5/27/2012

Sonic Xtreme

Oh, I didn't see you come in there. Haha.

Welcome, once again, the Hedgehogs Never Tell,  a series where I ramble on and on about Sonic games, and you feign interest. Now, picking up more or less exactly where we had left off in the last installment, would bring us to 1994. Ah, 1994, the year The Scream was stolen in Germany, and everyone wore flannel shirts,  and although Bill Clinton was the president, Sonic the Hedgehog was king, as far as kids, and marketing analysts where concerned.

In addition to being the most relevant videogame series/character of the time, he also appeared in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, and boasted a soundtrack written by Michael Jackson himself. But this wasn't enough for Sonic, who drunk with fame, and surrounded by yes-men, co-launched not one, but two animated television series in September of '93. Why did they need to make two? I don't know. One was a syndicated weekday cartoon, that channeled Tex Avery's coke-fueled slapstick humor, and the other was exclusively broadcast on ABC, trying to paint the series as a much darker affair, despite still being about furries with shiny red kicks.


"Well, that's all fine and well", you must be thinking "But what has this to do with video-games?"
And I would respond with "Shut up. I'm getting there"

He'll never share his stories about Mars with us.

Compiled in November of 1993, Sonic-16 was a demo created at STI. It was based off of the Saturday morning cartoon series, as oppossed to Sonic proper. This led to some issues in getting it green-lit; the demo they had created reflected a stealth game, not a Sonic title. It was slow, and involved a lot of hiding, things that don't mesh well with the series signature gameplay. The title evolved over the next few months.

In the May of 1994, mere months before the release of Sonic & Knuckles, Sega Technical Institute's lead-designer, Michael Kosaka, was slated to present the idea the team had been thinking about since the previous year. He wanted STI to develop their new Sonic game, only this time, instead of basing it wholesale on the show, it would combine elements of the animated series' and the video-games' respective worlds. Instead of sneaking around an ominous city, Sonic would be running around abstract geometry, and jumping on stuff, while his less athletic friends from the animated series would be limited to supporting roles, interacting with Sonic through comm-radio calls.

Leonardo Da Vinci was also involved in development.

Chris Senn and his team finished their CGI proof-of-concept for Sonic Mars on May 17, 1994. The video featured Sonic in full 3D, slowly bumbling around a bland series of catwalks. Yuji Naka  wasn't very impressed, but Sega of America had a good feeling about having a full 3D game. It was planned to be released on the 32X, a useless hunk of plastic that plugged into the top of your Sega Genesis, so you could play one of like, six games released.

For your viewing pleasure, here are two video mock-ups created by STI:


At first Sonic Mars, was slated to become lucky number seven, but, due to a number of occurrences, including, Mike Kosaka leaving STI, and the 32X's commercial failure resulted in this new Sonic's development to be carried over to the brand-new Sega Saturn, under the care of Chris Senn...


Sonic Xtreme (Sega Saturn)
Developed by: Sega Technical Institute
Cancelled
By the time the game had begun development on the Saturn, the new designer, Chris Senn, had done any and all traces of the cartoon. Sonic Xtreme was going to be pure Sonic, in full 3D, and it would set the bar for 3D platformers forever more. Xtreme was to have two distinctly different engines; the stages would use the primary engine, created by Senn and a fellow by the name of Olaf Alon, which was actually similar in many ways to the Saturn launch title, BUG, and a fully 3D "Boss Engine", featuring a camera that was always fixated on the boss.

The stage-engine rendered every character and item with tacky 3D sprites, a la Donkey Kong. The stages themselves were a series of narrow, catwalk like platforms, hanigng over an abyss and supposedly didn't feature a center of gravity, allowing Sonic to leisurely walk on walls, and other such nonesense. This allowed for additional terrain, and was a good use of  limited space. The whole thing was also viewed through a fish-eye lens, which allowed the player to see more of the stage at a time, as well as immerse themselves in Sonic's world vomit.

The 3D engine was far more impressive, bearing quite a similarity, and supposedly based on the framework of Nights. What little is known about the regular engine, even less is known about the boss engine. We do know that it was in full 3D, and was a much better display of the Saturn's capabilities. Christina Coffin, the leader of the boss engine team, had in fact begun development on it during the conceptual period for Sonic Mars, making the boss engine not only a holdover from the 32X days, one of the first elements of Xtreme to actually receive proper development.

Chris Senn had begun development on a Mac, an eventually ported his work to a PC, an easy transition, and a reasonable compromise between a Mac and a Saturn. Senn and Olof's goal was to continue development for PC, and to eventually port it to a Saturn DevKit. Unfortunately, when running on a proper Saturn, the game was not nearly as reliable, running on what was essentially two year old technology, as oppossed to their state-of-the-art computers. Olaf Alon, in the meantime, was demoted, and his share of work was outsourced.

A tasteful allegory for this game's development. Don't worry, it gets much worse. But you already knew that.

Corporate politics started to play into matters, with the president of Sega, Hayao Nakayama visiting, expecting to see pure gold, instead saw a trashy half-assed game created by a third party company, POV.  Senn, the leader of development, had not authorized that particular presentation, and in fact had one of much greater quality, one that might have done the game justice, and allowed them to stay the course. But Nakayama was less than unimpressed, and demanded that the game essentially get started from scratch, utilizing Coffin's Boss Engine for all gameplay. By the time Ofer Alon's arrived, the Execs were already gone. He never got the opportunity to show them this:



Xtreme's in-office name was now Project Condor. Coffin worked non-stop to make a full-game in less than nine months. In August, she came down with stress-induced pneumonia, and was advised by doctors to take an extended leave of absence. Being a rational human-being, Coffin resided from her duties, resulting in STI requesting a later deadline. Xtreme would not be able to compete with Super Mario 64 that Christmas. The game was officially postponed, but office rumors spread that the game was going to get canned.

This was apparently better.

And it did. The gap left in their Holiday line-up was replaced with an enhanced port of Sonic 3D Blast, and the remainder of Xtreme's budget was reallocated to advertise Nights. Down, but not out, Senn, having a perfectly functional game on his hands, that operated perfectly on PC, corresponded with Sega's PC division, in hopes of letting Xtreme live on in some form. They wouldn't bite, as they were too busy replacing the music in  Sonic & Knuckles.

Look it's Sonic Xtreme! Not really.
Making a smart PR move, Sega scraped together the remnants of Xtreme, and created Sonic World, to act as the hub world for Sonic Jam, the first of many, many, many, many Sonic anthologies. Both the World component, as well as Jam as a whole were well received, and Sega was able to play-off the cancellation real cool. Because they began Sonic Adventure's development almost immediately.

Chris Senn loved this game, and he has been very close to the community in recent years, visiting forums, and candidly discussing his experience trying to make the game happen. He was even kind enough to leak a vast amount of development resources; textures, graphics, data, and in some cases, even complete stages, available through a viewer that compiled the stages in real-time, though there was no gameplay engine. Chris had even attempted, with the help of fans online, to recreate the game, and finally finish what he had started during the nineties, but he had to cancel it.

The development was a painful folly, and one that would probably etch itself into the memories of it's developers as the worst experience of their careers, but what about the fruits of their efforts? I've barely touched on gameplay earlier, so let's delve deeper:

GAMEPLAY

Sonic Xtreme's chief goal (aside from getting released) was to emphasize non-linear exploration, and although this has been a cornerstone of Sonic in every game since the very beginning, the addition of true 3D would allow for unprecedented freedom. Stages almost tube like, allowing Sonic to easily navigate walls and ceilings, with each offering more level terrain to navigate. My understanding is that the different "dimensions" (walls, ceiling, etc) would act as separate, inter-winding paths, similar yet different to the multiple paths of previous games.

Sonic is a closet Lionel Richie fan. Second time I've made that joke, I believe.

The game was slated to offer a host of playable characters, including Sonic stalwarts, Tails and Knuckles, as well as new character Tiara, each boasting a unique playstyle, a concept that would later find use in Adventure. As development carried on, Senn's idea for a roster was put on the backburner, so as to emphasize the basics first, adding additional characters later, if time would permit.

Sonic would also be capable of new attacks, some of which made into later installments, others were disregarded. He would be able to perform a jump-cancelling Power Ball" attack, that drops him onto enemies below, as well as some kind of Bounceing manuever to allow him to reach higher areas. These ideas were combined into one move in Sonic Adventure 2. Stranger techniques were planned though, including the abiility to throw rings (wut) and even manifest collected rings in the form of a shield, which could then use even more rings to perform a screen-clearing supermove.

Xtereme would feature at least five zones, each containing three acts. Jade Gully, Crystal Frost, Red Sands, and Death Egg, were all welll-along, and were featured in various promotional media, as well as internal presentations. Yeah, we know how that turned out. The former three were fully playable, and Death Egg had a sigificantly developed map, although it is unknown if it was playable. Senn had to compile mock-ups in a viewer to show us what it would look like.

Guess which one isn't real.

In addition to these core stages, there were dozens of small test levels created by Senn and Alon to test the game out.  Some of the tests are what you'd expect, just some checkered patterns, and a few platforms to test specific gimmicks/mechanics, but others were quite robust; one of them, the green cave I've shown in a few of the screens farther above, was apparantly so intricate that Senn and Alon were considering expanding it into a full-fledged stage. There were also an Egyptian-themed test stage, and something that looks like a diner crossed with a sound-stage. These were likely going to be either be the basis for future stages, or turned into stages in their own right, if development had continued.


Chris Senn also designed over 50 new enemies for Sonic to kill. Some are permutations of classic Sonic enemies, others are completley new shit. Some enemies were completed, and implemented in the proto, some made it to the spriting phase, but fell short of making it into the game, and others yet only exist as rough concept art. You can view Retro's exhaustive gallery here

Oh, hello there.
 Speaking of enemies, bosses were an important feature of Xtreme, which would bring back old characters from previous installments, such as Metal Sonic from CD, and Fang the Sniper, from idk, Game Gear, or some shit. Fang, a purple-weasel dressed like a cowboy, had an in-game model, and a basic arena, but he can only be observed in a few grainy promotional screenshots, which seem to show him just standing there, only occasionally acknowledging Sonic. It's my guess that he wasn't worked on much further. Metal Sonic, on the other hand was already complete. The only improvement necessary would be to improve his AI as development continued. Metal follows a basic rushdown pattern, and is apparently very aggressive. There were also robotic Insect, and strangely enough, Gorilla bosses, who never made it past conceptual stages.


The game reemerged in the September of 2005; a (presumably ex) Sega employee offered a disk containing the Senn/Alon engine, but demanding in excess of one-grand. The community pooled-together to afford this gaming relic, and a fellow who calls himself "Ratman221" stepped forward, and promised he'd take care of everything on the community's behalf. And he didn't, because as it turns out he was just putting on a ruse, so that his friend, a collector of rare prototypes could keep it in his personal collection. He promised he would document the game extensively, but that was in 2006. As of writing, it is six years later, and all he's provided were grainy screenshots, and some sparse, gameplay footage; things that we already had access to. This fellow will likely keep Xtreme to himself for a long time, unfortunately. So, to review, we don't have the Senn/Alon engine, or the POV rework of said engine, but somehow, we got Project Condor.

And yes, that little soap opera I mentioned did happen. WIth Ratman. You can't make this shit up.

Christina Coffin's Boss Engine - Project Condor:


There isn't much else left to say about Sonic Xtreme. Would it have been possible for this game to have saved the Sega Saturn? Unlikely, as by this point, Saturn was already two-years old, but then again it's been recently proven that late-adopters can indeed save something, long after crunch time. It will remain an unknown for the rest of time. It was successful in Japan though, and probably Brazil.


You too can play Sonic Xtreme Project Condor. You'll also need an emulator, I'd reccomend SSF.

Now, once you realize you can't figure out how to configure the emulator, just opt to read about it on Sonic Retro
Don't worry, it's just the same information I've regurgitated here.

Then, you should check out Chris Senn's Sonic Xtreme Compendium,   
which collects all of his work and ideas about where  
Xtreme went, and where it should have gone.

All videos are property of their respective owners.
All second hand info courtesy of Sonic Retro


1 comment:

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