Unerringly, Svengali-like, you can tell if a friend has played the original 1986 Metroid for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Pick your target and read this aloud: "The fastest known Metroid speedrun - a complete play-through, start to finish - is 18 minutes, 35 seconds."
Did your friend gasp?
Seasoned fans remember Nintendo's Metroid for its pioneering open-ended action-adventure side-scrolling platformer gameplay. As galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran, players ran and jumped and rolled (in "morph-ball" form) through labyrinthine alien ruins. Automap? Automap was for wussies! In 1986 - that archaic aeon before strategy guides - Metroid players wandered those trackless low-res polygons for 10, 12, 20 hours. They dodged floating jellyfish monsters, fought Space Pirates and found a dozen weird devices that let them explore still further. When they beat the big final boss, Mother Brain, they ran like mad to escape the ruins before the whole joint blew up. And they liked it!
They liked it so much, Nintendo produced two more Metroid games in the 1990s, each bringing the familiar gameplay to a new platform: Metroid II: Return of Samus (Game Boy, 1991) and the much-loved Super Metroid (Super NES, 1994). The Metroid gameplay influenced Konami's Castlevania games so strongly that reviewers coined the umbrella term "Castleroids" to describe the style of "nonlinear exploration-based gameplay with lots of power-ups."
But the Metroid franchise lapsed through the Nintendo 64 era. Players wondered if Samus Aran had blown up her last labyrinth.
Then, in 2000, in advance publicity for the N64's successor console, the GameCube, Nintendo announced a new Metroid game was in development. This shocked fans in two ways. First, the side-scrolling series was moving not only to 3-D, but to (gasp!) first- person 3-D. Second, the new Metroid would be created not by Nintendo in- house, but by a new, unheralded outside studio in, of all benighted places, Texas. On newsgroups and message boards, longtime Metroids publicly weirded out.
As it turned out, the fans had excellent reason to worry. But behind the scenes, Nintendo management was pushing past obstacles and exploring alternative paths as risky as anything Samus Aran ever faced. The outcome of the GameCube Metroid project is an object lesson in both creativity and management.
Nintendo has historically had fair-to- mixed luck with its second-party developers. ("Second-party" means Nintendo has part ownership in the company, as opposed to third-party companies to which Nintendo licenses development rights but has no ownership.) Through 2001, Nintendo's leading second party was Rare Ltd., the U.K. house responsible for GoldenEye 007, Donkey Kong Country and its sequels, and the Perfect Dark and Banjo-Kazooie series, among many others. But in the late 1990s, as Nintendo prepared the GameCube, Rare's involvement with Nintendo was declining; later, in 2002, Microsoft acquired Rare. To support its GameCube publishing strategy, Nintendo sought new second parties.
About this time, Jeff Spangenberg was seeking new horizons. He had already racked up more hits than most producers enjoy in a long career. Six-foot-eight, self-taught and saturnine, Spangenberg started out in the late '80s porting arcade hits (Afterburner, Space Harrier) to the Amiga. In 1991, he started Iguana Entertainment in Santa Clara, California, then moved it to Austin, Texas in 1993. The next year, the studio scored its first big success with NBA Jam. In 1995, Acclaim bought Iguana and renamed it Acclaim Studios Austin. Spangenberg soon rose to President of Worldwide Product Development, overseeing Acclaim's software studios. His hits from this time include Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and several sports games. He made a bundle; a February 1997 article called "Boys and their fast toys" in - not making this up - the Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Journal quotes Spangenberg buying a red Ferrari 355 Spider ("It was sort of like an impulse buy, really") and planning to get an $85,000 Hummer ("If anybody gets in your way, you just drive over them").