I played Sonic Xtreme for the first time today.
Some of you may be asking, “Who cares? Why should I be reading this article?” For others, you may be saying “Wow! I love Sonic, but I never played that one. Where can I find a copy? Tell me more!” For that tiny lot of you — the ones hiding in the dark annals of video game snobbery — I’m sure this thought came through your mind immediately: “Sean, that’s impossible. Sonic Xtreme was canceled in 1997. It never existed. And it made Sega Saturn owners cry harder than they ever cried from simply being Sega Saturn-owners.”
No, Sonic Xtreme never existed. It died nearly two decades ago, when a fragmented version of Sega developing the game collapsed under the weight of its own ambition. Sonic Xtreme’s development team promised a revolutionary, new direction for the beloved Sonic the Hedgehog that never saw the light of day. Nearly four years of poor communication, unhealthy work hours and a rapidly-disintegrating development team forced the game’s cancellation. As John Cleese would say, the game was no more — it ceased to be — left to fade quietly out of existence, just like the poorly-performing Sega Saturn itself. Over the following decade, Sonic fans treated the game as a holy grail, with a scant selection of screenshots, concept art and brief gameplay demos acting as their biblical reference point. Sonic Xtreme’s lore became so notable among fans that multiple projects sprang up to recreate the game based on available screenshots and footage. One project — Project AXSX — graced my desktop computer this morning. I didn’t play Sonic Xtreme as much as I played a faint echo of its legacy.
The reconstruction impressed me greatly, but the concept of Sonic Xtreme’s gameplay doesn’t stand the test of time. The game controls awkwardly, the platforming mechanics leave much to be desired and a creative — but headache-inducing — fisheye lens camera mechanic made me want to take an extra dose of epilepsy medication to prevent a breakthrough seizure.
I loved every second of it.
There’s something about the weird and the mysterious in video games that always ensnares me. Glitches, removed content and abandoned games dredge up the childlike wonder in me that never died. I love seeing what was and wasn’t meant to be. I love researching as much information about games like Sonic Xtreme as I can, imagining how their release would have changed or innovated gaming as we know it today. Sometimes, I just love watching stable creations fall apart in moments of glitchy hilarity.
Naturally, when I discovered a Project AXSX recreation of a Sonic Xtreme level was available online, I did what any obsessive would do: I immediately downloaded and played it. It also happened to be minutes before leaving for my philosophy class. Sorry, intro to ethics — there’s only so much mental capacity I have for a cultural relativism lesson, and I think jumping around in a fisheye lens world blew a brain gasket. I’ll make it up to you after I collect all the rings on this unnamed “Winter Level.”
An official release of Sonic Xtreme never came about. Like any profit-generating intelligent property, Sonic the Hedgehog moved on with Sega. They changed, failed, adapted and evolved — just like I did. However, the allure of a game that never made it still holds a special place in my heart, as well as the hearts of countless others. For Sonic Xtreme alone, online communities take time out of their lives to keep the legacy — and hope for a completed reconstruction — alive. Even Chris Senn, the lead programmer of the game, actively participates in these communities, providing advice. A niche community of Sonic fans glorify a shoddily built, peculiar oddity of a game — one made of blood, sweat and tears — and even he can’t escape Xtreme’s legacy.
This community of Sonic fans and myself share a similar sentiment: an attachment to a particular time in our lives when the video game industry we loved so much couldn’t stop evolving. Nothing excited me more than being a third grader in 1996 and seeing Mario walk across a three-dimensional plane for the first time. I always wonder if gamers from other generations feel as fondly for their childhood systems as I do for the Sega Genesis and Nintendo 64. Is it because I’m just nostalgic about being a kid in the 90s? Is it because I’m really just so obsessed with video games as an art form that maybe I’m in the wrong field of study? Is it because video games, for me, provide relief from the stresses of lifelong responsibility?
Even as I hurdle further and faster toward my 30s, a connection to such a distinct chapter in video game history — as well as my own life — remains unbroken. My last year of college just began, I have readings and assignments to do, and yet I sit here, frozen and nostalgic, thinking about a moment in time when childlike wonder ran rampant and free. The world of arts & entertainment still remains in a revivalist era: Star Wars reawakened last year, J.K. Rowling can’t quit adding to the Harry Potter canon and I still can’t figure out who wanted Lethal Weapon turned into a modern TV series. All I wanted was a return to the glory days of video gaming old, as defined by my 90s-kid generation.
Still, even while the multimedia industry capitalizes on audience nostalgia with so many reboots, theirefforts can’t beat growing up with the newness and freshness of the classics they revive. Nostalgia is timeless — even a powerful entity like the entertainment industry realizes this. No wonder I can’t let my own nostalgia go.
I’m going to play some more Sonic Xtreme and try to forget about it.