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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Super Metroid

Introduction

In the early eighties, Nintendo began to recruit new employees from art programs at universities. Among them was Yoshio Sakamoto, a graduate hailing from Nara Prefecture. His first experience with video games involved contributing sprite artwork for Donkey Kong Jr., the follow-up to their 1981 arcade classic. Shortly thereafter, he worked on the arcade version of Wrecking Crew, a puzzle game starring Nintendo’s mascot, Mario.

Back in 1980, the company revolutionized the industry with their line of portable Game & Watch consoles. In the face of this enormous success, their creator, Gunpei Yokoi, was then put in charge of the company’s first research and development team; among his subordinates was Mr. Sakamoto. One of their first assignments was to create games for their up-and-coming Famicom. This console, called the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) overseas, would help revitalize the American gaming scene after its crash in 1983. Contributing to its success were two classic games created by Mr. Yokoi’s team: Kid Icarus and Metroid. Nearing the end of the decade, they elevated portable gaming to a new level with the Game Boy. It was on this platform that he decided to produce a sequel to Metroid. This new entry was also a success, and contributed to the sale of many more Game Boys.

Makoto Kano, who worked as a designer for the two Metroid installments took notice that both games proved popular with their North American audience. Inspired by this unexpected market, Mr. Kano asked his colleague, Mr. Sakamoto, to direct a new Metroid installment utilizing what were then the cutting-edge graphics of the Super Famicom. The man who found himself in the director’s seat sought to push their 16-bit console to the limit by enhancing the game world’s appearance and generating a greater level of expression all while leaving the core concept untouched. He would later state in interviews that the project came dangerously close to being canceled on three separate occasions. Their primary skeptic was, ironically enough, Gunpei Yokoi, one of the most important figures behind the series’ creation. Purportedly during development, he would take note of the team’s attention to detail and sarcastically ask if they were trying to create a masterpiece. Nevertheless, Mr. Sakamoto and his team, supplemented by staff from Intelligent Systems, soldiered on, and the fruit of their labors was released in 1994 under the name, Super Metroid. The game was met with widespread critical acclaim, quickly cementing itself as one of the system’s greatest titles despite competing against Rare’s more visually striking Donkey Kong Country released later that year. Even to this day, it’s considered the crown jewel of the franchise, and one of the best games of the nineties. Mr. Yokoi himself would be won over, describing the final product as a reference to what a good game should be. Was Super Metroid able to improve upon the original and stand as one of the finest in the Super NES’s library?

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Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation

Introduction

Dragon Quest V was released in 1992, marking the debut of the popular series on Nintendo’s 16-bit Super Famicom console. Though its presentation arguably paled in comparison to that of Final Fantasy IV released a year earlier, it nonetheless continued the success of Yuji Horii and his staff at Chunsoft by selling millions of copies just like its four predecessors. It has since been declared by fans and Mr. Horii himself to be the series’ pinnacle due to its unique, forward-looking storytelling and novel monster recruitment mechanic. The latter would go on to revolutionize the industry over the next few years when several creators provided their own take on the concept.

As Chunsoft went on to develop a spinoff series known as Mystery Dungeon, the first installment of which cast a supporting character from Dragon Quest IV in the lead role, Mr. Horii joined a new company known as Heartbeat. Their first product was to be the sixth installment in the Dragon Quest series. Production of this game, entitled Dragon Quest VI: The Illusionary Land, proved to be rather troubled, and its initial release was delayed numerous times. The game was at last formally revealed in 1995 at the trade show Shoshinkai before being released a few weeks later. Owing to the large cartridge ROM used in this installment’s creation, Dragon Quest VI ended up selling for a steep price of 11,970 yen. In no way, shape, or form did this deter the dedicated fanbase, as the game went on to sell over three million copies.

Nintendo Power magazine once insinuated that the game was slated for a Western release in 1996 under the name Dragon Warrior V. However, much like its direct predecessor, it was not to be. The series’ lack of success outside of its native homeland, the fact that accurately translating text in a cartridge ROM already at its maximum storage limit into English was an impossible task, and Enix ceasing activities in North America all meant such an undertaking would almost certainly be unprofitable and therefore not worth the risk. Did their admittedly understandable business decision doom another classic to fall into obscurity in the Western world?

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