The Tricky, Essential Art of Preserving Cancelled Games Like Starfox 2

The Tricky, Essential Art of Preserving Cancelled Games Like Starfox 2
Screenshot: SEGA

What we know of history is preserved in the art we create, and what we leave behind. Cave paintings tell stories of great hunting feats, crumbling texts give us a glimpse into ancient cultures, and film reels show us how far life has come. In the same way, these artifacts represent the breadth of human experience, culture, and talent, video games can tell us a lot about the times we lived in.

The value of preserving this history is misunderstood and often fraught with complications. Copyright law typically means publishers — and sometimes developers — control the IP of anything produced, meaning preservationists are often breaking the law while they work to document the history and talent behind lost creations.

Preservation doesn’t just illuminate gaming history though: the work often has knock-on effects for consumers and future projects. When Kingdom Hearts was remastered in 2013, the project was rebuilt from the ground up as developers reportedly misplaced the original data. Many titles released for the Japan-only Nintendo Satellaview console have also reportedly vanished because they were part of limited-time broadcasts. When EA remastered Command & Conquer, it had to invest in re-recordings because the original files were lost. Night Dive Studios ran into similar trouble when it remastered Blade Runner.

The data lost represents hundreds of hours of work, talent and history going to waste. Even from a purely financial standpoint, that lost data represents hundreds of hours of work and studio funds wasted. The same is true for cancelled games, which deserve preservation as much as anything else. In some cases, their loss is even more significant given the cultural, artistic, historical and technological artifacts.

Star Fox 2 was cancelled due to technological advances

Image: Star Fox 2 Image: Star Fox 2

Star Fox 2 is an important example of how preservation can give an essential glimpse into games history. Nintendo shelved the game around 1995, despite it being complete, over concerns it wasn’t visually impressive enough.

At the time, systems like the PlayStation One and Sega Saturn were pioneering 3D visuals that were so technically advanced, they blew Star Fox 2 out of the water.

“It was the summer of 1995 and the PlayStation and Saturn were suddenly doing very well in Japan,” developer Dylan Cuthbert told Nintendo Life in 2017. “The decision was made because they didn’t want the old-gen 3D going up against the much better 3D of the next generation, side-by-side.”

For 20 years, the game sat in Nintendo’s archives surrounded by rumours and speculation. But thanks to careful preservation and a care for the legacy of its game development staff, Star Fox 2 was able to release in 2017 on the SNES Classic Edition. It was an important step in acknowledging Nintendo’s development history (even its failures), and is giving fans the Star Fox sequel they’ve waited two decades for.

But without Nintendo’s preservation efforts and care for its coding assets, the game would no longer exist in any form. Having this data two decades on is an incredible rarity, and it’s even rarer the game was ultimately released to the public.

A cancelled Golden Axe game shared a similar fate

Gif: SEGA Gif: SEGA

In 2012, Sega Studios Australia began development on a 2.5D reboot of the classic beat ’em up franchise, Golden Axe. While details on the project are scarce, it was reportedly designed to be a ‘darker’ reboot that stayed true to the franchise and its history.

A short prototype was built by Tim Dawson, Sanatana Mishra and the rest of the local Sega team (Mishra, Dawson and fellow Sega developer Jeff van Dyck went on to found Brisbane’s Witch Beam studio.) It took two weeks of crunch, according to Dawson, with the team working some 14 hour days.

But despite the effort that went into it, the project was cancelled and stayed in Sega’s archives for nearly a decade.

“It seems they shelved everything when they decided to shut down Sega Studios Australia,” developer Sanatana Mishra told Kotaku Australia via email. But that wasn’t the end for Golden Axe. As part of Sega’s 60th-anniversary celebrations, the company unexpectedly chose to release the game prototype to the public in 2020.

The decision came as a surprise for everyone, including the game’s developers. “I certainly never expected to see it again despite how well it was received within Sega at the time we created it, at least not in this near-identical state to where we left it,” Mishra said.

Despite the challenges of creating the prototype, it remains an exciting glimpse into a game that ‘never was’. It’s a small chapter in gaming history, but a notable one worth preserving. Without preservation, we may never have even seen the project.

Preservation is filled with legal challenges

“It’s generally understood that things you make at work are owned by your employer, including assets like code and art or game design documents,” Mishra explained over email. “I can’t imagine any studio ever giving up ownership of game code you write specifically for them.”

This limitation stops many cancelled games from being released — and it’s not a unique situation. Under Australian law, this practice extends beyond games development to wider employment contracts.

“If you’re employed by an employer then in that kind of a scenario, the employer is going to own the copyright for what you’ve created during the course of your duties,” Kris Kotwicki, a lawyer with Creative Artists Law and a former senior video game artist, told Kotaku Australia over the phone.

That applies even if games are cancelled or plans change along the way. “If they’re not going forward with the game, then that’s, generally speaking, not going to affect the ownership of it because the ownership of the game still going to be with the company,” Kotwicki explained.

Individual developers lack ownership of the works they create, and companies are typically very strict about where assets are disseminated.

According to Mishra, the likely reason why the game was able to survive for so long was that Sega took very good care of its assets, even in the mid-2010s.

“We use version control. At Sega it was specifically Perforce, to save our files in a way that makes editing or restoring them easier,” Mishra said.

But this appears to be a unique case, much like the release of Star Fox 2.

“You hear stories all the time about source code disappearing for even the biggest AAA games of their era, so I don’t think anyone is too concerned with preservation for something like a short-term prototype of a cancelled game,” Mishra said. “[It’s] part of why this release was so surprising.”

According to Mishra, Sega keeping the Golden Axe prototype for so many years is rare. Long-term preservation isn’t typically considered in the world of video games development, meaning it’s easy for projects to slip between the cracks.

Intellectual Property remains a difficult issue

Screenshot: Rare Screenshot: Rare

It’s generally understood that any project worked on by individual developers is not owned by them.

“Unless [individual developers] were contractors that had some agreement that actually allowed them to retain some rights … what’s going to happen is that [a game’s IP] will end up sitting with the company,” Kris Kotwicki told Kotaku Australia.

These agreements mean any artefact from the games development process is owned and protected by the copyright of these companies. That includes production art, stills, game footage and information — all of which are typically found on preservation websites like Unseen64. While it’s at the discretion of games companies to prosecute, they do have a legal case against preservationists doing their best to maintain games history.

But efforts to stop this practice are counteractive to building a positive, knowledgeable games community.

“Some of the big publishers often try to cover up their cancelled projects for frivolous PR reasons,” preservationist Liam Robertson told Kotaku Australia via email. “I think fans respect transparency and find them genuinely interesting.”

“The answers people are given by companies are rarely enough and so that fascination doesn’t go away. People hunt for answers, they speculate, dig, talk to the developers.”

It’s why the art of online preservation continues, despite the legal risks. But the risks don’t always come down to preservationists — developers who speak too early can also be in the firing line due to contractual arrangements.

“Not all developers are allowed to hang on to their work or have the inclination, but a small handful of diligent people in the industry try to save what they can and it’s usually them who we have to thank,” Robertson said. “Once any heat from NDA’s/potential legal issues has died down, [certain developers] are usually willingly to share.”

A natural consequence of this caution is that some of the best information isn’t uncovered until contracts run out. It means there may be a cone of silence on cancelled games for decades after the projects are shelved. You can only imagine how much data is lost within this time period.

“Sometimes those [game] files have to be stored in personal HD and private online backups for many years before it’s safe to release them online for everyone,” preservationist Luca Taborelli told Kotaku Australia.

“There are still some possible legal repercussions on people involved with these releases (as with every file protected by copyright or other non-disclosure agreements), but for sure [preservation] has proven to be less problematic when 10, 20 or more years pass between the time those games were worked on and when the related files are leaked online.”

A lack of interest, deleted files, time passing, and not asking the right questions could mean games are completely lost, with no trace they ever existed at all.

Video games should be treated like film and TV

In the same way films and TV shows are seen as important cultural artifacts, games can also represent historically significant values, attitudes and artifacts worth preserving for the future. There are multiple organisations set up to preserve films for this reason — so why shouldn’t games get the same treatment?

The work of online preservationists like Liam Robertson and the team at Unseen64 is essential for preserving the history that other organisations may lack the capacity, funding or support to do. By sharing previously unseen documents for cancelled or unreleased video games, preservationists give us a glimpse into worlds and art that may have never been seen at all.

“It’s important to remember and save some memories from lost video games for historic and artistic preservation, and also to satisfy our own curiosity,” explained Luca Taborelli, Unseen64 founder and editor-in-chief, to Kotaku Australia via email.

“On a collective scale, video games are human art and unreleased ones, a memento of what human imagination and talent could have created.”

In the case of preserved prototypes like Conker’s Quest, which ultimately morphed into the rowdy, lewd adventure Conker’s Bad Fur Day, we can see distinctly how late ’90s culture influenced the game’s pivot towards something more ‘edgy’.

The original title mirrored the style of Banjo Kazooie, but the waning popularity of 3D platformers and a cultural shift towards more risqué stories meant Conker’s Quest was reworked from the ground up.

Conker became rude and machoistic because action heroes of the last ’90s and early ’00s were edgier, swore more and prided themselves on “attitude”. The Conker’s Quest prototype represented a more innocent time in games when 3D platformers were in vogue, and its transformation into Conker’s Bad Fur Day similarly represents how quickly games change to reflect the cultural values of their eras.

But even beyond being essential historical artifacts, unreleased video games have value as technical and artistic showcases. When discussing the importance of games preservation, developer Sanatana Mishra told Kotaku Australia it’s important to look back on video game works of the past to understand the roots of more modern games — and to avoid making similar mistakes.

“I’d love it if we saw far less secrecy in games and more open long term preservation,” he said. “Even from a purely commercial point of view, I think companies need to recognise that preservation lets them make better decisions about their properties, and there are always opportunities to get value out of these things being preserved.”

Modern developers can learn a lot from the failures of the past, particularly when it comes to ambitious projects cancelled before they could realise their potential.

Whether because of scope, evolving technology or changing markets, so many factors can impact the decision to cancel a game.

Titles like The Avengers and Gotham By Gaslight, which were both cancelled at THQ before they came to fruition, represent missed opportunities for both fans and developers, and give an idea about how easily good ideas can slip through the cracks.

Superhero games before the boom

The mid-2010s saw a boom in superhero projects, particularly off the back of films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man. That interest bled into video games, spawning multiple spin-offs like Gotham By Gaslight. This cancelled Victorian-era tale was based on the 1989 comic series of the same name and aimed to showcase a unique look at the world of Batman and all its denizens. It was in development at THQ for several months but never got off the ground.

Despite never being released, leaked prototype footage gave audiences an important glimpse into a game loaded with potential. Its moody streets are clearly unfinished, but the remnants of the project are a stark reminder of just how popular Batman became in mainstream media following the release of The Dark Knight. Superheroes were the big new thing — they still are — and the rush to develop games in the genre meant several were left by the wayside.

Regardless of how far the game was into development before it was cancelled, it represents significant work and ideas from developers like former THQ creative manager, Scott Rogers. According to Rogers, he only worked on the project for a few months — but even that was enough to make the loss sting.

“Often good games get cancelled and you don’t have the visibility to why it happened. All you see is this great product that everyone is working hard on and pouring their energy into,” Rogers told Kotaku Australia via email. “I’m sure there were many reasons why the game wasn’t made but most of those decisions happen ‘above your paygrade.’”

Despite his disappointment, Rogers acknowledged most decisions made by game studios are purely financial. But that means games history can be lost in an instant without any means to salvage it.

And a decade later, Rogers still doesn’t know why Gotham By Gaslight was shelved.

“If only for novelty’s sake, it’s important to know about these games,” Rogers told Kotaku Australia. “Who doesn’t love to play “what if?”

Preservationists are doing the work the games industry should

In the case of fighter Thrill Kill, a 1998 fighting game allegedly cancelled for its raunchiness, it took a “mystery” leak for the game to ever surface. While the game was reportedly 99 per cent complete (and marketed) ahead of its planned launch, EA canned it due to its violence and lewdness, which included BDSM-themed fighters and severed limbs.

“When the upper echelons at EA saw it, and considering their close relations with a certain senator, [Joseph] Lieberman, it was placed on the highest, dustiest shelf that they could find,” programmer David Olloman told VG247 in 2018.

Lieberman was a U.S. senator active from the 1980s to the mid-2010s who strongly opposed violent video games and frequently stated they encouraged anti-social behaviour. He drove a conversation in the American consciousness that forced developers to reconsider how they depicted “extreme” themes in games, and it’s alleged his campaigning forced EA to pull Thrill Kill from the market.

“Virgin [the original publisher] didn’t care about the content. In fact, a promotional plan they discussed was to send demo discs to people that hated video game violence.”

The leak of the game, while technically illegal, remains the only reason why Thrill Kill ever saw the light of day. And while the game itself is understandably controversial, its preservation is incredibly important.

Like Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Thrill Kill reflected the changing attitudes of the late ’90s and how video games were attempting to push the limits of on-screen violence. Its cancellation represents an important turning point in game censorship and classification in the United States.

There are so many cancelled games left to save

Image: PlatinumGames Image: PlatinumGames

It’s easy to be disheartened with every mounting challenge, but online preservationists still persist. After all, there are so many games left to save.

“I’m pretty sure that there are almost as many cancelled or unfinished games as there are published ones,” Scott Rogers told Kotaku Australia when discussing his own career and how it reflects trends in the wider industry.

It’s startling to think about how many of these games have been lost to time due to poor management or a lack of care from studios. While many have been salvaged by preservationists, there are likely thousands we’ve never even seen before — and it’s for this reason work continues.

“I think we see a lot of hugely ambitious, creative works stamped out before their time,” preservationist Liam Robertson told Kotaku Australia. “We see really interesting games stopped from being completed and others on more rocky ground prevented from blossoming to their potential … Those with the power to preserve these projects should do so for artistic and historical interests.”

Until now, the history of cancelled games has mostly been preserved by fans. Organisations like The Museum of Play and the U.S. National Video game Museum are working towards building historic collections that could be viewed long into the future — but it’s a job that requires many more hands, and much greater cooperation from games companies.

While video games are still being understood as cultural artifacts, they play an essential part in learning more about our culture and technologies and how they’ve changed over the last several decades.

Cancelled games go to all kinds of places when they die. Some stay on dusty server racks. Others lay dormant in the personal files of developers until they’re ready to be shared. Reclaiming them is a difficult art, hindered by copyright law and developer agreements. But it’s a fascinating history worth holding onto.

As preservationist Luca Taborelli explained, human history is a long and repetitive cycle of lost information. Fortunately, we still have time to reverse that mistake.

 

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