Little changes can go a long way. Video games go through multiple iterations, most of which we never see or even hear about. When we do hear about them, though, they can be shocking. Like any creative endeavor, hearing about the cut ideas when we're already familiar with the finished product can sound insane. It's all part of the creative process, but we've found a few strikingly bizarre examples that benefitted from a developer having second thoughts.
Super Mario packs heat
In modern day, Mario is the quintessential example of squeaky-clean, kid-friendly entertainment. Nintendo is the Disney of video games, with a cast of characters that would be right at home in a theme park, toy store, or animatronic restaurant. At his inception, though, Mario wasn't quite so well-defined. His only major role had been to save a princess from a giant monkey under the moniker "Jumpman." He wasn't even called Mario until Donkey Kong Jr., a game that cast him as a villain keeping the protagonist's father hostage. Then came Mario Bros, which was all about Mario and his strikingly similar brother Luigi stomping on each others' heads.
By the time Super Mario Bros was in development, Mario had been a violent jerk two out of three times. It must have seemed perfectly reasonable, therefore, to have him armed and dangerous. According to creator Shigeru Miyamoto, early versions of the NES classic had Mario firing bullets. It was only taken away because Miyamoto thought the ability was overpowered:
"During much of development, the controls were A for shoot bullets, B to dash, and up on the control pad to jump. The bullets wound up becoming fireballs later--we originally thought about having a shoot-'em-up stage where Mario jumps on a cloud and shoots at enemies, but we dropped it because we wanted to focus on jumping action. The sky-based bonus stages are the remnants of that idea, you could say. In the end, we realized that being able to shoot all the fireballs you want while running gave Mario too much of an advantage, so instead we had it so you shoot only one fireball when you start running. That freed up the A button, and we made that the jump button. I really wanted to have A be the action button and make you press up to jump, but it definitely worked out better for Mario in the end."
Mortal Kombat: JCVD Edition
This is one of those well-known pieces of series lore, but it bears repeating: Mortal Kombat was supposed to star Jean-Claude Van Damme. When the game was conceived in 1992, Van Damme was a relatively popular action star. Since the game centered around capturing footage of real actors to serve as the fighters, it only made sense to look for a Hollywood headliner. We're not sure exactly why such a deal fell apart, but it's worth bearing in mind that this was before video games were such a large and well-financed industry.
Ultimately Midway settled for changing the fighter's name to "Johnny Cage," just as Street Fighter had swapped its names from the Japanese version to remove its obvious reference to boxer Mike Tyson. It's not as if Midway attempted to hide the influence, though, especially considering Johnny Cage's signature "splits with a nut-punch" move is still right out of the 1988 movie Bloodsport.
Grand Theft Auto 3 and 9/11
It's hard to overstate the importance of Grand Theft Auto 3 to the modern gaming landscape. It kicked off the "open world" genre and countless imitators, and those effects are still being felt today in games like Assassin's Creed. The disastrous events of September 11, 2001, however, forced Rockstar to make some last-minute changes to its infamous crime epic:
We removed only one mission that referenced terrorists and changed a few other cosmetic details – car details, a couple of ped comments, lines of radio dialogue etc – the game came out a very short time later. The biggest change was the US packaging which remixed the previous packaging into what became our signature style – because the previous packaging [which was released as the cover of the game in Europe] was, we felt, too raw after 9/11. All of the more extreme rumours are amusing but impossible to have been achieved in such a short period of time.
Though the changes on the whole were minor, it probably did help prevent a controversial game from becoming even more so. Plus the stylistic cars-and-faces approach to the cover is still used to this day, nearly to the point of self-parody.
Halo Wars on Mac
Halo went through several significant changes before its release. For one, Apple president Steve Jobs once made a point of mentioning it as coming to Mac during his annual Macworld Conference, an unusual feat even back in 1999. Microsoft later acquired Bungie in 2000, and canceled the Mac release plans. Instead, Halo released as an Xbox exclusive to help kickoff the fledgling console, helping make it into the name it is today.
That certainly wasn't the only change, however. In early prototypes, Halo was a real-time strategy game. It was much darker at the time, and kept that tone as it transitioned into a third-person shooter. It finally transitioned to the FPS we recognize while Bungie was bringing it to Xbox. Ultimately, we did get a real-time strategy version of Halo, when Microsoft tasked Ensemble Studios with the generally positively received Halo Wars.
Finally, one of the less memorable changes came straight from the corporate side. Bungie's Jaime Griesemer told Edge Magazine that Microsoft marketing didn't like the name "Halo" since it wasn't descriptive as a military shooter. They compromised by adding a subtitle, which officially stuck it with the clunky title, Halo: Combat Evolved. But who actually calls it that?
BioShock's slimy Little Sisters
When BioShock was released, it was praised for how it weaved artistry, emotion, and a thoughtful undercurrent into a story about shooting up an underwater city full of psychopaths. A big part of that was the Little Sisters mechanic, which forced players to consider sparing the life of a scared, otherworldly little girl, or feeding off of her for extra in-game benefit. It formed the emotional core of the game, and served as a stepping stone to a more complex interpersonal relationship in BioShock Infinite.
Originally, though, they were slugs. Not adorable little girls with fear on their faces and empathy, but disgusting little grubs. We get a brief look at their slug form in a talk that creator Ken Levine gave, where he showed early footage (via Joystiq). The slug-like creatures still crawl in and out of small openings, but the relationship isn't nearly as complex. The original game also didn't give you the option to save them, and no wonder. No one wants to save a slug.
Remember the Batusi?
Batman: Arkham Asylum set a new standard for action combat, which few games have even come close to matching. Paired with a grown-up tone of the classic Animated Series cartoons--complete with many of the same voice actors--it's widely regarded as one of the greatest games of the last generation. So we can all be thankful that Rocksteady ditched its original plan to make a Batman rhythm game. According to game director Sefton Hill:
In fact, one of the earliest versions was like a rhythm action game and saw you judging when to hit the 'notes' (i.e. punches), which was an interesting idea but never really worked. But, weirdly, the final game isn't actually that different from this. When you're fighting enemies there's a kind of rhythm to it.
He's not wrong. The freeflow combat system does feel very rhythmic. Still, when someone says "Batman" and "rhythm" it's hard not to think about Adam West.
Steve Watts posted a new article, Small changes that saved classic games.
Video games go through multiple iterations, and we never hear about most of them. When we do hear about them, though, they are absolutely bonkers.
Up to jump? That surprises me coming from Miyamoto, because I've always considered that to be a hallmark of third-rate games.
I guess he learned that lesson early.
I followed details on bioshock early on in it's development, and the end result was pretty different from the concepts they discussed originally. They were originally planning on it involving Nazis and the gameplay discussed was going to have an emphasis on atmospheric and environment manipulation of some sort. I do think at some early stage they planned on it being underwater or underground. I'm not sure if any of this is written anywhere, I remember it from hounding their forums for info a couple years (?) before it actually came out.
I think the first thing I heard about it was something about playing a cult de-programmer.