More details about the cancelled game Sonic X-Treme has come to light thanks to a new interview with the Mike Wallis, the man in charge of the project at SEGA America. Not only was it originally planned for 32X before switching to SEGA Saturn, but a PC version was also in production – and the entire game was once planned to run on Sonic Team’s NiGHTS engine!
The information comes from a brand new interview by fansite Sonic CulT, the owner of which (Pachuka) managed to track down Mike Wallis and asked a few burning questions from the website’s community. There’s just so much information that Mike shared (the full interview is a must-read and can be found here) but we’ve gathered a selection of interesting tidbits and posted below.
The Team Behind Sonic X-Treme
Wallis revealed his past credentials at SEGA Technical Institute at SEGA America (which was the development team for Sonic X-Treme, not Sonic Team or SEGA in Japan). He was previously the Associate Producer on Comix Zone and then Producer of The Ooze.
The rag-tag band of developers that got together on the X-Treme project included programmer Chris Coffin, lead designer Jason Kuo, designer Rick Wheeler, artists Fei Cheng, Andrew Probert and Ross Hariss and musician Howard Drossin. Key among these was lead designer Chris Senn and lead programmer Ofar Alon – two people who effectively ran themselves into the ground by working tirelessly on the game.
32X Origins and the Mystery ‘N64’ Style SEGA Console
One big surprising reveal was the origins of Sonic X-Treme. We all assumed it was simply a SEGA Saturn project, but according to Wallis it “actually first started out as a 32X game. Then, you know, when that system came out [it] sort of tanked [and] they switched it.
“There was actually an [interim] system before the Saturn, it was Nvidia technology based… now, a lot of people don’t know this because it was just on the drawing board. But Sega had a partnership with Nvidia technology for their very first RIVA, TNT Card… Sega was going to make a cartridge based machine to compete with the N64 rather than a CD-ROM based machine.
“So we had some early technology and X-Treme basically went on THAT platform. It was going to be a launch title. And then Sega of America said “No, we’re going to do [SEGA] Saturn.”
The PC Version
Surprisingly, there was a PC version of the game being developed as well. The idea was to work on PC workstations for a home computer release, and then port that version back onto the SEGA Saturn.
“Ofar Alon was developing this game; he was developing X-Treme on the PC… with the intent of porting it to the Saturn. He wrote these great development tools and everything, and it looked great. But the problem was [the game was] so processor intensive that when it went to the Saturn, it was running at like, 2 frames a second.”
The PC version of Sonic X-Treme mostly involved the ‘fish eye lens’ style regular stage gameplay, while Chris Coffin worked in tandem on the boss stages (which featured more of a full 3D arena gameplay).
Yuji Naka and the NiGHTS Engine
The most surprising thing about the interview was the mention of Yuji Naka and the engine he developed for NiGHTS… into Dreams. The team at SEGA Technical Institute was given a very short deadline to finish the Sonic X-Treme project, and to help speed up development Wallis revealed that SEGA America executives agreed for the use of Naka’s NiGHTS engine to build Sonic’s 3D world.
Problem was, it was an agreement that SOA couldn’t make good on.
“[SEGA of America CEO] Bernie Stolar made us a lot of promises that he couldn’t deliver on,” Wallis said. “He was brand new, and he said to us, ‘Look, what do you guys need to [be able to] do this by Christmas ?’ We said, ‘Well, we need the NiGHTS engine, because we can’t develop the technology, it would take too long.’ So he said, ‘Alright, you got it.’
“So, you know, they shipped us a NiGHTS editor, a level-based editor and our designers were familiarising themselves with that… and after about two weeks, Yuji Naka (who was the designer of NiGHTS, and one of the original Sonic Team), had [heard about it and] said, ‘No’.
“There was a big rivalry between SEGA Japan and SEGA America, and Yuji Naka hated SOA. So he went [to the Head of SOJ at the time] and said ‘Look, I don’t want these guys to have the NiGHTS engine. I do not want them to have the NiGHTS technology. If you give it to them, I quit.’ So [they went] to Bernie Stolar and said, ‘I’m not giving you anything. You’re gonna have to do without it.’ So… Bernie had to come to us and say, ‘Sorry guys, you’re gonna have to do it without the NiGHTS Technology.'”
It was a major setback for the project, Wallis added, and ultimately a big reason why the game ended up getting cancelled. With the limited time they already had wasted on tinkering with an engine they ended up not being allowed to use, any spare development time was used to hurriedly create a brand new engine from scratch.
Boss Arenas and the Game Direction Changes
What didn’t help during this post-NiGHTS period was executive interference in the game’s already cursed development. Wallis noted that Ofar Alon and Chris Coffin had built two approaches to Sonic X-Treme gameplay – the regular stages, which featured narrower pathways and featured a fish-eye lens camera, and the fully-3D boss stages. SEGA, at the eleventh hour, wanted the entire game to be based around the latter.
“Chris Coffin was the lead programmer for the Boss Levels — you know, the boss levels were supposed to be like, these Arenas… [we showed it off] at E3… and I think [SOJ’s Head] had come out to SOA at the time, sometime during the summer and he saw both [styles] and said, ‘Oh I like this one [the Boss Level technology] much better… I want you to make the whole game like this, using this technology.'”
Overworked Staff and Game Cancellation
But what really hit the nail on the head for Wallis was the health and wellbeing of his team. After the NiGHTS engine pushback and the Boss Technology requests, “Ofar [Alon] got really pissed off and he quit Sega and left. So it was all basically hinging on Chris [Senn].
“And Chris, he was like 25 years old at the time. He was this hot-shot programmer, a great guy… and he literally moved into Sega! He moved out of his apartment, moved all of his stuff into a storeroom at Sega, moved his bed there, and slept there.
“For about seven or eight weeks Chris worked about… I’d say, 20 hours a day. And he basically worked himself into the ground… he caught walking pneumonia sometime in late August 1996, and he came to me and said “Mike, I can’t do this anymore.” He was so sick. I mean, the guy looked like a ghost.”
That was the moment, Wallis added, that he decided to call the entire project off. “I said, ‘Alright, that’s it. We’re not gonna do it. We’re not gonna get it done, the project’s over.’ And I went to Bernie Stolar and said, ‘We can’t do it. You know it was all hinging on Chris? The guy can’t do it, it’s over. We’re not gonna make Christmas.’ Bernie said, ‘Well, you know, we’ve been working on these backup plans…'”
Turns out that, while Sonic X-Treme was crashing and burning, SEGA worked with Travellers’ Tales in the UK to develop a ‘Plan B’. This was Sonic 3D Blast (or Flickies’ Island). Stolar asked Wallis to be the producer of Sonic 3D instead, and Sonic X-Treme was formally scrapped.
So What Had Been Completed?
The last question on everyone’s lips is obviously; does any trace of Sonic X-Treme still exist and if it does, will it ever hit the public domain? Wallis revealed that one stage was pretty much playable but more as a tech demo rather than something complete.
“We had one playable level, the Green Valley… I don’t know, I can’t remember the name, but it was you know, green fields where Sonic runs over hills, picks up rings… there were actually some enemies… there wasn’t a lot of animated flora and fauna, but there was some. There wasn’t a whole lot of gameplay in there.
“The boss levels were much farther along, because that was the technology that Chris had built first, and I think we had a Metal Sonic level in there… a Fang the Weasel level in there, I think we had two bosses working, they had AI and everything.”
Ironically, the PC version of the game was much further along than the SEGA Saturn version – but not for the reason you might think. “After the X-Treme project stopped… Chris Senn and Ofar Alon actually [continued to work] on the PC version between the two of them,” Wallis said. “They did something like three or four different levels with enemies and stuff, still using the fisheye view… they tried to pitch it to SEGA Entertainment [SEGA’s PC publishing division] but all they were content with was doing ports at the time.” They didn’t want it.
The Love Interest
Finally, Wallis mentioned a little bit about the story behind Sonic X-Treme, and the intention to bring a new female character into the mix. “Chris Senn wanted to give Sonic this love interest, or a means to… I guess she sort of would have fit in, like, maybe Robotnik would have captured her and then you know, Sonic would rescue her. And you know, she’s this good lookin’ character, and there’d be this sort of… love tension between the two of them. So that was one of the new characters that Chris had designed.”
Hopefully we’ll get to hear more about this character, and a lot more, about Sonic X-Treme in the future. Sonic CulT noted that they were in the midst of reaching out to Chris Senn about the project as well, which will hopefully uncover more about the mystery surrounding this long lost game!