Braid

Introduction

In the early nineties, a man named Jonathan Blow began studying computer science and creative writing at University of California, Berkeley fresh off his high school education. One of his most notable achievements during his tenure there was being president of the Computer Science Undergraduate Association for a semester. Despite this and somewhat ironically, he left the university mere months before he was slated to graduate in 1994.

He then started doing contract jobs, one of which was with Silicon Graphics to port the immensely popular Doom, the game responsible for fully codifying the first-person shooter genre, to a set-top device. Shortly thereafter in 1996, he along with Bernt Habermeier formed Bolt-Action Software, a game design company. Their first project was to be a tank combat game named Wulfram. In an inventive twist, the vehicle was capable of hovering. However, during this time, the medium was in the process of a paradigm shift. In September of 1996, Super Mario 64 was released in North America. Though earlier efforts such as the aforementioned Doom projected the illusion of 3D, Super Mario 64 provided the genuine article. This was the beginning of a revolution that would see 3D gaming fully embraced by the industry to the point where many quality console 2D titles fell by the wayside. This did not bode well for Mr. Blow and his team, and progress slowed to a crawl. These matters were exacerbated further in the wake of the dot-com bubble’s collapse in the early 2000s. With nothing to show for their four years of work, Bolt-Action Software opted to fold in 2000, leaving them $100,000 in debt.

Following this failure, Mr. Blow continued doing contract work for companies such as Ion Storm, and started writing for industry publications – one of them being Game Developer Magazine. He also worked on a project for IBM to create a technology demo similar to his scrapped Wulfram concept. It showcased the capabilities of the cell processor IBM was collaborating on that would become a key component of Sony’s PlayStation 3 console. Mr. Blow sought funds from Sony and Electronic Arts to turn his demo into a full game, but his proposition fell on deaf ears.

In December of 2004, Mr. Blow took a trip to Thailand when inspiration struck. Upon his return, he created a prototype in a week and sent it to his friends who told him they liked it. With newfound determination to bring this vision into reality, his passion project began in earnest the following April. By the end of the year, the gameplay had been polished to his liking. However, there was a problem: the graphic art consisted mostly of placeholders, lending an amateurish presentation. To resolve this issue, Mr. Blow began looking for graphic artists. He found this to be a daunting task, and has since emphasized the difficulty of “[finding] someone who is talented and willing to sit down and really understand and care about your game, even if you are willing to pay a lot of money”. Eventually, he two people were referred to him: Edmund McMillen and David Hellman, the former of whom would contribute character designs while the latter of was hired by Mr. Blow as the lead artist.

Over the next three years, Mr. Blow put $200,000 of his own money into his game’s development – a majority of it went towards Mr. Hellman’s artwork and living expenses. In 2008, the game was at last finished; all they needed now was an opportunity. Fortunately for them, one presented itself fairly quickly in the form of the Xbox Live Arcade. By this point in gaming history, all of the consoles – the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and the Wii – had their own download services while PC users had access to Steam, the quintessential digital distribution platform in many players’ eyes. The Xbox in particular started promoting games through its own service with its first annual Summer of Arcade event. Among its titles was Braid, the game Mr. Blow and his team lovingly crafted. On a day after not receiving any money, he was taken aback at the number of zeroes displayed in his bank account – his work had sold more than 55,000 copies in its first week alone. Suddenly, in a year that saw the debut of many big-name, AAA efforts such as Metal Gear Solid 4 and Grand Theft Auto IV, Braid managed to rise to the top in many circles. Long-time enthusiasts rejoiced, as there was another game they could highlight to demonstrate the medium’s artistic merits to a skeptical public. To this day, Braid is heralded as a hallmark of the independent gaming scene and one of its greatest success stories.

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Metroid: Zero Mission

Introduction

The dual release of Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime breathed new life into the Metroid franchise. The former was a 2D affair that took the canon in a different direction while the latter broke the series into 3D – a feat many thought impossible given its nonexistence on the Nintendo 64. After the success of Metroid Fusion, Yoshio Sakamoto, a veteran who had been involved with the series since its inception began brainstorming ideas for the next entry. A fellow developer suggested porting Super Metroid to the Game Boy Advance. The Super Mario Advance series ported three classic Mario titles to the handheld console by that point, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was made available for the system as well.

However, Mr. Sakamoto had another idea; though Metroid Fusion was inspired by the classic installments, it largely abandoned the exploratory elements which gave the series its identity in favor of providing a more story-focused experience. He wished to bring the series back to its roots with his next project, thereby allowing newcomers to discover where the franchise came from. To accomplish this goal, Mr. Sakamoto saw fit to return to the very beginning and expand upon Samus Aran’s original mission. Utilizing a reconstructed version of the engine used to create Metroid Fusion, work quickly began. Released in 2004 and titled Metroid: Zero Mission, this installment continued the series’ second wind, and is considered one of the best games in the Game Boy Advance’s library. How does it compare to the original, beloved NES classic that started it all?

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Gone Home

Introduction

In 2006, a man named Steve Gaynor began his career in game design as a tester for Sony and Perpetual Entertainment. In his spare time, he made amateur levels for the 2005 first-person, survival-horror shooter, F.E.A.R. Using this experience as a springboard, he began to work as a designer for TimeGate Studios wherein he worked on Perseus Mandate, a standalone expansion for F.E.A.R. He then joined 2K Marin where he worked on various levels for BioShock 2, the follow-up to Ken Levine’s thought-provoking first-person shooter. After the game was released in 2010, he then served as the writer and lead designer to Minerva’s Den, an official expansion pack. Both the base game and the extra content generally met a warm reception, though not quite on the same level of its predecessor.

In the late 2000s, the independent game scene began gaining traction. Thanks to pioneering efforts such as Cave Story and Braid, artists began operating outside of the AAA industry’s influence in an attempt to push the boundaries of the medium. Mr. Gaynor saw potential in this movement, and along with two of his colleagues, Karla Zimonja and Johnnemann Nordhagen, they left 2K Marin to form The Fullbright Company in 2012. Joined by environmental artist Kate Craig later that year, they began to work on their first project. In order to reduce costs, the team moved into a house together in Portland, Oregon, setting up an office in the basement. Taking into account their skillset and financial situation, they decided on a game with no other characters to interact with – just “[the player] in a single environment.”

Placing an emphasis on storytelling, their first product, Gone Home, was released in 2013. The game quickly became a firm favorite with critics, receiving nearly universal praise from numerous big-name publications. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) called Gone Home the best debut of 2013 while it was christened Game of the Year by Polygon. To put this in context, 2013 is considered one of the strongest years in gaming with BioShock: Infinite and The Last of Us being touted as storytelling masterpieces and fitting swansongs for the seventh console generation. Somehow, in the face of this tough competition, the humble Gone Home managed to match, and in some circles, exceed, the critical acclaim of these big-budget titles. How was this team able to accomplish the seemingly impossible?

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Metroid Prime

Introduction

Among the Super NES’s numerous beloved titles is Super Metroid. When this game was released in 1994, it raised the bar for the series by removing the flaws holding it back while crafting an adventure far grander in scale than any entry that came before. Naturally, as a widely popular game, fans began clamoring for a sequel. During the fifth console generation, they eagerly awaited a follow-up, as many of Nintendo’s famous franchises had successfully made the leap from 2D to 3D on the Nintendo 64. However, a sequel to Super Metroid was nowhere to be found. Gunpei Yokoi, the leader of the R&D branch behind the series’ creation, wished for it to be a self-contained trilogy while Yoshio Sakamoto, the director of Super Metroid, expressed that “[he] just couldn’t imagine how [the Nintendo 64 controller] could be used to move Samus around”. Nintendo approached a third-party company to help make a Nintendo 64 Metroid installment only for the offer to be declined. It’s said the developers resigned themselves to the reality that they could not create anything capable of equaling Super Metroid, let alone surpassing it.

In 1997, an unlikely solution to this dilemma surfaced. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, a game based on the comic book character, was released for the Nintendo 64. This game was a critical and commercial success. It was notable for being one of earliest titles to bring the first-person shooter genre to console gaming, and for challenging the family-friendly image Nintendo had crafted. The idea of a Mature-rated title appearing exclusively on the Nintendo 64 was simply unheard of. The company behind this game was Iguana Entertainment. This developer based in Sunnyvale, California was founded in 1991 by Jeff Spangenberg.

Impressed with their success, Nintendo saw this as a golden opportunity and decided to reach out to them. From this alliance, a new company was formed in 1998: Retro Studios. Nintendo felt this company could create games for their upcoming GameCube console with the goal of drawing an older audience in. The studio opened an office in Austin, Texas, and with four key members from Iguana Entertainment, they began working on four projects: an action-adventure title, a vehicular combat game, an American football simulator, and an RPG. This proved to be a daunting task, as Retro did not have access to GameCube development kits. Consequently, the working environment was chaotic; development constantly fell behind schedule and executives from Nintendo complained about how the games were turning out. When Shigeru Miyamoto visited the studio in 2000 along with Satoru Iwata and Tom Prata from Nintendo of America, he was upset over the lack of progress made. He did, however, see potential when they demonstrated the engine they were to use for their unnamed action-adventure project. After returning to their hotel and deliberating among themselves in the lobby about the future, Mr. Miyamoto suggested that Retro use their assets to create a new Metroid installment.

Once they were allowed to use the license, the people at Retro felt their game should be played from a third-person perspective so they could preserve the essence of the series. Mr. Miyamoto had an different idea; he proposed that Retro should draw on their knowledge and make the game a first-person experience. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, but they were relived in a way. Senior designer Mike Wikan put it best when he said, “We knew how to do first-person shooters”.

With a new direction to focus their creativity, the two companies set out to finally give the Metroid franchise the sequel it deserved. Unfortunately, their disorderly work environment came back to haunt them, and they suddenly found themselves saddled with a rapidly approaching deadline. So many resources were being expended to create this game, and one by one, their earlier projects were cancelled, never to see the light of day. By the end, Mr. Spangenberg was caught running a risqué website off of the company’s servers, leading him to step down in 2002, the Japanese staff spent a majority of their time in the United States, and Retro’s employees were constantly working overnight. They regularly clocked eighty to one-hundred hours a week all while neglecting family and subsisting on atomic fireball candy – the staff eventually going through seventy-two gallons.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, even the most levelheaded enthusiasts were less than kind when the project was unveiled. To them, handing a beloved franchise to an unproven company was the most reprehensible act of betrayal Nintendo could have committed. Furthermore, they had seen many great franchises fall by the wayside in an attempt to make the 3D leap, so they were all but certain Metroid would meet same fate. Most damningly of all, it was presented as a first-person shooter, which couldn’t possibly offer an experience as deep as even the original Metroid. This game, known as Metroid Prime, was released in November of 2002 on the same day as the Nintendo-developed Metroid Fusion. To everyone’s shock, not only was the game receiving perfect scores across the board, the fans who cynically dismissed it began embracing it as a true Metroid installment – some going as far as declaring it superior to Super Metroid, which was unanimously considered the pinnacle of the series. How was this game able to silence the doomsayers so effectively?

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Metroid Fusion

Introduction

After the success of the Game Boy, Gunpei Yokoi and his R&D branch began experimenting with a new piece of technology. A Massachusetts-based company named Reflection Technology Inc. (RTI) produced a 3D stereoscopic head-mounted display prototype that utilized their LED eyepiece display technology, which had existed since 1985. Dubbed the Private Eye, they sought funding and partnerships with various electronics ventures, including Mattel, Hasbro, and Sega. Executives of the latter company declined, expressing concerns about motion sickness. As led by Mr. Yokoi, Nintendo felt there could be potential in this hardware, and enthusiastically received the Private Eye. Coupled with the perception that the technology would be difficult to emulate, they intended to create a new console with it, cementing their status as innovators. They entered an exclusive agreement with RTI, and as the successor to their 16-bit Super Famicom console, the Nintendo 64, was being developed by the third R&D branch, the other two were free to experiment.

Codenamed the VR32, Mr. Yokoi and his team spent four years developing a device that was intended to change the industry just as the Game & Watch line and Game Boy had done years before. This console, called the Virtual Boy when it was unveiled to the public, billed itself as the medium’s first virtual reality experience. Finally players could become one with the games they played, or so they thought. When this console launched in 1995, its reception was less than welcoming. A combination of its prohibitive price point, constant downscales during development as the company focused on the Nintendo 64, unimpressive 3D effects, and true to Sega’s prediction, health concerns regarding eye strain, all sounded the Virtual Boy’s death knell. The high-profile disaster left Mr. Yokoi to take the blame for the failure. Among other things, Nintendo made him man a booth at a trade show – something considered entry-level work in Japanese corporate culture and therefore a grievous insult for someone of his background.

Shortly after serving as producer for the fourth Fire Emblem installment, Genealogy of the Holy War, and developing a new, smaller model for the Game Boy called the Game Boy Pocket, Mr. Yokoi resigned from Nintendo thirty-one years after he joined. He and many of his former subordinates formed a new company named Koto, whereupon they teamed up with Bandai to create the WonderSwan. This handheld console proved to be a worthy rival to the Game Boy. Unfortunately, before he could witness its launch, tragedy struck. On October 4, 1997, Mr. Yokoi was driving on the Hokuriku Expressway with an associate when he rear-ended a truck. As the two men left the vehicle to inspect the damage, Mr. Yokoi was struck by two passing cars. Paramedics quickly arrived on the scene and took him to the hospital, but two hours after the incident, he was pronounced dead. Since then, Nintendo has all but expunged the Virtual Boy from their history in respect to his memory.

One year before Mr. Yokoi’s death, the Nintendo 64 was launched. Upon this platform, gaming enthusiasts saw many beloved franchises successfully make the leap from 2D to 3D. Among these titles were Super Mario 64, Star Fox 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. However, in the midst of this innovation, there was one franchise conspicuously absent from the Nintendo 64’s library: Metroid. The first installment of the series invented a style of gameplay which would later be dubbed the Metroidvania while the third perfected it. As the fifth console generation went on, fans began wondering why Super Metroid had yet to receive a sequel. Mr. Yokoi had intended for the series to be an airtight trilogy, and the director of Super Metroid, Yoshio Sakamoto, expressed in interviews that he was worried it would be a particularly difficult act to follow. To make matters worse, he disliked the Nintendo 64 controller, so the generation came to a close without a single new entry in the Metroid saga.

Fortunately in 2001, Nintendo at last launched the true successor to their bestselling, 8-bit handheld system. Called the Game Boy Advance, this device rendered graphics almost on par with that of the Super Famicom. Later that year, an unnamed Metroid game was announced to the surprise of enthusiasts everywhere. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the Game Boy Advance provided a perfect solution to the problem which put the series on hiatus. Some speculated that it would follow the trend of the Super Mario Advance series, and turn out to be a remake of or heavily based on Super Metroid, but Mr. Sakamoto decided to treat audiences to an original story instead. Such were the lengths the development team went to create something unprecedented that they refrained from consulting previous installments for programming techniques, instead using Wario Land 4 as a reference. This fourth installment of the Metroid series, titled Metroid Fusion was released in November of 2002. Was Mr. Sakamoto able to create something worthy of Gunpei Yokoi’s legacy?

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Final Fantasy

Introduction

Hironobu Sakaguchi was a student at Yokohama National University. He studied electrical engineering, but dropped out mid-semester in 1983 along with his colleague, Hiromichi Tanaka. Upon leaving school, they joined a company named Square as part-time employees. It was founded the same year by recent Waseda graduate Masafumi Miyamoto as a software development division of Den-Yu-Sha, a power line construction company owned by his father. Mr. Miyamoto held a belief that ran counter to how games were developed at the time wherein a single person conceived and developed a project entirely on their own. He believed that graphic designers, programmers, and professional writers working together could create something greater than any of them were capable of producing individually. In 1986, Square became a standalone company, and Mr. Sakaguchi was made a full-time employee as the Director of Planning and Development.

The next few years proved to be unrewarding for Mr. Sakaguchi and Square. They had created numerous titles for Nintendo’s Famicom platform such as The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner and Rad Racer, but all of them largely failed to become major hits – even when ported to North America. Mr. Sakaguchi then began questioning if he chose the right career path and if he was qualified to be a game writer. He had intended to make an RPG shortly after receiving a full-time position, but the executives refused on the grounds that such a product would not sell well.

This changed when a game named Dragon Quest was released. This collaboration by programmers Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura and popular manga artist Akira Toriyama introduced the RPG to Japanese gaming fans. Taking note of the millions of units Dragon Quest moved, Square reconsidered their stance and allowed Mr. Sakaguchi to bring his vision into reality. It was originally to be called Fighting Fantasy, but the staff changed it when they learned of a tabletop RPG that already bore the name. Mr. Sakaguchi wanted his work to have the initials FF so that the title could be abbreviated in the Roman alphabet and pronounced in four syllables in the Japanese language. After some consideration, Mr. Sakaguchi at last came up with a definitive title. According to the man who would go on to produce the game’s score, Nobuo Uematsu, this name was chosen for a twofold reason. The first part concerned Mr. Sakaguchi’s personal situation; had the game failed to become a hit, he felt it would be appropriate to quit the industry and return to his college studies. The second had to do with Square’s situation; the game’s failure would have all but ensured the company’s demise, for they were on the precipice of bankruptcy. Knowing this project could have been their last, they saw it fit to name their game Final Fantasy.

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The Legend of Zelda

Introduction

July 15, 1983 marked the launch of Nintendo’s Famicom console. It was released alongside ports of three golden-age arcade games: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. The original versions of the console were of decidedly poor quality, as a bad chip set caused many of them to crash on a regular basis. It gained momentum after a product recall, and by the end of the following year, it had become the best-selling game console in Japan.

In 1984, designer Shigeru Miyamoto and his team began work on two original titles for the Famicom: a sequel to Mario Bros. and a new IP. Mr. Miyamoto sought to downplay the value of setting a new high score in favor of offering to his audience a simple narrative with a real goal for them achieve – a stark contrast to the average arcade game, which one played indefinitely until they exhausted their supply of lives. However, while one of these games was to have a linear structure wherein the action occurred in a strict sequence, the other would be more open-ended, encouraging players to think about their next course of action in the face of complex situations.

Shortly after the Famicom’s debut, Nintendo began working on a peripheral which utilized floppy disks. Particularly appealing about this proposed format were the 112 kilobytes of storage space and the fact that they could be rewritten. This opened up the possibility that a console game could be completed over the course of multiple sessions. This was the aspect Mr. Miyamoto and his team considered as they worked on this IP. The peripheral, dubbed the Famicom Disk System, was released in 1986, with this game having been one of its launch titles. Its name was The Legend of Zelda: The Hyrule Fantasy.

When it came time to introduce the game to their newfound audience across the Pacific Ocean, there was a slight problem. The North American equivalent of the Famicom, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), couldn’t support a disk-based format, and cartridges as they were precluded the ability to save. Many games were able to get around this limitation by implementing a password system, but Nintendo sought an alternative.

By attaching a battery to the circuitry, they gave NES cartridges the ability to emulate the Famicom Disk System’s data storage without the use of floppy disks. The following year, the game was published in North America without its subtitle, and defying the management’s expectations, it became the first NES title aside from Super Mario Bros. to sell more than one-million units. Such was the extent of its popularity that many people bought an NES just to play it. Since then, The Legend of Zelda has been considered one of the greatest games to ever grace the console, and it continues to influence artists to this very day.

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