After the success of the Sonic games on the Mega Drive, what was next?
Sega had a difficult time ahead of it, since there was a certain amount of confusion over what the real successor to the 16-bit console would be. On the one hand, there was the American-developed, cartridge-based 32X, which would act as an add-on for the Mega Drive rather than a standalone unit. And on the other, there was the CD-based Saturn system, developed by Sega of Japan.
Clearly, in order to be a success, at least one of these new systems needed a Sonic game. But that turned out to be a rather more difficult undertaking than anyone anticipated.
Despite what would become known as Sonic X-treme being widely regarded as the project that killed the Saturn, the attempts to bring Sonic into 3D date right back into the late Mega Drive era. The earliest proposals for the new game were penned in the latter portion of 1993 by Sega’s America-based branch, the Sega Technical Institute, who had previously worked on Sonic 2, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles alongside Yuji Naka, who by this point was preparing to return to Japan to work alongside Sonic Team once again.
The first idea for a new Mega Drive game came in the form of an adaptation of the Saturday morning cartoon Sonic the Hedgehog (not to be confused with its sister show, the rather lighter in tone The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog). This would have provided Sega the opportunity to develop and explore characters from the show that had proven popular with the fanbase, such as Princess Sally Acorn — particularly as the proposal suggested it be a slower, more narrative-centric game as opposed to the previous gameplay-focused installments.
This initial pitch, known as Sonic-16, was headed up by Peter Morawiec, who had previously worked on art and CG for Sonic 2’s special stages and acted as the designer for Sonic Spinball. It was ultimately rejected, alongside an isometric-perspective title by Morawiec’s colleague Chris Senn.
The next proposal was for Sonic Mars, a fully polygonal 3D game for the 32X. Again, the idea was to base the game on the Saturday morning TV show, allowing the player to explore the world as Sonic in 3D for the first time. Sega of America gave the go-ahead to STI to kick off the project, but Yuji Naka had serious doubts as to whether it was a viable idea at all. Legend has it he saw an early animation demonstration of the project, just said “good luck” and walked away.
Designer Michael Kosaka’s original script for Sonic Mars proposed a game that involved Sonic, Tails and Knuckles, as well as characters from the cartoon such as the aforementioned Princess Sally Acorn. The intention was for the game to unfold from a three-dimensional third-person view with a fixed-orientation camera (erroneously referred to as a “first-person, behind Sonic view” in the script) in which Sonic primarily ran “into” the screen, but could also move left, right and back when the occasion demanded it. Rather than attempting to render a realistic environment, the levels would consist of platforms suspended in the air, but instead of simply being flat blocks, these could be sloped to create a variety of structures.
Kosaka’s design also incorporated additional playable characters into the mix, with the core concept of the game revolving around Sonic rescuing his friends and those friends subsequently becoming playable with the press of a button. Besides the well-established Sonic, Tails and Knuckles, the player would also be able to take control of Bunnie Rabbit, who had an extendable bio-mechanical arm; Princess Sally Acorn, who came with her own hoverboard to traverse gaps or water; and Tiara Boobowski, who had command over the element of electricity.
Structurally, it was clear Kosaka wanted to remain true to the original Sonic games, as his design maintained aspects such as the ten-minute time limit, the linear progression through a series of themed Zones (including the by now obligatory casino-themed Zone, which this time would open the whole game), the ability to enter Bonus Zones from checkpoint lampposts (in this case unfolding as an air hockey match between Sonic and Robotnik), and entrances to Special Stages hidden throughout the levels.
The Special Stages in this installment would unfold in full 3D, but the camera would remain locked behind Sonic rather than always facing “north”, and there would be an “anti-gravity” element. Sonic would run atop a series of 2-4 cubes, locked to their centrelines, and would have to collect all the rings without running into “death spikes” in order to acquire the Chaos Emeralds. Like how Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles’ Special Stages would only allow Sonic to turn by 90 degrees at the intersection of the “tiles” on the floor, in Sonic Mars’ special stage, Sonic would only be able to turn at the centrepoint of a cube.
Alongside these common game elements, Kosaka clearly wanted to leverage the personality of the characters that had been established in the cartoons, and this would be achieved during gameplay by text bubbles featuring the playable characters appearing in the corner of the screen based on various trigger criteria.
It seemed like a solid plan. But the project met with trouble right from the outset. Kosaka left Sega shortly after the proposal was accepted due to personal issues between himself and his colleague Dean Lester, leaving the inexperienced Chris Senn to take on leadership duties despite never having led a project of this magnitude. Programmer Don Goddard also reworked the design document for Sonic Mars to be more in line with what he felt like the team would be capable of.
Goddard noted in a 2008 conversation with Sonic scene researcher Jordan “hxc” Grodecki that the 32X was a “bastard add-on to the Genesis that tried to provide 3D support, only it couldn’t texture for ‘shite’, as you UK guys would say.” Goddard also noted that the game’s unusual “fisheye” lens seen in the few existing screenshots of the 32X game was an attempt to “cover up the fact that nothing was curved” and that the 32X’s limited capabilities means that rendering an entire world with just a few hundred visible polygons would be “difficult”.
Goddard also noted that despite Sega of America’s executive vice president and COO Shinobu Toyoda loving the team’s early conceptual work, the team would continually run into issues when attempting to show off their ideas for the game outside of STI.
“Shinobu would tell us and Roger [Hector, a producer and director at STI] would repeat it that Sonic did not have to be at ALL like the original ones where you had rings, loops and 60 frames per second,” he told Grodecki. “Yet any place outside of STI we showed something to would immediately start asking ‘where are the rings and what do you collect? Aren’t there any loops? How fast can you go?'”
Ultimately the initial Sonic Mars project was turned down after a failed demonstration on a 32X prototype. Development subsequently shifted to the Saturn, at which point the team split into two. Senn would work on the main part of the game, including its level designs, while programmer Chris Coffin would work on the boss encounters using a brand new engine he had started working on during the 32X era.
Goddard noted that this was a particularly turbulent time for the project, with him working solo on the programming side for about three months. He attempted to score himself some assistance, initially in the form of Gary McTaggart, who would go on to create 3dfx’s influential Glide system for 3D acceleration on PCs, and subsequently John Morgan from Midway — but things were going nowhere fast.
“You could request a pencil and it wouldn’t show up on your desk until a month or two later,” noted Goddard. “So we’re clamouring for getting some programming help, I’m the only programmer on this thing… well, then Dean Lester says he has this guy from someplace who did a Mac game and had an impressive demo. They flew him in from very far away, like somewhere in the Middle East, and he was okay, kind of a square guy and an odd sense of humour… but also kind of an attitude, like ‘I know what’s great and I don’t need to explain all of my details to you guys’.
“All of a sudden the guy is hired and on our doorstep in like 3 weeks and we’re like ‘what the fuck happened to Gary, what about John Morgan?” continued Goddard.
The “guy” in question was Ofer Alon, who proved to be a talented programmer and an asset to Senn’s team, but also something of a nightmare to work with, according to Goddard — who described him as “the most difficult person I have worked with, hands down”.
Alon’s engine was initially developed on Mac before being ported to PC and from there to the Saturn. Unfortunately, while the game performed well on the computers, it ran atrociously on Saturn, with framerates in single digits. A far cry from the “rings, loops and 60 frames per second” that was clearly a requirement for the project, for sure.
The issue was so serious that Sega of America executives intervened, bringing in a third-party company named Point of View — ostensibly to do a better job of porting Alon’s work, but actually ending up effectively starting from scratch as they ran into many of the same issues. Alon, meanwhile, continued to work on his own, secluding himself from the rest of the team and causing a further sense of division among the developers.
A notorious milestone in the project came in March of 1996 when a number of Japanese executives — including the company president Hayao Nakayama — visited Sega of America, expecting to see how the new Sonic game was coming along. Unfortunately, they saw Point of View’s poor efforts at porting Alon’s work to Saturn first, and had already left the building by the time Alon showed up to demonstrate his engine running on PC. As a result, Alon’s work was dropped from the project, and Coffin was made the lead programmer.
The team basically had to start all over again, and they had a Sonic game to get out of the door before Christmas. This led them to ask for the engine used by Yuji Naka’s project NiGHTS into Dreams as a basis for their new work, allowing them to save precious time. Unfortunately, no-one had bothered to ask Naka, by now back in Japan, if this would be okay, and the team had to abandon this plan and start all over again, again.
With things by now looking particularly bleak for the project, Coffin threw himself into the project to an unhealthy degree, and eventually ended up stricken with pneumonia. The man had been living at the office and getting no more than a couple of hours of sleep a night in a cot bed he kept at the office; the situation was so serious that doctors said Coffin would only have months to live if he maintained this lifestyle, so he did the right thing and bowed out.
This left the project without a lead programmer, and effectively led to the death of the entire endeavour, since there was no way it would ever be completed in time for the Christmas rush. Desperate to have some good games out for the holiday season, Sega commissioned a port of Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island and invested the marketing budget originally intended for Sonic X-Treme into promoting Naka’s NiGHTS, which ended up being the top seller for the Saturn that Christmas. Sonic 3D followed close behind it, but it was clear the attempts to bring a brand new Sonic game to the Saturn were doomed.
Undeterred, Senn and Alon approached Sega’s PC division with their engine, which worked absolutely fine on that platform, and hoped they would be able to release a PC-exclusive Sonic game. They were rebuffed, however, with the management suggesting they would rather invest in ports of existing games rather than take a risk on a new project that had already had its fair share of problems. Alon left the company shortly afterwards.
It’s a sad end to this chapter in both Sega and Sonic’s history, since the woes of Sonic X-Treme meant the Saturn would end up without its own true Sonic game. Sonic Team actually began work on another title, but since the Saturn platform was already struggling by this point and its end was clearly near, they abandoned their work and instead decided to conduct an experiment. Sega planned to release a compilation of classic Sonic games on Saturn named Sonic Jam, and Sonic Team’s contribution was a three-dimensional area called Sonic World.
Sonic World incorporated a number of “museums” in which players could find out information and trivia about the characters and the media in which they had appeared, as well as music, video and art galleries. However, Sonic Team also incorporated some actual gameplay beyond simply making it a fancy 3D menu — there were rings to collect, springboards to bounce on, a small virtual world to explore and even eight timed “missions” to complete. This would go on to form the basis for Sonic’s first Dreamcast outing, Sonic Adventure… but we’ll save that for another day!
More about the Sonic the Hedgehog series
Images in this article that have a “SennTient” watermark are from Chris Senn’s sadly defunct site about Sonic X-Treme, parts of which can still be accessed via the WayBack Machine.
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