5 Games: Canceled Nintendo 64 Titles
here is something truly interesting and unique about reading old video game magazines through a modern lens. This is especially true of Nintendo Power, which I absolutely adore reading, even though I never had a subscription at any point when I was growing up. There’s a strange sense of joy that comes from reading write-ups of your favorite classic games from a publication that was responsible for getting adolescents and other Nintendo fans excited for them when they were on the horizon, rather than old reliables, system sellers, or hidden gems. This makes things especially interesting when you arrive at the Pak Watch feature at the end of each issue, where titles that were a good ways off would get as much as a blurb and a screenshot or two to as little as the title and a vague release date.
The tragedy of returning to the days of Pak Watch, then, is when you realize that there are more than a few that were ultimately cancelled, often with little press (most likely due to the well-deserved feeling of utter shame that should result from such crimes), making for odd little moments when a title is on the Release Forecast list for months straight, and then all of a sudden, they’re not. However, through the magic of the internet, we can often now have access to vital information about these games, some of which were likely waited on with bated breath for an update or feature.
Now, of course, every system ever, no matter how successful it may or may not have been, has its fair share of “could’ve been” titles, but beyond the fact that it is, of course, my favorite system, the Nintendo 64’s cancellation streak towards the end of its relatively short life should still come off as rather striking. In both for the number of games that were canned and how far along they might be when they were pulled. Betas, screenshots, and demos for a lot of games from this period are still being uncovered today from various sources, and devoted disciples of the yellow, green, red, and blue such as myself can find all kinds of info on them from sources such as vaporware archive Unseen64 and N64 guru Glenn Plant’s N64 Beta Project, and even the N64 Anthology from Geeks-Line Publishing. In 2017 alone, we have been treated to some very basic ROMs on two titles from Bits Studios thanks to a former employee known as “10ahu,” RiQa and Die Hard 64, which would eventually be reworked into Rogue Ops and Die Hard Vendetta, respectively. But while those titles would finally see the light of day in one way or another, so many unfinished titles were scrapped altogether, and with just a little bit more work or money would have added another unique chapter to the relatively slim library of a beloved system.
Looking Glass Studios is one of those studios from back in the day that doesn’t necessarily ring a bell, but their work certainly does. As the company behind classic PC series Thief and System Shock, the quality of their original designs was unquestionable, and by 1999 they had also moseyed their way onto consoles by producing the N64 versions of Command and Conquer and Destruction Derby. Unfortunately, the studio would become a casualty of financial issues that plagued their publisher, Eidos Interactive in 1999, just as they were nearing completion for a pair of original N64 titles.
Their arguably more well-known project at the time was, of all things, a kayaking title ultimately going under the moniker WildWaters (not to be confused with another canceled title, Wild Water World Championship). Although it didn’t look as pretty as Wave Race or as exciting as Hydro Thunder, the existing footage and very alpha ROM of WildWaters shows off some nice looking water physics, a decent selection of modes, and intriguing gameplay. Despite only one playable course, that could certainly have become a late hit for its unique concept, assuming a more polished engine and decent course variety would have accompanied the finished product.
The other nearly-finished N64 title from Looking Glass Studios, Mini Racers may not have the originality of its vaporware twin, WildWaters, but it certainly seemed capable of outdoing similar titles. High-energy arcade racers with RC cars were an established approach by this point, with Re-Volt and Micro Machines also seeing a 1999 release for the N64, though neither would do much to dethrone the legacy of Rare’s classic RC Pro-Am titles from generations past. The measuring stick for Mini Racers upon its release wouldn’t be so much about being the next Mario Kart, but if it could replicate the classic NES RC titles that Micro Machines Turbo 64 seemed to struggle with. In fact, Mini Racers supposedly suffered from camera issues during development, much like the finished Micro Machines had, but was delayed due in part to Nintendo’s dissatisfaction with this very issue.
Of course, as previously discussed, developer Looking Glass Studios was forced to close its doors before finishing either of its new titles, sadly squashing a great deal of potential displayed by this nearly finished project. Judging from the very playable beta ROM available online, Mini Racers seemed to be very near completion, almost to the point that it could have been finished up by another developer had the circumstances surrounding its cancellation been different. Its 1999 release and similarity to other existing titles make it unlikely that it would have been able to make much of a splash commercially. Still, with a healthy array of tracks and cars in the existing version, plus a track editor to boot, Mini Racers is one title I can confidently say would have been a welcome addition to the N64’s library, even if it wasn’t destined to make too much dough.
As far as the N64’s selection of 3D platformers is concerned, I don't think most people would put Hasbro’s Glover on the same level as most of the greats - Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, even Donkey Kong 64. But the beauty of the N64’s selection is that even the lower-tier platformers can still feel pretty special. Glover — although not a real exclusive, having received a lackluster PS1 port in 1999 — was a pretty cool and creative romp where players control a white glove guiding a ball along 3D environments into a goal. It may not have much of a legacy, but it's got decent level design, an interesting concept, and lots of variety, and it did pretty well financially, too.
A sequel was planned by Hasbro with more than enough potential to keep things rolling and improve on the original’s solid start. Developer Interactive Studios (before they changed their name to the somewhat less generic Blitz Studios) made considerable progress on the sequel, which would have been released on N64 as well as PlayStation and Dreamcast, only to have it canned by Hasbro when it was nearly finished. The reason why, according to former Interactive Studios programmer James Steele on his blog, is as entertaining and unique as it is disappointing. In short, Nintendo was cutting some sort of deal to publishers at the time when ordering cartridges, so instead of ordering the typical production run in the ballpark of 150,000 carts for the first run, Hasbro went big and ordered a 300,000 cart run. Now, under a standard print run, Glover’s sales record would be considered a success and easily warrant a sequel. However, the huge order resulted in an abundance of stock that Hasbro simply couldn't sell to retailers, and higher ups at a floundering Hasbro Interactive ended up blaming the game itself as much as the overstock, this resulting in the cancellation of the near-finished sequel.
Sometimes when a game is canceled, like Glover 2, it’s a simple decision by the publisher to have the team working on the project pick up and move on to other territory, maybe salvaging what they can in the process of starting something new. In other cases, the fallout from a lack of publisher support can be crushing, resulting in the closure of studios before they even have a chance to show their stuff. Such is the tragic fate of developer Curved Logic, who had intended to throw their hat in the 3D platformer ring during the N64’s heyday, adding yet another title to the genre’s broad library on the system with Jest.
Jest may not seem like much when you first hear the concept: a Rayman-style 3D platformer about a joker named Jax, who for some reason must embark on a full-scale adventure before he can become a proper court jester. Before deciding that Jest was no significant loss, however -- especially when it was set to be published by average-at-best companies Ocean and Infogrames -- take a look at the lengthy demo trailer that has survived on YouTube. Impressive looking work was done on some pretty cool looking levels from each of the game’s eight worlds, most of which look both somewhat original and intriguingly dark, with the Hell, Ghost, and Gangster areas standing out as especially ripe for some darker or edgier material than your average N64 platformer, a la Earthworm Jim or Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Perhaps there is a parallel universe out there somewhere wherein Curved Logic was able to see their baby Jest through to completion while Sucker Punch Productions was doomed to failure on their first project, the hidden gem platformer Rocket: Robot on Wheels, although given what Sucker Punch has produced in their time since I feel very safe in this one.
Dragon Sword 64
And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the one title, in particular, I find most criminally withheld from the Nintendo 64 fanbase, Dragon Sword. It’s no secret that the N64 library is shallow at best when it comes to fighting, role-playing, and even cooperative multiplayer titles. If early reports from publications such as the UK’s N64 Magazine were to be believed, Dragon Sword had every chance to become a favorite in the later period of the system’s lifespan, appeasing fans of each of the aforementioned genres. When considering the wealth of features confirmed to be included and well received in the game, such as a variety of weapons and magic to master, four unique characters with different move sets, and a four player deathmatch/arena mode that didn’t exist on the system outside of the Xena the Warrior Princess game. Add in the fact that developer Interactive Studios had finished better than 90% of the game before it was canceled, and maybe you have to consider that the studio was simply cursed.
The reason for its cancellation is infuriatingly simple: with the console getting older and third party success on the system never a guarantee without a lucrative license in hand, publisher MGM Interactive simply didn’t see the game making money, and cut their losses before putting more dough into it for marketing and production. N64 Magazine, in particular, was especially ripped about this, given the glowing review they put out for the game anyway (a 93/100), and even tried to organize a petition to change MGM Interactive’s mind on the release, but to no avail. Luckily for fans, that pesky issue of “not actually getting released” doesn’t mean you can’t ever experience the game for yourself. For a few years now, a near-complete beta ROM of the game has existed for download and emulation or Everdrive usage, which boasts the first seven of the game’s planned nine levels, albeit somewhat buggy, and the deathmatch mode in playable shape as well. By today’s standards, many might consider the game a bit slow, in particular against the only other comparable game on the system, Gauntlet Legends, but even what’s there has “cult classic” written all over it, and very well could have proved MGM wrong had it actually made even a small print run, making it quite possibly the most tragic tale of the Nintendo 64’s extensive catalog of vaporware, which I am far from being done researching and cataloging.