From Sonic Retro
Sonic X-treme is an unreleased Sonic the Hedgehog game for the Sega Saturn. Originally conceived as a game for the Mega Drive, production moved to the Sega 32X until it was ultimately developed for the Saturn. Intended to be Sonic's first foray into a three-dimensional world, it was expected to be released in time for the Christmas 1996 season. Due to numerous development problems, the game was canceled in 1997, leaving in its wake a hole in the Saturn library. Though it can be debated if the game would have sent the Saturn to the same heights as the original Sonic the Hedgehog did for the Mega Drive, it is hard to argue that its lack of release was not one of the reasons for the Saturn's failure outside of Japan.
In total, three versions were in development for the Saturn. The first was led by Ofer Alon and Christian Senn, the second led by Robert Morgan along with the Point Of View development company, and the third by Christina Coffin, codenamed "Project Condor."
The storyline for Sonic X-treme was one never set in stone, with quite a few ideas thrown about during the development process. The best known of these (which were mentioned in such magazine features as the Red Shoe Diaries) explains that Sonic the Hedgehog, having received a "bluestreak" distress signal, runs over to the home of Professor Gazebo Boobowski and his daughter, Tiara. The two are the guardians of the Rings of Order, and also know the ancient art of ring smithing. Dr. Eggman, having learned of the rings, has set about to claim them himself, prompting the professor to ask Sonic to retrieve the mystical rings before the evil doctor. When explaining the evolution of the storyline years later, Chris Senn stated that the "Rings of Order" story was hastily thrown together for the specific purpose of the Red Shoe Diaries feature in Game Players, the "final" story having yet to be solidified.
No less than seven other storylines were created over the project's lifespan, the final one authored by Hirokazu Yasuhara and Richard Wheeler. In this version, Dr. Eggman returns with a Death Egg that is larger than planet Earth, its gravity causing other planets to fall into an orbit with the space station. Miles "Tails" Prower teleports Sonic to the Death Egg in the hopes of stopping Eggman's latest scheme, but the beam is intercepted by one of the planets now in orbit. Finding himself on a strange world, Sonic also discovers that the badniks Eggman are using are powered by an alien species called "Mips," the natives to the planets that have become a part of the Death Egg's defenses.
Earlier storylines also briefly considered using the cast of the Saturday morning series Sonic the Hedgehog, though those iterations of Sonic X-treme never went beyond the conceptual phase.
Nearly from the get-go, the intent of Sonic X-treme was to place Sonic the Hedgehog in a completely 3D environment, building upon the ideas of exploration and the "go-anywhere-or-run-through" concept. The levels were constructed in an almost tube-like fashion, the camera pointing ahead to encourage the player to run forward towards their ultimate destination. Because 3D was still new and X-treme was experimenting with how to properly have Sonic in a 3D world, the camera was given a "fish-eye" lens, in an effort to let the player see more of their surroundings within a given zone. Taking a cue from the special stages in Chaotix, Sonic was also supposed to have the ability to run up walls and walk on ceilings, giving what might have seemed like a linear level added areas to explore.
Originally, Chris Senn wanted to use a number of playable characters, including Miles "Tails" Prower, Knuckles the Echidna, and newcomer Tiara Boobowski, giving each their own style of gameplay and camera perspective. Sonic's was meant to be a 3/4 view, Tails was to have the camera positioned behind him, Knuckles would have had a top-down view, and Tiara's gameplay would have been viewed from the side. Though Chris Senn, the lead designer through most of Sonic X-treme's life, was excited at the prospect of multiple characters and styles, the game's lead programmer, Ofer Alon, convinced Chris to keep things simple and focus on the core Sonic gameplay, and to only add more characters if time allowed. Chris Coffin, the lead developer of the boss stages, also briefly toyed with the idea of Amy Rose being a playable character, modifying the Sonic sprite set the team was using to look like the pink hedgehog. However, aside from the sprites being made, nothing else was done with the concept.
The game was also meant to introduce a variety of new moves into Sonic's arsenal. Among them were the "Power Ball" (an attack to strike down on enemies below), "Super Bounce" (a jump with added height but less control), "Ring Shield" (a shield one could create at the cost of a number of rings collected), and the "Sonic Boom" (an attack in conjunction with the Ring Shield to attack all enemies on screen). There was also meant to be a ring attack, where Sonic could throw the rings he had collected at enemies, an idea that was introduced early on in the Sonic X-treme development cycle.
With the release of Sonic & Knuckles, SEGA was more than aware of the potential contained within the Sonic franchise. Not wanting to lose the momentum created by the string of hits in the early 90's, SEGA wanted to create the next "big" Sonic game, along with a slew of other titles to help support it. While games like Knuckles Chaotix, Sonic 3D: Flickies' Island, and even G Sonic were being done in other areas of SEGA, the Sega Technical Institute received the big assignment - to create the true successor to Sonic & Knuckles. With such a daunting task ahead of them, and with the Japanese side of STI returning to their home country, the American team behind such games as Sonic Spinball, The Ooze, and Comix Zone dove head first into a project that would take numerous twists and turns before its cancellation.
The earliest pitches as to what would ultimately result in the "Sonic X-treme project" were meant to be developed for the Mega Drive. The furthest along of these pitches was Sonic-16, a game based on the Saturday morning series Sonic the Hedgehog. Headed by Peter Morawiec, the game was meant to be a slower, more story-intensive platformer. The second pitch was of an untitled isometric game starring Sonic, the only work done being a single conceptual screenshot by Chris Senn. Though both were ultimately passed on, they helped lay the groundwork for a third pitch that was accepted - Sonic Mars. Led by Michael Kosaka and featuring work by Chris Senn, the game was meant to be a fully polygonal representation of Sonic on the ill-fated 32X. Before returning to Japan, Yuji Naka was shown the early animated work for the project, in which he could only shake his head and offer two very important words: "Good Luck."
Sega Saturn Development
Because of internal disputes between Michael Kosaka and Dean Lester, Kosaka left SEGA in 1995, leaving the still-young Sonic Mars without a lead designer. Chris Senn, who had never been in a leadership position before in such an ambitious project, was thrust into the job. Though given the impression it was only a temporary position until another, more experienced designer could be found, he held the position through most of the development of the game. It was around this time that the Saturday morning elements were dropped from the game, and the decision to switch platforms to the next-gen SEGA system was brought up.
Due to the confusion behind what the true successor to the Mega Drive was to be, an effort was made to focus the development on the proposed cartridge-based nVidia-powered system being developed by Sega. Though the system promised to be even more capable at 3D rendering than SOJ's "Project Saturn," a failed demonstration of the nVidia chip caused it to be turned down, and development once again shifted to a new console.
With the project fully underway, development for Sonic X-treme was split into two separate groups. The first, led by Chris Senn and programmer Ofer Alon, focused on the main body of the game, creating the worlds that Sonic would run through. The second group, led by programmer Chris Coffin, was tasked with creating the boss encounters, with a completely separate engine that he had begun in the 32X era of the project. With both teams being watched over by Mike Wallis, he also become responsible for the smaller groups forming in each team, focusing on different aspects of development. Even though these divisions were meant to make development easier, in practice the entire process was a mixture of consistency and confusion. With certain people working on levels that hadn't been approved, others waiting until the programming was done, and lack of communication across the board, it was clear that this would not be an easy undertaking.
Originally developed on the Macintosh platform, Ofer Alon's engine was quickly ported over to the PC, the intent always being to port the code to the Sega Saturn at the end. While the levels played smoothly on the PC, Ofer's early attempts at porting the code to the Saturn were anything but, a framerate of only three or four being the maximum. This, coupled with the numerous delays and internal arguments at SOA, prompted the executives to intervene. At a meeting with Alon and Senn, Robert Morgan (tech director at STI) informed the duo that they were bringing in a third party, a company called Point Of View (POV), to take over programming duties for the game. Showing the two a very basic display of Sonic on a checkerboard surface, Senn could not help but scoff at them. Though POV's stated purpose was to port Alon's work to the Saturn, it was made clear that yet another layer had been added to the X-treme development saga, Ofer Alon essentially being demoted. While Ofer took it in stride, Chris Senn was livid, unable to believe that SEGA would want to essentially start from scratch.
Regardless, work on the engine continued, Ofer Alon secluding himself to focus. POV, meanwhile, began its attempt to port an older version of the engine, finding it just as difficult as Ofer did when he tried, if not more so. Development would take a turn for the worse, however. In March of 1996, a group of representatives from Sega of Japan (including then-president Hayao Nakayama) visited its American branch, expecting a presentation of the work done so far to Sonic X-treme. While Chris and Ofer were busy polishing their presentation of the work still being done by the PC engine, unbeknownst to them another presentation was already finishing up for the gathered Japanese executives. Viewing the broken efforts of POV, Nakayama was furious at the state of the project, oblivious to the fact that it was not reflective of the work being done by Ofer. Pointing to the boss engine, he ordered STI to make the rest of the game like that. By the time Chris Senn arrived, the Japanese executives were already tense, and though he had a brief moment to mention that another, further along presentation was on its way, nerves got the better of him. Due to the poor reception of STI's first showing, Nakayama and the rest had already left the building when Ofer Alon arrived.
In the aftermath of the meeting, STI was left with little choice but to follow Nakayama's demands, dropping Ofer Alon's work. Making Chris Coffin lead programmer, Mike Wallis gathered his team and sequestered them away from the politics at the STI headquarters, so they could focus on the project in the hopes of having it done by Christmas. Knowing time was not on their side, Wallis turned to then-new CEO of Sega of America Bernie Stolar, asking him for the engine being used for NiGHTS into Dreams, the Sonic X-treme team in desperate need of the development tools within. In a few days, the engine arrived, and for the next two weeks the team became familiar with the engine, thankful they wouldn't have to spend precious time programing elements that were already fully working within NiGHTS. However, development using the engine was forced to cease, Yuji Naka having learned that his work had been taken without his consent. Threatening to quit, SEGA bent to Naka's wishes, and the X-treme team was forced to start back at square one.
Desperate to make the deadline, programmer Chris Coffin moved into the development headquarters, working almost nonstop, the few hours of sleep being had in a cot within the office. The strain of the project became simply too much, Chris being overtaken with pneumonia in August of 1996. With doctors saying he only had months to live if he kept this up, Coffin was forced to bow out of the development cycle. With its lead programmer out of commission, Mike Wallis was forced to tell management that the game would not be completed in time for Christmas.
Though the official word was the project had been postponed, those involved knew the game had finally been canceled after years of production. To fill its place, a hastily-done port of Sonic 3D: Flickies' Island with enhanced graphics, a new special stage, and redone music was released on the Saturn that year. The advertisement money that was intended for X-treme was devoted to Sonic Team's NiGHTS into Dreams, which became the Sega Saturn's top seller that Christmas, the port of Flickes' Island being second.
Even though they had been removed from the project, Chris Senn (who was also suffering severe medical issues as a result of Sonic X-treme) and Ofer Alon continued to work on the engine and the textures used for the levels. Creating another presentation, the two showed off their work to the PC division of SEGA with the hope that the game would be released on PC, where it always worked at the proper framerate. The management declined to take it on, citing it was not in their budget to finance a new game, preferring to stick with ports of existing SEGA titles. While Chris Senn believed the real reasons were just more internal politics at SEGA because of Nakayama's distaste for the shoddy port of Ofer's work, the end result was still the same. Ceasing work on Sonic X-treme, Ofer left the company, thus putting an end to the Sonic X-treme development saga.
Aftermath and Legacy
With the cancellation of Sonic X-treme, the Sega Saturn would not see a core Sonic the Hedgehog title released on the system. Though Sonic Team, fresh from their work on NiGHTS into Dreams, did work on a Sonic title for the Saturn, they realized it would be futile to continue further, seeing as the system's short lifespan was already visible. Taking what they had, they quickly slapped together the Sonic World area in Sonic Jam, applying what they learned from this experiment into the production of Sonic Adventure, which would ultimately be released on the Dreamcast. Sega of America, having never officially canceled Sonic X-treme in the public's eye, at one point teased the idea of certain concepts from X-treme (such as Sonic's proposed arsenal of new moves) being carried over to Adventure, but in reality it was all spin to try and rebuild brand loyalty in the gaming public who had felt burned at the lack of a new Sonic platformer for the Saturn.
Even though there was no official announcement, it became quite clear that Sonic X-treme was indeed canceled, and soon became a wildly discussed myth in fan circles, little known about what had happened to the game. It was only with the growth of the Internet and a fanbase reaching adulthood that allowed proper inquiry into what had really happened, resulting in fan contact with Mike Wallis, Chris Senn, and Christina Coffin. This outpouring of support led to the creation of the Sonic Xtreme Compendium, a site owned and operated by Chris Senn meant to organize the many resources made during the project, and chronicle the highs and lows of development.
Though no copy of Ofer Alon's engine has been released, a prototype of Chris Coffin's boss engine (early in its conversion into "Project Condor") was put up for auction on ASSEMbler Games, and though effort was made to buy it for public release, it was ultimately sold to a private collector. False hope was aroused when, on April 1st, 2006, word got out that the ISO had been dumped, and was now available for public consumption. Both the Sonic community and the gaming press were taken in by the hoax, which only showcased how desperately the fan community wanted to experience "the Sonic game that never was." Finally, on July 17th, 2007, the ISO was released to the public at large.
2006 also saw the "unofficial" continuation of Sonic X-treme in the form of the fangame "Project-S." Sanctioned by Chris Senn, it was meant at first to be a straight completion of what Sonic X-treme was meant to be, but later on the project's goal changed to become more of an homage to the game, utilizing its own concepts and artwork in addition to the content that had been made a decade prior. The project was doomed to meet the same fate as its predecessor, production ceasing in January of 2010.
The latest major release of material concerning the game was in 2009, when a package of unreleased textures and level data was leaked to the public. Coupled with a viewer, the release finally allowed fans to experience the levels that were meant to be in Chris and Ofer's Sonic X-treme, albeit in an unplayable format.
In 2014, ASSEMbler Games member Jollyroger acquired a source code archive of POV's work on Sonic X-treme. This archive contains the source for multiple revisions of Ofer Alon's engine on PC, along with level data. The engine requires a nVidia Diamond Edge 3D NV1 video card, NV1 SDK and a Windows 9x system to work. Also discovered in the archive was an early version of Ofer's engine ported to Saturn. Jollyroger plans to release binaries of the X-treme engine, level editor and level data to the public.
The following is a list of names the game Sonic X-treme was developed under. It must be noted that there was a second, unrelated Sonic the Hedgehog game being developed for the Sega Saturn under the name Sonic Saturn as well.
Sonic-16 (Genesis) Pitch
Sonic Mars (32X) Pitch
Sonic Mars/Sonic X-treme (Sega Saturn/nVidia)
Sonic X-treme (Sega Saturn/PC)
"Project Condor" (Sega Saturn)