1. Tomb Raider: Ascension / Tomb Raider
Creating art is a tempestuous act—it’s almost impossible to see where an initial idea will end up. Supergiant Games’ Bastion wasn’t originally conceived as a story about refugees surviving the end of reality. It began as a game about cartography, the playful process of building up the world around you as you saw it for the first time. We rarely get to see how much games themselves change as the creative process unfolds, but because publishers and designers start showing off games years before they’re playable, sometimes the larval form of a project peeks out.
And sometimes, like with the recent Tomb Raider reboot, the final product is dramatically different from the early demos. After Crystal Dynamics finished Tomb Raider: Underworld, the studio planned to give Lara Croft, the series’ heroine, a prequel story. The game wasn’t, however, going to be a grunt-filled trial of torture and violent cultists. As documented by the superb archivists at Unseen64, concept art and prototype footage for the most recent Tomb Raider game (originally called Tomb Raider: Ascension) shows Lara pitted against monsters and giants. That’s in contrast to the foes she fights in the finished game, a bunch of dudes apparently suffering from vitamin deficiency. In these early glimpses, Lara also had a traveling companion, a child whom she had to protect. Ultimately, Tomb Raider turned Lara’s companions into props for her transformation into a ruthless warrior. The studio also ditched Lara’s horse, which had featured in previews. Why? Horses are awesome.
2. Realistic Okami / Okami
Atushi Inaba and Hideki Kamiya’s games are well known for their visual bombast, but their Shinto-fueled fable Okami is far and away their most beautiful work. It’s a game that literally lets you paint spring into the world. When you move your character, the wolf/sun goddess Amaterasu, flowers burst from the ground in her wake. The sumi-e wash of Okami wasn’t always the plan, though. Inaba and Kamiya’s pitch prototype for the game is starkly realistic in comparison. The world needs another game full of brown, dirty landscapes as much as it needs more guns, but there would have been something magical and surreal about playing as a wolf god with trees springing from her feet in a world that otherwise looked just like ours.
3. Earthbound 64 / Mother 3
The more time goes on, the more beguiling early 3D graphics become. What seemed archaic and tacky 10 years ago is becoming a stylish visual mode. Just look at Minecraft. If Notch’s crazy world builder had come out in 2003, people would have ragged on it forever. Now, the low-polygon look is haute couture. Shigesato Itoi’s beloved sentimental opus Mother 3 was slated for release on the Nintendo 64DD, a disk drive expansion for the Nintendo 64 that was never sold outside of Japan (because almost nobody bought it). If Earthbound 64 had been made for the 64DD in the late ’90s as planned, its blocky impressionism might seem just as lovely today as the colorful, pixelated sprites that populate the Game Boy Advance version that was ultimately released.
4. Resident Evil 4 “Hook Man” version / Resident Evil 4
Before he left Capcom to make games about gun-toting cyborg football players, Shinji Mikami was a perfectionist in maintaining his signature Resident Evil series. There are multiple instances where Mikami stepped in during a sequel’s production to completely reimagine it. Mikami scrapped the first drafts of both Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 4, and his meddling resulted in the series’ best games. Hiroshi Shibata directed an early version of Resident Evil 4 before Mikami took over, and while his vision may not have been the action masterpiece that Mikami ultimately produced, it sounds like it would have been one excellent haunted house. The “Hook Man” version of RE4 looked like it coupled the slow-paced Resident Evil of old with a cramped behind-the-body perspective (which remained in the final game). But in Shibata’s version, the hero, Leon, had to deal with hallucinations and ghostly pursuers—not just monsters. Yet the idea of a quiet, ephemeral Resident Evil seems impossible in the wake of the Resident Evil 4 that ultimately hit store shelves.
5. Dinosaur Planet / Star Fox Adventures
Star Fox was always a simple pleasure, a sci-fi dogfight game that features a bunch of animals wearing windbreakers and jabbering at each other in spaceships. No one needs to know more about Fox, let alone spend hours with him on a planet full of dinosaurs like you do in Star Fox Adventures. But it was never supposed to be Fox wandering this pseudo-prehistoric realm. In the original Dinosaur Planet concept, another vulpine dude named Sabre and his blue girlfriend went on an adventure to fight evil dinosaur men. The Nintendo 64 version of Dinosaur Planet was all but done when Nintendo directed the developer, Rare, to remodel Planet as a Gamecube game. The action in Star Fox Adventures is a little heavy on collecting useless doodads—as is the case with a number of Rare’s games in that era—but footage of the old game shows more of a point-and-click adventure style than the Zelda clone that Adventures became.
6. Halo for Mac / Halo: Combat Evolved
Master Chief may have been the faceless space soldier who launched a thousand shooters in the last decade—becoming the mascot for Microsoft’s ever-growing Xbox empire in the process—but that wasn’t always the plan. Quite the opposite: Halo was going to be Apple’s baby back in 1999. Bungie’s science fiction universe was actually going to be a Starcraft-style strategy game back then, with some action elements mixed in. A year later, Microsoft bought Bungie, and the studio turned the game into the first-person shooter juggernaut it remains today. The world got a taste of Halo-as-strategy game in Ensemble Studios’ Halo Wars, but who knows how Bungie’s turn at a cerebral sci-fi work would have turned out. One element never changed: That sweet theme song was there from the start.
7. Kirby’s Adventure / Kirby’s Return To Dreamland
Kirby: Return To Dreamland is an unsung hero for the Wii, a colorful slice of cartoon action that recalls the crisp, no-bullshit style of the Super Nintendo’s heyday. But the making of Return To Dreamland was anything but crisp: The game was in gestation for more than a decade as developers at the studio, a Nintendo subsidiary named HAL Laboratory, struggled to nail down what they wanted to make. The original Gamecube version in this video is not unlike the finished product, just with a more muted color palette and no four-player action. According to the development team, though, there was a time when the game was going to let you roam around in three dimensions, a first for Kirby. Return To Dreamland’s tough side-scrolling goodness was worth the wait, but it would have been swell to see the gluttonous puffball roam free for a change.
8. Super Mario 64 2 / Super Mario 64 DS
Yet another casualty of Nintendo’s confused N64 period, the awkwardly enumerated Super Mario 64 2 was in the works for the disk drive add-on just like Earthbound 64. But the company killed it at the turn of the century to focus on other games. The word in 1999 was that the second Mario 64 would take a page from the 1980s’ Super Mario Bros. 2 and add a bunch of playable characters to the mix. That idea ultimately made it into the remake Super Mario 64 DS, which also added a few new levels. Mario’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, did say years later that the plan for Mario 64 2 was to do something that no 3D Mario game has ever done: let two people play together. Getting Mario and Luigi on the playfield together didn’t work out, though. It would have been sweet to wander the sunny castle grounds with a buddy, but think about how infuriating it would have been when both characters kept running into each other, yelping the whole time, as Mario 64’s persnickety camera struggled to keep up.
9. D2 for M2 / D2
Kenji Eno was a magnificent weirdo, and his lost alternate version of D2 is appropriately strange. It’s not just a lost version of a game—it’s a lost version built for a gaming machine that never made it out either. It’s twice as ghostly! D2 was intended (confusingly enough) for the M2, a console design that Panasonic eventually scrapped in 1997. The original brief for D2 cast Laura—a descendant of Dracula who starred in Eno’s D—as a mere background character. The hero instead was Laura’s son, and the quest was to explore a haunted castle. When Panasonic’s new console died on the vine, Eno killed the game, too. He reworked D2 as a creepy hybrid of The Thing and Evil Dead on Sega’s Dreamcast. Eno was really nailing down his shadowy surrealism when the first version of D2 was canned, making it both a lost capstone on his early work and the only promising game for a stillborn machine.