We've written before about the challenges of preserving rare games for obscure platforms, but what about games that are so obscure that they weren't even announced to the public before being shelved? Such is the case of this mysterious, incomplete fighting game that was unearthed earlier this April.
SNK's Neo-Geo console was an oddity of gaming history: a console system designed to be identical to their then high-end arcade hardware. Both the system and the games were premium priced, with cartridges selling for around $200 in 1990s money. The "elite" perception of the console, combined with some fantastic games and a cult of personality around manufacturer SNK, created a fervent Neo-Geo fanbase that thrives to this day. Neo-Geo fans are among the most devoted of game collectors, willing to drop a lot of cash on rare cartridges (some of which, it turns out, have been elaborate forgeries) and constantly scouring all ends of the internet for Neo-related paraphernalia.
Brian Hargrove is one such Neo devotee. He's been keeping an eagle eye on Japan's biggest auction site, Yahoo! Japan Auctions, for everything Neo-related, and using a proxy bidding service to purchase things that catch his eye. Hargrove caught a glimpse of one auction that looked like Neo-Geo development hardware and pulled the trigger to the tune of about $750. He'd seen similar boards in years past, so he had a vague idea of what he was getting, though there was still a lot of mystery surrounding the auction.
"I had no idea what [the game data on the board] was," Hargrove tells us. "There was nothing on the board indicating who had used it or where it came from."
Hargrove had come across a few early prototypes of Neo-Geo games in his collecting adventures, and most of the data on those games was contained on EPROMs."The one thing that gave me hope was the fact that this dev board contained flash cards and had a different layout than any other board I have come across… If anything, I assumed I'd have a cool piece of SNK history and possibly an early version of something we already knew about." In fact, it took him a while before he went about trying to see what was on the boards. "The program EPROMs said that the game was Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer, an already known and released game. I assumed I had an early build of VFG and didn't really put a lot of time into getting it working. I waited about a month before I really sat down with it, but it didn't take too long once I focused."
In order to read the flash cards, Hargrove also had to invest in special hardware. "I did a lot of testing on several different flash cards before I dared to try and read the proto's flash cards. I wanted to make sure I wouldn't damage them."
There were a few hurdles in the way of getting the data off of the board. Hargrove discovered that two of the memory cards were completely unreadable—they had used batteries that had long since given up the ghost. "One of the cards contained things like font information and overlay graphics like power and super bars. This also may have contained the game's name and logo. The other card most likely contained the game's sound effects." The game wouldn't load up without the font data, so Hargrove had to whip up a makeshift ROM to use as a replacement. "When I booted the game without a working font ROM, it was completely blank. Mainly because the game boots to a text menu first and you have to select "FIGHT!" to start playing. When I initially loaded the new font ROM the game still didn't play. It wasn't until I looked deeper at the graphics ROMs that I realized that the flash cards were mislabeled. So with the graphics cards in the right slots, and the new font rom loaded, I was able to play it."
Here's the game running at Midwest Gaming Classic convention in Milwaukee.
What was revealed was a very early build of a fantasy-themed fighting game. Characters appeared to have Dungeons & Dragons style alignments—Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic—but many of them had unfinished graphics, or were simply unplayable. Stages also changed appearance based on the time of day, The Neo-Geo community has spent a great deal of time documenting information on unreleased games, but nothing about this title seemed to have ever been shown to the public before. Whatever it was, though, it looked like it had been a very ambitious project.
As a longtime member of the Neo-Geo.com forums (under the name "NeoTurfMasta"), Hargrove was eager to share his find with fellow Neo fans. "I really hoped people would be excited and happy to see it. I wanted to do something special and unexpected for the reveal so I did a surprise meeting at the Midwest Gaming Classic in Milwaukee." He posted details about the game on the forums soon afterwards. It didn't take long for news of the find to spread across the globe back over to Japan.
Some folks who had worked on the game saw the news and spoke up about it. First was graphic artist Takumi Matsumae, who had been working as an art subcontractor on the title. Then Kouji Ogata, another artist, chimed in as well, revealing some additional details. It had been theorized by Neo fans that the game was being made at Technos, the company behind the classic Double Dragon franchise, before they went bankrupt in 1996. This turned out to be partially correct—the game was first under development there before several of the staff members joined another company called FACE, taking the in-development title along with them. The project name was said to be Dragon's Heaven.
Not long after, the game's producer, Kengo Asai, chimed in on an interview on Japanese site ITmedia. He divulged several details about the game, which have been translated by fighting game fansite Madman's Cafe. The game never received an official title, being called both DarkSeed and Dragon's Heaven at various points. During the course of the game, player choices and actions would affect a character's alignment. This would also affect gameplay based on the in-game time of day: Lawful characters would be stronger during daylight, while Chaotic characters would be boosted at night. Sometimes characters themselves would change during certain time periods: one concept featured a pair of cursed lovers, transforming into animals during day or nighttime, never to meet again in their human forms.
"DarkSeed went through pending [put on the development backburner] for two times due to funding issues, and then faced official cancellation," says Asai in the article. "Development PCBs aren't really supposed to leak out, so there's a part of me that's a bit distraught about that. However, it's been 20 years. As of now, I salute NeoTurfMasta for his discovery, luck, passion, and knowledge. Personally it wasn't all fond memories, so together with my surprise and joy, I also sort of felt the fear of something coming back and haunting me from 20 years ago. I haven't changed that much, but it sure brought back memories of how inexperienced I was back in my youth."
Hargrove is happy that Asai and others who were involved have spoken up about the game. "I just hope [Asai] is not upset about it and sees that people are very excited," Hargrove comments. He also hopes that this find will encourage people with access to unreleased development material to share what they have. "There are still several known games out there [that haven't been shared]. Most are owned by private collectors that have no desire to share it with the world. I really wish they would reconsider and see how happy this makes people… If this doesn't convince the collectors to dump them, maybe some developer will dust off their cart or dev kit and release it. Now I really think there may be more unknown [Neo] games out there."