The Making Of: Sonic X-treme

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The Saturn was as famous for its lack of a proper, exclusive Sonic title (off-shoot Sonic R notwithstanding) as the Mega Drive was for having perhaps too many. But Sega never intended for the Saturn to lack the company’s mascot. The story of how the speedy blue hedgehog with the red shoes never found a proper home on Sega’s 32bit machine is one of indecision, conflict and confusion – problems that threatened to tear its internal development divisions apart.

The lack of any binding vision for the game, or even a set console for it to play on, doomed Sonic X-treme from its very inception. It was a situation that Sonic X-treme’s eventual designer, Christian Senn, still sounds frustrated about: “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…”

Sonic X-treme was a fitting symbol for a company that at the time was at stuck in an uneasy transition period. Developed at Sega Technical Institute, Sega’s America-based development division, the game was bounced around like a pinball from system to system, business plan to business plan. And its basic design, based almost entirely around Sonic’s past successes, simply wasn’t working too well.

“The theme of the game was to take basic Sonic [2D side scrolling] and add the ability to have him go into and out of the screen,” recalls the game’s producer, Mike Wallis. “On paper that sounded great, but when we actually started to implement it, the addition created some design challenges we didn’t initially account for.” Console 3D graphics were in their infancy, and developers had much to learn about their effects on controls and game mechanics.

But even without considering the difficulties of working in 3D, Senn is uncertain that the project could ever have succeeded. “It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume it was doomed from the beginning,” he admits. His team had never worked together before, and suffered from lack of experience. “The first Sonic games [from Sonic 2 onwards] had been created almost exclusively by Japanese team members led by Yuji Naka, but we were a totally separate group across the hall,” he explains. “This set up seeds of doubt and a political landmine waiting to go off if we didn’t produce amazing results quickly. It truly was a project where anything that could have gone wrong, did.”

The team underwent frequent changes, and was cursed by inner conflict. Lead programmer Don Goddard was replaced with Ofer Alon, a decision that the former team members still disagree upon. Alon’s focus on programming for the PC with intent to port to the Saturn may have made sense in the light of Sega’s capricious approach to hardware, but when it came to porting, the team found it ran cripplingly slowly. Some members also claim Alon could be hard to work with and reluctant to show them how he was progressing.

Senn has a different opinion, perhaps because he was the only one to regularly see Alon’s work, maintaining that it was never appreciated. “I remember the day [Sega of Japan president] Hayao Nakayama came to Sega Technical Institute to check on our progress,” he says. “By this time, the team had split into two distinct groups, both working on Sonic X-treme but not on the same version.”

One group, composed of Alon and Senn, continued development of the engine, the editor and levels on the PC with the intention to port to the Saturn. The other group, Team Condor, was led by Robert Morgan and comprised everyone else. They used an old version of Alon’s editor to port directly to the Saturn. “Ofer and I planned to unveil our version when Nakayama-san came to see the Condor Team’s efforts,” Senn continues. “We missed our chance, though, when Nakayama-san came storming out practically cursing after seeing what they’d done.”

The videos circulating around YouTube may justify Senn’s claim, although how well the code this footage shows would have eventually ported to the Saturn will probably never be known. After his visit, Nakayama ruled that the one part of the game he liked – the boss engine developed by Chris Coffin – was to become the base tech for the game.

Such divisions within STI presented enough difficulties for the project, but the difficult relationship between Sega Of America and its Japanese parent didn’t help. Bernie Stolar had just moved from Sony to take over Sega Of America, and Wallis clearly remembers his desire to get the mascot character on to the Saturn in time for the Christmas of 1996. He allocated a specialised team to the project and asked what they needed to get it out in time. “I told him the team felt that with the Nights engine and development tools we’d have a much better shot of achieving our goal,” says Wallis. “He said to consider it done.”

The team then spent a period familiarising itself with the new engine, but the relief was short-lived: “After two or three weeks, Stolar came in and told us that we had to stop using the Nights engine, that Sega Of Japan was changing its mind and that we would have to go back to using our [Coffin’s] own tech.” Wallis spoke to Stolar to find out what was behind the change of heart: “He told me that Yuji Naka had threatened to quit if Japan allowed us to use his technology to create a Sonic game.”

With Sonic X-treme’s team still divided, lacking in time and with no solid tech to run their game on, the future of X-treme looked more and more bleak. While the Condor Team continued its development with Coffin’s engine, Senn and Alon also persevered with their PC development.

Senn still believes that Ofer had produced an engine robust enough to build the game on. “I estimate another six to 12 weeks and even the two of us could have finished a game together using the assets we already had and any new ones needed,” he says, ruefully.

Development for the Saturn version fared no better. It all hinged on Coffin, who Wallis remembers working inhumane hours trying to get it finished. “Coffin actually left his apartment, cancelling its lease, moved all his belongings into the office, and worked day and night,” he says. Illness, however, took Coffin out, bringing Sega Of America’s great hope of having a fully 3D Sonic title for the Saturn down too. “The guy was a human dynamo,” says Wallis. “He literally worked himself into the ground, which was unfortunate, because without Coffin the project had zero chance of being released in time for Christmas.”

Wallis had little choice but to inform Stolar that they wouldn’t be able to meet deadline. A backup plan was revealed in the form of the Saturn port of Sonic 3D, which Wallis was given the opportunity to produce, and the plug was finally pulled on Sonic X-treme in early 1997.

Now a black sheep in Sega’s past, it will never be known whether a game worth the pain that went into producing it might have come out of this poorly conceived project. It’s difficult not to wonder what impact it might have had, and what differences it could have caused to the Sonic titles that followed. Some of the initial designs did have promise, such the plan to use analogue control, something now a given in a 3D platformer.

Mario may have become the unquestioned platforming king of the era, but Wallis is content to close with one last, bold claim: “How would X-treme have done against Mario 64? Hard to say, but it definitely would have been competitive.”

  • Arshin Carnifex

    Still wouldn’t have saved the Saturn. Or Sega, for that matter. They simply got brutally outmatched by Sony on every level, from the technology right up through the sales and marketing.

    The last nail was when Sega and Sony showed up for the 1995 E3 conferences: Sega USA’s president demanded the right to present first, then spent over an hour plugging and bragging about their $399 console. Sony’s president then got up, said “$299″, and sat back down to a standing ovation.

    Everything Sega did past that point was nothing but shoveling good money after bad. They deserved what they got. The entire Sega board of directors needed to get fired.