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His distress apparently didn't last. In 2002, photos were posted on the web showing Spangenberg in hot tubs with lightly-clad (or less) women. Soon after this, Nintendo abruptly bought out Spangenberg for $1 million and he left Retro, sort of the way King Kong left the Empire State Building. Later that year, he founded Topheavy Studios, which in 2004 released an interactive peep show called The Guy Game for PS2 and Xbox. In assigning it a Poor rating, an Honestgamers.com review suggests playing The Guy Game is not only dull, it lowers your sense of self-worth. In December 2004, a coed who appeared topless in the game sued Topheavy, Microsoft and Sony on the grounds she was underage when the footage was shot; last July a judge ordered The Guy Game yanked from the shelves. It is unclear whether anyone noticed its absence.
Spangenberg's replacement as Retro CEO was Steve Barcia, who had joined Retro as VP of Product Development after many years at Sim-Tex and Microprose (he designed Master of Orion). But this did little to improve staff morale; the current version of Barcia's Wikipedia entry alleges Retro disgruntlement. In April 2003, Nintendo replaced Barcia with longtime company insider Michael Kelbaugh, who still runs Retro today. Barcia now works at EA Canada in Vancouver, where he produces the Def Jam series.
These changes, covered extensively in the gaming press, brought Metroid fans to despair. After this troubled gestation, what could they possibly expect for Metroid Prime other than sheer disaster?
Metroid Prime debuted in America in November 2002. Every Nintendo fan knows how the story turned out: universal acclaim. Its current Metacritic score is 97%; on Rotten Tomatoes, it's 100%. Prime took Game of the Year at the 2003 Game Developers Conference, among many other awards, and became the GameCube's flagship title. Reviews praised Prime's impressive look, fine soundtrack, smooth control scheme, creative use of the visors and ingenious puzzles. Many commented on how, even with the switch to first-person 3-D, the game still felt like a Metroid: the open world, the doubling back to reach areas previous inaccessible, etc. In short, it was a total success.
Nintendo's successful takeover of Retro contrasts with the similar case of Electronic Arts buying another Austin studio, Origin. Origin's acquisition led to its lingering, agonizing death, owing to EA's pernicious company politics. Also, EA annually shifts managers among its divisions; each new manager arrives, sweeps away his precursor's work, starts everyone working on some new project, and then the next year, before anything ships, bam! it all happens again.
In comparison, Miyamoto's EAD unit stuck with Retro for years, maintaining continuity on a critical project, rotating in new managers until someone finally worked, and then (note well!) stopping. The results speak for themselves: Retro today is, by all accounts, a much nicer place to work. And after its halting progress in its first four years, Retro has already followed up Prime with a direct sequel, Metroid Prime: Echoes (2004).
More Metroid, More!
Though Nintendo let the Metroid franchise languish for eight years, Prime's success heralded a resurgence. Nintendo has now embraced Metroid and released a slate of products that elevate it, lo, even unto the lofty heights of Mario and Link.
Metroid Fusion (2002) for the Game Boy Advance was released in conjunction with Prime. A disconcertingly linear sequel to Super Metroid, the game obsessively limits the player's ability to "sequence break" the layout, to make speedrunning less rewarding. (Current best time: 50 minutes.) If you plug an Advance running Fusion into a GameCube running Prime, completing each game unlocks new content.