In 1999, fresh off releasing South Park: Chev's Luv Shack, a small group of developers at Acclaim Studios Austin started spitballing ideas for Game Boy Color games to make on the side while waiting for the company's next big project.
The group, which included Jools Watsham, Ian Dunlop, and Kynan Pearson, was comprised of multiple Metroid fans, many of whom were devastated that the series seemed to be on an indefinite hiatus.
It had been five years since Super Metroid on the Super Nintendo and with the advent of 3D, it looked increasingly unlikely that Samus was going to make a return. So, as a result, the small group in Austin, Texas, took it upon itself to make its own Metroid-inspired game for Nintendo's handheld, with the team calling it Forlorn, meaning "pitifully sad" or "abandoned". Unfortunately, this title also ended up describing the project's eventual fate, with the group having to later put it on hold indefinitely for Vexx.
We first came across the story of Forlorn after stumbling across this tweet from Pearson in reply to former Nintendo of America employee Henry Sterchi and immediately contacted the developers. But, in our quest to uncover more details about the game, we ended up stumbling across more than we initially anticipated: the story of three canceled Game Boy Advance games and a short-lived studio called Rival Dreams, started by Watsham, Dunlop, and Pearson. This is all begins with Forlorn at Acclaim.
As Pearson tells us, "Jools approached me at Acclaim and we started talking about our common love of Metroid. Super Metroid specifically was in our top games of all time, we had a passion for it, and it had been gone for so long. Like there was nothing to really occupy that space other than Symphony of the Night and what eventually became the Metroidvania genre. [Forlorn] was something that he was doing as a small-scale project. It was just him and an engineer, and he asked if I would do the sprite animation and level design."
According to Pearson and Watsham, Acclaim Studios Austin hadn't officially sanctioned Forlorn's development, so the team didn't have access to real Nintendo hardware. Instead, it was using emulators, flash ROM cartridges, and a leaked hardware manual to create this homage to Metroid. The end goal was to get the project to a functional prototype and then pitch it to Acclaim to receive some proper support. So the team put a ton of effort into pushing the hardware and making it look as attractive as possible.
"We were having a lot of fun with [creating the illusion of depth]," says Watsham. "We made this level tileset where these weird squiggly alien-looking wormy things with a little bulb on the top were part of the landscape. And we were able to make the brighter cold ones be in front of the player and the darker ones in the background, so the player would actually go in between them. And we were like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing!’ It felt cutting edge for the Game Boy, even though it’s the exact same hardware everyone’s been using."
Watsham and the others, unfortunately, aren't able to remember much about Forlorn's story, but what we do know is that it seemed to follow an astronaut that had crash-landed on an alien planet and needed to survive. Like Metroid, you would then have to explore the surface and interior of the planet, unlocking new abilities: one of these being a stand-in for the morph ball called the RSD (Remote Service Droid) or the Seeker Bob.
Watsham explains, "This was a little orb, where if I’m the player, I’m going to put myself in a safe spot and launch this thing - almost like a drone. You’d send it out and it had its own little gameplay. It could go down these nooks and crannies into these completely new areas that the player can’t get into. And it was this remote thing you could do, almost secret-service-like."
After several months, the small team achieved its goal of making a functional prototype and even ported it to the Game Boy Advance to give the project more value, but ultimately it ended up being nixed at Acclaim, with reasons for this ranging from the Austin studios' lack of interest in the genre to cartridge and production costs.
Forlorn was officially dead, but the three developers weren't done yet. In a clandestine move, they set up their own company called Rival Dreams in the early 2000s, while still at Acclaim, with the intention of developing GBA titles to pitch to publishers. The first of these titles was a Strider and Castlevania-inspired Metroidvania called Dark Eden.
Pearson tells us, "Dark Eden was basically taking the momentum that we had used to build Forlorn in such a short period of time and then looking at like the GBA, which had come out. At the time, we were playing Circle of the Moon, and we were also going back to play Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
"So we were looking at it as it was different enough from Forlorn, where it could be our own thing and not related to that work in any way but still borrow the design philosophies of how we had quickly produced maps and slammed everything together and had gone through the idea of ability progression and stuff like that."
According to the developers, Rival Dreams also managed to produce a GBA prototype for Dark Eden that everybody involved was proud of. It had the player unlocking "10 abilities in roughly 10 minutes", and went through "six different sets of background tile themes" in the same amount of time. Pearson told us that this would have been stretched out for the finished version, but for the demo, it made a good first impression.
Nevertheless, the company was still unable to get investors to hand over cash, leading the three men to go back to the drawing board yet again. It was at this point that Dunlop had his chance to shine, pitching his dream for a GBA game called Sea Boy.
"Sea Boy was my baby," Dunlop tells us. "That came after Dark Eden. Dark Eden was Jools and Kynan really wanting to make a Metroidvania. I enjoy those games, but I didn’t put a lot of direction into Dark Eden. I basically did all the programming. I would say Sea Boy, the majority of it was my design, but Jools did all of the art and all of the music."
As Dunlop tells us, Sea Boy was based on his experiences as a new parent and his desire to move away from the violent video games that he had developed in the past, like Walker for the Commodore Amiga. He, therefore, came up with this idea of a small boy, based on his son, trying to save the ocean, by moving fish and other aquatic life from one body of water to another.
The way this would work is that you would select levels from a Super Mario World-inspired world map. Each stage had a different puzzle to solve and there were always multiple solutions to entertain. You could pick fish up, fling them, or try to run with them, with each level being built with some level of replayability in mind. There was also an impressive fluid simulation, which wasn't exactly common for the handheld, letting you raise and lower the water levels.
"It really worked and it allowed you to do really cool, interesting levels," says Dunlop. "Jools came up with this idea for a plant that when it’s not underwater, it’s closed, and when it’s underwater it opens up so you can grab the bomb from it. It’s like a bomb flower. So you could throw that onto things and blow up walls and then water would flood out and things like that.
"I also wanted to be able to replay the levels multiple times, so I had all these different goals built in like jumping and diving. Because if you jumped off a high platform and fell into the water, at a certain point the character would flip around and do a dive. So you would get a bonus secret for uncovering the dive point on that level."
Similar to Forlorn and Dark Eden, Sea Boy reached the prototype phase, but never got the support it needed to become a finished game, with publishers again unwilling to invest. As a result, all three games simply remain today as sketches of games that could have been.
As for the three men, they all went on to have incredible careers in the games industry. Kynan Pearson, for instance, joined Retro Studios and achieved his dream of working on a Metroid game with Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Ian Dunlop ended up doing freelance work for WayForward Technologies, in addition to running his own company OeFun, Inc. And Watsham co-founded the independent company Renegade Kid, where he released games like Moon, Mutant Mudds, and Xeodrifter.
All three told us that though these games never saw the light of day, the lessons learned on these projects proved to be vital experiences. In the case of Watsham, it even inspired the name of his current company, Atooi, which is directly lifted from Sea Boy (which you can take an exclusive look at below).
What game would you have most liked to play? Let us know in the comments!