If you ever wondered why Sega never bothered to make a new mainline Sonic the Hedgehog game for the entire lifespan of the Sega Saturn, then the answer is that they did. Okay, well, they tried to make one anyway. They just hit a few snags along the way. A lot of snags.
Originally intended for the Sega Genesis 32X add-on under the codename Sonic Mars, but moving over to the upcoming console during production, Sonic X-treme was a Platform Game developed by Sega Technical Institute. Intended to be the franchise's big transition from 2D to 3D gameplay, the game began production in late 1994 before being unceremoniously cancelled in 1997.
Following the completion of Sonic & Knuckles, series co-creator Yuji Naka and all the Japanese staff at Sega Technical Institute went back to Japan, while all the other members remained in the United States. While the Japanese Sonic Team was off making NiGHTS into Dreams..., the American crew was given the task to make a new mainline Sonic game.
What exactly this new Sonic game would entail on the story side of things changed quite a bit throughout development. It was originally conceived as taking place in the same continuity as the 90s Saturday Morning cartoon and the comic book series, sharing the same basic plot and characters. Sega would veto this idea, and the team would go on to give their game several different plot proposals even into its final year of development. This included everything from a story where Sonic had to stop demons that were trapped in the Master Emerald to one where our hero is just trying to get to a date with new character and Love Interest Tiara Boobowski on time. Many of these plots also involved having multiple playable characters, such as Tails and Kunckles, in addition to the aforementioned Tiara. But as the production shifted to the Saturn, it was decided that Sonic would be the sole playable character in order to keep things simple.
Sonic X-treme was meant to have two different gameplay styles. Standard levels would have a fisheye camera known as the "Reflex Lens" that made levels appear as though they were moving around Sonic. Levels would also rotate around a fixed center of gravity as though they were small planetoids, allowing Sonic to run up walls and ceilings.note Meanwhile, boss stages were more free-roaming levels, with the boss fights themselves having the camera centered on the enemy in the middle and Sonic running around them in an arena.
So what led to the game's cancellation? Basically, the game started with two development teams (Team A and Team B) that dealt with normal levels and boss levels, respectively. Team A's engine for the normal levels ran great on computers, but struggled on the Sega Saturn's hardware. While they managed to get it working decently well after some time, the ones who could demonstrate this version were just seconds late to a meeting held with CEO Hayao Nakayama in March '96, who ended up seeing an earlier poorly-running version and demanded that all of that work be scrapped and the whole game done in the style of the boss stages instead. And to get the game done by Christmas to compete with Super Mario 64. Depending on who you ask, Team B's attempts to make this happen either had them use the engine for NiGHTS or create content that looked very similar to that game: regardless, Yuki Naka saw this version of the game, got quite irate about his engine being used, and threatened to quit Sega if it wasn't scrapped. The stress of having to now start from scratch to complete a game in just a few months had the head of the project contract pneumonia. Told that he would only have six months to live if he kept working at his current pace, he had to leave the project and the game as a whole was cancelled, as it would no longer release by the holiday season. With no 3D Sonic to speak of, Sega decided to port over Sonic 3D: Flickies' Island in its stead, and the blue hedgehog wouldn't see his first true 3D adventure for another two years.
Watch the 4worlds demo footage here. For more detail on the game's development, see the three-part video series by YouTuber miiyouandmii2, and Sonic Retro's comprehensive guide which includes characters, stories, scripts, and artwork. As a sidenote, this game was at one point meant as a tie-in for a proposed live-action film called Sonic the Hedgehog: Wonders of the World. The plot of the movie would have involved Sonic and Robotnik escaping from Sonic X-treme into the real world.
This game provides examples of:
- 2½D: The game uses 2D sprites on a 3D plain. This element eventually came to a detriment of the title: the Saturn was designed for 2D games and Sonic X-treme was an early 3D platformer, however Super Mario 64's changed the game on how a 3D platformer "should" be. Sonic X-treme didn't look that technologically impressive when compared to its rival Mario game or the other 3D platformers. Attempts to fix this by making X-Treme more 3D failed.
- Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever:
- At one point in development, Nack the Weasel/Fang the Sniper was to be fought as a supersized boss.
- All the bosses were unusually sized in order to help gamers new to 3D games defeat them more easily.
- Fish-Eye Lens: All non-boss stages would have used this effect.
- Furry Female Mane: Tiara was initially designed during the SatAM-based Sonic Mars stage of development and, as a result, she's styled similarly to female characters from the show. She had either loose, long hair or a ponytail depending on her design (with her later designs all using Tomboyish Ponytail look).
- Green Hill Zone: Jade Gully fit the series tradition of having the first level be a tropical level.
- Holiday Mode: There was plans for a Christmas bonus level.
- Inside a Computer System: One draft of the story involved Princess Tiara and her father, King Cyberooski, being trapped in a virtual world.
- MacGuffin: Sonic would have had to collect the Rings of Order, counterparts to the Chaos Emeralds.
- Make Way for the New Villains: Two story drafts would have had Robotnik usurped as the main villain by ChaosDoom and the Chaos Elementals.
- Promoted to Playable: If the game had gotten finished, it could have been Amy's first playable role in a main game. Plans for other character besides Sonic existed, but it was decided to focus on Sonic until everything was perfected.
- Slippy-Slidey Ice World: Crystal Frost is level that takes place on a snowy mountain.
- Take That!: A live-action E3 promotional video features Mario and Luigi of Super Mario Bros. fame worrying about Sonic's next title. It even ends with the tagline "Mario Who?", implying gamers will forget all about Mario.
- Underground Level: Red Sands is an underground cave level.