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What could have been: Sonic X-treme

3:22 PM on 11.19.2008 // Ashley Davis

It is widely believed that the downfall of Sonic the Hedgehog and the company who he represents began when his games made the shift from 2D to 3D. As his remaining fans cautiously poke at Sonic Unleashed and groan about Black Knight giving Sonic a sword, we may wonder: where would the little blue wonder be today if Adventure had not been the game to take up the torch after the 16-bit era and lead him down the path to ruin?

Had history occurred a little differently, that may not have been the case. There was a chance for another game to usher Sonic into the new era of video games, one that may have better represented what a 3D Sonic game should be. This game was a canceled title called Sonic X-treme, which had gameplay that looks as if it could have been a source of inspiration for Super Mario Galaxy. But what really makes X-treme special is that, regardless of its horrible 90s-centric name and how strange it looks, it could have been more of a Sonic game than anything we've seen recently could ever hope to be.

Continue reading to find out more about this piece of gaming history that never was.

What began as a game based on the ABC Saturday morning cartoon for the Genesis somehow ended up as the strange-looking title for the Saturn that you see here. Through all its changes, it was developed by Sega Technical Institute, the American team who were also responsible for the Genesis classics Sonic 2, Sonic 3, and Comix Zone. Sonic X-treme was undoubtedly in good hands, but it suffered so many push backs and rejected ideas that its story ended tragically. The game was never completed, and all of the years of hard work put into the game were ultimately a waste of the developer's time. The cancellation of Sonic X-treme also led to the breakup of STI, who were tired of constantly working themselves to the point of physical sickness on a game that went nowhere.

Sonic X-treme was supposed to be the hedgehog's very first foray into a three-dimensional world, and judging by what's left of the project today, it looked to be a very promising offer. Thanks to X-treme's lead designer, Chris Senn, the game did not completely fall into obscurity. He has since uploaded all of his work to the Internet, including videos of the game in motion so that we may see what could have been.

In its later builds, the game had Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and a new character named Tiara as playable characters. They would all play slightly differently, but Sonic's stages were the only ones that have ever been seen in motion. Regardless of all the problems that STI faced during development, what they ended up with for Sonic's stages actually look pretty amazing.

While the third act boss levels were more traditional 3D romps, all of Sonic's non-boss levels were spherical and completely traversable. There was a fixed center of gravity in the center of the world, allowing the player to run up walls and rotate the playing field as he or she needed. The game featured a fish-eye lens camera to aid the player in seeing more of the round world that Sonic was traversing at once.

Unlike Mario Galaxy, the levels were designed in a way that no matter where you jumped, there would have always been land beneath your hedgehog. While the game looks as if it might have been a bit difficult to play, the idea of not being able to die by accidentally flinging yourself off the edge of the world or not taking a loop exactly right seems like a really good one by the point we are at today.

Regardless of whatever flaws it may have had in play, you have to admit that X-treme looks more like a Sonic title than anything Sonic Team has offered us in the past couple of years. Instead of blazing through everything at top speed, you have to stop quite often to take on some good old-fashioned platforming. Many of the comments for the videos that showcase X-treme's gameplay are along the lines of, "Sonic is too slow in this game." It's been said a million times, but I'll say it again: Sonic was never entirely about speed. Sure, he can run fast, but whether it was a group of rotating blocks, water, or floating platforms, there were always numerous obstacles around to slow the hedgehog down in the old days. When watching X-treme in action, I actually flash back to the Genesis games that I spent my childhood playing. Nothing since Sonic Adventure has made me feel that way, and it's very sad that the one game that could have changed it all never saw the light of day. Don't get me wrong, I liked Adventure, but only liked. I loved the old Sonic games.

While the past is past, it is still interesting to imagine how Sonic's history may have been changed if things had happened the way that they could have. If Sonic X-treme was a game that did make it to release, would Sega Technical Institute have continued to flourish and give us more of the same? Would it have still been passed over for games made by Sonic Team, like Sonic Adventure? Or would future 3D Sonic games have taken a page out of X-treme’s book and offered classic hedgehog platforming with a slight twist?

Though we can only speculate what impact the game could have had back in 1997, we may see a completed version of the game one day. Senn has toyed around with the idea of finishing a PC version of X-treme for years, and he and his team are currently working on a fangame dubbed Project-S that borrows heavily from all his unused work. Perhaps someday soon we will see these old-yet-new ideas in a playable form.

You can check out every scrap of Senn's archived work on the game here.

Ashley Davis,
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