Last night, I had a chance to witness a rare treat, especially for someone with an interest in game history: The first public showing of a never-before-seen Neo Geo game prototype. The game itself is something of a mystery — no one knows its name, and there's no definitive proof of which studio designed it — and yet it offers a great window into the development process of classic games.
The best part? While this prototype was initially demoed for a small audience at an after-hours meeting Midwest Gaming Classic, the neo-geo.com forum regular who discovered it — Brian Hargrove, aka NeoTurfMasta — immediately uploaded it to the internet, with the ultimate goal of making the game available for play in the MAME emulator (pending support for this not-quite-standard title).
Unfortunately, "the prototype" is all we can really refer to this game as; its title remains unknown. So, too, do its developer, and even the exact year in which it was created. All of that information was lost to data corruption that affect the original prototype board; its title screen is completely missing, as are several other features. While Hargrove was able to patch up some broken components of the game (such as the fighters' health bars), its title and credits appear to have been irretrievably lost. Perhaps they never even existed: This is a prototype, after all, and as such it's incomplete. Several characters have no sprites at all, while others exist only in rough form. On top of that, it's actually impossible to reach the boss characters, although their special fighting stages exist. This is very much a pre-alpha release, far from finished or even fully playable.
The story of this prototype began, according to Hargrove, a little more than a year ago when he acquired the ROM board through a Japanese auction. It was essentially an act of blind faith in which he spent about $600 on an unknown, unlabelled, unspecified ROM board at an overseas auction with the hopes that its contents would prove to be interesting. Initially, it appeared to be a failed gambit, as the board looked to be dead and to contain only data for a known, published Neo Geo game, 1995's Voltage Fighter Gowcaiser. Despite these initially less-than-promising results, though, Hargrove kept digging into the ROM and eventually got it working. What he found was game no one had ever seen before, unfinished and unknown.
Hargrove speculates the proto board may have been the work of developer Technos, who also produced Gowcaiser — though it's a much more sophisticated-looking game than Technos' usual Neo Geo fare, featuring elaborate backgrounds and variable character mechanics. The game has something of a Dungeons & Dragons theme going on, though with a very pronounced Japanese fighting game flavor (as seen in character selections like the wide-eyed little kids who battle in tandem). Not only do the game's characters seem to fall into classic D&D categories — a nimble rogue, a fighting monk, a durable paladin who commands a hawk, etc. — but each character can assume one of three stances: Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic.
The stances remind me somewhat of Street Fighter Alpha 2's Gen, who could alternate between two combat modes... though in this case, it seems you need to commit to a fighting posture before the beginning of a fight (it was hard to tell, since the demo I saw involved debug menus that allowed instant changes). Each stance comes with its own advantage and drawbacks, with each one featuring its own distinct sprite; one character's Lawful stance may employ a long-range attack that his or her Chaos stance lacks, while a Neutral stance might have access to a unique combo. Lawful-mode characters are meant to have a lengthier "power" meter at the bottom of the screen than Chaos — something not currently visible in the game's rough build — and no doubt there are more subtle differences that weren't evident from the brief demo we saw last night.
On the other hand, the most visible difference between character modes — their alternate sprites — were easy to spot. Besides a palette swap and new move set, a mode change also brings with it an alternate idle pose. Lawful characters tend to stand defensively, while Chaos characters hunch, rage, and breathe heavily. Several of the dozen fighters fight with companion characters, including animals, and their companions reflect the fighter's alignment as well; one warrior commands a wolf who performs many of that combatant attack actions, and the wolf goes from calm and sitting in Lawful mode to crouched with his hackles raised in Chaos.
These distinct character illustrations are a great illustration of this mystery game's general level of visual excellence. With any mystery prototype like this, the possibility of its being a hoax always hangs overhead. And while there's no definitive proof that this demo wasn't simply some sort of elaborate prank, the level of bitmap artistry on display in this fighter makes that seem incredibly unlikely. The proto includes nearly as many stages as fighters, each of which also includes three different modes; their graphics and effects change based on the time of day (generally daytime, sunset, and night). The backgrounds have that distinct late-era Neo Geo look, with elaborate dithering and soft, blended details, characteristic of games on a system limited by 16-bit visual capabilities but enormous ROM size.
It's a gorgeous example of classic sprite artistry, with several stages incorporating amazing effects; one battleground takes place in a cave, and as the fighters move past an opening along the top of its back wall, the edge of the sun peeps through and creates a stunning lens flare. Lens flare has become a bit of a joke thanks to how easily it can be abused with modern digital effects, but in a sprite-and-bitmap game in which every pixel had to be drawn and programmed by hand, it's a tremendous visual achievement. Likewise, the boss arena (which can't be reached through normal gameplay in this incomplete version of the game) features a swirling vortex in the background, which is reflected and distorted on the glossy floor. Again, this effect wouldn't seem too remarkable in a polygonal game, or even one with prerendered sprites, the consistently hand-drawn look of the prototype really makes it feel like a showcase for advanced sprite art.
Unfortunately, this is a prototype, and an incomplete one at that. Hargrove couldn't show three of the characters, which have no sprites of their own, and only one character appears to have a complete set of sprites and moves. Other characters suffer from various visual defects; certain moves would cause some characters to pass through frames of glitched, incomplete animation. Several fighters have unique sprites that animate correctly, but with a low-resolution "dummy" appearance that lacked any detail besides the outline of body parts. But even this has its appeal: It's a rare chance to look into the development process of a classic game platform, with developers building their characters in progressive waves of detail. Occasionally, some dummy fighters' moves would result in frames in which the developers had begun to add details, like folds and shadows on cloth, giving a sense of how the graphic designers constructed their sprites
We may never know the prototype's name, but chances seem good that the fan community will do its best to finish the work that the original developer couldn't back in the day. While the ROM dump currently can't be used on emulators, it will undoubtedly gain MAME support in short order, and members of the Neo Geo forums have already expressed interest in digging into its code in hopes of restoring its title screen and attract mode. Given the high quality of the visuals and the unique moral alignment system, I wouldn't be surprised to see fan sprite artists step in and flesh out missing frames of animation, patch in access to the boss, or even complete the dummy characters' sprites, drawing information from completed fighter select portraits and win pose illustrations.
In the short term, we can likely expect the mystery of the game's identity to resolve itself. While the ROM's finders were unable to find any similar-looking games previewed in Neo-Geo-specific magazines, several people have speculated the game might have been Technos' Death Match. According to @ChristopherRasa on Twitter and the Neo Geo master list, Death Match was rumored in about 1994 and may have been set aside until after Technos completed Double Dragon and Gowcaiser in 1995. A second possibility, given the Gowcaiser label on the ROM, is that this could be the skeleton of Technos' other rumored/incomplete title, a presumed Gowcaiser follow-up called High Voltage 12+1. Several people have begun broadcasting requests for info or leads into the Japanese fan community, and given the small, close nature of the Japanese arcade scene, it's entirely possible one of the game's designers may come forward to shed more light on this promising but incomplete creation.
Even if nothing more ever comes of this discovery, it's still exciting to see in its own right: Yet another demonstration that there's still potential for determined fans to unearth games (or fragments of games) thought lost to history... or possibly unknown altogether.
Special thanks to Chris at Windy Gaming for this story.