Nobody wins when a video game is canceled. For publishers, cancellation means losing all the money they’ve invested into the project. For developers, it means hundreds and hundreds of hours of hard work will go unseen—and, more importantly, unplayed. And for fans, it means that they’ll never get their hands on some innovative titles, many of which may not have been good in the strictest sense, but most of which are certainly interesting.
But thankfully, in the age of the internet nothing disappears for good, and many copies of officially unreleased video games (often referred to as ROMs) can be found online—assuming you know where to look. While we can’t tell you where to find all of the games in question (video game emulation is a tricky and complicated subject, legally speaking), we can tell you they’re out there. Happy hunting, and good luck.
Star Fox 2
According to Dylan Cuthbert, the former wiz kid who programmed the bulk of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System classic Star Fox, there’s one big reason why Star Fox 2 languished in development deep-freeze, and it’s called the Sony PlayStation. Oh, sure, fans got to play parts of the game—Shigeru Miyamoto borrowed some of its early 3D platforming ideas for Super Mario 64, and Star Fox 2’s strategy elements resurfaced in the Nintendo DS’ Star Fox Command. Star Fox 64, which (plot-wise) is a remake of the first game, took a number of ideas from the original sequel, including nonlinear "All-Range Mode" battles, multiplayer dogfights, and Star Wolf, a team of recurring villains.
But Star Fox 2 itself ended up in limbo for decades, and for that we have Sony to thank. While the first Star Fox blew fans away with its 3D graphics—which required a special piece of hardware, called the SuperFX chip, to execute on the relatively low-powered Super Nintendo—by the time Star Fox 2 was ready to hit the market, the PlayStation was transforming fully-fledged 3D from a novelty into the industry standard. Afraid Star Fox 2’s rudimentary 3D graphics wouldn’t stand up to the competition, Nintendo’s higher-ups decided to shelve the game at the last minute and focus their energies on a Star Fox game for their next console, the Nintendo 64.
Yet a few copies of the game survived, leading to a fan-made patch—and in 2017, the long-delayed release of the original Star Fox 2, which was bundled in with the slew of titles pre-loaded onto the Super Nintendo Classic console. Good things come to wait, even if you have to wait through several generations of hardware to get them.
Resident Evil 1.5
Like Resident Evil’s zombies, some games just won’t stay dead. Take the game that’s come to be known as Resident Evil 1.5, for example. As the first stab at a Resident Evil sequel, Resident Evil 1.5 has some things in common with the game that’d ultimately take its place. Like Resident Evil 2, the game has a branching narrative that changes based on which character you choose to play. Characters show injuries through animations, staggering when they’re hurt, or running faster when they feel fine. Leon Kennedy, one of Resident Evil 2’s heroes, even makes his first appearance in the abandoned title.
But there were many differences, too. Instead of STARS officer Claire Redfield, the game’s female protagonist is a college student named Elza Walker. Enemies include baboons and literal spider-men. The levels and puzzles were completely different. Unfortunately, while Resident Evil 1.5 was almost finished, Capcom and the Resident Evil team decided that the game just wasn’t up to snuff and decided to start over.
That’s not exactly a great endorsement, but it didn’t stop fans from wanting to see what Resident Evil 1.5 was all about. Now they can. A few years back, a team of hobbyists and amateur game designers called Team IGAS set out to use old prototypes to restore Resident Evil 1.5 to a playable state. Using a leaked prototype, some stray bits of Resident Evil 2’s source code, and previews and screenshots from old gaming magazines, IGNAS has been able to piece together a relatively faithful recreation of the original game. In 2013, IGNAS released an early version of the restoration after someone stole a copy and tried to sell it, while an official demo, Resident Evil 2: Battle Coliseum, arrived in 2016.
Primal Rage 2
If you’re a ’90s kid (and at heart, aren’t we all?), you might remember Primal Rage, a game best described as Street Fighter with dinosaurs. You know, the one where you and your friends could duke it out as a tyrannosaurus or a spike-lined stegosaurus? The one where a gorilla named Chaos has a finishing move called the "golden shower"? The one in which humanity has been wiped out by an apocalyptic meteor strike, and everything is animated using stop-motion, making it look like a super-violent Ray Harryhausen film?
That sure sounds like the basis for a hit franchise, and Atari must’ve thought so too, because a year after Primal Rage hit arcades a sequel was underway. Unfortunately, the company pulled the plug about a year later—allegedly, the console versions of Primal Rage didn’t sell as well as Atari had hoped, although that’s more hearsay than fact—and for years, the only version was a comic book adaptation that told Primal Rage 2’s intended story.
Until March 2017, that is. Thanks to a YouTube user named, appropriately enough, Gruntzilla94, there’s now a special version of the arcade emulator MAME that’s built specifically for running leaked Primal Rage 2 prototypes. The sequel is even more unhinged than the original, too. While the monsters in the original Primal Rage maintained their beastly forms, in Primal Rage 2 fighters can transform into human-like creatures called avatars, each of whom serves a specific god (who also happen to be the characters from the original game).
You don’t have to understand Warcraft’s massive backstory to enjoy Warcraft games, but it’s there if you want it, and boy, is there a lot of it. Currently, Blizzard and its various partners have published over 23 tie-in novels, a number of comic books, and a complete feature film—and that’s not even counting all of the lore revealed in the games themselves.
And, unbelievably, there was almost more. In the mid-’90s, years before World of Warcraft took the game industry by storm, Blizzard started work on a point-and-click adventure game called Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans. According to former Blizzard producer Bill Roper, Warcraft Adventures was going to tell the story of Thrall, an orc adopted by a human who would ultimately unite Azeroth’s orc tribes and lead a rebellion against their human oppressors. However, the game took longer than expected to make, and by the time Warcraft Adventures was nearing completion, the market had changed. Blizzard told the story in a novel called Lord of the Clans, canceled the game, and moved on to the next project.
And that’s all there was to say about Warcraft Adventures for about 18 years, until a Russian fan posted a copy of the game on a Warcraft fansite. If you’re willing to dredge through pop-up laden piracy sites, you can probably find a copy, which gives a peek into a very different world of Warcraft—one that’s less epic fantasy, and more just an excuse to make lame dirty jokes. Seriously. We’re not kidding.
The Dreamcast’s Sonic Adventure might be the first 3D Sonic game, but it wasn’t Sega’s first attempt to bring its furry blue mascot into the third dimension. During the Sega Genesis’ reign, the company started working on a Sonic & Knuckles follow-up called Sonic X-Treme. Originally, the game was going to be a traditional 2D side-scroller, but over time it took on an isometric viewpoint, then was reimagined as a "2.5D" platformer, and then finally transformed into a fully-fledged 3D title designed for Sony’s upcoming console, the Sega Saturn.
As you can tell, Sega had a lot of trouble deciding where to take Sonic X-Treme, and that indecision wasn’t exclusive to the game. Sega’s Japanese and United States branches had two very different ideas as to the direction of the company, and Sonic X-Treme, which was being developed in the U.S., was caught in the middle. When the American developers asked to use the technology powering Sonic creator Yuji Naka’s newest game, Nights into Dreams, to fuel Sonic X-Treme, Naka threatened to leave the company. Meanwhile, Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama asked the team to make substantial changes just a few months before Sonic X-Treme’s release. Key members of the development team fell ill during the resulting crunch, and finally, Sonic X-Treme was canceled.
All that remains of Sonic X-Treme are various pieces of the game’s source code, which were discovered in 2014 by a fan who goes by Jollyroger. The recovered code isn’t a complete game, but it’s enough to get a rudimentary version of Sonic X-Treme running, and the current build includes over 150 test levels created by the original development team as well as the original level editor, giving fans the ability to create Sonic X-Treme adventures of their very own.
Various Sunsoft Super Nintendo games
In the ’80s, Sunsoft established a reputation as a purveyor of innovative, high-quality games like Blaster Master, Kangaroo, and a number of titles based on properties like Batman, The Addams Family, and Gremlins. And then the ’90s happened. While Sunsoft continued to crank out games, including a number of titles based on Warner Bros.’ classic animated properties, the company’s parent organization made an ill-advised investment in a Palm Springs golf course, and Sunsoft of America went under, taking a number of in-development games with it.
Some of those titles survive, however, in the form of leaked prototypes. Of these, the most complete is Batman: Revenge of the Joker, but the most interesting is probably Wile E.’s Revenge, the sequel to Sunsoft’s Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally. According to Wile E. producer Rene Boutin, every part of the game was split into two levels. In the first half, players would control Wile E. Coyote as he scrambled to collect parts for his latest Road Runner-hunting gadget; in the second half, the Coyote had his invention, and used it to hunt down the Road Runner, who—as in the cartoons—he’d never quite catch.
That sounds like an interesting premise, but Boutin admits that it was a half-baked idea, and says the game wasn’t really coming together when it was canceled (in the leaked prototype, only the first half of the first level—the collecting portion—works). There are also a few copies of a Sylvester and Tweety game out there, although it’s hard to tell exactly what Sunsoft was aiming for—players (controlling Sylvester) can’t do much more than meander around the house while Tweety and Granny wander around in the background.
Steven Seagal Is the Final Option
Games based on movies are nothing new. Games based on specific actors are. Oh, sure, a handful of celebrities have headlined their own action title— hey there, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand—but none seem better suited to video-game stardom than Mr. Aikido himself, Steven Seagal.
Oddly enough, Steven Seagal Is the Final Option was put into development before Seagal’s biggest hit, Under Siege, arrived in theaters. According to producer Jeff Tarr, Seagal’s status as king of action schlock made him the perfect video game character, and Tarr hoped kids who stopped by the local Blockbuster would be tempted to rent Seagal’s signature video game (back when that was still a thing you could do) alongside some of his movies.
Even though it’s not finished—or maybe because it’s not finished—The Final Option feels like one of Seagal’s low-budget action flicks, too. For one thing, it doesn’t actually star Steven Seagal. Publisher TekMagic had the rights to Seagal’s name and image and created the game’s characters by digitizing footage of real actors à la Mortal Kombat, but it was easier and cheaper to use a stuntman instead of Seagal himself.
As for the plot? Well, it’s hard to figure out from the leaked prototype, which is full of placeholder text, but according to fans who’ve gone through the ROM looking for answers, it has something to with a weapons manufacturer named Nanotech, and Seagal’s former partner, who was killed after Steven decided he didn’t want to play by the rules. As a game, Steven Seagal Is the Final Option is a basic beat ’em up, but as a tribute to Seagal’s storied career, it’s damn near perfect.
Saints Row Undercover
Most unfinished games that leak online come from collectors who somehow manage to get their hands on hard copies of prototypes and decide to share their good fortune with others. Every now and then, one comes from a hacker, who illegally steals code from the game’s developers. Very few, however, come directly from the developers themselves.
That’s what makes Saints Row Undercover so interesting. After the open world PSP game was canceled by publisher THQ, Deep Silver Volition decided to upload the game, a walkthrough, a feature-length documentary, and a 122-page design document online. Obviously, the game wasn’t finished, but Volition was clearly proud of the product, and that shows.
By today’s standards, Saints Row Undercover is a pretty basic (and definitely incomplete) open world game. For anyone who’s interested in the nitty-gritty specifics of game production, however, Volition’s info-dump is a treasure trove of interesting information. The entire game—every single mission, feature, and Easter egg—is outlined in the design document (as are notable omissions—Volition is very clear that the game won’t have motorcycles or swords, for example), and playing the Saints Row Undercover prototype shows how the studio was trying to implement its ambitious vision. Game design nerds take note: you don’t want to miss this.
ToeJam & Earl 3
"But wait," you’re saying, "I played ToeJam & Earl 3!" You did. Just not this one. While the final version of ToeJam & Earl 3: Mission to Earth was a 2002 Xbox exclusive, the prototype available online is for the Sega Dreamcast, and is very, very different from what ended up in stores. In fact, aside from the developers, nobody would’ve even known about it if a Dreamcast fan known as ZakhooiTM hadn’t purchased a Dreamcast development kit off eBay for $1,200, completely unaware that the unfinished game was sitting on the device’s hard drive.
Mechanically, ToeJam & Earl 3 plays a lot like the Sega Genesis original (and not quite as much like the side-scrolling sequel, ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron). In ToeJam & Earl 3, players wander around procedurally generated worlds, defeating bad guys while searching for elevators that’ll take them to higher levels. The game is playable but buggy (only the first nine levels really work), and is obviously not a finished product.
ToeJam & Earl creators Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger are happy to let the uncompleted game live online as long as ZakhooiTM doesn’t sell the game or put it on a disk. For his part, Zakhooi asks anyone who downloads the game to donate to the Mardan School, a charity that helps kids with disabilities—although he can’t force you to pay if you don’t want to, you monster.
It’s hardly surprising that a game billed as the next Mortal Kombat caused some controversy—after all, the moral panic sparked by Mortal Kombat’s over-the-top violence led directly to the foundation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Ostensibly, Thrill Kill’s big hook was its four-player battles (which, amazingly, had never happened in a fighting game before), but the gore was what really had fans all hot and bothered. As a soul condemned to hell, Thrill Kill players duked it out for a second chance at life, using weapons like cattle prods and severed limbs. The game’s blatant sexual content probably helped, too—one character, Belladonna, wears pixelated dominatrix outfits and relies largely on crotch-based offense, and many of the game’s finishing moves had racy, dumb names like "Swallow This" and "Head Muncher."
Of course, that edgy content is also why the game was canceled. Just six weeks before Thrill Kill was supposed to come out, Electronic Arts bought Thrill Kill publisher Virgin Interactive and immediately canceled the brutal BDSM-themed brawler in order to protect its brand and ward off any potential controversy.
But in Thrill Kill’s case, cancellation actually helped make the game more famous, and it wasn’t long before the game’s developers leaked a complete version—as well as a number of prototypes and betas—on the internet for gorehounds of all ages to enjoy. In fact, Thrill Kill is notorious for being one of the easiest "canceled" games to play, and copies are still available online. Thankfully, if diving into piracy sites makes you nervous, there’s another solution: the Thrill Kill engine was also used to create Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style, which plays almost exactly the same and isn’t completely embarrassing if you’re over the age of 13. It’s a win-win!