The Sega Genesis Mini is finally out in the wild, and it's mostly everything we could've ever hoped for. Over 40 games, excellent emulation, fantastic build quality - this is one of the very best retro revival consoles to date. Much like the early '90s, Sega has proven that it can, indeed, do what Nintendon't.
But diehard Sega fans might notice a surprising omission when they fire up the Genesis Mini. While Sonic The Hedgehog, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 and (unfortunately) Sonic Spinball are all present and accounted for, the Blue Blur's third outing is completely MIA. Not only that, but its sort-of sequel, Sonic and Knuckles, is also nowhere to be found.
So what gives? While Sega has always been reluctant to address this part of its history, the answer lies in an unlikely place: Michael Jackson.
That's right - the King of Pop himself was at one point involved with the Sonic franchise in a fairly major way. In fact, Jackson was closely entangled with Sega for a hot second in the late '80s and early '90s - so much so that they were the publisher of Michael Jackson's Moonwalker, another unfortunate absence from the Genesis Mini.
From this relationship sprung an unlikely partnership. Michael Jackson would wind up lending his musical expertise to Sonic's third outing, along with New Wave stalwart Brad Buxer and a few other producers. However, midway through production, Jackson left the project. Sega proceeded to scrub his name from the final product, while still keeping his work.
This is where things get a bit dicey. Sega has actually never officially confirmed that Jackson's music made its way into the game at all, having always downplayed his involvement. Many speculate the reasoning for this is that, around the time of Sonic 3's development, Jackson was rocked by accusations of child molestation. These accusations damaged to the singer's reputation and would continue to haunt him until his untimely death in 2009. It only made sense, then, that Sega wanted to distance themselves from the controversy.
Only that's not what happened. Not entirely. In truth, Jackson left the project of his own volition, and asked that his name be removed. Why? Because Jackson was a notorious perfectionist, as is painfully clear from watching 2009's This Is It, and found himself frustrated with the Genesis' limited sound chip. He didn't want the inferior sound quality of the technically limited console to affect his reputation, leading to his departure. Sega, of course, was reluctant to admit that any part of their console might be inferior.
Pop Fiction does an excellent breakdown of the whole story:
It was around this time that those initial accusations hit Jackson, and in them lied a golden opportunity for Sega. They could wash their hands of Jackson entirely, while also not having to admit that their console had technical limitations. It was a nasty little bit of serendipity, with a dash of corporate hubris thrown in for good measure.
However, the music Jackson recorded did stay in the game, according to producers who worked on the title. This is where the problems start. While a late '90s PC port of Sonic 3 would scrub all of the music and replace it with grating, low-quality alternative tracks, what Sega was left with was a game that technically contained a small trove of Michael Jackson music. This put them in a weird place, licensing-wise, especially considering they would also owe royalties to a bevy of other producers who worked on the title. Ouch.
While never officially confirmed by Sega, this is likely why Sonic The Hedgehog 3 has been mostly absent from various compilations over the years - especially as of late. The latest collection of Genesis games, Sega Genesis Classics, also omitted the title, and the publisher quietly delisted the standalone bundle of Sonic 3 & Knuckles from Steam a while back. As Jackson's involvement with the title became more and more publicly acknowledged, the less Sega was willing to risk paying out copious royalties (as well as the bad press they'd garner for being associated with a galvanizing figure like Jackson.)
Which is a shame, really. Sonic The Hedgehog 3 is my personal favorite of the original Genesis games, and its soundtrack is an astonishing work of musical mastery - especially when you consider that it contains embryonic versions of what would later become beloved Jackson songs.
So, there you have it. Sonic The Hedgehog 3 isn't on the Sega Genesis Mini because of corporate pride, celebrity controversy, and a long-term unwillingness to acknowledge history. Hopefully, Sega can eventually heal the world and give us a proper release of Sonic 3 in a future compilation.
Meanwhile, the ball's in Tim Miller's court to ensure some MJ gets in his upcoming movie. Hey, couldn't hurt.