News/Holiday 2019 (Day 1) - A.D. 2019 - AKIRA (Sega Mega Drive)
Santa came in the middle of the night and left us a couple presents under the Christmas tree! To keep within the spirit of the holiday season, we decided to share our holiday gifts with you! Over the next several days, we’ll be sharing several prototypes of both released and unreleased games for you to enjoy. For more information and a schedule, check out the Holiday 2019 article. What surprises did Santa bring this year, I wonder?
Presenting, a prototype of the unreleased video game adaptation of Akira for the Sega Mega Drive! Courtesy of Matsuda and an anonymous donor!
Akira is based on a Japanese manga drawn and written by Katsuhiro Otomo from 1982 to 1990. While working on one of the later chapters in the story, Otomo was offered an opportunity to create an animated adaptation of his work for the big screen. Released domestically in Japanese theaters on July 16th, 1988, Akira is a film set in Tokyo thirty three years after a mysterious explosion caused most of the original city to become destroyed. After causing World World III to occur, a reconstruction period began in the efforts to rebuild the city as “Neo-Tokyo”. However, the reconstruction period is cut short when anti-government protests, acts of terrorism, moral decay, gangs, religious hysteria, and political corruption spread throughout the city. The film is about a gang member named Tetsuo who encounters a mysterious esper while on a mission against a rival bicycle gang. He is soon captured by the government and used for experiments that unlock an organism’s energy to “evolve” at an exponential rate, far exceeding the natural limits of that organism’s current form. This encounter, along with the government experimentation, unlocks Tetsuo’s energy to evolve far beyond the capabilities of a human being. Tetsuo’s motivation to rise above his contemporaries and his inability to control his growing powers causes him to become a dangerous force to be reckoned with. It’s up to Kaneda, Tetsuo’s best friend since childhood, and the other espers to stop Tetsuo before he destroys the entire world.
Akira is quite possibly one of the most culturally significant Japanese films ever made. Akira revitalized the Japanese animation industry by inspiring many artists who would go on to create some of the most iconic anime of all time.
Despite having a somewhat “underground” western release on home video in the late 80s, the film quickly spread and became a talking point about the significance of Japanese animation. Thus, it was inevitable that other companies would begin looking to capitalize on the film’s growing popularity.
Interestingly enough, the origin of the Akira video games also began within the home video scene. In 1993, Lawrence Siegel, CEO of Black Pearl Software, was given a VHS of Akira by friend and Electronic Gaming Monthly founder, Steve Harris. After seeing the movie himself, Mr. Siegel knew that the film’s gripping story and possibilities for gameplay would make for a smash hit on consoles. He set out for Japan to acquire the rights from Kodansha, and met Mr. Otomo as well, who gifted him with 50 animation cels from the film and wished him the best of luck.
Development began in mid to late 1993 at Black Pearl Software. The team were very passionate about Akira, and decided on a multi-engine approach to represent the great ambition of the film. As the game was beginning to be made, Mr. Siegel had finished a deal with THQ about merging the two companies. This approach was believed to secure more artists and financial support for Akira, but would unfortunately result in the demise of the project. For a time there was additional support from THQ on Akira’s creation, and the merger allowed for new development on additional platforms as well. Some of these platforms would only be discussed, such as the rumored Atari Jaguar and PC ports, while others like the Game Gear, Game Boy, Super Nintendo, and Sega CD would all be confirmed for the future.
Handmade Software in the UK was contacted at this time to create the Game Boy version, and if progress was up to standards, the green light to work on a Super Nintendo version would be given as well. These standards were not met, but despite the lack of permission, Akira SNES went forward. The Gameboy version would end up in the hands of ICE Software at some point, though how the game arrived there is not fully known. From the beginning, Akira for Super Nintendo faced a very troubled development. The team was quite capable, but CEO of Handmade Software, Jim Gregory, failed to convey what he wanted to see in the game. The team created several different builds of the game, including an isometric version (Think Shadowrun SNES). After months of working, Jim lost interest in the project and new management took over. For a short few weeks the project advanced rapidly, but it was too late. The financial state of HMS was in dire straits, and ultimately the project came to a close by early 1995.
Thanks to one of the very gracious members of the Handmade team, we are able to present to you some of the graphics for one of the early builds for Akira on Super Nintendo.
Back at THQ, the situation had turned for the worse. The heads of THQ were not interested in Akira in the slightest, and pushed other projects onto Larry. Mr. Siegel would try his best in nearly every meeting to get more attention for Akira, but was dismissed every time. By mid-November 1994, the project came to a close. Larry left THQ in 1995, fed up with the way they had treated him and his team.
(image sourced from Boston University News Service | bunewsservice.com)
A prototype of the Mega Drive version of Akira was showcased at the Summer Consumer Electronic Show (SCES) in 1994 from June 23rd to June 25th. The prototype showcased all the stages one could play in the final game in various stages of completion. The bicycle battle, first person, and platforming segments are all implemented at this point along with various cut scene sequences. However, it appears that even the build that was present at the show was prone to bugs and crashes, as evident toward the end of the video on the sixth stage.
The game would continue to be featured in various gaming magazines throughout 1994 in very limited showings, often as simple one or two paragraph blurbs with a screenshot or two.
Eventually, all references to the game would vanish as the game was presumably canceled when no further information about the game itself was provided. The game’s existence became a distant memory limited to the few people who had an opportunity to work and play the game while it was still in production. Even key personnel who have worked on the game and were very passionate about the project no longer had access to a playable copy of the game, despite wanting others to play it. Aside from the video that was recorded at SCES 94 and the few screenshots provided to the media at the time, it was looking like no prototypes were known to have survived.
...until recently that is!
After many long years of searching for any playable build of Akira, Matsuda was able to obtain an authentic prototype of Akira for the Sega Mega Drive, still burned on the EPROMs!
The donor was kind enough to send not one, but two PCBs with EPROMs burnt with the same build of Akira for the Mega Drive. Matsuda was kind enough to allow us the opportunity to properly preserve and analyze both PCBs! One PCB contained an EPROM that had one part of the game burnt twice but is otherwise the same exact build as the other functioning one. The game was dumped using a Retrode 2 multiple times with individual EPROM dumps made with an EPROM programmer to ensure that the dump was accurate. Furthermore, the nonworking PCB was used to check the equivalent EPROMs for any errors or inconsistencies. In short, the dump we provided is accurate.
This prototype predates the one featured at SCES 94, as it includes several notable differences that would eventually be remedied in time for the public showcasing. For instance, the bicycle battle sequences lack enemies or music, whereas the demo featured at SCES 94 contained both. Many of the other stages contain significant changes in comparison to the public demo. The prototype also contains several bugs and crashes of its own, including a mysterious crash that occurs right at the beginning of stage 6 as well as some vertical background scrolling bugs. For some odd reason, the prototype contains a background graphic for the storage facility that contains Akira’s preserved organs, whereas it was completely removed from the demo shown at SCES 94.
By using a code data logger, we were able to determine that just 2/3rds of the ROM is accessible in game, where as the other third is inaccessible despite data being present. It’s quite possible that more inaccessible content exists in the ROM, such as data for more cut scenes, bosses, enemies, and coding for objects that simply aren’t utilized. Can you find what might be lurking within the ROM?
Finally, we’d like to thank Matsuda for giving us the opportunity to share this with you. Without dedicated people like him, the majority of this stuff would be lost to time. Despite how unfinished the game appears to be, it’s apparent that a lot of passion and respect for the original film went into creating the game. It’s a Christmas miracle that not only this lost game can be seen once again, but the fruits of another group’s passion can finally be seen, played, and possibly admired for the times to come.
Well...this is just one present we found under the tree this year. I wonder what else Santa brought for us this year? Only one way to find out!
Stay tuned for some more goodies very shortly. Until next time, Merry Christmas! 🎄