The games industry is pre-eminently a business. Behind slogans of ‘for the players’ and ‘Wii U’ linger meticulously moulded business models. Being a business, of course, is about making money. The head honchos of Sony, Microsoft and even Nintendo have their sights set firmly upon the maximum profit target. Sometimes this is a good thing; gamers get the games they want, meaning companies get the money they want. But, oftentimes, this is a bad thing. Studio shut-downs and mass layoffs are sadly all too common in this industry. The ruthless wheels of business will swerve for no unprofitable man, woman or beloved game mascot.
Orchestrating storms of momentous hype is the name of the game. All year round, gamers are hounded with demos, trailers and teasers; all manically designed to strike right at the brain’s saliva-inducing epicentre. Even those hardened from years of gaming disappointment sometimes can’t help but entertain daydreams of wrapping their twitching claws around the next big game. But not all creations reach the final hurdle. Publishers are timid folk. Sometimes the smallest warning sign that a game will prove to be more trouble than it’s worth is enough to send them scuttling back to the recycling bin. The merciless axe of business is sent hurtling down said game’s neck and our hearts. In memoriam of all the great games that could have been, Power Up Gaming presents a belated eulogy for the top five games we wish had lived to see better days.
Honorable mention: Sonic X-treme (1996)
Following the phenomenal success of the Sonic The Hedgehog series on the Sega Mega Drive, Sonic X-treme was originally conceived as a direct sequel in the same vein as the initial four titles in the franchise. Originally planned for release on the Genesis, development was soon shifted to the ill-fated 32X add-on when it became clear the console was nearing the end of its days. At this stage, the game was set to feature characters from the Saturday morning cartoon version of Sonic, including Sally Acorn. Designs rapidly evolved from a traditional 2D side-scroller, to isometric and 2.5D platformers; eventually, the team decided on a 3D environment for Sonic.
With bare-bones plans in place, it soon became apparent that Sonic X-treme was far too ambitious a project for the 32X, and development was shifted yet again; this time to Sega’s upcoming Saturn console. Beginning in late 1995, two separate in-house Sega Technical Institute teams began development work on the game. A team led by designer Chris Senn and programmer Ofer Alon were tasked with developing the game’s main engine, while another led by programmer Chris Coffin were to work exclusively on a 3D arena-style boss engine.
Senn and Alon’s engine was a little different: every level was designed in a “tube-like” fashion, and Sonic would be able to walk onto walls; in the process changing the direction of gravity and rotating the level itself. It also featured a unique fish-eye camera lens so that players could see more of their surroundings.
However, the project faced a fatal setback, when, during a briefing in March 1996, Sega of Japan executives panned Senn and Alon’s efforts and instead requested that the whole game be reworked into the same style as Coffin’s boss engine. As a result of time constraints as well as internal Sega politics (Yuji Naka vetoed a request to use the Nights Into Dreams… engine as a starting point), it soon became clear X-treme would not be released in time for the 1996 holiday season, and Sega instead decided to rush through a port of isometric Genesis title Sonic 3D Blast (Flickies’ Island in these shores) for the Saturn instead; X-treme was subsequently shelved, and a whole lot of potential went to waste.
Eight Days (2007)
Before Uncharted, before Call of Duty, before Gears of War became what they are today, there was Eight Days. Eight Days dropped jaws in 2005. Sony’s new IP boasted movie-level production values before interactive set pieces were even a thing. The handful of demos shown featured its two protagonists in gritty shootouts usually ending in a bang. Players could look forward to fleeing from fiery explosions and hanging by the skin of their teeth from airborne wreckage, all the while blasting away at bad guys. All of this sounds run of the mill now – but in 2005 this was game-changing (literally). Cover shooters were rare – let alone one backed up by tight mechanics. Everything, right down to player animation, was breathtakingly lifelike.
Nine years later, Eight Days doesn’t seem all that impressive. But the game would have made all the difference if it had come out in early 2007. Eight Days looked set to truly harvest the power of the next-gen when few games were. It could well have been the system-seller that Sony execs spent their nights yearning for. The title could have even been the answer to Microsoft’s Gears of War, which ensured the 360 embarrassingly outperformed the PS3 for years.
Alas, things went dark all throughout 2007. The weight of expectancy tortured fans all the way up until 2008 when Sony confirmed the worst. Sony President Shuhei Yoshida partly pegged Eight Day’s cancellation to its lack of online functions. Unconvincing rumblings aside, little is still known about what exactly cut short a game that could still have been credited today as one of the generation’s most ground-breaking titles.
Not to be deterred, many Sony fans still are still holding out for Eight Days. They note that, technically, the game was only put on ‘indefinite hold’. This time, however, they dream of Eight Day’s being the game to set a new graphical benchmark on the PS4.
Star Wars 1313 (2013)
Having only been cancelled – fittingly – in 2013, many gamers still view Star Wars 1313 as a fresh wound. Star Wars is one of the most popular and enduring franchises of all time. Accordingly, hundreds of developers have taken a crack at realising the universe in interactive form. Much like the movies themselves, these attempts have been very hit or miss. They have ranged from the good (Star Wars Lego), to the average (Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith), to the atrocious (Star Wars: Kinect). As George Lucas has himself proven of late: cracking the Star Wars code is tough.
Yet companies like Pandemic – creators of Star Wars: Battlefront – have proven it can be done. Pandemic encapsulated all the epic grandeur of the franchise in endlessly re-playable space battles. But Pandemic’s entries into the series are few and far between – leaving legions of avid Star Wars fans with nothing but a whet palate. Star Wars: The Forced Unleashed’s developers Lucas Arts tried to feed this lust, but to no avail. All its expensive game engines and fancy mechanics were negated by dull, lacklustre gameplay. Five years later, Lucas Arts once again attempted to take up the space-opera mantle.
1313’s E3 demo had it all: snappy dialogue, insane production values, tenacious gameplay and – most importantly – authenticity. As further details regarding 1313 slithered out in the following months, the deal only got sweeter. The featured protagonist, it turned out, was only a placeholder. The game would actually follow a young Boba Fett as he set out to prove his bounty hunting metal. In essence, the game would take all the narrative power and mechanical fluidity of the Uncharted franchise, and proceed to deep fry it in the space-age goodness of Star Wars. Fanatic cries of ‘they’ve finally done it!’ were ejected en-masse into the stratosphere. 1313 was everything Star Wars fans had been dreaming of since watching The Empire Strikes Back.
Regardless, 2013 coincided with a major change for the franchise. Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars brand from George Lucas marked the dissolution of Lucas Arts. Lacking a developer, 1313 became shelved the same year it was announced. In return for six new Star Wars movies, fans had to forfeit the most promising Star Wars game in a generation. Disney’s failure to renew the 1313 copyright at the year’s end showed an even more foreboding level of disinterestedness. Star Wars 1313’s release is only looking more unlikely, meaning fans are going to have to look elsewhere for the quintessential Star Wars game.
Minecraft was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon by the time its full build launched in 2011. Creator Markus Pearson – or Notch, as he is fondly known by fans – crafted something truly unique among a tumult of generic shooters. Adults and children alike were captivated by the game’s simple philosophy: mine; build. In practice, however, Minecraft offered anything but. Players willing enough to delve into Minecraft’s cornucopia of depth would find one of the most satisfying experiences ever in gaming. Today Minecraft’s adorably pixelated mascots stand proudly amongst Woody, Buzz and Pikachu in many-a-child’s toy box. Minecraft ‘Let’s Play’s even make up for a significant portion of all YouTube views every year.
Needless to say, when Notch announced his latest project 0x10c, expectations were high. 0x10c made Minecraft look modest in scope. Players would be able to mine and craft to their heart’s content all over again, this time fuelled by the wonder of interplanetary exploration. Extensive multiplayer options, virtual computer systems and an in-game economy punctuated a seemingly endless list of features. 0x10c’s core concept came across as a kid friendly version of Eve Online.
0x10c looked set to harness Minecraft’s gargantuan innovatory zeal and translate it into the endless vacuum of space. The mind that delivered one of the most universally revered games in recent memory – in his spare time, no less – was now afforded an almost bottom-less budget. The question on every Minecraft fan’s lips was: ‘What could possibly go wrong?’
Cue the broken record. After a handful of concepts and demos had permeated social spaces Notch threw in the towel. Little is known of how 0x10c found its way to the shelf. Rumblings of ‘creative roadblocks’ prefaced its eventual dismissal. And just like that our every fantasy of constructing a working Death Star went up in smoke.
Fortunately, some fans have managed to channel their inevitable disappointment into creativity. Modders have been hard at work attempting to recreate their own little slice of 0x10c for all to enjoy. Modestly, 0x10c lives on for Minecraft owners.
Bioshock Vita (2011)
Bioshock Vita was barely a twinkle in Ken Levine’s eye before indecisiveness saw it dissolve into nothingness. The announcement of Bioshock Vita at Sony’s E3 press conference was accompanied by nothing more than a logo in 2011. The revelation occupied a matter of seconds in a loaded conference – yet this did not stop Sony fans from lapping it up. The original Bioshock was at this point five years old. It is testament to the title’s enduring influence upon the gaming medium that it was able to stay so relevant for so long. Bioshock revolutionized games; Bioshock Vita could easily revolutionize portable games.
Yet Sony failed to ever follow up on their 2011 announcement. As years passed, the name ‘Bioshock Vita’ slowly sneaked into obscurity. Only the most reverent of Bioshock fans kept up hope for an eventual follow-up. It was not until earlier this year that Ken Levine finally addressed the matter. Irrational Games’ co-founder revealed that the idea was buried under bickering between Sony and 2K Games (Irrational’s publisher) over a final deal.
Levine then proceeded to prod at expectant fans’ newly acquired wound. He elaborated that the game would have materialized as ‘a Final Fantasy Tactics thing set in pre-fall rapture.’ The Final Fantasy tactics games were some of the most beloved and critically acclaimed titles ever to grace the PSP. Turn-based gameplay sat perfectly with the pick-up-and-play nature of the handheld. Even worse was that fans had been begging Irrational to render gaming’s definitive dystopia in its pre-fall glory for years. Bioshock Vita had all the ingredients to be exceptional. The game had the potential to simultaneously satisfy two separate fan bases. If the Vita were ever to have had a system seller this would have been it. Fumbling executives had let what could have been a must-own game slip through their fingers.
If recent press conferences are anything to go by, it looks like Sony is slowly giving up on its feature-stuffed handheld. There was not a single mention of the device at this year’s Gamescom. Sony’s apparent disinterestedness with the console does not bode well for buyers. The loss of Bioshock Vita is yet another missed opportunity. At this point, it could even prove to be another nail in the coffin.
The Last Guardian (2011)
By 2005, Team Ico was being celebrated as one of the most important developers in the industry. Their previous games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, had both found new ways to spice up clichéd mechanics. Gamers were enticed by awe-inspiring art direction and stayed for gripping gameplay. After two stand-out genre bending, medium-pushing games it seemed Team Ico could do little wrong.
Today Team Ico’s third project The Last Guardian is looked to as the quintessence of development hell. The game has been in development for nearly a decade. The only tangible evidence fans have to assure that The Last Guardian isn’t just one big in-joke is a single cryptic E3 trailer. The 2007 debut featured all the trademark flair one might expect from a Team Ico project. A giant griffin was all that was needed to assure fans they were set to deliver the next must have Playstation exclusive. Yet as year after year went by Sony fans were left consistently wanting for so much as a lick of new footage. The vow of silence slowly transitioned from annoying to bizarre. All gamers have had to go on of late is the occasional echo from Team Ico’s camp that their fires are indeed still lit. Sony showed their hand far too early and faced the consequences when everything didn’t go as planned. This time they’re gingerly waiting for some wings before any grand reveal.
The one thing games with unexpectedly long development cycles can be relied on to be is bad. Titles like Duke Nukem: Forever, Too Human and Ride to Hell: Retribution have all proven that excessive delays do not make better games. The Last Guardian is now set perfectly for a fall. Sony and Team Ico have both pumped so much money in to the very idea of The Last Guardian that it simply has to come out. Whatever stumbling block Team Ico ran into all those years ago was obviously insurmountable. What is clear is that The Last Guardian necessitated a major re-working for there to ever be a hope of it being publishable. This means that there only conceivably exist two options for The Last Guardian: being diluted or outdated. If Team Ico choose to inject nearly a decade’s worth of gaming advancement in to their game then we might struggle to even compare the finished product to its original trailer. Or, if they do indeed stick to their guns, then we could well be facing a game trapped in a time capsule, sporting tried mechanics and muddy visuals (think Duke Nukem: Forever). Put simply, it’s hard to see a scenario where The Last Guardian will deliver.
While The Last Guardian is atypical on this list in that it’s still technically in development, it missed its moment all the same. Team Ico are a talented team mired by over-ambition. The years they have spent attempting to polish a turd has left them with nothing but a bad reputation. At this point it looks like they’d have been all the better for having ripped the griffin-sized band-aid off years ago. It’s hard not to think that – if the game had even come out as late as 2011 in poor form – they could already be back to releasing exceptional games today.
Sonic X-treme entry contributed by Chris Mawson.