7 videogames that changed during development

From Super Mario Bros to Devil May Cry, we delve into the past to pick out 7 games that changed considerably as they were developed...

The complex process of making a game requires the coordination of programmers, artists, designers, musicians and accountants. It’s little surprise, then, that things can change drastically over the course of the months or even years it takes to make a game, and history is littered with examples of this.

Take, for example, Team Fortress 2, a shooter that went through multiple iterations and even changes in art style before the final version became a popular success. There are far, far too many other examples to list here, so what we’ve done is whittle our selection down to the ones we either found the most interesting or the most significant from a historical point of view.

It’s fair to say that, without most of the seven games you’ll find listed below, videogame history would have been very different – especially our first entry, which concerns a certain Italian plumber and his famous outing from 1985…

Super Mario Bros (1985)

Today, Super Mario Bros seems so pixel-perfect and genre defining, it’s hard to believe that it didn’t just spring straight from the minds of its creators, fully formed. Yet Super Mario Bros, the sequel to Nintendo’s less well-known 1983 game Mario Bros, was envisioned as a quite different game from the one that emerged in 1985. According to early design documents, Mario would have had a greater range of abilities, such as a rocket pack and a range of attacks, from a punch to a gun.

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This was borne out by designer Shigeru Miyamoto himself, who explained that Mario would once have had some form of gun, with the A button used to fire bullets, the B button used for dashing, and jumping achieved by pushing up on the control pad. “In the end,” Miyamoto explained, “we realised that being able to shoot all the fireballs you want while running gave Mario too much of an advantage.”

Miyamoto also had the idea of putting in a special stage where Mario “jumps on a cloud and shoots at enemies”, echoing the abilities of the Monkey King, a popular character from Chinese and Japanese folklore. Ultimately, these and many other ideas were streamlined as Miyamoto and co-designer Takashi Tezuka not only focused on the platforming aspects of the game, but also battled to get the game ready for its end-of-year release window. Ultimately, it was Super Mario Bros’ focus and elegant design which made it such a hit. The result was a gaming masterpiece, and one that continues to inform Nintendo’s design philosophy almost 30 years later.

Brataccas (1986)

You may not have heard of the action adventure game Brataccas before, but it’s probably safe to say that it had the most turbulent history of any title on this list. The game began life at a developer called Imagine, a Liverpool-based company that rose to fame following a string of hits, starting with the shooter Arcadia in 1982.

Imagine’s fame was such that it became the subject of a BBC documentary in 1985, which recorded the studio’s progress on a pair of self-described ‘mega-games’. Called Psyclapse and Bandersnatch, these games would have pushed the boundaries of what was possible on the ZX Spectrum by coming pre-packaged with a bit of additional hardware. In fact, the hardware would have fulfilled two functions: one, provide more memory, theoretically allowing for a bigger and better game, and two, help to combat the growing problem of piracy – at the time, ZX Spectrum games were largely distributed on audio cassettes, which were extremely easy to copy.

There was, however, a problem. Imagine had set a crack team of programmers to the task of making the games, put out expensive teaser ads in magazines, and hired legendary artists Roger Dean and Chris Foss to work on the packaging for each title. But Imagine was suffering from serious cash flow problems by this point, and it seems unlikely that Psyclapse or Bandersnatch would have sold in significant numbers in any case: at a time when most games for the ZX Spectrum were sold for between £6 to £12, the mega-games would have carried a predicted price tag of around £40.

When Imagine went belly up (captured for posterity in that BBC documentary, Commercial Breaks) a company called Finchspeed formed from its ashes, and Bandersnatch was developed for the ill-fated Sinclair QL. Then Finchspeed went bust, too, and its directors formed another company: Psygnosis.

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Psygnosis finally released Bandersnatch in 1986 for 16-bit computers like the Amiga, but by this time it was called Brataccas (a far less suggestive name) and was described by co-creator Dave Lawson as being a fusion of Bandersnatch and the other mega-game, Psyclapse. Brataccas was by no means a successful game, but it got Psygnosis going, and established their style as a company: Roger Dean’s airbrushed box art became a Psygnosis trademark, as did the bold graphics in the game itself.

Without Psygnosis, the 16-bit era would have gone without Shadow Of The Beast – a game which set new standards for graphics and sound. In a weird sort of way, the ambition from those earlier mega-games survived in this seminal 90s hit.

Quake (1996)

By the time Doom II came out in 1994, Id Software had established itself as one of the most forward-thinking and ingenious design teams on the planet. In the space of a couple of years, it had designed most of the  elements that still make up the first-person shooter, and it’s telling that, for much of the late 90s, other games in the genre were simply called ‘Doom clones’.

Id Software elevated the genre still further with Quake in 1996, a game which replaced the shuffling sprites of Doom with a fully-realised, polygon-based 3D environment. Simply put, it was unlike anything we’d seen before.

The development of Quake was, however, “painful” according to Id’s erstwhile founder member John Romero. The game began life as something quite different: it was in 3D, certainly, but it was more of an action RPG inspired by the team’s love of Dungeons & DragonsQuake being the name of a character from that hit table-top game.

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The main character was a Thor-like character who fought with a hammer, while a supernatural object named a Hellgate Cube floated over his head. The concept for Quake first arose back when Id were working on the Commander Keen games, but programmer John Carmack’s new 3D engine would, the team thought, finally give their ideas the platform they needed.

Gradually, however, the more complex, RPG-like elements were stripped out of the game as its protracted development ground on and opinions over Quake‘s creative direction began to split. According to David Kushner’s book Masters Of Doom, designer John Romero said, “Okay. I’ll redesign the whole game with Doom-style weapons and we’ll get it out.”

The finished game was a massive hit, and its multiplayer element was a revelation for many players. Yet the creation of Quake took its toll on Romero, and he left Id Software shortly after its release. Since 1996, little glimpses of the earlier ideas for Quake have appeared online, some of them via Romero’s Twitter feed.

In one, he shows off a design sheet for a character named Axe Ogre, dreamed up back when Quake was still codenamed ‘Timequake’. “The lowest of the low, this is the most basic monster in Timequake next to the Glop,” the description read. “It also has the most character: pisses on dead bodies (yours included)…”

GoldenEye (1997)

GoldenEye was not only one of the best games available for the Nintendo 64, but also the first truly great FPS designed specifically for a console. Yet this most beloved of first-person shooters almost wasn’t a first-person shooter at all, but a rail blaster inspired by Virtua Cop. According to Rare programmer Martin Hollis, it was the release of Mario 64 that inspired the team to try something other than a scripted shooter.

“I guess it came out mid-way through our development,” Hollis told Gamasutra, “and it was amazing. We took the idea of five objectives from that.”

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Rare had never made a shooter before, and it’s for this reason, perhaps, that GoldenEye felt so fresh and unfettered – the ability to knock soldiers’ hats off with your silenced pistol, or lay explosive traps with remote charges were surely examples of how much fun the team were having with their creative freedom.

What could have been just another videogame license instead became one of the most fondly-remembered games of the 90s – and for a long time, the yardstick against which all other console shooters were judged.

Grand Theft Auto (1997)

Grand Theft Auto: it was the Rasputin-like game project that refused to die.

“Because it was constantly evolving over the course of four years,” said one developer at DMA Design, “it could have been canned at any point.” “Every week, someone wanted to kill this game,” said another. “We’d have to argue to keep it going.”

It’s remarkable to think that what is now the biggest gaming franchise on the planet started out as a self-described “rough, unplayable mess”, and very nearly didn’t make it to release at all. Before it was even called Grand Theft Auto, the project began life as something called Race ‘n’ Chase – a top-down “Cops and robbers-type game”, according to graphics engine programmer Mike Dailly. Gradually, however, it occurred to everyone that they didn’t particularly want to play on the side of the cops – but the thieves, rogues and robbers.

“It just evolved into this criminal, just ‘steal anything’ [game],” Dailly continued. “Nobody wanted to play the cops.”

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That anarchic sensibility seeped into the making of the game itself, which added to the finished game’s sense of freedom, but resulted in a chaotic, undisciplined development phase where nobody quite knew what the end product was supposed to look like. At one point, DMA had the idea of making the game with a 3D view which could be freely rotated, and according to an article over on Games Radar, this iteration would have concentrated more on on-foot fights between gangs rather than driving. In the end, Dailly created a new engine which provided a top-down view, giving the impression of a 3D city viewed from above. It was this, simplified viewpoint that allowed GTA’s expansive cityscape to live and breathe.

The released version of Grand Theft Auto was undeniably a diamond in the rough: its top-down graphics looked outdated even in 1997, yet its transgressive, highly controversial premise made it an immediate stand-out. Chaotic though GTA‘s development was, had it not taken a risk and abandoned its original, more formulaic cops-and-robbers concept, the crime simulator franchise we now take for granted would never have existed.

Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)

Against a decidedly brown, low-res backdrop, a legion tiny armoured soldiers stomp about. There are tanks. A bit of water. The occasional tree. It’s hard to believe, but this is one of the very earliest prototypes of Halo – a game which would one day go on to sell 6.5 million copies and effectively launch Microsoft’s Xbox.

In the late 90s, Chicago-based developer Bungie was still a relatively small outfit working from inside what was once a Catholic girls’ school. Halo began life as a real-time strategy game, designed for release on the Mac. An early demo made its debut at the Macworld Expo in 1999, as unveiled by the late Steve Jobs.

Remarkably, this early prototype was put together in just a week – and that includes the recognisable music, which is still the Halo franchise’s ominous fanfare even today:

As development went continued, the RTS ideas were gradually abandoned, and Halo emerged instead as a third-person shooter. Then, in 2000, both Bungie and Halo underwent another dramatic change: Microsoft bought up Bungie and added it to its game division, and set the developer the task of turning Halo into a first-person shooter for the Xbox.

In the space of less than 18 months, Bungie managed to rewrite Halo’s game engine to compensate for the new perspective. The resulting game was, of course, a hit, establishing Xbox as a force to be reckoned with in the console market, and making Halo‘s protagonist Master Chief one of the most recognisable in gaming.

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Steve Jobs, who’d just had one of the finest game devs then working bought out from under his nose, was understandably displeased.

Devil May Cry (2001)

If the reported version of history is true, Capcom had a great deal of trouble making Resident Evil 4 – an April 2005 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly even suggested that as many as four versions of Resi 4 were proposed and then scrapped. One of those versions was headed up by Hideki Kamiya, who’d previously directed Resident Evil 2. He imagined a game that retained the previous games’ survival horror atmosphere but introduced a more lithe protagonist and a greater emphasis on combat.

The problem was, Kamiya’s concept for the game gradually drifted further and further from the core ideas in the Resident Evil franchise as it developed. Initially, bosses at Capcom were somewhat resistant to these changes, or even the suggestion that it could be spun off as its own original game. Kamiya persisted, however, and ultimately won out; the protagonist’s name was changed from Tony to the more gothic-sounding Dante, and the game evolved into the hectic action game, Devil May Cry.

Devil May Cry not only established a new franchise for Capcom in 2001, but also established Kamiya as a designer of breathtakingly fast beat-em-ups: for other games with a similar feel, see also Viewtiful Joe, Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101 on Wii U. This year sees the release of Bayonetta 2, which is sure to continue Devil May Cry‘s furious tradition.

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