Oh my! Haven't you changed...
YouTube is amazing. Take away all the videos about cats sliding into boxes, cats falling off things, and cats (sorry if you were expecting an activity, this one's just cats), and you've got a legitimate historical archive of a cultural phenomenon. I'm talking about video games.
The following slides contain the earliest footage of some absolute classics, often looking very different. It's a bit like looking at celebrities before they were famous, and laughing at their awful dress sense. But then wishing you could at least try their clothes on. Sorry, that analogy got weird fast. What I mean is: you'll likely wish you could play the prototypes. Er... You'll find the videos underneath the text in each slide, so give them a watch. It's fascinating stuff...
Back in 2009, Markus 'Notch' Persson posted this video of a little something he was working on, saying that he would do more 'if he had the time'. Well, good job he didn't decide to take up birdwatching in the interim, because that little bit more work on an intriguing idea has spawned what threatens to be the biggest game of all time.
The demo here doesn't draw in the world very well, only features stone blocks (and stone blocks with grass on) and... well, that's about it. Love it.
New Super Mario Bros
New Super Mario Bros became one of the original DS' biggest hits, appearing at or near the top of the all-formats charts for months. At one point, it looked like it might be there FOR EVER. But have you seen this footage of the tech demo version? In it, you can clearly see the massive powered-up version of Mario smashing through blocks and collecting swathes of coins before jumping on tiny Bowser's head. Should have stayed in yer castle, mate.
This tech demo was never released, but it's clearly a work-in-progress version of New Super Mario Bros. Pretty damn awesome, if you ask me.
Well this is a bit special. In the movie Hackers, a young Angelina Jolie plays an arcade version of Wipeout. Yes, Wipeout that helped catapult PSone to 'iconic' status. The game shown in the film is (of course) pre-rendered CG, as realtime 3D of that quality was still a little while off. But it is Wipeout. A very early render of what the gameplay would be like.
This video? Better even than a clip from the movie - this is actually the original render, complete with an announcer offering instructions to the player. It's awesome. And amazing to see that while it was damn ambitious, having to pull the nose up in a valley on the track was a feature that made it into the final game. Wonderful.
Super Mario 64
Super Mario 64 was clearly going to make a big impression on the gaming world even before it was released. This footage from Gamesmaster (back when it was a TV show, as opposed to an awesome mag), shows an in-development version of the game, complete with different HUD and level layout.
Oh, and Mario sounds like Michael Jackson.
But the earliest footage is probably this round-up video from Spaceworld 1995:
Super Mario 64 gets credited with being the first true-3D platformer, but Tomb Raider was being developed at the same time. This 1995 video is a mega-early, pre-alpha, version of Tomb Raider (one which is likely to have been shown to Eidos executives as a proof-of-concept) and it's amazing to watch.
It's running at less than 50% speed. Lara still has her ponytail (glitching around everywhere, which is likely why it was removed) and is sporting Matrix-style sunglasses. Despite all the strangeness, there's no denying the quality of that hand-animated movement. That's art in motion.
Sonic the Hedgehog
We know that the original 1990 prototype is missing. But the earliest glimpses of Sonic the Hedgehog on Genesis/Mega Drive were thought to be the likes of those in Wayne's World. No more! The pilot episode of Nick Arcade was found recently and uploaded to the internet. And lo-and-behold, it's got a mega-early version of Sonic in it. Oh. Em. Gee.
It's familiar enough, until the most '90s kid the world has ever known happens across the wrecking ball from the first boss battle... only it's rolling around the stage. It doesn't hurt when you touch it, instead allowing Sonic to stand on its surface. Sure, the iOS version of Sonic also lets you play with these things, but it was thought that nobody had ever seen the original in-level rolling ball in action outside Sega until this video appeared.
Wanna see John Romero playing a pre-release version of Doom? Course you do! This video was shot in November, 1993, at id's offices. The version of Doom contains plenty of elements not found in the final version of the game, even to the extent that the sound effects are from the SNES version of Wolfenstein 3D as the real ones hadn't been finished yet.
The whole video is a fascinating insight into 1993 gaming culture (just look at them cooing over the Genesis version of Aladdin at the start!), but you can skip to 9:35 to see Doom in action, complete with early Deathmatch action. It's amusing today to hear people reacting to a rocket launcher blast for the first time, but this was bleeding-edge technology in 1993.
BioShock was shown quite a few times before anyone actually got to play it. But the strange thing is that the quality of the final game seems slightly pared down compared to the pre-release versions. Case in point: this gameplay video, narrated by Ken Levine himself.
In it, you'll see some very slick-looking environments, plus different behaviour from the Big Daddy and Little Sisters (including the latter apparently drinking fresh blood to get her fix of Adam). There is also footage of the teleportation plasmid doing the rounds, again looking significantly different to the final game, which you can see here.
We all know Shenmue as being one of Dreamcast's brightest stars, but the game was originally intended to be released on Sega Saturn. If you finish Shenmue on Dreamcast, you are treated to this video of the Saturn version in development.
Even though the screen is covered in debugging readouts and the frame-rate is sketchy at best, it's amazing to see scenes from Shenmue 2 already in action on the 32-bit hardware. I personally adore this sort of thing. Makes you wonder what other mind-blowing prototypes exist in the vaults of the big-name devs.
Virtua Fighter 2
This VHS tape from an early edition of Sega Saturn Magazine is full of early looks at classic games. There's a comprehensive look at the beta version of Sega Rally Championship (complete with rotating background sky) that appeared on the 'Bootleg Demo' that came with early Saturns. But it's Virtua Fighter 2 that's the most exciting.
In this 40% complete port to the Saturn, there are movement demos where two characters are on-screen, showing off their skills but not hitting each other. Then there's an early version of Shun Di going through his demo routine, and Lion Rafale acting out his attract mode moves without an opponent. The characters don't have shadows, victory taunt cameras aren't in... but even at this early stage, it was running beautifully. Oh, by the way, there may be a few seconds of the previous game in this clip. And the next one. Sorry about that.
World of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse & Donald Duck
OK, so perhaps this one isn't as well known as the others, but the game in this ultra-blurry pre-release VHS promo is very different. Look at the first screen of the game in the VHS compared to the final version (inset). The final game and the level design is almost completely different.
There are other games in that tape, most notably Sonic 2's beta, but we've covered that so many times in the past I'm going to give it a rest. Hooray!
Aren't early glimpses of games fascinating?
I have to admit, I absolutely LOVE looking at old screenshots and videos of games. In fact, if you like this article, maybe we could do a screenshot version too? That would be awesome. Until then, tell everyone which games you wish you could see early stuff from. Or games you have. We can geek out together.
And if you're looking for more, check out The incredible secrets of Sonic The hedgehog left on the cutting room floor and Gaming's most secret secrets.