Development hell is an unforgiving place. Games that become lost in its depths rarely see the light of day, and sadly for us, it's often potential classics that suffer this fate. The cancellation of a flagship title can be significant enough to condemn its home platform to the proverbial scrapheap or force a studio into liquidation, while the game-buying public is left wondering what might have been. Next month sees the launch of Duke Nukem Forever, a sequel the world had long thought lost in limbo. To mark the occasion, we opened up the vapourware vault to pay tribute to some of the games that weren't so fortunate.
Warcraft Adventures: Lord Of The Clans (PC)
Long before Blizzard Entertainment revolutionised the world of multiplayer online games, they took a stab at the point-and-click adventure. Slated for release in 1998, Warcraft Adventures: Lord Of The Clans was on the brink of completion, with animation, puzzles and sound all wrapped up. Several high-profile actors had even recorded voice parts from the game - including Clancy Brown (Highlander) and Peter Cullen (Transformers) - but Blizzard had its doubts.
Problems arose when unforeseen technical issues were brought to the studio's attention. Adventure games expert Steve Meretzky was hired to help make the game's puzzles more cohesive with its narrative. After studying footage at length, he concluded that intensive reworking was required.
E3 1998 was fast approaching and Lucas Arts, who had a significant stranglehold on the genre, had already released The Curse Of Monkey Island and was planning to showcase Grim Fandango at the expo. Compared to its competitor's flagship titles, Blizzard believed Lord Of The Clans appeared dated, and was unwilling to invest any further in the project. After more than a year in development, Clans was canned.
Return Of Donkey Kong (NES)
We owe a great deal to Donkey Kong. Not only did Shigeru Miyamoto's classic help make the platform genre what it is today, it also introduced the world to a certain dungaree-wearing plumber who would go on to become one of gaming's most recognisable icons.
Although the title spawned a number of 8-bit sequels, each veered from the original's formula and failed to live up to its barrel-dodging carnage. In the mid-1980s, Nintendo began work on what would likely have been a true sequel to the arcade classic. Little is known about Return Of Donkey Kong, but reports suggested that it was intended as a multiplayer offering in which a second person took control of the titular ape.
No doubt Sega loyalists of the '80s would have relished the opportunity to hurl debris at Mario, but it wasn't long before the Big N cancelled the project, along with a proposed music title based on the series, known as Donkey Kong No Ongaku Asobi.
EarthBound 64 (N64)
The JRPG fraternity are no strangers to the bizarre, but you're unlikely to find a more unconventional game than the mid-'90s SNES release EarthBound. It was an in-name-only sequel to the obscure NES offering Mother, featuring a psychically-gifted boy named Ness on a quest to save the world from a hostile alien race. Towards the end of the decade, a third entry in the series entered production for the ill-fated Nintendo 64DD add-on under the working title Mother 3. Its development cycle was lengthy, and early impressions favourable, but multiple delays and the commercial failure of the 64DD saw it consigned to the rejects bin.
Mother 3 was to use similar mechanics to its predecessors, albeit with 3D visuals and first-person battle sequences. The developers were certainly ambitious, aiming to deliver a product with enough scope to enable each player to shape their own unique experience. They even hoped to incorporate a rhythm action component through the use of a "3D stick", and user-generated content via the 64DD's graphics package Mario Artist.
In many ways, Mother 3 is an example of over-ambition. The development team behind EarthBound strived to take the series to the next level, but had little experience working with 3D technology. This led to multiple delays, and by the time the finished product was even close to ready, the N64 approached its expiration date. The game's story and setting was later salvaged as a Game Boy Advance title rendered in 2D, though fans were still left wondering what might have been.
Project Milo (Xbox 360)
Lionhead Studios' Xbox 360 undertaking Project Milo is one of the modern gaming industry's most closely guarded secrets. Unveiled at E3 2009, the endeavour served as a tech demo for the console's Kinect motion hardware, though conflicting reports suggest that it was once intended as the framework for a fully-fledged game.
Milo had an AI structure that responded to a range of human iterations, such as voice commands, gestures and actions. An internal dictionary would match up certain works and influence the on-screen characters to behave in a specific way. Work on the project began as far back as 2001, and commenced under numerous code names, such as 'Dimitri' and 'Project X'.
In September last year, it was reported that work on Project Milo had ceased, at which point Microsoft stated that it was never intended to be a game in its own right. It has since been speculated that the technology will be used as basis for a Kinect-themed entry in the Fable series. At the 2011 Game Developers Conference, lead programmer Ben Sugden confirmed that the programme's graphics engine will be used for future Xbox 360 titles.
Super Mario's Wacky Worlds (Phillips CD-i)
Towards the end of the SNES's lifecycle, Nintendo invested in CD hardware to keep the console on life support. The gaming giant commissioned Phillips to work on a disc drive for the platform, and in exchange, the firm was granted the rights to its IPs for use in titles for its CD-i machine. A quasi-sequel to SNES launch title Super Mario World entered development, though never saw the light of day.
Super Mario's Wacky Worlds was built on the same engine as its classic predecessor, but was to take place in real-world locations such as Greece and Egypt. Given that the limitations of the CD-i meant it could only handle a reduced number of sprites on screen, and its pointing device controller was the last input you'd want to direct Mario with, it's probably for the best that this one was never allowed to tarnish our memories of Mario World.
Working prototypes of the game did end up in circulation. One sold on eBay for $1,000 despite much of its coding being incomplete, while others were leaked online. To fill the void left by its cancellation, Phillips released Hotel Mario for the CD-i, which is regarded by many as one of the worst games to feature the Nintendo mascot.
Sonic X-treme (Sega Saturn)
The Saturn will always be considered as one of Sega's less successful consoles, but its fortunes might have been different had a certain flagship title made it out of development hell. Sonic X-treme began life as a Genesis platformer, before being moved to the 32X and later the aforementioned Saturn. It was an attempt to take the award-winning formula to the next level by adding 3D visuals and new gameplay mechanics.
X-treme was intended for release around Christmas 1996 to do battle with Nintendo's Super Mario 64 and Sony's Crash Bandicoot in the software charts. A troubled development cycle saw the game hit multiple delays and its final deadline was not met. Sega scrapped the project the following year, opting to release a port of the poorly-received Genesis offering Sonic 3D Blast instead.
Sega's decision to release a 16-bit port in place of the exclusive Sonic game fans were eagerly awaiting is often cited as one of the primary reasons for the Saturn's downfall. The platform never received a core entry in the Sonic series, leaving the public having to make do with rehashes and spinoffs. Sonic would not appear in a 3D platformer until the Dreamcast's Sonic Adventure hit stores.
Working the StarCraft formula into a first-person shooter might sound like a stroke of genius, but Blizzard's execution of such a project was anything but. StarCraft: Ghost was announced in 2002 for Nintendo GameCube, Xbox and PlayStation 2, but is still yet to materialise. Development originally started out at Nihilistic Software, before changing hands to Swingin' Ape Studios, who also failed to see the project through.
The game was to follow a a Terran psychic espionage operative named Nova on a quest to expose a conspiracy by her superiors at the imperial Terran Dominion. In 2006, Blizzard confirmed that the game is on indefinite hold, although the studio maintains that it is still investigating the possibility of salvaging it for current generation platforms.
There has been no official word on the status of the project since the D.I.C.E. Summit in February 2008, where Blizzard co-founder Frank Pearce explained that the game has never been officially cancelled, but was not a priority at the time due to finite resources.
Would you have bought any of these games? Can you think of any good examples of vapourware? Write a comment in the space below!