Dai Mao ZARK Densetsu (大魔王ZARK伝説 – Legend of the Great Demon King ZARK) is a cancelled side scrolling action RPG that was in development by J & U for Famicom (NES) around 1990. Previews and screenshots of the game were published in Japanese magazines at the time, but it quietly vanished and today not much info remains about this game. By looking at the few screenshots available it seems you could use your horse to move through different levels in an overworld map similar to the one seen in Super Mario Bros 3, and each stage had some fantasy enemies to fight.
As noted by Chris Covell, this may have been somehow related to another cancelled Famicom RPG titled “Off Zarken”: if you can read Japanese and would like to translate the main details found in these photos, please leave a comment below!
This wasn’t Disney’s first attempt at expanding the Snow White story. Walt Disney himself had considered it due to public and internal popularity of the characters despite his own dislike of sequels. However nothing ever came of them until the mid 2000s when Disney’s home video department DisneyToon Studios decided to work with the story. Their idea was a prequel with a darker tone intended to explain the origins of the cast, taking inspiration from The Lord of the Rings. The plot would have been about the seven dwarves journeying together with a young girl to stop an evil wizard finding an ancient dwarven power. However, things are not what they seem as it is revealed that the dwarves have been manipulated by the young girl who is the daughter of the wizard. She betrays the dwarves and curses her father, proceeding to take over the kingdom and thus setting up the original movie.
Soon after the project started, it began to develop an internal following. Many saw Dwarfs as the seeds to a new franchise to go alongside Disney’s Fairies and Princess lines. In order to get the fledgling franchise off to a good start, a video game was proposed. Obsidian was approached due to their history and skills developing deep RPGs, such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II and Neverwinter Nights 2. The game, known as “Project New Jersey” internally, was intended to be a third person action adventure with a much darker tone than even the prequel movie. Kevin Saunders (game designer at Obsidian for such titles as KotOR2 and NN2) was the Lead Designer on Dwarfs, and he gave a short description of the opening of the game on his Formspring account:
“This wasn’t a happy-go-lucky Disney game. Disney’s Buena Vista Games wanted dark and I gave them dark. In the opening sequence, for example, you, as a teenage prince, awake in your bed to haunting sounds. Exploring the dark castle, you come across a terrifying shadowy creature that you kill in a desperate struggle – its cries shifting from a supernatural shriek to that of a human woman’s bloodcurdling cry of death. The illusion is then dispelled, and your mother, the Queen, lays dead before you, the bloody knife that killed her in your hand. This wasn’t a cinematic – it was all a gameplay sequence that you’d actually play out“
Saunders’s Formspring post also names some of the proposed team. Obsidian built a team of veterans for this project. Josh Sawyer (who was the lead designer for Icewind Dale 2 and later director for Fallout: New Vegas) was picked as the systems / combat lead. Brian Menze, a longtime artist for both Black Isle Studios and Obsidian, was doing the concept art for Dwarfs. Saunders described Menze work as “So much personality and character, reminiscent of Disney’s classic characters, but weathered by the grim realities of a dark fantasy world”. Brian Mitsoda, known for being a Writer for Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, worked as the creative lead on the project and along with Kevin Saunders on the story. When asked about Dwarfs, he said:
“If I could resurrect any project that I worked on, it would be this one. This was essentially our action-RPG version of a Pixar movie crossed with a first-party Nintendo game. I don’t know how much is still covered by NDA, but it was obviously inspired by Disney’s classic movies artistically, although script-wise we definitely wanted to capture the characterization and emotion of Pixar films. Conceptually, it was a darker fairytale type of story, but it was mostly focused on the journey of the teenage protagonists as they journeyed around the land meeting up with these eccentric little men and using their unique powers to advance through the plot. It had a lot of heart, great monster and character concepts by Brian Menze, and very interesting level potential.”
With an enthusiastic and experienced team coming together and a plan set in place, things looked set for work to begin on a great new game. However, things weren’t looking so good for the movie, with difficulty for Studio Executives and their desire to add their own touches to the film. Having to constantly fight to keep the movie true to its original vision, director Mike Disa (who previously worked on such titles as Pocahontas, Fantasia 2000, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and The Origin Of Stitch) felt burnt out with the project.
In particular, a repeated insistence by studio executives of having the character of Dopey to talk in the movie and then to explain his mutism in the original movie as trauma from watching his mother die. As Mike told during an interview with Integratedcatholiclife:
“Essentially the studio executive wanted Dopey to talk! [Laughs in disbelief.] It just comes down to my respect for great films. Snow White is today still the best animated film ever made. Those characters are spectacular. It’s a sad statement on our industry that the best film was 80 years ago, but it’s still the best film. I would never walk into a sequel and do anything to disrespect the core of the characters like making Dopey talk.”
Around this time, Pixar’s creative director John Lasseter took over Disney’s animation departments and was reviewing the current projects. At first it seemed like Dwarfs would be safe but as the executives pushed for more influence, Disa’s confidence on his project dropped. Not wanting to pitch an idea that he didn’t believe in, Disa left the project and Dwarfs was canceled as soon as Lasseter got a look at the new script. This was also the end for Obsidian’s game.
Many of the team who worked on Dwarfs were sad to see it go. Brian Mitsoda described his feeling as: “I think if it had come out, it would be considered a classic today. It still hurts to know we’ll never finish it. If DoubleBear (Mitsoda’s own company) ever gets big enough, I would totally do something similar to it”. His wife, Annie Mitsoda, described the game as her “One that got away”. Feargus Urquhart, Ceo of Obsidian, talked about the game in an interview with Kotaku: “It was a lot of fun, we feel we turned in a really cool prototype. We worked on it for about a year. It’s one of the games here that the team just loved working on. And unfortunately – which, it happens in this industry – you have changes of focus at a publisher.”
Since Dwarfs’ cancellation, Obsidian has moved on to other high profile projects like Fallout: New Vegas, and other licensed games like South Park: The Stick of Truth. However this wasn’t the last time Obsidian had a licensed game canceled on them: you can check out the article on Aliens: Crucible. Other lost projects conceived by the team were Futureblight, a post-apocalyptic RPG for Take-Two Interactive, a couple of pitches for EA and Ubisoft, and “Project North Carolina”, an open world adventure to be published by Microsoft for their Xbox One.
After so many canned games Obsidian’s future could have been bleak, but in 2015 they finally released Pillars of Eternity thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, and it was welcomed by gamers as one of the best RPGs of the last decade.
While the game was quickly canned by the studio and it was never officially announced, Kotaku published a short article on the game in 2013, showing off remaining concept art created by Obsidian and sharing a few details on its gameplay:
“BackSpace is a single-player action-RPG set in a scifi space environment with simple elements of time travel. The combat is paced similarly to Skyrim, but slightly faster since there is no concept of blocking. The easiest way to look at it is a mix of Mass Effect, Borderlands, and System Shock 2 for gameplay and setting.”
“It was to be developed in some sort of partnership with Bethesda, I’ve heard, and it’d use the same engine as their ridiculously-successful role-playing game Skyrim. Although BackSpace wasn’t an open-world game, players would be able to travel between a number of planets as well as one large space station.”
“This station is huge,” a BackSpace design document reads. “It can be compared in size to The Citadel of Mass Effect [or] Babylon 5. The station has several locations devoted to diverse research fields which would allow us to have vegetation overgrowth, high-tech disasters, and mutations of science as visual themes.”
“[…] a technical error would fling your character ten years into the future, and you’d spend a bulk of the game hopping back and forth between the time of the attack and a dismal, alien-occupied future. Quests in the game would task you with hopping between timelines in an attempt to save humankind.”
“I was working closely with Bethesda on BackSpace. Since there were no other projects lined up after the Old World Blues team finished their work, I took it upon myself to try to find another project for the company. I reached out to Bethesda and directly asked them what type of game they’d be most interested in publishing next. From there, I started working on a pitch based on a prior game I made, ThreadSpace: Hyperbol (story only, not gameplay). The gameplay was something designed around Bethesda’s interests at the time. No other publishers were pitched on it, to my knowledge, but there was interest from a 3rd party in creating a TV show based on it.
I actually started working on the project a bit before that by myself after hours. Probably as early as October (2010). It was an “after school project” for a very long time, and after a few months, more and more folks would join me after hours to volunteer their time to help. I don’t think we actually worked on it by day until the final month for the prototype. Then the layoffs happened. Then I stuck around for a few more years. Then the big layoffs (including me this time).”
Raiko is a cancelled action RPG that was in development by Flextech between 1996 and 1998, planned to be published by Blizzard Entertainment for PC. The game was conceived as a “3D Diablo with samurai”. At the time Raiko was not officially announced by Blizzard, but its name was later shown in a list of cancelled games they talked about at DICE 2008. In 2017 former Flextech founder and developer Felix Kupis published a few screenshots of their Raiko prototype on Linkedin:
“Raiko was a Diablo style game with a 3D engine set in ancient Japan. Even though the game got cancelled for various reasons, we did manage to have a working 3D engine, RPG system and a level editor. I can still run the engine today almost 20 years later on windows 10. Here are some screenshots from March 1998.”
Just a year before we had the pleasure to interview Felix for our book “Video Games You Will Never Play”, when he shared some of his memories working on Raiko:
“As a fan of Diablo style games and Asian folklore I wanted to make a game that was essentially a 3D Samurai Diablo. This was built on a 3D engine but was played from a similar view to Diablo. You could turn the camera around to see more of the environment and the game was coming along but got cut when Vivendi bought Blizzard.
Myself and my crew of a couple people that did the work on the game traveled down to E3 when it was held in Atlanta and set up a meeting with Alan Adham and Bill Roper on this game demo we made for Raiko. I got to know Alan Adham when I told him my story of basically being kicked out early from Westwood (I was leaving after finishing Red Alert) for wearing a Blizzard shirt. At that time the heads of Westwood hated Blizzard for “stealing” their RTS ideas so after wearing the shirt to piss off my boss I got the boot early. Anyway I was a good in with Mr. Adham and got me the meeting at E3, it was actually the very last meeting of the show for Blizzard. After looking at our demo I remember Alan and Bill Roper both had a huge smile on their face and told us this is the game we have been looking for.”
“After Raiko got cancelled, Blizzard kept all the rights to it so we were basically looking for a new project before we ran out of funding. We pitched Disposable Heroes to a bunch of publishers including GT interactive, Atari, and some others. Disposable Heroes was basically Halo way before Halo but nobody would give us the funding for the game before money ran out and we had to shut down Flextech. I still have the original documents for Disposable Heroes, it’s really funny reading them now and looking at how close it was to Halo.”
It seems the game was playable at E3 1998, but we were not able to find any footage yet. Unfortunately there are no details about what happened to the project, it just vanished and then forgotten by everyone. We can speculate gameplay was not food enough to rival Diablo and Activision just decided to kill the project.
If you can find more screenshots or videos from this lost game, please let us know!
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