RETRO EFFECT: A DAY IN THE STUDIO WITH THE MAKERS OF METROID


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8.20.2009

Brandon Boyer

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Make it past the reception area of the North Austin office-park studios of Metroid Prime creators Retro, and you’ll find a warehouse-sized web-work of narrow labyrinthine hallways, with intersections temporarily roped off, warding you against catching any glimpses of current-project concept art.

Taken alongside tales of the original studio founders’ preference for near-military-grade security systems, it’s not hard (if you’re actively forcing the metaphor) to picture yourself inside the very game that put Retro on the map, and entertain the notion, at least privately, that maybe later, with the aid of some hard-won knowledge, you’ll be able to loop back and gain access to those previously out of reach areas.

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A peculiar mix of brushed steel and magenta-painted drywall, the hallways are lined with ephemera of the studio’s past decade of output. There’s the usual, like promotional Prime posters autographed in silver by the overseas team with which Retro partnered, but it’s not until you hit the complex’s cafeteria wall that the studio’s true love for the franchise that fell in their lap becomes clear. There, you’ll find a wall-sized rendering of the dread Metroid itself, just above the water-cooler refills, displayed in pixels made of hand-painted NES cartridges.

The story of Retro is the story of Metroid, and though that’s not how its story began, the two are now and forever fused. With the upcoming release of Metroid Prime Trilogy, all three of the GameCube and Wii Prime games collected on a single disc, what you’re really receiving is a glimpse at a nearly a full decade of the company where I’m standing.

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Ask any of the players involved — or at least, the ones that are still around, which in this case are Mike Wikan (senior designer on all three of the Prime games) and Nintendo’s SPD3 head Kensuke Tanabe (effectively the man in charge of overseeing all the Metroid franchise underneath original co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto) — just how Metroid happened here, and you’ll hear the same story.

Well, more or less. Tanabe’s recollection is of a group of Nintendo heads — Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, now-company-president Satoru Iwata (then in not nearly as official a capacity), and second-party biz dev head Tom Prata among them — visiting Retro in 2000 to see what progress it had made on its four internal projects (all of them original IP), only to find none of them “going well.”

Conferring after the visit, it was Miyamoto, says Tanabe, who suddenly offered to the group, “How about Metroid?” Because one of those four projects was a prototype engine to test more advanced systems for a first-person-shooter, adds Wikan, it was decided then and there that the two would work together to mature that groundwork, and use it for a Metroid game proper.

That’s Wikan’s professional answer. The personal answer is that Nintendo had just plopped “the holy grail” — a “bombshell” — directly in their laps (and recall here just how unusual it was for Nintendo at the time to entrust one of their flagship franchises, the third arm of the Mario/Zelda trifecta, to an outside studio, let alone an American one), and left them with all the “wonder and terror” that entailed.

For Tanabe, too (pictured above right at top middle, with, at bottom, from L to R: sr. director of development Bryan Walker, yr. humble iPhone-wielding narrator, IGN’s Matt Casamassina, Retro president Michael Kelbaugh, and designer Wikan), it was a project that he’d have to come to his own personal grips with. At the time Miyamoto placed him on the project, he’d never worked on a Metroid game, and had never even played — let alone headed development of — a first-person-shooter.

That expertise, he says, he’d put entirely in Retro’s hands, but adds that his lack of experience gave him a perspective that helped make the game unique. He gives as an example: “One thing is that in many first-person-shooters, you don’t see yourself. You don’t know how you look. I wanted players to feel that he or she was Samus, and so we constantly emphasized the feeling of the player seeing things inside the helmet, seeing them as Samus would see things.”

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That, he says, led to the idea of the various visors you use in the Prime games to interact with the world. The scan visor, for instance, set the game apart from other first-person-shooters, in that players used it to proactively collect information from the world, rather than having the story come to them passively in the form of cut-scenes or narration. “Prime could have adventure elements with the introduction of that visor,” says Tanabe, “That’s how we came up with the genre — first-person-adventure, instead of -shooter.”

I ask Tanabe if the fact that Samus is a woman changed his approach to how she interacted with that world. He offers that while they were careful about the way they animated her, it wasn’t specifically because she was female, but more that they were reticent to “simply make her feel powerful by using powerful-looking or barbaric animations.”

“Through discussions with Retro,” he says, “we came up with the keyword ‘elegant’. She’s beautifully elegant, but also powerful.” Tanabe demonstrates what he means by suddenly grabbing his translator by the collar, pantomiming a hand-gun to the translator’s head. One of the scenarios they ran through with Metroid co-creator Sakamoto, he explains, is how Samus would react to a Space Pirate taking someone hostage.

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“What we heard from him is that she wouldn’t yell ‘hold on!’ She wouldn’t show any emotion at all, she’d just bring up her gun and hit the pirate with a head shot.” Tanabe loosens his grip on the surprisingly unfazed translator and brings his fingers in one slow sweep up to his own head.

With a verbal ‘bajoooom‘, he fires dead-eye, leaning back in slow motion, his hands showing us the arc and splatter of Space Pirate viscera spilling from the cap of his skull. “She’s very calm, very professional in killing,” he explains. “She doesn’t show any emotions on the surface, but she’s very passionate inside.”

Later, I ask Wikan to explain, from his perspective, the key tenets of a Metroid game, and how you approach them as a first-timer to the universe. His list is likely the same that you or I would give: that “exploration is the key,” that players need to be able to “seamlessly transition through the environment, rather than navigating,” and that “all of her tools are based on that”, from her visors to her trademark double-jump (he notes that Retro spent “weeks and weeks and weeks” simply tackling how to jump on a box in first-person before they felt they had that right).

But it’s how those tenets have evolved over time that’s more revealing about how the two studios worked together to achieve unity within that universe. Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Wikan explains, was the product of a hook (un-spoiled here) that you see on finishing the first chapter of the trilogy. It’s something Wikan admits was “initially kind of a throwaway idea,” but it left an opening for where they could take the second episode.

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Echoes, he says, is more about exploring Samus’s character, and about the “schism between light and darkness, a world divided in half,” that would let the team “explore dark and light in same character.”

It’s the third game, Corruption, that brought about the most internal debate. Originally, says Wikan, Prime 3 was meant to fully explore the idea of Samus as bounty hunter — to let her freely explore the galaxy around her, to take on sandbox-like missions, to put you in full control of her ship itself and find yourself on multiple planets.

That was something Retro “invested a fairly significant amount of time in”, he says, despite internal concerns that it detracted from that other essential Metroid-ism of Samus’s essential alone-ness. Ultimately, it was Tanabe that finally decided it “just wasn’t going to tie the game together,” that it was “a neat trick but not something that’s going to do we want it to do,” instead directing that the game be brought down to a more personal level with Samus’s “hyper-mode”.

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The hyper-mode system would explore, as with Echoes before it, the idea of Samus’s light/dark struggle and potential for inner-evil. It’s a system that boosts her abilities, but leaves her vulnerable to becoming a ‘dark Samus’ herself, if not outright dying.

Just how that idea would work caused a decent amount of tension between the two companies and specific designers within. Tanabe, especially, held firm that there were quite enough first-person games that exist solely to “make you feel strong,” and that Nintendo wanted to do something different. In the end, as you will experience in the game, Nintendo won.

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If you’ve talked any number of Nintendo designers over the past several years, you’ll often hear two stories about the design insights of Shigeru Miyamoto, a playful love/hate-tattooed knuckle dichotomy, both of them just as deliberate, incisive, and brilliant.

He’s a designer famous for “upending the tea-table” if a project isn’t achieving a certain level of quality. Just as often, though, he’s known for walking into a room and effortlessly solving a problem that’s left a studio in the dark for months — instantly offering unconsidered elements that entirely change a game, and nearly always for the better.

[My favorite story of the latter is an apocryphal one in which he dropped in on Creatures Inc. during the development of Pokemon and casually let slip that players should have to choose one of three starter monsters, the other two of which they'd never be able to get on their own -- a design element that would instantly give the franchise its viral appeal.]

Pressed for stories of upended tea tables inside their own studio, Retro will only smile without comment, but Wikan does recall one prime example of Miyamoto’s latter talent, from the early days of the development of the first Prime.

“Miyamoto and Tanabe were in our big conference room, where we were discussing how your character would move around,” Wikan remembers. “We’d gone through a series of assumptions and design docs, and Miyamoto could see that we were struggling.”

Abruptly, he stopped the designers to ask, “What if Samus could take off her head and replace it with a bug head, and bug eyes?”

You can basically still feel the resulting pregnant pause just hearing Wikan recall the tale, and so he deciphers: “What Miyamoto was saying was, how you perceive your environment — that’s the whole path — how Samus interacts with her environment.”

Senior dev director Bryan Walker interjects with what seems like the most apt metaphor to Miyamoto and Nintendo’s approach to game design: “Their feedback is often the last five syllables of a haiku, the ‘it’ in the ‘what is it’ that we need to tie together. They come with the last line, and the elegant solution manifests itself.”

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It’s Walker and Retro president Michael Kelbaugh’s presence at Retro today — Walker an EA vet coming from games like Ultima Online, and Kelbaugh a long-time Nintendo vet (long-time as in, you should hear the stories he’s got about setting up tradeshow booths in the Super Nintendo days) — that’s another last line to a solved problem, with much of Retro’s original staff and management now having moved on.

There are toe-curling stories of just how fraught and shoe-strung development of the first Prime was, and tongue-in-cheek anecdotes of Kelbaugh and Walker needing to explain to the team on their arrival just what exactly a “schedule” was and what it represented. When we actually get to the heart of the visit, though — the games themselves — all of that disappears.

Coming back and playing the original Metroid Prime some seven years later, now bolstered by the collection’s new Wii-mote controls, you’ve likely forgotten just how aptly it really did capture that desolate, lonely, exploratory essence of the franchise.

Retro are keen to note that the games included on the Trilogy disc aren’t merely quick ports slapped on and shipped to print — all of the games have undergone re-balancing and polishing. That goes especially for Echoes, which — the developer freely admits — may have ended up just on the side of too challenging, as they attempted to woo more core players who felt the original Prime wasn’t difficult enough.

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And as we’re led through some of the series’ biggest set-piece battles, you can see new strategies already unfolding in ways its WaveBird control scheme wouldn’t allow. You can lock on to an enemy but still have the option to freely shoot another nearby. You can now simultaneously fire missiles and standard shots. Echoes‘ massive Quadraxis boss (the pride of Wikan’s work across all the Prime episodes) is now much more manageable, with the greater vertical freedom the Wii-mote’s free-look allows.

It does exactly what it should: it makes you want to re-experience all three games again for the first time, and it gave Retro the almost unheard-of opportunity to revisit a decade’s worth of work. There are still niggling wishes that Echoes could’ve shipped with more robust online multiplayer capabilities, with Kelbaugh adding that they “held firm that we wouldn’t chase the plethora of multiplayer products out of the time, and I’m happy we didn’t in that regard. We took a bath in that it was ‘entry level,’ but at least nobody compared us to anything else.” Overall, however, the team is as surprised as anyone at its durability.

Concludes Wikan, “I can’t believe we pulled it off, looking back at how well it holds up today. It shocks me that it holds up today. I think there are things we could have done smarter — really just production concerns — but, as far as the actual construction, I wouldn’t change a darn thing. Through all the blood, sweat and happy accidents, it came out as good as any studio could have executed it.”

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COMMENTS


  1. Great write-up, thx!

    @the1console is super jazzed about revisiting this deeply inspiring series with the pure voodoo magic of the Wii control.

    To everyone at Retro Studios & Nintendo: 1 000 000 thx! Praise be!


  2. Wonderful article!

    Retro is one of those rare studios that can take an established franchise apart, rebuild it in 3D, and make it even more awesome than it already was. :-)


  3. I would be most interested in hearing their design decisions behind tightening the narrative control and sequence rails of the games. The first Prime was similar to Super Metroid; there were enough small bugs or Samus was too versatile to really control the sequence well. This allowed for extremely quick times well outside the expected time limits; I believe the world record for Metroid Prime hovers just above an hour.

    It just interests me how Retro and Nintendo approached these problems differently. Retro tightened the sequence by eliminating problematic bugs and vastly increasing the number of doors that required a given upgrade. Environmental difficulties, which is the hallmark of the upgrade system within the Metroid universe, became somewhat secondary to simply having the right weapon upgrade. Nintendo, on the other hand, made Metroid Zero, which anticipates sequence breaking and provides many paths to the goal. Indeed, Metroid Zero has endings that anticipate 1% item collection and extremely low completion times.

    Obviously, the difficulties are different between 2d and 3d games. Retro has a much more dynamic environment than a sprite-based 2d adventure game. In order to do what Nintendo did, Retro would have to make extremely subtle landscapes that would allow for sequence breaking without shouting the possibility and keeping most players on the normal gameplay path. And it’s not like Retro isn’t delivering good games. I just think it would be interesting to hear their reaction to gamers who think Metroid requires allowing gamers to break sequence and play the game in a variety of ways.

    tl;dr version: Retro did everything it could to keep gamers from breaking sequence in Metroid games. Nintendo’s 2D GBA Metroid games did the opposite. Why?


  4. Pingback: One More Go: Metroid, from girl geek to Godwin’s Law in a single triple-jump | VENUS PATROL


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