to discussion, rumor, and legend is Jackson’s apparent contribution to the Sonic the Hedgehog 3 soundtrack.
There’s definitely a connection between the sound of Sonic games and Michael Jackson’s music. Not only is the stylistic influence written all over it (and Sonic CD), but you can point to specific tracks in Sonic 3, line them up with certain Jackson songs and draw immediate parallels between note progressions, themes, and even highly-compressed vocal samples.
Making the waters murkier, a PC music collection featuring Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles music changed those level themes. At the same time, a few interviews with people involved with Jackson, and more thorough examination of Sonic 3’s music credits started to look like a big web of connections to the legendary musician. Much of the story, as of 2016, can be dived into via a video from D-Pad on YouTube. But that’s not the end of the story.
While several interviews over time more or less pointed to Michael Jackson being involved with Sonic 3 on some level continued to happen, along with community-driven Internet sleuthing, the “official” word never quite lined up. Until recently, the more or less final word came from Brad Buxer, Michael Jackson’s composer and musical director.
In 2009, Buxer stated that Michael Jackson did directly contribute to the Sonic 3 soundtrack, but ultimately had his credit removed due to being unhappy with the final product (attributed to the Sega Genesis’ technical limitations). This of course contradicted word that Sega yanked him due to the molestation accusations, and also contradicted statements from people at Sega. Complicating matters further, the song Hard Times by the Jetzons was released, featuring keyboard work from Buxer that lines up unbelievably well with Ice Cap Zone from Sonic 3.
Enter 2018, and another new chapter to the story introduced. Hardcore Gaming 101 has been publishing a series called the Untold Story of Japanese Game Developers, and a new volume has added more fuel to the fire. Naoto Oshima, who can be considered the creator of Sonic (specifically the character design), was asked about the matter during an interview for the book. Oshima stated that when things were moving for Sonic 3 Michael Jackson sent Sega a tape of his ideas for the Sonic 3 soundtrack, composed entirely without instruments, acapella-style.
There’s still no definite answer. There’s just too much information out there that suggests the whole thing was a huge mess, and we’ll likely never get a straight answer from anyone personally involved. Sega’s narrative suggests there’s a tape out there somewhere of Michael Jackson beatboxing proposals for Sonic 3 music, while others involved with Jackson suggest he was more closely involved, only to have his name removed when Jackson’s reputation infamously tanked. Or, others say, Michael blamed the Genesis’ output, which sounds like deflection to me. Regardless of what actually happened, something definitely did, which makes the story of Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s soundtrack one of the most enduring video game legends out there.