For every rocket that has made it off the launch pad, there are countless others that never squeaked off the laboratory chalkboard. And so it is with games; an industry in which grand concepts are dreamt up and scribbled down long before the realisation dawns as to whether they are viable or not.
Unless it's from an unearthed press release or an ex-employee years after a project has been shuttered, often we don't get to hear about many of the older games that failed to fully exist. But, there have been more than a few titles that were hastily announced to the press and then languished in development hell before being quietly terminated and forgotten about.
In this run-down, which looks at the abandoned space games of the 1980s and 1990s, we celebrate those efforts that soared in the minds of their creators, but that failed to secure the executive backing required to get them off the ground. We salute them all so that their creators' valiant efforts might not have been in vain!
CREATION (Bullfrog / EA), 1992-1997
Spoiler alert: Bullfrog crop up a couple of times on this list, which is perhaps to be expected given how readily its founder would reveal a concept before it had been proven. That said, Bullfrog was for some years the most critically acclaimed development studio around, creating hit after hit whilst seemingly flying by the seat of its collective pants. Aside from those in EA's marketing department, everyone was eager to discover what crazy ideas were swimming about Peter Molyneux's head.
"Creation" was the internal name for many Bullfrog projects, but it seems to have attached itself to one game in particular, a real-time strategy space game (in which space was filled with water) that started out for the Amiga before being retooled for the PC in 1995. It was to be set in the same universe as Syndicate, with players fighting off eco-terrorists from Earth in order to save an alien world. In a nod to Ecco the Dolphin, apparently you could direct sea creatures to do your bidding.
Sadly, the plug was pulled when it was argued that submarine games don't sell. Thankfully, much of the tech used in Creation had already been reporpoised (sorry) for Bullfrog's prior rug-based flying games - which apparently did ok.
DUSTER (Realtime Games / Rowan Software / Mirrorsoft), 1990-1992
For the team that created Starstrike, Starfox and Carrier Command (and helped port Elite and Starglider), Duster represented something of an inglorious end. Set in the year 3800, the concept was that you went around an alien world, upgrading your 'duster' ship with shields, weapons and hull upgrades in the process of taking on extermination contracts for farmers under siege from mutant bugs. With 3D combat and "pseudo-strategy" game elements, Duster invited curious comparisons between Elite and Pssst.
Announced early in 1990 for a Christmas release on Atari ST, one of Realtime's founders later left to join Psygnosis and things basically fell apart thereafter. Flight sim specialist Rowan Software was later drafted in to help rescue the project, but, just as things seemed to be getting back on track, the game's publisher Mirrorsoft went into administration. In the subsequent firesale that saw many titles transfer over to Virgin Games, Duster was left forlornly on the shelf.
VOID STAR (Bullfrog / EA), unknown-1998
Not much is known about Void Star, aside from the fact that it was a planned 3D real-time strategy game in which big, beefy ships exchanged laser fire in the depths of space. It was cancelled on the assumption that a space-based RTS wouldn't capture enough people's imagination - probably by the same person who didn't much like submarine games.
This was a year or so before Homeworld (pictured above) was released and likely made the person who made the decision to scrap Void Star feel a bit of a tit. Although to be fair, the majority of RTS games at the time stuck to the tried and tested top-down or isometric perspective and were doing very nicely thank you. Even so, one can't help wonder how thrilling a Bullfrog-designed space RTS might have ended up, assuming it contained the same sort of humour the studio was famous for. Something along the lines of Mucky Foot's Startopia, perhaps?
STAR CONTROL 4 / STARCON (Accolade), 1996-1998
Despite being what many today regard as the weakest game in the series, Legend Entertainment's Star Control 3 was both a critical and commercial success, reportedly selling 100,000 copies in its first two months. For the proposed sequel, which Accolade seemingly wanted to get started on quickly, the early production work on the flagship PC version was conducted in-house, with a PlayStation version contracted out to the newly-formed Starsphere Interactive.
For some reason, during early development, the design emphasis changed towards third-person 3D combat, with the game rebranded as StarCon and gameplay inspired by the Playstation hit Colony Wars. Unfortunately, all development on the game was halted in October 1998, possibly as a result of Accolade aligning itself more towards publishing sports and driving games.
While Accolade would soon be acquired by Infogrames (now Atari), Starsphere Interactive did eventually manage to complete a space game - 2004's Star Trek: Shattered Universe.
THE LAST STARFIGHTER (Atari), 1984-1986
Just as the movie upon which it was based featured CGI graphics that were years ahead of the competition, so too was The Last Starfighter game a little too advanced for its own good. Running on hardware that wasn't commonplace until the 16-bit era, The Last Starfighter's filled vector graphics and smooth colourful animations demanded cabinets costing US$25,000 each in today's coin. This was deemed too tough a sum to recoup given that, although profitable, the film wasn't nearly as successful as Atari's executives were expecting.
The Last Starfighter game was said to be 75% complete when the film released, with gameplay in line with Atari's earlier vector hits, Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. The aim was to eliminate the ships of the Ko-Dan armada using an innovative two-button firing system that allowed for overcharged shots and, one hoped, something akin to the film's iconic death blossom scene.
While The Last Starfighter cabinet never made it into production, an authentic playable remake of the game exists (pictured above), based on footage of the original game in action. There was also a version of The Last Starfighter created for Atari's 8-bit home computers, although it wasn't released until after it had been adapted and rebranded as Star Raiders 2.
Speaking of which...
STAR RAIDERS 2 (Atari), 1983-2013
Released in 1979, Star Raiders is one of the most influential games of the 8-bit era, one that received a less than stellar sequel. This was perhaps to be expected given that the "Star Raiders 2" that was eventually released in 1986 was originally intended to be the home computer tie-in of The Last Starfighter.
It's only in the last few years that it's been revealed that a more authentic and actual Star Raiders 2 was once in development, one that featured 3D wireframe graphics and a more freeform galactic map. Indeed, the game was feature complete as early as 1984, but a series of redundancies resulted in development on Star Raiders 2 being halted. Programmer Aric Wilmunder maintained the code for a while after he left Atari, but the game was soon forgotten about before being left in a box for 29 years. The Star Raiders 2 code has since been tidied up and made available, a testament to what might have been - but also to the hope that not all cancelled games need be forever lost.
WING COMMANDER ONLINE / PRIVATEER ONLINE (Origin / EA), 1998-2000
Without the cinematic appeal of previous games and with Chris Roberts no longer at the helm, EA was a little nervous about Prophecy, the fifth game in the Wing Commander series. However, it did OK, and with attention turning towards the release of the Wing Commander movie in 1999, EA moved ahead with the next games in the series, eventually settling on Wing Commander Online. Unfortunately for the team at Origin, EA went cold on the idea three months before the film's theatrical release - possibly in the wake of a private screening.
EA interest in the franchise picked up a few months later, with the project becoming Privateer Online early in 2000. However, despite some impressive design efforts, the project wasn't to last long, with resources for EA's first space MMO ploughed into Westwood's Earth and Beyond instead.
Many of the team working on Privateer Online did go on to work on Star Wars Galaxies, which progressed many of the concepts prototyped during Privateer Online's all-too-brief development.
THE 10th PLANET (Bethesda), 1995-1999
When the Elder Scrolls and Fallout developer revealed in 2018 that it was working on outer space RPG, Starfield, it evoked memories of Bethesda's previous foray into the heavens, The 10th Planet.
Thought to have been in development as early as 1994, The 10th Planet was a collaboration with the production company behind movie hits Independence Day and Stargate, and on which was later based a trilogy of novels (by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Rusch), which were published between 1999-2000 - in spite of the game's cancellation.
The game was focused around a fabled Planet X, from which aliens threatened the Earth. Epic battles between vast ships were the order of the day, with combat said to be on a par with TIE Fighter. However, the expensively-produced cinematic sequences were said to put the rest of the game to shame, powered as it was by the ageing XnGine (Daggerfall, Redguard). It's perhaps telling that XnGine was dropped during the development of Morrowind, which would have been around the time that 10th Planet was quietly cancelled.
BABYLON 5: INTO THE FIRE (Yosemite Entertainment / Sierra), 1998-2000
Set between the events of the mainline seasons and the Crusade series spin-off, Babylon 5: Into the Fire was to feature new and established characters, historical recreations of battles from the entire Babylon 5 timeline and new tracks from the show's composer. For those less interested in the show itself, the gameplay looked to feature a pace and progression likened by many observers to be the equal of Descent: Freespace.
With dogfighting possible inside structures as well as in space and the ability to progress from controlling fighters to commanding capital ships and fleets, things seemed to be progressing well on the game. That was, until Sierra announced its cancellation in the wake of the company's acquisition by Havas Interactive in 1999.
With Babylon 5 reportedly just a few months away from completion, there was renewed hope for a release when Codemasters announced they had established a studio of Yosemite veterans to complete the troubled game. Sadly, in early 2000 it was announced that Codemasters had other priorities, extinguishing the last efforts on what would have been Babylon 5's first and only game.
A major source of the above information came by way of Unseen64, a great community site which documents a vast number of canned games, many of which I'd forgotten about. I also trawled through a few back issues of various gaming magazines, although not nearly as many as I wish I had the time for.
As with all round-ups, I hope to keep things updated as other games rise from the crypt. In the meantime, if you're aware of any once-promising titles I've overlooked, either drop a mention in a comment below or fire me a tweet. Thanks!