Final Fantasy IV

Introduction

With a trilogy of beloved Famicom JRPGs under their belt, the once-struggling Squaresoft became industry juggernauts able to stand toe-to-toe with Yuji Horii’s Dragon Quest series. Upon completing Final Fantasy III in 1990, Square planned to develop two games: one for the Famicom and another for Nintendo’s forthcoming Super Famicom console. They were to be called Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy V respectively. Unfortunately, due to the company’s small size at the time, they ended up stretching their resources thin, and the former project was canceled. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the series’ creator claimed in an interview that the game was nearly eighty percent complete when it was scrapped, but outside of his word and a single screenshot, very little information about it exists.

As a result, Final Fantasy V was renamed Final Fantasy IV, and some of the ideas that came about during the halted project were reused for it.

With a development team consisting of fourteen people, Final Fantasy IV took a single year to develop. It was released in Japan in July of 1991 whereupon it received the most critical acclaim of any installment thus far. Sales of the original Final Fantasy in North America surpassed those of Japan. Therefore, Square saw this as a perfect opportunity to appeal to their unexpected, newfound fanbase. They decided not to localize the remaining Famicom games in favor of focusing on their newest work. To avoid confusion, Final Fantasy IV was dubbed Final Fantasy II. Released in the same year as the Super NES’s launch, it became a hit overseas as well, and is considered to this day one of the finest efforts in the system’s library.

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Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

Introduction

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes proved to be another success for Retro Studios, and was declared by many publications to be the GameCube’s finest offering of 2004. Unfortunately, even as many exclusive games received positive reviews, Nintendo’s fourth major console ultimately failed to match its predecessor, the Nintendo 64, in terms of sales, having moved approximately ten million fewer units. While not considered an outright failure, it paled in comparison to the competing Xbox and PlayStation 2 consoles. When Microsoft released their newest console, the Xbox 360, it was clear Nintendo had found themselves in a sink-or-swim predicament.

Around the time the GameCube launched in 2001, Nintendo conceived a new project. Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the company’s premier game designers, stated that the concept for this project, codenamed Revolution, involved focusing on a new form of player interaction. When it was unveiled in the E3 gaming conference of 2005, fans learned that the console primarily employed motion controls. Suddenly, after nearly a decade of lagging behind Sony and then Microsoft, Nintendo’s console, dubbed the Wii in 2006, became the talk of the town. When it launched later that year, it managed to outsell the Xbox 360, itself a hot seller.

Nintendo chose to showcase the Wii’s controller, the Wii remote, with a modified version of Metroid Prime 2. They demonstrated that Retro’s upcoming project, the concluding installment to their trilogy, would take full advantage of this novel control scheme. Though not comparable to the problems which plagued the development phase of Metroid Prime or its sequel, director Mark Pacini related in interviews the difficulties he and his team faced when creating this game. One of the biggest concerns was that they had too many buttons for the amount of functions they wanted to implement. The game was slated to coincide with the Wii’s 2006 launch, but the project ended up being delayed until the following year. Despite being the second sequel to one of the GameCube’s most beloved titles, the game had a minimalistic marketing campaign. The press speculated that it was part of Nintendo’s new focus on casual games for their newest console. Only after it was pointed out did they release a preview. Named Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, this game finally saw its official debut in North America in August of 2007, whereupon it too amassed critical acclaim from several publications. Considering that Metroid Prime and its sequel were the products of particularly troubled productions, what were the developers at Retro capable of under less taxing circumstances?

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Quest for Camelot

Introduction

Animation fans have made it a point that a period of time spanning from the early seventies up until the mid-eighties was a dire era for the medium. There were numerous causes for this stagnation ranging from a lack of visionaries to strict budgetary constraints. Exacerbating problems were conservative parental groups attacking anything that wasn’t child-friendly, thus giving the art a juvenile stigma. In reality, many of these problems began manifesting as early as the late fifties, but it wasn’t until a little over a decade later when the industry’s prime juggernaut, Disney, began to stumble in the critical eye. This culminated in their 1983 release, The Black Cauldron. What was meant to be the debut of several up-and-coming animators ended up getting recut by executives and subsequently flopping, nearly putting an end to the company’s animated canon.

The tides began to turn for Disney in 1985 when after observing the success of merchandise-driven shows such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Care Bears, they decided to throw their own hat in the ring in the form of The Wuzzles and Adventures of the Gummi Bears. The latter proved to be a hit, and with this newfound freedom, they funded the creation of original shows, including DuckTales and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. In 1989, The Little Mermaid was released, and when it became a sensation with critics and fans alike, Disney had fully recovered from the Dark Age plaguing both them and the entire industry. Suddenly, they were once again relevant and synonymous with Western animation.

Whenever someone finds overwhelming success in entertainment, they inevitably inspire a slew of imitators wishing to capitalize on the current trends. One such group was none other than Warner Bros., popularly considered rivals to Disney. They managed to have some success on television after having recruited Steven Spielberg to produce several beloved cartoons. However, very little of that success translated to the theaters with many of their feature-length animated films underperforming in the box office.

In May of 1995, Warner Bros. Feature Animation announced their first project: The Quest for the Grail. It was to be an adaptation of Vera Chapman’s novel, The King’s Damosel. Numerous problems arose during production, including the fact that it had started before the story was finalized. At first, Bill and Susan Kroyer, the husband-and-wife duo behind FernGully: The Last Rainforest were to direct it as a faithful adaptation that kept the dark tone of Ms. Chapman’s work. Unfortunately, creative differences led the two of them to leave the project in February of 1997. They were replaced by Frederik Du Chau, who in turn overhauled the story, turning the original vision into a Disney-inspired musical retitled Quest for Camelot.

By the end, few of the personnel had anything positive to say about what it became. One of the animators, Chrystal Klabunde, stated in interviews that the executives had no concept of animation at all, and with their inexperience, a chaotic work environment ensued. It was to the point where some of the animators didn’t even know the plot until they had finished their work. Moreover, as the film wasn’t initially slated to be a musical, a majority of the songs weren’t written until the later stages. With various people getting replaced at the behest of the executives and the team having to work around the clock, it comes as little surprise that the studio lost forty-million dollars on the film. Quest for Camelot was subsequently a commercial and critical failure upon its release in May of 1998. The most commonly cited reasons for its reception concerned its formulaic plot that took elements from Disney’s canon without providing a unique take on them. It’s even considered by some historians to be partially responsible for the downfall of traditionally animated features in the United States.

Nonetheless, as the production continued, a company named Titus Software was commissioned to create a tie-in game. It was released in December of 1998 for the Game Boy Color, notably being one of the first titles to showcase the capabilities of Nintendo’s newest handheld device. There was to be a version for the Nintendo 64, but the film’s dismal performance ensured its demise. Does the game fare any better?

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Isle of the Dead

Introduction

In 1992, id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, which is popularly considered the original first-person shooter. This isn’t quite true, as programmer John Carmack had been experimenting with 3D game engines before then to conceive prototypes such as Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3-D, but it wasn’t until the debut of this game that the first-person shooter became established in the public eye. This new movement would gain even more momentum with the release of Doom the following year. With its gruesome content and satanic imagery Doom met with no shortage of controversy. Many activists believed it would have an adverse effect on their children, and mold them into violent criminals. Nonetheless, it was vindicated by historians, and is considered one of the defining PC games of the early nineties with a legacy that endures to this day.

As both games were selling copies by the thousands, one group of developers saw potential in this new, developing genre. They called their venture Rainmaker Software, and their first game, Isle of the Dead, was released in December of 1993 – around the same time as Doom. Needless to say, it turned out to be a case of mismatched opponents, and the effort of this new company quickly faded away. While PC gaming fans were busy with Doom, what did they choose to pass up in Isle of the Dead?

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Metroid Prime 2: Echoes

Introduction

With the critical and commercial success of Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion, Retro Studios and Nintendo managed to revitalize the dormant Metroid franchise. Naturally, in response to this, Nintendo requested the creation of a sequel. For the follow-up to their hit, Retro opted to use new sound models, weapon effects, and art designs in lieu of recycling assets from Metroid Prime. With an established engine and control scheme, they now had the artistic freedom to do as they wished for this new installment.

Production went smoothly until August of 2004 when Nintendo issued an ultimatum: the game needed to be completed in three months to coincide with that year’s Christmas season. This was highly troubling for the Retro staff, as only thirty percent of the game had been completed by that point. Suddenly, they found themselves in the exact same situation they faced when developing the original Metroid Prime. By this point in history, there were many stories of promising games being rushed only to be utterly unplayable upon release. The most infamous occurrence was the Atari 2600 adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s highly regarded film, E.T., which ended up being one of the factors behind the industry’s crash in North America in 1983. Another similar incident many years later involved Electronic Arts forcing Origin Systems to rush Ultima IX: Ascension. Despite the countless overnight shifts they pulled to get it done, the result was a broken, barely functional mess that effectively spelled the once-venerable series’ downfall. In short, this installment, named Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, had all of the warning signs associated with a high-profile failure. How did it turn out? The praise was almost unanimous, with many critics quickly declaring it the best GameCube game of 2004. Coming off of a second troubled production, was Retro truly able to pull off another miraculous coup?

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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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