When I was younger I remember hearing about a Star Trek V game coming out for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Even though it was inspired by the worst film in the series, I still eagerly awaited the new adventure with the Enterprise crew. It would never come, at least not for the NES, and not officially. It was cancelled for undisclosed reasons, even though a good bit of work had been done on it; rumor has it the developer realized it might have bit off more than they could chew. At the time I was sad, and almost felt betrayed—if gets written about in a magazine, it better actually come out. Honestly, everybody involved was probably better off without the game coming out at the time; after finally playing the ROM many years later, I realized it should have been beamed somewhere far off in deep space.
What I didn’t know at the time is that games often go unfinished and unreleased, even ones that are nearing completion or are based on popular properties. The Star Trek V game is far from the only one. Even ones that were released could look vastly different from their Japanese originals. The relatively obscure NES game Kid Klown in Night Mayor World was originally released in Japan as Mickey Mouse III: Dream Balloon. It’s part of a larger series referred to as Crazy Castle that burned through an ever-shifting assortment of licensed characters, including Mickey Mouse, Roger Rabbit, Bugs Bunny, Garfield, Woody Woodpecker and the Ghostbusters. None of the Disney versions were ever released in America due to licensing issues.
Occasionally promotional campaigns would already be under way for games that wound up being cancelled. We’d see screenshots in magazines like GamePro or Nintendo Power, even read about release dates, for games that were cancelled after those magazines went to press. The internet eventually made it easy for players to emulate old consoles and share ROMs of games, and a number of unfinished and unreleased old games found their way out into the world. As ethically dubious as emulation can be, at least it lets us experience some games that otherwise would have remained unknown and unplayable forever. Here are some of the most notable games that were developed for the NES but never officially released for the system at the time.
Starting off with a finished game that just never made it to shelves but deserved to, Time Diver Eon Man is a platformer developed by A.I. for publisher Taito that was completed in 1993. We know it was completed and planned for release due to a four page spread in issue #45 of Nintendo Power. This title is often compared to Ninja Gaiden in its playstyle, but with a story similar to that Terminator and time travel as its main story gimmick. Each stage—which neatly come in random orders—is a different era or version of a time where the bad guys must be stopped so that the main hero can set things right and save his son. The game controls well, plays tight, and runs smooth with visually appealing backgrounds, but some say it is a bit too easy. There are three different versions of the game, but only one came out in Asian markets under mysterious circumstances from a company called Nitra, changing the title to Time Diver Avenger. Interested players should be careful of what version they get when acquiring the ROM, as not all of them are from the official Taito build.
During its peak the Police Academy series saw a new movie out every year or two, along with a cartoon and toyline. It never inspired a hit game, although it almost did. The title from the controversial Atari-owned developer Tengen was scheduled for patrol on January 1990, but was regularly pushed back until it was eventually cancelled. Though it was featured in Game Players Magazine in 1989 and even in GamePro’s April 1990 issue, the project was never finished. The game was pretty far along in development when Steve Woita was told to stop working on it and let another team take over, even though he would only need another few months to finish the game. He still isn’t sure why the game was cancelled, and a second version was started that would have been a traditional side-scroller, but it was shut down early on. The plot sounded as absurd as the films, seeing the team on a dangerous mission to recover Commandant Lassard’s goldfish. It would have allowed two alternating players to switch between multiple named characters from the franchise. Police Academy never being released is quite a bummer, but the real crime here is that the game was never dumped, and thus there are no ROMs that can be played today.
I always said the NES needed more gore, and it would have had a healthy dose had this Hellraiser cash-in game ever had a chance. There are some doubts that Color Dreams even legally had the rights to use the license, but that may be because they circumvented Nintendo’s lockout chip and refused to play nice. The company had a new Super-16 Coprocessor Cartridge that would grant games extra colors, processing power, and limited motion, which the game needed, as it was said to be too advanced for the normal NES hardware. Set to release in the summer of 1990 to coincide with the coming third film, players would have begun inside the franchise’s mysterious box, navigating and solving puzzles while avoiding the dreaded cenobites. The idea was to use the licensed and improved Wolfenstein 3D engine, but it instead used a forty-five degree down angle for the view. The game was incomplete and never dumped online, with Dan Lawton saying that the hardware was done, but art was only at twenty percent and no programming was started. One reason might be that several employees stated the game did not fit the tone of the company. Maybe they were scared…
A UK developer named Elite wanted to bring us a game where the player would take control of Dr. Franken and search for the missing body parts of his girlfriend in an attempt to reassemble her. The game honestly isn’t that fun, with fairly typical running, jumping and collecting, but unlike many games on this list, this title has the honor of not only being released on Game Boy, but getting a sequel, and having a version on the SNES. It was just never released for the NES. There is not much ad material for that specific version, as it and the Game Boy counterpart were being developed at the same time. Another group, Cygnus, worked on the NES version though, but rumor has it that the company was not satisfied with the look or controls of the build, leaving the Game Boy version as the better version, and the first one to make it to shelves. Sometimes a game still gets a release, but not in all of its intended forms. The NES version was dumped and is available as a ROM for those interested, but as with other cases, sometimes things are cancelled for a reason.
Kung Fu is a classic in many ways and it always felt like there should be a sequel, one with a more realized story, better visuals and cool transitions, perhaps even a few new moves. That sounds great, but it is a dream that would only be realized for those living in Japan. This game was so close to being released in the states that it had full page ads and some price points, but there is little information on why it was cancelled for overseas release in the final hour, other than maybe that it wasn’t all that good. In many ways the new version was more advanced in its presentation and scope, but is still limited in mechanics, especially considering what other titles were out at the time. When crouching and uppercuts are the new big thing for your game in 1991, it might be time to add something fresher. This was really just more of the original game and that was how GamePro touted it, when the magazine claimed the product would be out in Fall of 1991. The game is available in Japan as Spartan X 2 and that game is complete, quite playable, and available for others to experience now.
I’ve always said that the NES was lacking in a good fighting game, not a beat ‘em up—there are good titles in that genre—but a technical tournament fighter. It’s an itch that needs to be scratched. Culture Brain was working on something like that, a complex one-on-one fighter that boasted a wide array of moves, claiming to focus on professional martial arts. It was billed as a side scrolling combat action game that would offer seven different sports in the genre, multiple warriors, and quite a challenge. Some will say that it is too hard to do a good fighting game in 8-bit, but that is an excuse—there are no excuses in this dojo. According to Game Informer, the company was so confident in their product that there was also going to be a Game Boy version to accompany it. The game was released in Japan as Hiryu no Ken Special: Fighting Wars, so it is available in some forms for those wanting some competitive tournament play, and there are some rather expensive reproduction carts if anyone wants to own a physical copy of a unique game that should have been released for the system in America.
Dino-Hockey is a tale about the games that don’t make it far into production and may have never had a chance. It’s often brought up today because of what we can see and its concept. The title says it all: who wouldn’t want to see dinosaurs play hockey using a giant turtle as the puck? Players take control of an ice-skating dino from various available types, showing off some fun character sprites. There is no AI to play against though and the game is quite buggy. In fact, it crashes easily and often. The game was not far into production, to the point where I wonder if it might have just been the beginning of a tech demo to show off or a scrapped quick cash-in. Hard to say who was making it, but rumors suggest that it was Sunsoft or one of their subsidiaries, and that perhaps a more complete version has been lost—I doubt that though. The title received some mentions in GamePro, and it was said to be planned for release in 1991, but the belief is that Dino-Hockey was abandoned early on. A ROM is available though for anyone who wants to fantasize and wish this game had been completed as much as I do.
This game is a bit of a legend in the field of unreleased treasures, mostly because of a long hoax and an interesting story of how it was acquired. The game was advertised in Nintendo Power to be ‘coming soon,” but that same magazine would quietly announce that it had been cancelled in April of 1992, and that seems like a shame. Seta made a game about a genetically altered chimpanzee, battling through a dangerous high-tech maze against odd enemies as he pummels them with fists, kicks, rolls, and wrestling maneuvers, all in an attempt to save his adopted human family. ROMs are available, so today we can see enjoy its top-of-the-line graphics and fast action. Ttouted to have the quickest side-scrolling on the NES, it shows off what the system was capable of late in life. It is a weird game and feels incomplete, more like a prototype. There are many flaws in the gameplay and things that don’t make sense, mostly to do with the enemies and stage design. It’s sad, because Bio Force Ape feels like it could have really been something special, but at least it was dumped online for everyone to try and see what was almost a truly unique title.
Stephen Wilds is a freelance author with a flair for retro videogames, old cartoons, and bad movies. He has written for Playboy, Unwinnable and others.