Spotlight: Sonic X-Treme

It’s a series that ranks as one of the all-time greats, and rivaled the insane popularity of Mario and his stable of heroes at its height. Time and the 3D Revolution may not have been kind to Sonic the Hedgehog, but in the mid-90s, there was a brief, shining period when the new, 32-bit world lay before the franchise with incredible promise. This month Lost Levels will show you how that promise went horribly wrong, leaving a wake of disrupted careers, lost promise, and even physical illness. Join us for the strange tale that was Sonic X-treme for the Sega Saturn.

-By Jonathan Allen

THE PAST

Once upon a time, in an age not so strange to many of us, the fortunes of mighty empires revolved around blue anthropomorphic animals, Italian plumbers, and purple dragons. The era of the video game mascot is not so long gone, though it is easy to read the signs of its demise with just one glance at the industry: there was no Mario game when Nintendo’s latest console launched; Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot have homes on the Gamecube these days; the Xbox’s arguable mascot, Master Chief, has appeared on the PC; and Sonic The Hedgehog no longer has a console to call home. In 2003, these are not huge problems, but in 1996, after a decade ruled by Nintendo, who introduced the idea of a mascot with Mario, being without a mascot was like being without an identity. Quick, name the mascot of the 3DO. How about the CD-i? Drawing a blank? Understandably so, and this point was not lost on Sega, who had made the disastrous mistake of springing a surprise Saturn launch in 1995. They knew they were facing an uphill battle against the more powerful, upstart Playstation, and the Nintendo 64, which would launch during the 1996 holiday season. Sega eventually found a surrogate mascot for the Saturn in NiGHTS, but our focus is on the game that never was featuring the mascot that made the Genesis a hit: Sonic X-Treme.

Sonic X-Treme was announced in May, 1996, at E3, where a playable demo and video were available. The game was initially slated for a Christmas 1996, not coincidentally the same time as the N64 launch. The scene at E3 seemed straightforward enough, but what gamers didn’t know was that the game was being rushed to completion on a compressed development timeline, a fateful decision that would eventually doom the entire project.

It's nearly impossible to look back on the fate of Sonic X-Treme without also going over the ignominious fate of Sega of America (SoA), the mismanagement of said branch, and the fiasco that the Saturn, while an excellent piece of hardware, turned out to be.

THE PLAYERS

“Early on we felt we could develop a great Sonic game.” – Mike Wallis, Producer

To understand Sega’s ultimate decision on the fate of Sonic X-Treme, one must understand the political fiasco that dogged the game’s development to the end, and to get a true grasp on that fiasco, one must also understand the mess that Sega faced in the mid-90’s. At that time, Sega of Japan (SoJ, the parent company) and Sega of America (SoA, the main group in the U.S., which contained marketing, sales, PR, and the SoA product development group) were essentially two separate companies operating under the banner of one leader. They shared a fierce rivalry, one that would lead to great innovation, but would also ultimately doom the company as a producer of console hardware and very nearly as one of software.

At this time, SoA wanted to pursue its own projects, but had very little latitude, as SoJ always had the final say; there is no better example of this disconnect than the state of Sega's 32-bit console. While SoJ was building the Saturn in Japan, SoA’s hardware division was developing its own version of the next-generation console, a cartridge-based system designed to directly compete with the Nintendo 64. Along with this system, Sega Technical Institute (STI, an SoA division) was also pursuing ideas for the next major Sonic game.

This title would have originally appeared on the 32X, and SoA had already dedicated a decent amount of work to just such a game between 1994 and 95. Co-Designer Chris Senn says of the period: “(Executive Producer) Michael (Kosaka) was studying the previous Sonic games and creating the design document for the game…I seem to remember making some 2D side-view animations of Sonic at that early stage. My first real artwork consisted of two animations demonstrating the game concept. They were flat-shaded and looked like actual games in action. I even made ring-counters that incremented when Sonic picked them up. These animations were to be used to sell the concept to the executives.”

Senn confirmed this: “I started as an artist. At that time, Michael Kosaka was the Producer, Designer, and Team Leader. Chris Ebert was the programmer, and Jeremy Cantor was in charge of creating the first promotional artwork for the game.” This minimalist approach befitted a project still very much in preproduction. According to Senn, “There were a lot of technical tests in the beginning...so there lacked excitement and flashiness for some time. We had tests running on the 32X hardware - considering it was still in development and unstable - making it difficult to work with.”

They tried to sell the game to the executives, specifically “Tom Kalinske, Shinobu Toyoda and 2-3 other executives”, says Senn. “They voiced some concern about the simplistic graphics in light of games such as Donkey Kong Country that looked so much more advanced. But what we were attempting was the first 3D Sonic game…and management was deciding whether this game would be for the Genesis or the Saturn. So we explained that, though this was a less flashy demo, it showed the gameplay very clearly. Since we weren't sure about which target system and the resulting capabilities, we took a more conservative approach to the visuals. That and the fact that we were very short on time. Yuji Naka watched the demo animations and shook his head and said, ‘good luck,’ I remember...very clearly. If only we'd known how true his forecast was...”

Things changed when Kosaka left Sega in early 95, leaving Sonic 32X without a team lead. This could have been a stroke of good luck, had everything worked out as planned: the 32X was to be short-lived, a fact that didn’t seem to have escaped Sega’s notice by Fall of 1995, when a change was made in the direction of the next-generation Sonic project.

Wallis explains: “We (were) told to shift Sonic 32X development onto (the SoA-designed) system, despite not having hardware specs, development systems, or any documentation. Strange, but true! We shift(ed) all STI development team resources onto the X-treme team. It's fuzzy, but we probably had nine to ten artists & animators, four programmers, three designers, a sound guy, myself, and an executive producer.” Like all Sega projects of that time, this, too, would ultimately pass. Faced with the financial failure of both the 32X and Sega CD, SoJ knew that they could not possibly field both of these 32-bit systems and expect them to succeed. The decree was made, and SoA’s 32-bit system was killed, leaving the STI development team with only one console for the new game: the Saturn, which had a surprise launch shortly thereafter.

At this point, the development team was split into two groups: one, led by programmer Ofer Alon and designer Chris Senn, would handle programming work on the main engine, while the other, led by programmer Chris Coffin, would develop the engine for the boss levels.

By all accounts, this early development period was a happy time: the team, who had previously worked on Sonic 2, Sonic 3, and Sonic and Knuckles, was enthusiastic, and had ambitious ideas for the game. Wallis says today: “Early on we felt we could develop a great Sonic game.” His quotes from the time indicate the same sentiment. “I'm working with a great team and so I'm confident that we are really going to do Sonic justice.” Everyone was excited and confident about the game that was developing.

THE GAME

“A lot of thought was put into giving the enemies personality, attacks, and defenses that really changed how the player needed to navigate/act/react when near them. This branched out to some of the initial basic power-ups, as well, further intertwining more levels of basic gameplay.” – Chris Senn

Perhaps it is appropriate to take a look at the gameplay and story, at what the game would have been without the problems that ultimately killed it, before going down the dark path that followed those bright early days.

Sega kept a lot under its hat in order to have a good surprise for when the game launched; and, unfortunately, they weren’t forthcoming with that information when the project tanked. This has led to a memory gap in the years since the cancellation, to which many details have been lost, but there is still a wealth of information regarding the game itself that were outlined at the time in magazines and interviews, along with what the team members recall today.

The transition from 16-bit gaming to 32-bit gaming was a unique period, when many of the conceits that gamers take for granted in 3D games of today were only just taking shape; the sky seemed to be the limit. With this transition came a newfound focus on graphics. Of course, sharper, better graphics have always been a focus of gaming; just try to remember the first time you saw Super Mario Bros. running on an NES after years of the previous generation’s consoles, and you’ll remember this fact, but the 32-bit movement was especially keen on graphics as people began to see the potential of graphic art to create more and more realistic characters. In another misstep, Sega seemed to have misunderstood the nature of the new generation with the Saturn, and was facing stiff competition from the Playstation juggernaut, which could generate better, faster 3D graphics. The company hoped that Sonic X-Treme and NiGHTS could be the answer to this challenge.

Sonic X-Treme would have been a blending of old and new styles, combining a sprite-based Sonic and enemies with fully 3D levels. Some of the graphic designs, created by Chris Senn early in the game's development cycle, reflected the fusion that the team was aiming at. Senn created over 50 enemy designs during this period, which artist Ross Harris would later translate into 3D-based sprites. The entire pre-production to development process is a tangled skein, but all of the screenshots point to a game that would have at least been on par, graphically, with NiGHTS, if not better than that game.

Like any Sonic game, superior gameplay would have been the focus. The game would have been true 3D, unlike the highly successful NiGHTS, which featured pseudo-3D gameplay “on rails”. Wallis, at the time, said: “3D Sonic is free to move around in a completely open 3D environment. Previously, on the 2D games, things were restricted to a very linear path, whereas now he can run around in the open without any restrictions to his path. The 360-degree rotation allows for new aspects to the gameplay. It means that Sonic can now do things like run from a wall onto the ceiling and explore lots of new hidden areas.”

The standard moves would have returned, such as the spindash, but the team had other moves in mind, such as the SpinSlash, which would let Sonic perform a mid-air, 360 degree attack with his spikes. According to Wallis, SpinSlash was “where Sonic’s spikes would come out of him during the SpinDash in order to cause more damage or hit a wider area. At least in concept.” Unfortunately, Wallis says that this move would have been cut in the final version, “because it turned out too similar to the SpinDash to actually execute.”

Another new move was the ring toss, wherein Sonic could trade off some of his rings (essentially, his life) for the ability to throw rings and cause damage; this, too, would not have made the final cut. “I think the ring toss was just removed because it wasn’t working in the gameplay,” says Wallis. “Things that sound good on paper don’t always translate into a good game feature.”

Gameplay itself was set up to take full advantage of the 3D environment in a free-roaming fashion, much more like Mario 64 than NiGHTS. Sonic would’ve been able to, for example, run up a wall, triggering a “hot spot” that would rotate the stage and continue play on a horizontal plane. The development team wanted to maintain the rapid pace of play from previous versions while translating gameplay to the 3D arena, but also wanted to vary gameplay (this is the approach that, arguably, the Sonic Adventure games accomplished with very mixed results). According to an interview with Wallis during the game development, “There are three acts, and within each act we have it set so that it emphasizes a certain part of the game, so, one part might be very fast and another might incorporate more exploration or a lot more puzzle solving.” There were also to be bonus levels, but they were never elaborated upon.

Chris Senn explains the gameplay like this: “The basic gameplay was focusing on Sonic being in 3D for the first time... so running, spindashing, etc. in a 3D world. Collecting rings was still the bread and butter goal while getting through the levels. Everything else stemmed from this classic set up... just variety in the scenery, concepts, special objects per world, etc…the gameplay was further enhanced by the enemies that populated each world. A lot of thought was put into giving the enemies personality, attacks, and defenses that really changed how the player needed to navigate/act/react when near them. This branched out to some of the initial basic power-ups, as well, further intertwining more levels of basic gameplay.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the game was the way in which the team chose to handle the omnipresent problem of the camera in a third-person 3D game that plagues games to this day. Ofer Alon, one of the game's programmers, saw this as a chance to find a way to set Sonic X-treme apart from other games. This solution was called the "Reflex Lens", and operated in the same fashion as a fish-eye lens. Senn explained it like this: "...(it) provided some solutions that allowed the player to see in directions beyond the screen - around shallow corners above, below, and to the sides of Sonic that would normally be invisible to the player. Though the camera was fixed, there was some rubber-banding (trailing of Sonic) - and the Fish-Eye Lens really made play much easier." As there have been no playable demos of the game, there is no way to know how this would've played like in action, but it is an intriguing idea.

One of the most memorable aspects of any Sonic game is level design, or “zones”. According to Wallis, there were to be four zones: Jade Gully (the usual green hills-type zone), Crystal Frost (an ice zone), Red Sands (a desert zone), and Galaxy Fortress (a futuristic zone). Storyboards have surfaced of an area called the “Giza Speedway”, which most likely would’ve been a level in the Red Sands Zone. It is highly likely that there would have been four boss levels, each to correspond with the zones. Two are known today: Fang/Nack, and Metal Sonic; one can also reasonably assume that there would’ve been at least one, and possibly two, Robotnik boss levels, leaving maybe one still undiscovered.

This leaves the issue of story. Of course, story is usually not the primary focus of a Sonic game, but the individual elements of any Sonic story become an integral part of the series, mainly in the recurring characters. According to Chris Senn, co-lead developer on the project, the development team went through about six or seven completely different storylines over the course of three years, but it is easy to develop an overall picture of the story from interviews and articles created at the time the game was being developed.

The game began with Sonic doing a little surfing and spotting the Bluestreak distress signal in the sky. Using this signal were two new characters, an old man named Professor Gazebo Boobowski, and his daughter, Tiara B. (right) (it is to be noted that neither of these characters would be playable). These characters were “Keepers of the magical Rings of Order”, and Sonic had been summoned to their castle, “wherein they practice the ancient art of ring smithing”. This is where series mainstay Dr. Robotnik entered the picture. Robotnik was after the Rings of Order, and had, in fact, already made an attempt at stealing the Rings, losing them somehow; and so, Sonic was charged with finding the Rings before Robotnik, giving impetus to the gameplay. The plot feels right because it is exactly the sort of minimalist storytelling the series is known for, but if there are any variations on this plot, the details are lost in the haze of time.

According to Wallis, this story was created by “a combination of Michael Kosaka (original executive producer and designer), Chris Senn, and Rick Wheeler (Designer, world layout lead and conceptual gameplay design), with some input from Jason Kuo (Boss layout lead) as well.”

All of this information was either available during the period of development or shortly thereafter; the hype for the game was large, and Sega and its development team felt keen pressure to reveal details to the public. Senn complained that many times they felt pressured to show very incomplete versions to journalists. This, of course, serves as an indicator of the politics lurking in the background that would very soon tear the project apart.

THE END

“We could have eventually achieved something similar to what NiGHTS was like—that would probably be the best comparison.” – Mike Wallis, Producer

Any ideas of grand destiny for the project were soon to fade. While the team was happy as it was, insular and locked-in to the design process, outside influences were coming onboard that would alter the course of the project. It all began in March with a visit from the head of SoJ, Shoichiro Irimajiri, who wanted to see the progress on the game; what he would end up viewing were two incomplete builds of the game, missing out altogether on a third version of the game (the PC version, elaborated upon below) that may have been farther along than what he saw. When the main team showed him the main game engine, he “was outraged to see how much was left to be done” (in Senn’s words); the project looked to have a long way to go to reach completion. Before he left, however, he was shown the Chris Coffin build of the boss levels. Seeing this, his mood changed, and he made a fateful decision that would change the lives of the designers and lead to the game’s ultimate demise: he wanted the whole game made using that engine, rather than the main game engine. With that, he promptly left.

Unfortunately, that same day, Senn and Alon, working on the PC version, had gotten a few levels roughly half-completed and wanted to show him their progress. “We had hoped to show him and get the go-ahead to finish... but due to yet more politics, (he) was carted away before we had a chance to show him... he only saw what the ‘other’ group had made (based on a much older game engine with many new project recruits who were just learning the tools and what the game was all about).” The two would continue their project without any guidance.

In the face of this change, Wallis realized the team would have to double their efforts to have any chance of making a Christmas release. “I went to the executive producer and VP and told them the only way we had any semblance of hope of finishing this game for Christmas was to give me the reins, get rid of the political crap, isolate a core team, and give us the tools necessary to get the job done.” Management agreed, and gave him the power to put together a team of four artists, two programmers, and three designers. This team faced a high-pressure development crunch; they were practically locked-up in STI headquarters. Meals were brought in and the group essentially lived in the office, working 15-16 hour days in their mad rush to get Sonic X-Treme onto store shelves in time for Christmas.

In April of 1996, Bernie Stolar, who had jumped ship from Sony to become CEO of SoA, visited Wallis and asked what he needed to help further his chances of getting the game out on time. Wallis met with his team, and decided that the NiGHTS engine would be a huge help, “as we didn’t have time to develop all the tools necessary.” Eager to help, Stolar promised the tools, and delivered with editors and the engine code not long afterward. The problem was that the creator of NiGHTS and the man credited with the creation of Sonic the Hedgehog, Yuji Naka, was not consulted on this, and became very irate, and, according to Stolar, forbade the team from using the engine, even threatening to leave the company if it didn’t happen. The team was back to square one, with two weeks lost developing on an engine that they couldn’t use. Things didn’t look good; in fact, they were downright awful.

Wallis explains it like this: “we had artists doing art for levels that hadn't even been concepted out. We had programmers waiting and waiting and waiting until every minute detail had been concepted out, and we had designers doing whatever the hell they wanted. It was a mess, and because of the internal politics (the art director had trained his art team to hate the designers and programmers), it was even more difficult to get any work done.”

Said Senn: “Everyone else in the company (literally) was working on a different version of the game... based on a game engine Ofer had created before.”

Sometime in May the decision was made to streamline, cutting out at least 1/3rd of the team, leaving most of the development chores to Chris Senn. Taking the job very seriously, and determined to get the game out on time, he moved a cot into his office and worked alternating 16 to 18-hour shifts. He toiled nonstop like this from June through August implementing the changes necessary to plug the game into the "boss" engine.

“I spent one month creating the layout, textures and a few simple enemies for four worlds. Game time was about five to eight minutes per world - and I'd say they were 80% fully textured - meaning that all of the general textures that set the mood, lighting, color schemes, etc. were in place with some details - but the last 20% would have required a great deal of detailed polish (to really make it look finished). The worlds were passable, but definitely not what I would have submitted as ‘finished.’ I did what I could in the time that was available.”

Disaster struck in August when Senn’s body, worn out from the nonstop work, couldn't take it anymore.

“I took on far more than was healthy... and after 2 years I became extremely ill... a nurse told me he thought I had 6 months to live, actually. I lost 25 pounds, was sick all the time, had cramps... and still went in to work... all due to too much stress,” says Senn.

This was the death knell for Sonic X-Treme. With Chris gone, Wallis realized the project was over. "I inform(ed) management that we (could not) continue and (would not) make Christmas." Management was disappointed, but had a backup plan.

Game Fan Online reported the news as such in its August 23rd update: Sonic X-Treme, the first Sonic game slated for the 32-bit Saturn, has been delayed until next year for unknown reasons. Sonic Blast (the backup plan) was now coming out for the Saturn, and would have many added features not found in the Genesis version, including “a polygonal Sonic, two special bonus rounds, special climate effects (as in NiGHTS), a 16 million color palette, CD quality (redbook) music and sound effects, and a CG opening movie. Sonic Blast for the Saturn will be out on November 21.”

This news dovetailed with a company decision to focus on NiGHTS as that Fall’s game to have, with an announced $8.5 million-dollar advertising budget. Sega publicly announced that Sonic X-Treme had been delayed indefinitely, but the plug had well and truly been pulled. The project was dead in the water.

THE QUESTIONS

“There’s a whole number of reasons why the Saturn failed.” – Mike Wallis, Producer

The decision to boost NiGHTS may have been a good one, but the clock was ticking. Christmas of 1996 was a successful period for the Saturn, with the large campaign boost and price cuts to compete with the Playstation, but it was, essentially, the end of the road for the system. In January 1997, looking to boost itself, Sega and Bandai announced a possible, highly-controversial, merger. The move was widely criticized, and fell apart in the 11th hour when the two companies clashed. In February, signs began to emerge that SoA was struggling, when it laid off 65 staff members; following on that were even more layoffs in March. Also in March, Sega Enterprises decided to dissolve its U.S. holding company, Sega Holdings U.S.A. Inc, to solve losses at its U.S. subsidiaries. In April, Sonic Jam and what would become Sonic R were announced, but neither were true 3D Sonic games, or even true Sonic games; Jam was a compilation, and R, while popular, was a racing game. During this period, the Saturn showed a marked drop-off in software and hardware sales. In June, the price dropped again to $149, and Bernie Stolar announced that “the future is not Saturn.” By November, SoA was struggling badly, and what would become the system’s final batch of American games were announced and/or nearing completion. The fate of the Saturn was sealed; Sega would look to the Dreamcast for its future.

So the biggest question is, would a successful Sonic X-Treme have saved the Saturn? Wallis thinks probably not. “It could have helped to prolong Saturn’s lifecycle, but the overall problems with the Saturn stemmed far beyond any lack of Sonic game on the platform. Third party software wasn’t coming in fast enough and when it was, (usually) didn’t look as good as the PSX version. The machine was difficult to program for, etc. There’s a whole number of reasons why the Saturn failed.” Analysis seems to bear this decision out. While the mascot game still seemed to be alive and well, the more important factors were beginning to come to bear in the market, such as gameplay and story. The innovations the game presented may have had a lasting impact on the future of 3D platformers, but the world will never know. It's just another tantalizing aspect of an elusive game.


Downloads

View producer Mike Wallis' Sonic X-Treme timeline here.


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