The PlayStation 1 had a lot of games announced that were sadly canceled before anyone got the chance to play them, but one that has always stuck in our minds was Spiral Saga. The Manchester developer Software Creations and publisher Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (SCEE) were responsible for this spiritual successor to Solstice and Equinox, with Ste Pickford of the Pickford Brothers handling its design.
From 1996 to 1998, Spiral Saga appeared in several gaming publications, as one of the many exclusives that PlayStation players would eventually get their hands on. However, it never saw the light of day, with Sony quietly canceling the project in 1998 after it struggled to come together. In recent years, information and images from Spiral Saga have been pretty hard to come by, with only the occasional press cutting or developer photo shedding some light on what could have been. As a result, we wanted to try our luck and see what we could dig up about this forgotten exclusive, interviewing as many people as possible to get the full story. First, though, it's probably best to take a look at a little of what came before.
The Next Generation
In 1990, Software Creations released Solstice for the NES in partnership with the publishers CSG Imagesoft (later Sony Imagesoft) and Nintendo.
The isometric puzzle game, designed by Mark Wilson and Mike Webb, was Software's first original title and followed a story about a stolen princess named Eleanor and an evil baron called Morbius. Playing as the wizard Shadax, you had to explore the baron's fortress, picking up items like keys and moving blocks to solve puzzles. The ultimate goal was to collect the Staff of Demnos, which had been broken into multiple pieces, and then use it to defeat Morbius and rescue the princess.
Despite the somewhat generic story, Solstice received strong reviews at the time from outlets like Total!, Mean Machines, and CVG, and Software eventually began work on a sequel named Equinox for the Super Nintendo console - one of the first games in development by a western developer for the machine. Ste and John Pickford, known collectively as the Pickford Brothers, designed this follow-up, with the game focusing instead on Glendaal, Shadax's son, who is tasked with saving his father from a wayward apprentice named Sonia.
Much like its predecessor, the sequel was popular with critics when it was released in 1994 - it even got a perfect score from the magazine GamePro. Discussions began for a third entry in the series, but this would require the developer to jump to another new system.
You see, during the development of Equinox, Sony and Nintendo fell out over a proposed CD-ROM add-on for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The fallout from this led Sony to announce its own plans to move into the console market with the PlayStation. And so, in need of exclusive titles for its new machine, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (SCEE) approached Software Creations in early 1995 with the prospect of developing a spiritual successor to Equinox for the PlayStation instead.
Martin Alltimes, a former producer at SCEE, tells us, "Sony [Imagesoft] had released both Solstice and Equinox on Super Nintendo, and so they were like, ‘Hey, why don’t you talk to these guys?' So we went up to Software Creations and I met John and Ste [Pickford]. And basically, at the end of the interview, I said look, ‘Why don’t we just build something original based around the mechanics of Solstice and Equinox?’"
Ste Pickford adds, "Yeah, exactly. It wasn't an Equinox sequel in terms of story or a franchise, but more like a spiritual sequel - let's do the next isometric adventure game / RPG. (There was a whole RPG I'd designed and written for Equinox - with NPCs, quests, towns, etc., which was ripped out in development, so I was keen to get my RPG made)."
According to Chun Wah Kong, a level designer who worked on Spiral Saga at Software Creations, the design document for the game was "the size of a phonebook" and "easily the most detailed I have ever come across up to that point". Pickford was responsible for the design, as well as the game's story, with the publisher, Sony, hiring Joe Dever, the author of the Lone Wolf books, to work on a script.
The story would have followed a young boy on a quest, with the idea being that as you traveled through the overworld, completing dungeons, you would grow older and the seasons would change, as well as the world around you. This overworld would have been divided into 10 maps, with each having different tilesets and weather effects such as rain, snow, and fog. Screenshots of only two of these sections have seemingly survived to this day, showcasing a rocky area and some grassy ruins. But those we spoke to told us there were also villages and towns where you could buy items and talk to NPCs.
As Chun Wah Kong tells us, the game had "a darker and [more] menacing feel", and the art style helped to get this point across. Characters were no longer small and cute like Equinox, but instead more proportional to real humans, making the threats feel more realistic.
The task of creating the art was split between two employees, who had both previously worked at Cosgrove Hall Films, an animation company responsible for the BFG, Danger Mouse, and The Wind in the Willows. One artist Weston Samuels was tasked with designing the game's heroes, while another named Stephen Hanson created the look of the enemies in the game. A group of graphic artists at Software, including Justin Eagleton, Lyndon Brooke, and Dave Mac then had to translate the designs into 3D models.
Rather than try for a full 3D-art style, which had yet to become a norm within the industry, Software took advantage of pre-rendered sprites and assets similar to the technique seen in Donkey Kong Country, to evolve the isometric perspective from Equinox and Solstice, and give the areas a greater sense of depth.
As Kong tells us, "Perhaps the decision was to play to our strengths. As a result, the game had a very strong visual identity and the backgrounds looked very organic, unlike the grid-shaped layout associated with this genre."
As others who worked on the project told us, however, this change wasn't without its challenges. Hanson's scratchy art style (see above) was incredibly popular inside the studio but didn't necessarily translate well to pixels, with the 3D artists struggling to faithfully recreate his drawings. The team was also now having to adapt to working more regularly with Silicon Graphics workstations, in 3D, and on totally new hardware. This represented a difficult shift for the company.
David Bone Gill, one of the programmers, says, "We were a SNES company so we were making games like Plok, Equinox, and Tinstar, and we had a lot of traditional animators, so we didn’t really know what to do with the hardware, things like the SGIs and stuff. Nor did we really have the toolsets to make the 3D animated characters. So we were rendering out lots and lots of frames of characters. It probably would have looked like a high-end SNES game rather than a PlayStation game. But I think it would have looked really unique after it had come out. It would have aged really well."
According to Martin Alltimes, who was the producer on the project at Sony, the initial plan was to turn the game around in 18 months, but its development dragged on for much longer than that. This is due to some of the reasons we've outlined above, as well as BCE Holdings' mismanagement of the studio.
BCE Holdings, a snooker and amusement arcade business, had acquired Software in 1994 and had invested a large amount of money into greenlighting a collection of 32-bit projects at the time, many of which were too unfocused or too ambitious for the small teams. As a result, a lot of the original projects the company was trying to get off the ground struggled to come together; Spiral Saga included.
Nevertheless, the development of Spiral Saga continued into 1996 and it was at this point Sony's marketing machine began to spin into action. In July 1996, Sony announced Spiral Saga to the world and started promoting it in magazines like PlayStation Plus and Hyper, with the latter magazine's advertisement claiming that the game would be out before Christmas.
To add to the hype, the game was also included as one of 15 titles included on the back of PlayStation packaging in Europe, alongside other upcoming titles like Tekken 2, Crash Bandicoot, and Tomb Raider.
Some of the people we spoke to who worked at Software had no idea about this, but suspect that the announcement was Sony's way of making sure the team didn't drag their heels. They also added that this date would have been extremely unrealistic given what they had already finished.
The announcement and marketing push is something that Alltimes now takes credit for, claiming that he was worried by how long the project was taking the team. Talking about it today, he says he would definitely handle things differently, speaking to the team directly before going to the press.
"Everything was going well […]" says Alltimes. "All the artwork was fantastic, the design was fine, but then what happened was they could never deliver a first playable. And it became just weird. [...] I think nothing had happened for a while, and in those days on PlayStation 1 if you got a million dollars and eighteen months you were lucky. So I think I felt compelled to [announce it]. I wouldn’t have done it now – I would have just told them straight, 'You know there’s a problem, and we kind of need to get to the bottom of it.'"
Just as Spiral Saga was announced to the public, another problem emerged. Ste Pickford, the lead designer, left Software Creations after disagreements with the new owners, going on to form ZedTwo with his brother John. According to multiple people we spoke to at Software, this was a huge blow to the project, with Pickford having the clearest idea of what he wanted to achieve with the game.
As David Bone Gill states, "Ste had a plan. It was a very tactile plan, like these big A1 sheets of dungeons and stuff that he had all planned out. And he had a lot of it in his head too. So him leaving as like the lead designer, it all just went a bit wayward after that, because we didn’t have anyone that was like a strong character who could drive it on after that.
"I don’t recall [Sony] bringing anyone on either, and that’s the thing that probably should have happened. Like when I worked on Blur, that’s what Activision did for us, ‘Right, okay, stop messing about now, we’re going to put our guys in charge and shift it forward.’"
Instead, Sony and Software continued working on Spiral Saga pretty much in parallel. Martin Alltimes and Sony continued to work with the scriptwriter and cast voice actors for the project (including a young Peter Serafinowicz), while Software put together demos of the game to prove that it was still progressing. One of these demos (which has now sadly been lost to time) included a short FMV of the playable character swinging his dagger, which was created by the artist Lyndon Brooke, as well as a few explorable rooms, some exterior locations, and a couple of enemies for you to fight. Combat and exploration in the game were split between two modes, with the player character needing to unsheath his weapon before swinging his sword.
Opinions on the demo's quality are divided depending on who you ask. Alltimes claims that after the delays and amount of time taken Sony wasn't happy with the results it was receiving. Meanwhile, Software employees speak positively about the quality of their work, despite admitting that the project had gotten out of control.
A Bitter End
After failing to hit an October 1996 deadline for the game, given in the German magazine MANiAC, another deadline was set for Winter 1997, but again the team struggled to pull the project together with no one around to lead its creative vision.
With the project dragging and the developers growing restless, several members of the team left to go to other studios, with the programmer David Bone Gill joining the Pickford Brothers over at ZedTwo, while Chun Wah Kong left to go to Psygnosis. According to Lyndon Brooke, this roughly coincided with when Sony passed down word that it had decided to cancel the project, though no one can agree on when the axe finally fell.
In the years since the project has largely been forgotten, not in any way helped by the fact that only a handful of images were ever used in its promotion. Ste Pickford, the game's original designer, immortalized it on his website, giving a brief summary of the project with some surviving promotional images attached, but even he admits his memory is kind of fuzzy on the details. Fortunately, while researching this piece, though, we were able to come across some unseen concept art, renders, and images from old magazines, many of which the team hadn't seen for more than 25 years.
Now you can see more of the project than ever before, and get a proper insight into what Software and Sony were working on.
Did you ever read about Spiral Saga back in the day? Let us know in the comments!