Metroid Primed

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.

Going Retro
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”).

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But Spangenberg was fired from Acclaim in July 1998, allegedly because he had said he planned to start a new company after his contract ended. Three months later, having secured millions in financing from Nintendo of America, he incorporated Retro Studios as its owner, with Nintendo holding a minority position. In June 1999, Spangenberg opened Retro’s 40,000-square-foot Austin complex, including a state-of-the-art motion-capture studio and onsite theater. Poaching big-league design and art talent from many competitors, Retro undertook an ambitious slate of not one, not two, but five major GameCube projects. One, begun right away but not announced until 2000, was Metroid Prime.

On all five projects, almost from the start, things went wrong. A lengthy N-Sider Retro retrospective tells the tale: Working in black, windowless offices deep inside the building, employees endured political infighting, egregious crunching and a paranoid atmosphere. They missed milestones. They couldn’t make the games work. Spangenberg delegated a lot and was often absent.

At this point, Miyamoto got involved.

Knocking Over the Table
Shigeru Miyamoto, world-renowned designer or producer of Nintendo’s most popular games – Mario, Zelda, Animal Crossing and many more – had never been involved in a Metroid game. But as head of Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis & Development (EAD) division, Miyamoto supervised relations with Retro, and in fact assigned it Metroid Prime.

It was the first time Nintendo had worked closely with a foreign development team to create a game from scratch. EAD held monthly phone conferences with Retro and exchanged employees every two or three months. In a February 2003 interview Miyamoto said, “I’ve actually, from the very initial stages of this project, been directly involved with the producer; and actually, at EAD in Japan, I have three staff members who are almost kind of half-directing the game, in cooperation with Retro Studios. So our level of involvement is very, very high on the project.”

“Nintendo would come down about three times a year and rip on most of the games,” a Retro employee told Electronic Gaming Monthly in April 2001. In 2000, Miyamoto himself visited Retro, an event compared to the Emperor visiting the Death Star. But a closer parallel might be the 2003 film Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray plays an American actor vainly trying to get direction from a Japanese- speaking filmmaker. A former Retro employee recalls, “[Miyamoto] would rant at us in Japanese for a minute and a half, and then the translator would just say, ‘He’s upset.'”

In Miyamoto’s lecture at Tokyo University in July 2003, he said, “You fall into the dilemma where the guys up top are like, ‘Are you working, or what?!’ and the guys down below are like, ‘See, it’s the people up top! What can you do?’ And the project begins to go haywire. When it gets to that point, I bust it all out in a conference. People refer to that point as the time where I ‘knock over the table.’ […] When I flip out, it’s because I’m being sincere in my desire to get something done with the project.”

Miyamoto sincerely disliked Metroid Prime‘s original camera system. He ordered the game changed from third-person to first-person, which destroyed the schedule. He commanded Retro to implement several types of visors Samus Aran could use in the game, such as a scanner to bring up gameplay hints or interesting history about targets. And his changes didn’t stop with Metroid.

Installing a New Regime
Miyamoto pressured Retro to cancel several other projects, first (April 2000) an action adventure (working title: “Action Adventure”), then (February 2001) their football and car-combat games, and finally (July 2001) a Zelda-style roleplaying game called Raven Blade. The action-adventure team shifted to Metroid, but the later cancellations forced corresponding layoffs. For the second layoff, of 26 employees, CEO Jeff Spangenberg was so distraught he didn’t show up for work.

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 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?

Happy Ending
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.

In 2004, Nintendo published Metroid: Zero Mission – the original Metroid with modern graphics for the Game Boy Advance. The Zero remake adds an automap that helpfully indicates where you should go next, which means you finish the game in not much longer than 18 minutes, 35 seconds. (Okay, five hours.) When you complete the mission, you unlock the original NES Metroid, 1986 version, on the same cartridge.

Which makes it odd that Nintendo then reissued the original NES Metroid, 1986 version, as part of its Classic NES Series, also for the Game Boy Advance. They should have subtitled it “Generation Gap.” If you’re old enough to have played the original, the Classic reissue instantly recalls your halcyon youth. If you’re younger, well…. Check this startling comment from one “big_tom_2k6” titled “rubbish RUBBISH“: “sometimes nintendo can lack off and this my friends is one of them they brong out puzzle games for ds that are rubbish and bring out so called ‘classics’ but […] its all in the past just like an embarrasing thing you done 2 years ago or setting an old womans house on fire and nobody knows it was you so please leave it all behind we dont want to see it again.”

Given that Samus morphs into a ball, 2005’s Metroid Prime Pinball is perhaps defensible. From Greg Kasavin’s glowing GameSpot review: “Not since The Pinball of the Dead has a concept of Metroid Prime Pinball‘s caliber become a reality. Seriously. Well, sort of.”

Newest in the growing family is Metroid Prime Hunters, just out for the Nintendo DS. A first-person shooter (unusual for the DS), Hunters introduces six new bounty hunters for four-player wi-fi deathmatches. You unlock the new characters by completing the single-player adventure.

Meanwhile, Retro Studios is working on Metroid Prime 3 for the next-gen Revolution console. According to the sparse Retro website, they’re hiring. A former employee says, “From what I hear over there now, it’s like night and day” from what it was.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay, and Looking Glass.

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