The Dark Half: Endsville (also known as The Dark Half Interactive) is a cancelled survival horror / adventure game based on the homonymous book by Stephen King. It was officially announced in early 1997, in development by Bits Studios and to be published by THQ and Orion Interactive for Playstation and PC. Unfortunately it seems they never released any screenshot from the game, but details about the project can still be found online in various forms.
“T-HQ announced today that it has signed an agreement with Orion Interactive to jointly publish The Dark Half, based on the novel by horror writer Stephen King. The game will be developed by the UK’s Bits Studios.
Also involved in the development of the game will be writers Matt Costello and Paul Wilson, who previously worked on PC titles The Seventh Guest and The Keep, respectively.
Revolving around protagonist Thad Beaumont’s struggle with his evil alter ego, The Dark Half is promised to be a 3D, third-person adventure game, “that will accurately reflect the Stephen King novel,” a T-HQ spokesperson said.”
“A new game for the PC and Playstation will be based on the King novel The Dark Half. The game will be based on Stephen King’s novel about a writer who must struggle with his evil alter-ego. It will be a real time, 3D adventure that contains 28 levels in seven different worlds. The Dark Half: Endsville is forecast for a 1998 release.”
“Stephen King, master of disturbing prose, is coming to the PlayStation and the PC next year in fiendish style with “The Dark Half.” The game will be based on King’s eerie tale of writer Thad Beaumont’s struggle with his murderous alter-ego, George Stark. The novel will be transformed into code through the use of two different game engines, one for the pre-rendered world of Beaumont, and one for the rendered-on-the-fly nightmare world of killer George Stark.”
“I was delighted to see “story by Jeffery Lieber” in the opening credits. Jeff and I go back to the mid-1990s when Matt Costello and I were scripting the “Dark Half Interactive” project for Orion Interactive; Jeff was acting as producer. He’s not the least bit squeamish but Matt and I managed to gross him out with our “Birthing Woman” interaction (don’t ask). The project was orphaned and became vaporware when MGM bought Orion.”
Becoming a legendary lost game after unconfirmed rumors of screenshots appearing in gaming magazines, Die Hard 64 was one of three Nintendo 64 projects in development by Bits Studios, along with RiQa and Thieves World. Unfortunately, none of them ever saw the light of day on the 64-bit console. Founded in the early ‘90s, Bits Studios released a series of Game Boy and Super Nintendo games, developing a good relationship with Nintendo along the way that lead to a couple of collaboration projects (R-Type DX and Warlocked, published by Nintendo on the Game Boy Color). This relationship with Nintendo blossomed a trilogy of exclusive games conceived for the Nintendo 64.
Of this trilogy, only RiQa was a prominent title at E3 1999, as Die Hard 64 and Thieves World were never officially announced. One of the first mentions of a Die Hard tie-in for Nintendo 64 was published in June 1999 by IGN when they wrote about its publisher:
“[…] Fox Interactive is working on Die Hard 64. In unleashing your cash-making movie machine into the world of videogames, you can’t make the mistake of skipping a console like the N64 and it seems that the folks behind the movie have realized this fact. While the rumor is still brewing, several sources, both stateside and overseas are reporting that a Die Hard project is in the works at Fox Interactive and that the game is scheduled for an early 2000 release.”
“Interested to know what had become of Die Hard 64, we contacted Fox Interactive today and a company representative briefly theorized about the title with us. “The game is just a rumor,” said the Fox spokesperson, “and to be honest with you, I don’t see it coming to fruition.” While this is not a solid confirmation of the game’s termination one way or the other, it definitely doesn’t paint a pretty picture. The fact of the matter is that Fox Interactive’s first foray into Nintendo 64 development, namely Fox Sports College Hoops ’99, backed by an impressive amount of money, turned to disaster when the game failed to sell. And with the industry’s insistence that the 64-bit console is a “dying system,” it isn’t a stretch to conclude that the publisher simply canned the game after determining that the risks involved were not worth any possible profits to be made.”
IGN’s assumption about the fate of the game were quite spot-on and in May 2001 Fox Interactive officially announced “Die Hard: Next Generation”, planned for Nintendo GameCube and developed by Bits Studios. The title was then released as “Die Hard: Vendetta” in 2002 for GameCube, PS2 and Xbox.
The mystery remains (at least until a few years ago): Was Die Hard 64 really in development for Nintendo 64? Was any FPS ever made by Bits Studios on the cartridge-based hardware? While even some former Bits Studios developers did not know about the project (as seen in our interview with Frederic Villain in our book), in 2016 we were able to get in contact with a few people that worked directly on the game, to find out the truth.
We should start this investigation with another IGN article posted in May 2002, where they were able to interview Bits Studios’ CEO Foo Katan and Die Hard: Vendetta producer Mario Aguera, revealing some more details:
“In the past couple of years we have kept a relatively low profile as we have been developing new and existing technologies to make use of the hardware available at our disposal today. Die Hard: Vendetta will justify our hard work in that time. […] we’ve always had a close relationship with Nintendo here at Bits and they first approached us about Project Dolphin in the autumn of 1999. At that point it was purely the hardware specs and they had some demonstrations running through software emulation. We originally started designing the game when the N64 was out, but in Spring 2000 we decided to start our design again for the GameCube. For the first year we were just working with the emulator, hoping that Nintendo would deliver on their promises. Needless to say they did.”
The early Nintendo 64 design for the game started out as an original IP titled “Muzzle Velocity”, a first person shooter in which players would take the role of Jack, a member of a SWAT team during a mission in Los Angeles. In Muzzle Velocity original storyline, the crime wave in LA is out of control and the LAPD cannot stop it on its own. Jack was been sent by Bert, his SWAT leader, to supply the LAPD with backup and neutralize the situation. During the first mission of the game, a bomb detonated in a Hi-Fi store downtown. The owner was refusing to up his “fire insurance” to the gangsters, who in return wrecked his shop. The gangsters have then gone on a looting spree in the surrounding shops. The main mission objectives would have been to clear the area of gangster and minimize innocent casualties.
Muzzle Velocity’s gameplay and controls would have been similar to other classic N64 FPS games, such as GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark. Players’ mission objectives in this first level were given by Bert and once in control, they would have been free to move Jack around downtown LA. There would be a few LAPD cops and civilians running around the levels, either running from the fight, defeating bad guys or simply dodging bullets. The buildings in the area would have been mostly shut up, but some would have their shutters half way down, allowing Jack to enter them by crouching into the window; the environment was meant to be interactive and it could have been damaged by players during shootouts. While Jack would start the first mission with a 9mm pistol and SWAT armor, any weapon used by the gangsters could be picked up, such as shotguns and baseball bats.
Muzzle Velocity did not last long once Bits Studios partnered with Fox Interactive to collaborate on a new project. It’s possible that the deal was overseen by Gary Sheinwald, former Bits Studios Development Manager who left to work at Fox as Senior Producer from 1995 to 2001. Because of the partnership with Fox, Muzzle Velocity had to be tied with a movie and initially Speed 2 was proposed.
Dubbed Speed 2: Cruise Control, the game would have been primarily set on a boat, though a bus level was also conceived as a nod to the original film. The game was then planned to release in January 1999 for Nintendo 64 and PC. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you view it) the movie was a huge failure when it released and both companies decided to switch the project once more to another, more successful IP: Die Hard. As an interesting note, the original script for Speed 2 was meant to be Die Hard 3 (“Die Hard with a Vengeance”, codenamed “Troubleshooter”) in a strange case of film development foreshadowing the game development process.
Still being developed as a Nintendo 64 game and using the new TWED engine created by Nathanael Presson and Frederic Villain, a lot of effort was put into creating Die Hard 64. The initial plan was overly ambitious, with 30 or 40 missions planned, but once Steven Goodwin took over as the new lead programmer and explained to the producers how many years they would need to achieve such a huge game, the number was heavily cut down. Only a handful of levels were developed on the Nintendo 64 before the switch to the GameCube, but they still had a good prototype with the minimal gameplay available. This Die Hard 64 prototype was leaked online in August 2017 on the Assembler Games Forum.
Being a N64 game, a 4 player deathmatch mode was also devised, to keep in line with Rare’s multiplayer masterpieces. While years passed, in early 2000 Bits Studios found itself in some issues when RiQa was cancelled and the N64’s life cycle reached its end. Neither Die Hard 64 nor Thieves World were finished yet and it was unlikely that many people would buy a N64 game once they were, as the new generation of consoles were almost out. The studio decided to move their last N64 games to GameCube and significantly upgrade the TWED engine so they could push the tech into the next gen hardware.
Danny Carr took over design duties for the GameCube version and had a new vision for a cinematic game that felt and played like a film, probably preceding the new generation of linear shooters that became popular many years later. Development of the game still took a while to be completed: Carr left the studio in late 2001 and Mario Aguera took the lead. Aguera wanted to add many interesting elements he saw in other (at the time) successful games and movies into the design, a proposal that would lengthen development time even more. For example, the sneak/action modes were inspired by Thief, while the “bullet time” mechanic was taken from The Matrix.
In the end Die Hard took so much time to be released that it looked like Bits Studios copied the “bullet time” mechanic from Max Payne, albeit it was implemented in early prototypes before the release of Remedy’s game. When finally published in 2002, Die Hard: Vendetta was much different from what the team originally conceived in late ‘90s and it only received average reviews.
As it always happens in these cases, we can only dream of an alternate reality where Die Hard 64 was successfully completed and became another masterpiece for our beloved Nintendo 64.
You might remember a game called Rogue Ops that was released on Xbox, Gamecube and Playstation 2 way back in 2003. Well, this game wasn’t always called that way. When the developper Bits Studios started the project during the Nintendo 64 era, this was called Thieves World. We are lucky enough to have a gameplay video of how the game would have looked like, right down here:
As written in the video description:
“Thieves World was a n64 game developed by bits studios in 1999. When the n64 life cycle ended development was moved to the ps2. This is a prototype of the game running on the ps2. It’s basically a mix of the n64 assets with a new main character, added “nextGen” special FX and such… the game will keep transform and later be released under the title Rogue Ops. This video was recently unearthed by a ex bits employee. The n64 rom or early ps2, gamecube or xbox build are still lost to this day.”
As the video suggests when it starts, Thieves World was a working title so it is possible that it would have had a different name had it been released on the Nintendo 64 back then. During the video, we see the female main character infiltrating what seems to be a well guarded bank. There are guards with guns, she shoots darts from afar to put them to sleep and she can also ambush them in close quarters. Thieves World had a more stealth approach to its design than Rogue Ops and this is confirmed by one of the programmers who worked at the company Bits Studios at the time.
Please read below part of a very interesting interview we had with Mr. Frederic Villain about what it was like to work for this company and the projects Bits Studios had at the time like RiQa, Muzzle Velocity (Die Hard Vendetta) and Thieves World. The full interview was published in our Unseen64 book “Video Games You Will Never Play”.
Unseen64: What happened to RiQa and Thieves World? There is a lot of confusion about these two unreleased N64 games and we’d like to finally find out the truth. We know that they were two different projects but it seems that the released Rogue Ops took some elements from both. Is this true? Why were they cancelled and how much was done on the Nintendo 64?
Fred: “When I joined Bits Studios with other ex-employees/friends from Haiku Studios, the main focus of the studio was RiQa for N64. A very ambitious third person game with a main female character called RiQa. As far as I can remember the team had already been working on the game for a couple years. I was assigned to the project and worked on various gameplay and VFX tasks as well as the support of the infamous 64DD as the content of the game was supposed to be huge. The project had a lot of difficulties on the tech side and the team was fighting between the ambitions and the hardware/software limitations.
At the same time Nathanael Presson which I knew from Haiku, was working on creating a new multiplatform engine for the company. I was working on and off with him to add support for the N64 to the engine. After 6 months at Bits we presented the tech to Foo Katan (the boss of the studio) and he was sold. While the RiQa engine iteration cycle was very slow (level made in Max and long building times to get it on console), we had an Editor/Engine that allowed LDs to create levels in the Editor (using Booleans and Portals inspired from the original Unreal Editor) and allowed them to play directly on the console by a press of a button. This was the beginning of the “Thieves World” project, another third person game with a female lead (at the time Tomb Raider was an inspiration for everybody and female leads were very popular!).
Thieves World, in turn, had a lot of ups and downs. After a few more months the RiQa project was cancelled and the focus of the studio became “Thieves World”. We continued working on the engine and the gameplay of the game for several years. At some point another team in the Studio started developing Muzzle Velocity, which later on became Die Hard: Vendetta, using the same Editor/Engine and we contributed to support this team. We had some problems on the creative side on TW and we spent a lot of time iterating on the design. As the N64 life cycle reached its end the decision was made to move on to next gen and we had to upgrade the engine significantly to push the tech to benefit from next gen consoles hardware.
A lot of people left the team in the years after this reboot and at some point I was the only original member of the team left. The game was almost canned but we signed a deal with Kemco and the game was ultimately rebooted to become “Rogue Ops”. The original TW project was supposed to be a stealth, no weapon game, which created a lot of issues on gameplay side. Kemco decided to introduce more shooting and we finally got a game. TW was not inspired by other titles at the time like MGS or Splinter Cell, it was actually imagined before or at the same time as those games. But the development cycle was so long that at release time those games had long been released.”
Unseen64: Jas Austin (another former Bits Studios developer) told us that Thieves World almost became a Rare game: is true that they wanted to move development from Bits Studios to Rare? We wonder if Thieves World could have became a Perfect Dark spin- off. After Rare and Nintendo published the original Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64, they also wanted to release a quick sequel called “Velvet Dark” that would have been a third person action / stealth game.. maybe the two projects are related.
Fred: “Yes as far as I can remember Jason is right! While the TW game had design difficulties, Bits Studios was audited by Rare. A presentation of the game and the tech was done to Rare after several months of audit and while the tech was recognized on N64, Rare did not decide to acquire the game or the studio. They were already working on Perfect Dark at the time and some concepts in both games are similar, but this is as far as it goes regarding the history between those two games.”
As mentioned in the written interview, the reason why Thieves World didn’t happen is because the N64 had reached the end of its lifecycle and a decision was made by Bits Studios to move this project to the next generation. This meant rebuilding the game and transfer as much as possible to their new project. Thieves World was in production for a few years after RiQa was cancelled, so we can assume it got quite far in development. They did, however, experience creative hardships and spent a lot of time on the design side of the project.
During that transition, sadly most people left Bits Studios. Mr. Villain was the only member of the project who stayed until the end and saw this Thieves World come alive as Rogue Ops when finally released on the new generation of consoles in 2003.
“But I am still proud to that day, it got finally released as Rogue Ops, even if it was not a massive commercial success”
The company Bits Studios has worked on quite a good list of games before it went under in 2008. As mentioned on Wikipedia, unfortunately the parent company ‘Playwize’ sold off all assets and technologies Bits Studio had due to overall poor sales.
Article by Alex (Brub)
On a last note, see below a Rogue Ops retro video commercial for comparison purposes. One wonders how different Thieves World would have been compared to Rogue Ops, but at least something came out of this cancellation.
Last Action Hero for the Sega Mega CD is a cancelled game adaptation of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film of the same name, developed by Bits Studios to be published by Sony Imagesoft. The NES, Super NES, Mega Drive/Genesis, Game Boy and Sega Game Gear versions were released, but they all look different from the Mega CD version, that used pre-rendered characters and background, as in the Bram Stoker’s Dracula CD game. A Sega Master System version was also developed, but never released.
Thanks to Celine and S.J. Reed for the contribution! (scan from EGM51! and a few from HG101)
Few details are know about the Riqa project, another famous unseen for the Nintendo 64. Developed by Bits Studios, it was presented for the first time at E3 1999 in playable form. Defined as the “N64 Tomb Rider” as stated by Nintendo, Riqa would have dealt Third-Person Shooter Action mixed with exploration, with Riqa (the woman character controlled by the player) up against both humans and monsters. With impressive graphics for its time, an immersive storyline, complicated levels full of action, including shootings and puzzles to solve, Riqa was going to be a new killer application for the N64.
Unfortunately, the game has never seen light on the 64-bit, for the continuing delayed release dates, which led to the cancellation of the title. Many think that the general concept of Riqa, has then evolved in Rogue Ops, another game developed by Bits Studios and released in 2003, published by Kemko. The title was just a discrete Action Game, released on the Game Cube, Xbox and PS2.