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Sega's Sonic

By Charles EP Murphy

Sonic in Porto Alegre. He gets around.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sonic the Hedgehog and Sega were cultural powerhouses in the 1990s: the coolest mascot from the coolest games company, with hordes of games and comics and cartoons and lunchboxes. The blue blur and his nemesis Mario fought a war for the playgrounds while their owners fought for the console market: the Game Boy ruled the handheld market and the Mega Drive was the premier 16-bit console, but the future of 3D gaming was up for grabs. Who would w... wait, what’s a Playstation?

The debut of Sony’s console turned the mid-to-late 90s into a three-way fight between the N64, the Playstation, and the Sega Saturn, and Sega lost badly. Despite a valiant return effort with the 128-bit Dreamcast, Sega had to give up the console market; Sonic would survive, having to smile and accept Mario’s magnanimous offer of appearing in an Olympics game tie-in with him, but the golden age was over.

This is a Playstation, Charles. At least, a prototype.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One of the reasons given for the Saturn’s demise is that Sonic wasn’t properly on it. There was Sonic 3D Blast, but that was a Mega Drive port; there was Sonic R but that was a racing game spinoff; there was Sonic Jam but that was a compilation of old game. Why was Sega’s mascot AWOL? Well, he wasn’t meant to be. While Yuji Naka and his Sonic Team were working on new games like NiGHTS into Dreams, Saga Technical Institute in America had been working on a 3D showcase for him called Sonic X-treme and it was set for release in the 1996 holiday season. And then it was set for release in early 1997, and then quietly cancelled.

What was Sonic X-treme going to be like? Well, that’s a problem to work out because there ended up being two versions made by the same team!

Part of X-treme’s problem was that Sega was caught up in an in-fighting political mess worthy of the current SNP. It got so bad that Sonic X-treme’s eventual designer, Christian Senn, would lament to Edge: “We had a company that couldn’t decide what platform the game should be developed for. Should it be Genesis? Saturn? No, wait – the new secret Mars 32X system! No, wait – nVidia, Saturn, PC...” The STI team were also completely separate to Sonic Team, at a time when the US and Japanese sides of the company were at odds. When Senn mentions “nVidia”, he means that Sega of America was working on its own 32-bit console with the company nVidia until Sega of Japan forced them to stop and focus on the Saturn. Nobody was sure what to do.

Eventually, veteran game developer Mike Wallis took over the X-treme project and the Christmas 1996 deadline was imposed. This is when you ended up with the game being made... with one design for the levels and another for the boss fights! The levels used a gaming engine designed by Chris Senn and Ofer Alon, with a fisheye lens camera to give you a wide-angle view of the level and levels that would rotate and have Sonic speeding up the walls. Meanwhile, the boss levels were giant open arenas to brawl in and had a different camera system, using an engine developed by Christina Coffin (who, as she worked as Chris Coffin, has often been written as male in older accounts). The teams weren’t just using different engines: Coffin was working on the Saturn while Alon and Senn were making it on the PC to port the finished work onto the console.

Who came up with the idea of using a fisheye camera for gaming?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In an article for the website Lost Levels that’s too sweary to link to, Wallis lamented that X-treme was a ‘matrix management’ project – where instead of one boss, you have multiple on the same project – which left him with little control and meant that groups could and did go off on their own tangents, all the while internal politics (“the art director had trained his art team to hate the designers and programmers”) struck hard. Certainly, the two different programming teams didn’t quite connect. On top of this, Chris Senn had fallen severely ill in early 1996 and would have recurring bouts of sickness throughout 1996. In January 1996, Sega had a third party group take over the Ofer/Senn game and hurriedly port an older version to the Saturn before the big boss Hayao Nakayama showed up.

In March, the port was still a complete mess. A visiting Nakayama was not happy and only placated by Coffin’s boss level demo; he ordered Sonic X-treme to be remade in the style of her work. Coffin’s team went into ‘crunch’ – or “dangerously long working hours that ruin your health” to you and me, with one animator fired for not playing ball – all for nothing as Coffin, then living in the office, also fell severely ill and without her, the deadline had to be missed.

How do you fix this so Sonic X-treme comes out after all?

The best way for all concerned is if STI is more decisive about the game and the larger company is not in a mess, but that’s not only unlikely, if STI decisively went: “We’re doing a 32X game!” then Sonic X-treme is dead early. Another way is just if the Alon/Senn levels were being made on the Saturn, which Wallis admitted in a 2019 interview for Youtube account Stuff We Play that they should have forced Alon to do. If everything is ready on Saturn when Nakayama visits, there’s no massive overhaul of Sonic X-treme and they can complete the game in time.

Even the Coffin version could potentially come out if you change just one thing: the team asking to use Team Sonic’s development tools for NiGHTS to give them a leg-up. Sega of America allowed them to use it, but Naka was furious and demanded that all of the work based on his tools be removed. He may even have threatened to quit if it wasn’t! This cost the X-treme team two weeks they couldn’t afford to lose. Naka himself has said this is all lies, though he also claims that the game was made without his knowledge but this seems highly unlikely. In 2006, Coffin mentioned she’s had correspondence with him.

So, we have two ways for Sonic X-treme to exist. If it does, what next? Whichever version is out for the winter of 1996, Egmont Fleetway in the UK and Archie Comics in the US will both be “asked” to promote the game in their Sonic comics. What does this look like? Well, that depends on the plot.

For many years, from an interview in Game Players #88 in 1995, we ‘knew’ that X-treme would be about Robotnik looking for the Rings of Order and abducting the ring forger Dr Boobowski; Sonic would go save him with the help of the doc’s daughter, Tiara Boobowski. Senn would reveal years later that they’d made that up so that Game Players would have something to print and they were still figuring the plot out at the time. Ideas they had included that Robotnik had warped Mobius into something twisted and Sonic had to travel the landscape to get to his date with Princess Tiara before she got pissy; a sick Robotnik had infected Sonic with the same virus so the spiky one will find the cure for him; Robotnik has accidentally released a terrible virus-spreading villain from the Chaos Emeralds; Sonic had sent Robotnik into space but now he’s back; and the bad doctor had enslaved the Mip aliens to be Badnik batteries, while his new Death Egg fortress was tearing planets from orbit.

Around this time, the UK’s Sonic the Comic was starting a plot where Robotnik was schmoozing the alien Drakon Empire to regain his dictatorship. Any plot involving Robotnik coming from space would be slotted in easily; instead of enslaving 3D Blast’s Flicky birds, he’s doing in the Mips. As writer Nigel Kitching had an idea that the Drakons had created the Chaos Emeralds, an evil villain living in the Emeralds could be a Drakon baddie that got stuck in them. Robotnik makes Sonic sick? Well, that’s just a Tuesday on Mobius.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say Dr Robotnik is a villain. With an impressive moustache.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

By contrast, Archie Comics will be heavily disrupted, less by the adaptation itself – they will just adapt the plot in a 48-page comic, as they did for 3D Blast – and more by how this is coming out when the comic is rushing to #50, the story Endgame, where they assume the comic is likely to be cancelled now the cartoons are off the air. Endgame ends with the death of Robotnik. Well, you can’t do that if there’s a big game out with Robotnik and Sega’s still planning new stuff. Still, just as STC did, they can depose Robotnik as global dictator and still do their plans for a post-Robotnik world and for Sonic & Tails to go on a ‘world tour’ run of stories.

The biggest problem is Tiara. In both Archie and the ‘SatAM’ cartoon, Sonic has a girlfriend in Princess Sally Acorn, while in STC our hero showed no interest in mushy stuff. But here’s Sega saying: “This is Sonic’s girlfriend.” That means the comics are introducing a girlfriend, whether they want to or not.

For STC, this just means writers Nigel Kitching and Lew Stringer getting told to start writing a girlfriend and lumping it, but Archie might have to break up Sonic and Sally so that he can very quickly date a new girl (who might also be a princess!). That’s going to be fine for Archie’s Ken Penders and Karl Bollers, as the former already wanted to break the couple up at the time as he felt it was a millstone and the latter was going to introduce his own potential girlfriend later (Mina the Mongoose) anyway, but the fans have only just yelled at Archie Comics to undo a planned story where Sally dies. Take the romance away from them now, and they’re going to be LIVID. American Sonic fandom will be a seething blood ground between Sonic-Tiara shippers and teenagers who feel this hussy broke up the OTP.

What this means for any given story is hard to guess as we know so little about Tiara except for the vague idea she’d be a ‘girl power’ type character. We can guess only that it means she’s off with Sonic and Tails on the Archie World Tour. With STC, editor Deborah Tate is likely going to push “use Tiara” on the creators as she did in OTL with Amy Rose and STC-original Tekno the Canary; she was to have more strong heroines for the young girls reading the comic. Some of the Amy solo strips of the time may end up as Tiara strips!

But let’s go back to the game versions for a second. There are actually three versions we have here: the one with the fisheye lens that looks nothing like any previous game, the one that just about makes it to the deadline due to excessive crunch by broken programmers, and the one that just about makes it to the deadline due to excessive crunch by broken programmers and isn’t very good because of everyone being broken. And the first game, well, online you can find gameplay demos and reconstructions and a trailer from E3 1996 where sinister Italian plumbers are furious that their enemy is stronger than ever and that means we can see how it looks. Whether you think it looks cool and swanky or painful to follow is subjective, but speaking personally, it looks like something that’d give me motion sickness to try playing.

The boss fight footage is far more normal. If the whole game looks like that and the team are able to polish it to work out, you could have a perfectly fine game... but what if you don’t? The key thing for Sonic X-treme is that it’s going: “Look, Sonic’s back and he’s 3D now”, it’s the possible way of making the Saturn less of a company-crashing failure, and to achieve that, the game has to be good. What happens if the game isn’t good?

Sonic has had bad games before but this is a flagship title, this is an example that the cool spiky one has a future, this is the game competing with Mario 64 and the sexy new Crash Bandicoot. If Sonic loses that contest, if he’s seen as not just lamer than the new bandicoot on the block but also has lost out compared to Mario, that’s a huge blow. That’s a giant scarlet L on Sonic’s head. It could hang over the Saturn far worse than X-treme’s absence did. At least in OTL, we can go: “If only Sonic had been there.”

If X-treme succeeds or fails, that changes how the comics have to operate. In our timeline, Sonic’s ‘wilderness years’ gave them a lot more freedom to operate; there was no cartoon or big game they needed to pay attention to, it was all down to their own imaginations. If Sonic X-treme does well, that changes and a lot of things are tightened up. If it fails, well, they’ll go off on their own devices after all and that means you might get away with breaking up Sonic and Tiara. Tate would have STC keep her around, would Archie or would we get a story where Sally comes back so fans will stop writing?

What does success or failure mean for future Sonic games like Dreamcast’s Sonic Adventure? If it succeeds, Sonic Team in Japan will probably do what they did anyway – “let’s show the Americans what a REAL Sonic 3D is like.” But if it fails, Sega will want to find reasons it failed and make sure Adventure doesn’t replicate those parts of the gaming experience – what changes are made in the hope of stopping a new failure? Adventure has multiple types of gameplay to show off the console’s power; is that stamped on and the Sonic Team ordered to be a much less ambitious game?

Of course, if the game is good under the Coffin engine, then we have a well-received game that brings Sonic properly into the 3D era, some whole new characters added to the lore... and the Saturn still fails due to its many issues (costing more than the Playstation, coming out too early, etc). Sonic X-treme is out a year into the Saturn’s run, too late to do anything. So instead, we’re talking about whether the Saturn would have been saved with an earlier Sonic game!

In the end, part of X-treme’s issue was, as Senn told Retro Gamer’s Sega Archive: “Not having any idea of how large a bite we were trying to chew... In hindsight, it may have been wise to re-create the basic elements of the 2D games in 3D, which might have allowed us time to polish the game before finishing.” Of course, if they hadn’t tried to pull off too much at once, we’d not still be talking about Sonic X-treme and what might have been.

Charles EP Murphy is the author of Simon and Sir Gawain and is the editor of the anthology Comics of Infinite Earths.

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