While specialist museums and independent foundations are currently working to salvage significant works, the depth of gaming history means video game preservation is a near-impossible task. There’s millions of games to save, and millions more prototypes, concepts and demos that wound up on the cutting floor. Many of those important pieces of gaming history wound up as ‘lost games’ and were promptly forgotten about — until circumstance meant they were found.
As we’ve discovered over the last few decades, all it takes is a single prototype ROM sold in a garage sale or a loose cartridge found in a dump to reveal gaming secrets we’ve never seen before. Sometimes those discoveries end up online, like the recent dumping of Ocarina of Time‘s Space World ’97 demo. Other times, they remain a tantalising secret waiting to be uncovered.
These are the greatest lost game discoveries of the modern era, and how they were finally found.
Star Fox 2 was a ‘lost game’ in development in 1995, during the dying days of the SNES. Despite being fully completed it only released in 2017, as a special bonus for gamers who purchased the Super NES Classic Edition. The 20+ year gap here was down to Nintendo, who chose not to publish the game because it felt the modern gaming landscape had changed too much for Star Fox 2 to be a hit.
Thankfully, they reversed this decision and Star Fox fans were finally able to play the game in 2017. (It also came to Nintendo Switch Online in 2019.) Better late than never, we say. Reviews for Star Fox 2 called it fun, innovative and a worthy sequel — meaning audiences in the late 90s likely would’ve loved the game.
While the Star Fox franchise moved on from this adventure, seeing it finally release was an excellent surprise.
Super Mario 64 – 64DD, Luigi, Multiplayer Mode
Sadly much of what we know about Super Mario 64‘s original plans come from the gigaleak which compromised Nintendo’s archives in 2020, but what we did find out was very exciting. According to the data found, Super Mario 64 was planned to have a multiplayer mode, with secondary players taking on the role of Luigi. This was backed up by the actual character model for Luigi, which was found embedded in data from the leak.
The data backed up previous comments made by Shigeru Miyamoto in 2009 which indicated a split-screen mode was originally planned.
Another recent discovery made about the game was that it had a cancelled 64DD version with different audio. Not much else is known about this project, but a video depicting an alleged prototype ROM did surface in 2014.
The fascination behind the game means the search for new Super Mario 64 content will likely continue in the future.
Thrill Kill was designed to be one of the most violent, over-the-top fighting games to ever be released on PlayStation. It aimed to add in more blood, guts and gore than gamers had ever seen. But despite the game being nearly complete, EA chose to shelve it a few weeks out from release because it feared the game would damage its reputation.
To look at it now, it all seems a bit naff — but way back in 1998, the content of Thrill Kill was extremely controversial.
Disappointed by EA’s decision, the developers of the game chose to dump the contents online. It’s been one of the most popular and frequently downloaded ROMs online ever since.
Resident Evil 1.5 Prototype
Resident Evil 1.5 is the fan-given name for the prototype version of Resident Evil 2 which was reportedly scrapped when it was 70 per cent complete. The game was allegedly cancelled due to quality concerns, and eventually reworked into the RE2 we all know and love today. In the process of reiteration, secondary protagonist Elza Walker was scrapped and the game was built from the ground-up once again.
Demos for the scrapped game were shown frequently at trade shows, and it’s likely these builds that led to the game being leaked online. There’s several different versions around, and they all show the wild lost game that could’ve been. You can read more about it via GamesRadar’s excellent, detailed breakdown.
In addition to the now-surfaced Resident Evil 1 prototype, there was also a prototype version of the original game for the Game Boy Color. This port was scrapped due to a lack of confidence in its quality, but two half-finished ROMs featuring gameplay were posted online around 2012.
Sonic X-Treme was a game in development for the Sega Saturn, and would be one of the first Sonic titles to integrate 3D graphics. Despite the ambition, SEGA ultimately scrapped the project. The exact reasons are unclear, but reports indicate it was a technical mess and was frequently meddled with in the development process. Whatever the case, it remained a lost game until the late 2000s.
In 2007, a prototype demo of the game was purchased by a collector and later uploaded to the internet. It needed a good polish to get it working but after some brief work on the ROM, it became playable by fans. The demo showed off a bright 3D world, sleek-looking gameplay and a whole lot of potential for a project that could’ve changed the entire playing field for Sonic. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.
Lobo is one of DC’s most underrated anti-heroes, so it’s massively surprising he was ever in consideration for a video game adaptation at all. In the mid-90s he was experiencing a massive surge in popularity, and this led to the development of an SNES/Sega Genesis fighting game. It was time for the main man to shine. But despite a rigorous advertising campaign and the game being completed, it was quietly pulled from release in 1996 and faded into obscurity.
That is, until 2009 when a member of the SEGASaturno community reportedly found and uploaded the Sega Genesis version of the game online. Later in 2016, the SNES version leaked too.
It’s anyone’s guess why it was cancelled. The final game looks pretty neat!
Bio Force Ape
Bio Force Ape is a strange chapter in the history of the NES. This 1991 game was designed around the concept of super-powered apes and was intended to be a flagship title for the console. Reports indicate it was previewed in several gaming magazines before it vanished, but all we know for sure is it never met its intended release date.
In appropriately strange fashion, the game was actually found nearly 20 years later in an online auction. A group of historians forked out the money for a dodgy-looking cartridge which had been listed on a niche Japanese website, and when they finally played it they realised it was a complete version of the game.
Like many other games on the list, Bio Force Ape was basically finished before it was cancelled, with the version now available online being completely functional like any other game. It’s just another strange story in a sea of many.
Unreleased Mad Max Game
Way back in 1999, Australian studio Melbourne House was tasked with adapting classic post-apocalyptic Mad Max into a 3D video game.
For three months, the studio worked tirelessly on the project, but it never escaped the bowels of pre-production. Mad Max: Asylum could’ve been an excellent PlayStation 2 era adventure, but despite positive meetings with George Miller the pitch process failed and the game was cancelled.
It would’ve faded completely into obscurity if the developers hadn’t salvaged its remains and posted the awesome-looking game footage online for everyone to see its potential. We did eventually get a decent Mad Max adaption in 2015, but footage from Asylum showed off a very intriguing Aussie adventure.
Sadly, there’s still plenty of lost games media out there. While some of it will inevitably surface thanks to the intrepid work of fans, developers and historians, it’s like most of it will never see the light of day. When you consider that older consoles like the Japan-only Satellaview featured games with limited-time release windows, or that many promising titles get cancelled at near-completion, you start to understand just how much lost game content there is out there.
Here’s to hoping we discover more of gaming’s lost history in 2021 and beyond.