This Christmas, I was gifted a copy of Unseen64’s Video Games You Will Never Play, an encyclopaedia filled with stories of cancelled and unreleased video games. While some of the stories in the book are well-known, like the sad fate of Fallout: Van Buren and the eventual redemption of Starfox 2, there’s plenty of others in the book that are just as intriguing, but much lesser known. Let me tell you about a few of my favourites.
Video Games You Will Never Play is available via Amazon and Book Depository, and is well worth a look if you’ve even a passing interest in the history of video games. For the rest of you, sit tight, and let me spin you a yarn about some sadly ill-fated games.
Cutesy platformers were all the rage in the 90s, with hits like Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot making bank on the PlayStation. Conker’s Quest was an attempt by Rare to capitalise on the animal mascot trend. At E3 1997, it shared the stage with fellow Rare platformer Banjo Kazooie in a battle of mascots.
Unfortunately, this meant that Rare’s two titles were aggressively compared (to each other, as well as to the OG cutesy platformer Super Mario 64), and while both games were similar, many reviewers liked Banjo better. The similarity, and the crowding of the market, forced a rethink of Conker’s Quest, and the game quietly disappeared from Rare’s marketing in the late 90s.
It was, of course, replaced by Conker’s Bad Fur Day, the rude, crude, adults-only platformer that we know and love today, but it’s impressive how far into development Conker’s Quest got. As you can see in the video above, huge chunks of footage and fully completed levels are available for all to see. The original game is a far, far cry from Bad Fur Day‘s final form, and with its generic adventure game styling, it’s not hard to see why a sharp pivot was in order.
Before CD Projekt Red developed 2007’s The Witcher and spawned a highly-lauded video games franchise, little-known Polish developer Metropolis Software acquired the rights to Andrzej Sapkowski’s epic fantasy novels.
Starring Geralt in a very fetching purple number, the game was designed to be a linear action adventure game with RPG elements, a branching choice system and powers to upgrade, according to developer Adrian Chmielarz. (Chmielarz appears to be the first to coin the English translation of the term “Witcher” taken from the Polish “Wiedzmin”.)
Issues of profitability, publisher doubt from TopWare and a vast array of technical hurdles meant that development eventually ground to a halt. Metropolis was ambitious, but with a team of no more than 15, this proved to be their undoing. The Witcher was to be the company’s first 3D game, and it was an enormous undertaking. While early screenshots seemed promising, unfortunately, the game soon collapsed under its own weight.
While the company would eventually return to the project and produce a one-chapter playable prototype, different developments soon overtook it and the demo began to gather dust. In 2002, CD Projekt Red swooped in to claim the rights to the franchise, and we know what happened next.
To add insult to injury, when Chmielarz rediscovered the game’s code on an old disc years later, he found that it had long since deteriorated, meaning the only evidence of the game ever having existed is now a handful of screenshots and some old memories.
Mario Takes America
The Philips CD-i really is the console that keeps on giving. Mario Takes America was a game designed to showcase America’s history through the bright, cartoony lens of the Mario series. Mario himself would lead players on a modern day tour of the U.S. with planned locations such as a car factory in Detroit, the New York skyline and Fort Knox.
Live action footage was shot by developers Cigames, with the plan to superimpose Mario over the top of this footage. Demos reportedly unimpressed Philips so much that they cut funding halfway through development, leaving this dream sadly unreleased.
Beyond Philips’ disappointment with the project, the idea itself just doesn’t seem all that grand. The Philips CD-i was a poorly received console, and it sold poorly, too. Not to mention the fact that America’s history is hardly a tale for kids, and having a character like Mario explain it seems oddly crass. Learning about this game was fascinating, if only because it solidifies why Nintendo’s partnership for the CD-i was a no-good, very bad idea that continues to haunt them.
Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll
Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll was an ambitious and irreverent title in development at Sensible Software, a British developer largely known for its sports games released in the late 80s and 90s. SDRR was a labour of love for the developers, and thanks to a deal with Warner Bros. video games division, it looked like it would finally come to fruition.
SDRR would have followed aspiring rock star Nigel Staniforth Smythe on his journey through the British punk/rock scene of the 80s, and as the title implies — would have featured a whole lot of sex and drug use. But this was only part of the reason why SDRR eventually bit the dust.
The mid-90s was a time of great change for video games developers as CGI became popular and development formats shifted. A need to learn new skills and adapt programming knowledge to the PC format meant that development on SDRR became significantly delayed. In the meantime, Warner International Entertainment (which had provided Sensible Software with a multi-million dollar development deal) was purchased by GT Interactive, who didn’t like the direction or content of the racy, drug-fuelled adventure.
What followed was a painful end, as development shuttered and SDRR was put on the backburner. Eventually, the game was ‘completed’ in the form of a concept album, but the original vision for the game remains lost.
I love kart racers. Mario Kart, Crash Team Racing and Diddy Kong Racing were among my favourites growing up. That’s why it hurts a little bit to hear that Banjo Kazoomie, a kart racer based on Banjo Kazooie, was cancelled in 2004.
While little ever became of the concept, the game was planned to feature highly customisable, over-the-top vehicles and a cast filled with all the loveable characters from the franchise. Apparently, the game was only worked on for about two weeks before staff were recalled to work on Kameo for the Xbox.
The idea of a Banjo Kazooie kart racer was given a second life in the form of Banjo Karting, a game in development for the Xbox 360. This time, the development team was able to produce a fully playable track and vehicle before it, too, was canned, as development needs shifted to the Kinect. Maybe one day, we’ll see a Banjo racer come to fruition, but until then, we can only look back at the past and sigh.
Dinosaur Planet was an original IP developed by Rare for the Nintendo 64, and featured a fox protagonist named Sabre. Well, according to Shigeru Miyamoto, the fox bore a striking resemblance to Fox of Star Fox fame — so the entire game was rewritten to be a Star Fox game. This is one of the wildest tales in cancelled games history, in my books.
Star Fox Adventures became the new version of Dinosaur Planet, and the original game was recast with characters from the Star Fox world. When it was released, fans complained that it didn’t feel like a Star Fox adventure, and their complaints were very justified — it wasn’t ever meant to be Star Fox in the first place.
Dinosaur Planet appears to have been in development for at least a year before the decision was made to re-skin the title as a Star Fox vehicle, so ample footage exists of the nearly-completed product. What could’ve been a promising new IP was shunted in favour of a tried-and-true franchise, and while Star Fox Adventures turned out to be an okay game, Dinosaur Planet had some great potential that will, unfortunately, never be realised.
You can find out more about the Unseen64 collective, and the vast history of cancelled video games, at the Unseen64 website.