Jumper

Introduction

On November 15, 1999, Dutch computer scientist Mark Overmars released a piece of software named Animo. It was a graphics tool that featured limited visual scripting capabilities. Within the next few years, the tool was renamed GameMaker to reflect its specific purpose. Before the internet age, creation tools such as Mr. Overmars’s were difficult to get ahold of. You either had to specifically go out and buy them or work for a big-name developer. However, with advent of the internet, people could distribute such software far more easily. Therefore, it was no coincidence that when the internet became commonplace, gaming began cultivating an independent scene.

One of the people who utilized Mr. Overmars’s GameMaker program was one Matt Thorson. Going by the e-handle YoMamasMama, he began making games as early as 2002. After finishing his first game, The Encryption, in 2003, he moved onto a new project: Jumper. He completed the game in February of 2004 at the age of sixteen. Though not a viral success like Cave Story, which was released in the same year, Jumper managed to find an audience and is considered an admirable freeware title. Speaking retrospectively on his website, Mr. Thorson would consider Jumper the first game he was truly satisfied with. Was Jumper a strong debut for a budding indie developer?

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Luigi’s Mansion

Introduction

The Nintendo 64 marked Nintendo’s official entry in the fifth generation of consoles. The success of one of its launch titles, Super Mario 64, helped jumpstart the medium’s 3D revolution. Though countless developers from id Software to PF Magic had dabbled in 3D for quite some time, Super Mario 64 ended up being ground zero for the leap. What made it such a remarkable effort was that there were no signs of growing pains. The camera could be controlled by the player, yet was incapable of phasing through walls due to being operated by a real character. Mario’s shadow could always be seen underneath him because it helped players gauge where he was on a platform. Levels were made far less linear because players would be naturally inclined to explore the space in which they found themselves. Though these design choices sound prototypical when summed up on paper, future development teams attempting to create three-dimensional experiences would take cues from Super Mario 64 and many of Nintendo’s other pioneering 3D efforts such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in the coming decades.

Despite the acclaim these games received, Nintendo’s success did come at something of a price. Thanks to a combination of Nintendo sticking with ROM cartridges in lieu of adopting the increasingly popular optical disc format and third-party developers having to adhere to their strict policies, they soon found themselves face-to-face against Sony and their PlayStation console. The juggernaut electronics company had entered the console race as a result of the failed partnership between themselves and Nintendo to create a CD-based peripheral to compete with the Sega CD. Because many prominent developers such as Capcom, Konami, and Square began making games exclusively for the PlayStation, Nintendo began rapidly losing their dominance. Even the overwhelming critical success of games such as Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time did little to make up for their loss in market share. At that point, they needed to innovate quickly in order to remain in in the business.

The year 1997 marked the launch of a graphic hardware design company named ArtX. It was staffed by twenty engineers who previously worked at Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) – the company that helped develop the Nintendo 64’s hardware. They were led by Dr. Wei Yen, who had been SGI’s head of Nintendo Operations and outlined the console’s architectural design. ArtX partnered with Nintendo in 1998 in order to craft Nintendo’s entry in the rapidly approaching sixth console generation. Initially codenamed “Flipper”, the project was first announced to the public at a press conference in May of 1999 as “Project Dolphin”. Shortly after this announcement, the company began providing development kits to second-party companies such as Rare and the newly formed Retro Studios.

ArtX was then acquired by ATI in 2000, though the Flipper graphics processor design had been mostly completed. A spokesperson claimed ATI was to become a major supplier to the game console market and that the Dolphin platform would be the “king of the hill in terms of graphics and video performance with 128-bit architecture”. The console was formally announced as the Nintendo GameCube at a Japanese press conference in August of 2000. It was at the Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2001 that the GameCube’s fifteen launch titles were unveiled. Curiously, there appeared not to be a single Mario game in the lineup. However, a closer examination revealed that a game set in the Mario universe would be among the launch titles, but with his brother Luigi in the lead role.

During the Nintendo Space World exposition of 2000, many technological demonstrations were designed to showcase the GameCube’s capabilities. These took the form of full motion video clips – one of which depicted Luigi running from ghosts. After creating the footage, Nintendo decided to turn the demo into a fully realized game. It was shown again at the 2001 Electronic Entertainment Expo alongside the other launch titles and the console itself. This game, Luigi’s Mansion, was to offer an experience the likes of which had never been seen in a Mario title. Though the idea for the game had been conceived as early as 2000, once it became a GameCube project, Luigi was chosen as the protagonist to keep the experience new and original.

The GameCube launched domestically on September 14, 2001 and in North America the following November before receiving European and Australian releases in May of 2002. From a commercial standpoint, Luigi’s Mansion was the most successful GameCube launch title, being the single best-selling game in November of 2001. Nintendo attributed Luigi’s Mansion as the driving force behind the GameCube’s launch sales, for it sold more copies in its opening week than even Super Mario 64 in its own. Critically, Luigi’s Mansion was mostly positive, with critics especially taken aback by its stellar presentation. Despite this, the reception wasn’t quite as warm as that of Super Mario 64. Was Luigi’s first true adventure precisely what the GameCube needed for a successful launch?

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Eversion

Introduction

Following in the trail blazed by the word-of-mouth success of Cave Story in 2004, an entire scene for independent games began to grow. Many independently produced games had existed before 2004, but Cave Story showed the world that they need not settle for being lesser than studio-backed efforts. In the following years when digital distribution platforms became more commonplace, it wasn’t uncommon for these games to appear alongside AAA efforts on popular consoles. The year 2008 is considered something of a watershed moment for the independent scene. It was the year that saw the release of Braid and World of Goo – both of which were critically acclaimed even when held to the same standards as AAA titles.

Nearing the end of 2008, Zaratustra Productions, the alias of Brazil-born British developer Guilherme Töws, released a freeware game named Eversion. Thanks to two prominent internet personalities at the time, one a Let’s Player and the other a webcomic artist, Eversion began spreading over the internet like wildfire. Owing to how it made its way to hard drives around the world, Eversion could be seen as one of the earliest instances of a game being exclusively spread through the use of memes. What, exactly, about Eversion allowed it to enjoy this unexpected popularity?

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Anubis II

Introduction

In the 2000s, British developer Data Design Interactive had the idea to remake the classic Amiga game Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimision for the then-current console generation. This plan fell through when Zoo Digital Publishing, unimpressed with DDI’s efforts, canceled the project. Not to be deterred, DDI continued with the assets they created. Changing the theme and the protagonist, the end result was Ninjabread Man. The game was universally panned upon its 2005 release, becoming even more notorious in 2007 when DDI ported it to the Nintendo Wii under their Popcorn Arcade branding. Around the same time, DDI released another game utilizing the same engine as Ninjabread Man dubbed Anubis II. Does this game fare any better than Ninjabread Man, which is considered the textbook definition of shovelware?

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Sin and Punishment

Introduction

In 1993, the Japanese developer Treasure made a name for themselves with their inaugural title, Gunstar Heroes. From there, they created many more games for Sega’s consoles such as Dynamite Headdy, Alien Solider, and Guardian Heroes, which would become beloved cult classics. After the release of Guardian Heroes in 1996, Treasure began making games for various platforms. Mischief Makers marked their first appearance on a Nintendo console, having been released in 1997 for the Nintendo 64. Around this time, Treasure wrote a proposal and submitted it to Nintendo.

They were inspired by the Nintendo 64’s decidedly abnormal controller. Nintendo themselves suggested two ways of holding the controller. The player’s left hand would grip the center or left handle in order to reach the control stick or control pad respectively. Due to the success of Super Mario 64, which effected the medium’s 3D revolution, gripping the center handle became the standard. This is because the control stick, being able to register precise, subtle movements, proved ideal for 3D gameplay. The control pad, on the other hand, was better suited for 2D gameplay. However, because a majority of the medium’s big-name franchises began experimenting with 3D gameplay, the Nintendo 64’s control pad was underutilized more often than not. Masato Maegawa, the president of Treasure, took note of this and began discussing ways with which to incorporate the left positioning. Thus, Treasure teamed up with Nintendo’s first Research and Development branch to create a new action game.

The team behind this hypothetical game started off as a skeleton crew, consisting of two programmers and two designers. By the end, more people were on this team than in any of Treasure’s previous projects. The lead programmer Atsumoto Nakagawa and enemy designer Yasushi Suzuki previously had roles developing the shoot ‘em up Radiant Silvergun. As this game was to be their first attempt at a true 3D action title, they were about to explore uncharted territory. Treasure believed the console’s graphics card lent a more robust 3D presentation than that of their rivals. They had made it part of their creed to push the limits of the hardware, but understandably ran into multiple difficulties with the Nintendo 64.

Because the two companies had wildly different design philosophies, the development of this game wound up being slightly tumultuous. Hitoshi Yamaguchi was placed in charge of Nintendo’s half of development. He described Treasure as a weird company. His attempts at establishing deadlines for the Treasure team often led to them deflecting the requests. To make matters worse, when Mr. Yamaguchi played an early prototype, he declared it to be too difficult – even though he was impressed with it on a technical level. Treasure responded by saying that if he wasn’t skilled enough to play the game, he had no business supervising its production. Mr. Yamaguchi understood that Treasure took pride in making difficult games, but still insisted they tone it down. These negotiations continued for roughly a year before Treasure relented and lowered the game’s difficulty level.

The working title for this game was Glass Soldier. This was to metaphorically reflect the fragility of the main character. As the proposed title consisted of two English words, it was spelled out in the katakana writing system. However, because many game titles ended up being written in katakana during this era, Mr. Yamaguchi suggested creating a new title written in kanji instead. Rare’s spiritual successor to their hit first-person shooter Goldeneye was in development at the time. Domestically, it was to be known as Perfect Dark, but in Japan, it had a different title: Aka to KuroRed and Black. Taking cues from this naming convention, Mr. Yamaguchi thought up of a new title: Tsumi to BatsuSin and Punishment. Believing the name would be too obscure, he then asked the younger staff members for a subtitle. They, in turn, came up with Earth Successor. Though Treasure did not like this name change, they warmed up to it.

Compared to its contemporaries, Sin and Punishment took an unusually long time to be developed. The cycle began in 1997 and wouldn’t see the light of day until the end of 2000. By this time, Nintendo was putting the finishing touches on the Nintendo GameCube, the Nintendo 64’s successor. Nonetheless, Satoru Iwata remarked that Treasure accomplished a lot with a relatively small team. Targeting older gamers, Sin and Punishment sold a modest 100,000 copies. Featuring English voice acting, Sin and Punishment was geared toward North American enthusiasts. However, because the Nintendo 64 was at the end of its lifecycle, these plans did not come to pass. Despite this, the few Western critics who managed to import the game praised it, believing it to be one of the most ambitious titles on the console. Like many of Treasure’s works, Sin and Punishment grew a cult following among Western gamers. They believed it to be one of the best Nintendo 64 games that never saw localization. Even so, with its lack of international availability, it was doomed to fall into obscurity.

Fortunately, hope was not lost. In 2006, Nintendo launched the Wii, their main platform in the seventh console generation and successor to the GameCube. Among its many features was the Virtual Console, a service that allowed players to digitally download classic games from Nintendo’s past platforms. When the service was announced, Sin and Punishment became one of the most demanded titles. Nintendo obliged, and Sin and Punishment was finally released in North America and PAL regions in late 2007. With the sheer amount of enthusiasm leading up to its international debut, was Sin and Punishment worth the seven-year wait?

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The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

Introduction

The Nintendo DS was released worldwide in 2004. Much like the Game Boy product line it succeeded, it became a best-selling console, selling millions upon millions of units worldwide. One of its launch titles was a remake of the pioneering Super Mario 64 and the first side-scrolling entry in the Mario franchise since Super Mario World, New Super Mario Bros., debuted the following year. With Nintendo’s big-name franchises making an appearance on the new console, fans began speculating on a new Zelda installment. All doubt was eliminated during the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2005 when Nintendo unveiled Phantom Hourglass. Following a series of delays as a result of diverting resources to finish Twilight Princess and Shigeru Miyamoto’s desire to become involved with the development cycle, it was released in 2007. Though some were skeptical over the game’s reliance on the touch screen, Phantom Hourglass was a success, amassing a lot of critical acclaim across the board. In the face of this success, there was only one logical thing to do: make a sequel.

Phantom Hourglass was created by many of the same people behind Four Swords Adventures. Half of the Phantom Hourglass staff in turn remained for the development of its sequel. Helming the project once again was Daiki Iwamoto while Eiji Aonuma served as its producer. As they already had an engine right out of the box, Mr. Aonuma speculated that this new game wouldn’t take long to complete. After all, while the idea for Ocarina of Time had been pitched since 1995 before seeing its release in 1998, Majora’s Mask only took a single year to complete. Though it wasn’t delayed at any point and the development progressed smoothly enough, this new game wound up taking two years to complete.

Mr. Iwamoto and his team used the same art style as Phantom Hourglass. Mr. Aonuma later commented that realistic graphics would make the characters scale poorly with their surroundings. He relented it was theoretically possible, though not ideal. Despite being confirmed as a sequel to Phantom Hourglass, Link was not going to travel by boat this time around. Mr. Aonuma wanted to retain the sense of seeing land becoming clearer as Link approaches it, but decided to approach the idea from a different angle. That is to say, Link would conduct a train instead. Mr. Aonuma cited a children’s book named The Tracks Go On and On as an inspiration for this game’s basic premise. In it, children construct railroad tracks, creating tunnels and bridges whenever they find mountains or rivers. He thought this book would fit with the series, though he didn’t tell his fellow developers about it at the time.

Surprisingly, one of the biggest difficulties the development team had was coming up a subtitle for this installment. Among the first proposed was Pan Flute of the [Something]. This was quickly shot down when they decided the title would be too long and inappropriate considering the Pan Flute obtained in the game isn’t a main item. They then decided to change Pan Flute to Train Whistle, reflecting Link’s ability to conduct a train in this new installment. The next step was to determine what the [Something] should be. In an ironic twist, the English subtitle had been decided before the domestic one: Spirit Tracks. Examining the English title, the development team decided that, because spirit means soul, they should name the game Train Whistle of the Soul. This too was rejected when the team felt it sounded too creepy – Mr. Aonuma in particular felt it made it sound “haunted”, which ran counter to the premise. Said premise was the idea of “running a train across wide-open spaces”. After asking for suggestions from the staff, they at last settled on The Legend of Zelda: Train Whistle of the Earth.

Around that time, the Nintendo DSi was unveiled. It was to be a newer model for the Nintendo DS capable of downloading digital titles in addition to utilizing physical cards. To Nintendo’s surprise, fans reacted much more strongly to the reveal of Spirit Tracks. Writing for IGN, Craig Harris found the storyline “compelling” with an “interesting premise”. He was consequently quite excited to play it for himself. He wasn’t the only one, for when Spirit Tracks saw its worldwide release in December of 2009, Nintendo had another hit on their hands. By the end of the financial year ending in March of 2010, Spirit Tracks sold over 2.5 million copies. Despite being a success, the figures were roughly half as much as those for Phantom Hourglass. The reception, though mostly positive, seemed a little less universal this time around with critics having a number of issues with the game. Taking the numbers at face value, it’s easy to get the impression that Spirit Tracks is a step down from Phantom Hourglass. Does Spirit Tracks hold up? Was the less enthusiastic reception a result of the touch-screen novelty having run its course?

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Sonic Heroes

Introduction

Following the Dreamcast’s discontinuation in 2001, Sega’s future seemed uncertain. Fans were particularly concerned over the fate of their expansive Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Their fears were ultimately assuaged when a port for the latest game, Sonic Adventure 2, was announced for the Nintendo GameCube. It is nearly impossible to overstate how many shockwaves this development sent through the gaming sphere. An entire generation of enthusiasts had grown up knowing of the fierce rivalry between Nintendo and Sega. By the end of the year Sega pulled out of the console race, Sonic Team found themselves porting their latest work to their former rival’s console.

Because of this, for enthusiasts who had grown up with Nintendo consoles, Sonic Adventure 2 wound up being their gateway entry. As if to prove this wasn’t an elaborate joke, an original 2D platforming game by the name of Sonic Advance emerged for Nintendo’s newest Game Boy model. Both games were well received by these new fans. Over the next few years, this was followed up by a GameCube port of the original Sonic Adventure dubbed Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut, a sequel to Sonic Advance, and Sonic Mega Collection – the last of which being a compilation new fans could use to play the series’ generation-defining Genesis installments. Fans of Sonic the Hedgehog then breathed a sigh of relief as the future of the franchise seemed secure.

During all of this, they began to speculate on what the next Sonic console installment would look like. Their answer came in the form of a project dubbed Sonic Heroes. It was being developed by the San Francisco-based Sonic Team USA – a crew consisting of nineteen members – to commemorate the series’ twelfth anniversary. The first few screenshots showed several returning characters from the Sonic franchise – including some such as Big the Cat, who had only appeared in one installment by that point. The project was led by mainstay producer Yuji Naka and director Takashi Iizuka. Mr. Iizuka stated in interviews that he didn’t want Sonic Heroes to be a sequel to Sonic Adventure 2. He was worried only fans of the series would buy the game and he wanted it to draw in a new audience. To this end, he desired to return to a gameplay style similar to that of the Genesis installments.

Furthermore, to reach as many people as possible, Sonic Heroes was to be the series’ first cross-platform installment, slated to see a release on the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. In order for this to be possible, Sonic Team opted against using tools built by Sega, instead partnering with Criterion Software. The RenderWare engine would allow the game to be programmed and ported to each platform with ease. They were able to use some textures and models from the two Sonic Adventure installments, but most of the game ended up being built from scratch. The biggest problem that plagued development stemmed from having to work with the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, consoles with which they had little experience. Mr. Iizuka and Mr. Naka briefly considered including content exclusive to certain versions, but ultimately decided it would be for the best for everyone to have the same experience.

Twenty months after they started, the game was released domestically in December of 2003 before emerging in North America in January of 2004 and PAL regions the following February. Though fans by and large enjoyed the Sonic Adventure installments, the reception to Sonic Heroes was decidedly mixed. Particularly unimpressed were those who purchased the PlayStation 2 version, as technical difficulties forced Sonic Team to make the game run at thirty frames per second. By contrast, it ran at sixty frames per second in the other two versions. Discounting this particular issue, critics felt that the game, while lacking the issues of the Sonic Adventure titles, were still well below the quality of the universally beloved Genesis installments. However, criticism toward Sonic Heroes lessened over the years, and it is now considered a decent effort. Being the first Sonic the Hedgehog console game to be conceived by Sega as a third-party developer, exactly how well has it held up? Did they manage to put their best foot forward after a tumultuous period?

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The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

Introduction

Though not as acclaimed as The Wind Waker or The Minish Cap, The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures amassed a following of its own when it was released in 2004. It successfully expanded on Four Swords, allowing the multiplayer gameplay to stand on its own. Satisfied with their work, the team that worked on Four Swords Adventures reassembled for a new project in May of 2004. During this time, much speculation surrounded the release of Nintendo’s newest handheld console: the DS. In stark contrast to the Game Boy product line, this console was to feature two screens. While the top screen boasted a standard design, the bottom one was a touch screen. One month before the DS’s North American launch, Shigeru Miyamoto expressed interest in bringing Four Swords to the new console.

In an interview at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2005, Eiji Aonuma, who had directed the series’ 3D installments, confirmed that a new entry in their The Legend of Zelda franchise was indeed being produced. However, though the team had discovered the potential of cel-shaded graphics on the DS, they opted to create a single-player experience instead. When asked about this shift, Mr. Aonuma remarked that the idea never reached the development phase. Any further speculation was put to rest at the Game Developers Conference of 2006 wherein this project had a name: The Legend of Zelda: Hourglass of Fantasies – or Phantom Hourglass as it was to be called internationally.

Though the comparatively disappointing sales of The Wind Waker affected Mr. Aonuma on a personal level, he wished to continue the game’s style in another form. During the Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2007, he claimed that the gameplay of Phantom Hourglass would be exactly what the aging Zelda formula needed to stay relevant in a new generation. It didn’t take long for enthusiasts to learn what he was talking about. Phantom Hourglass was to forego a traditional control scheme in favor of having the players exclusively use the touch screen to control Link. It was around the time of the release of Twilight Princess in 2006 that The Wind Waker received a reevaluation of sorts. Suddenly, the game fans dismissed was being hailed as one of the GameCube’s finest offerings. Having the same art style as The Wind Waker along with boasting a novel control scheme made Phantom Hourglass the new handheld console’s most anticipated game.

Due to Mr. Miyamoto dedicating a lot of his time to developing Twilight Princess, he had not been able to get involved with Phantom Hourglass at all. Twilight Princess was delayed numerous times due to Eiji Aonuma wishing to implement an entirely new control scheme for the game’s Wii version. By the time they released Twilight Princess, Phantom Hourglass was in a nearly complete beta form. Such was the extent of his enthusiasm that he begged Satoru Iwata to delay the game so he could get involved with the creative process. Mr. Miyamoto apologized to fans, but promised the title would be “much better”.

Phantom Hourglass was released domestically in June of 2007 before debuting internationally the following October. The praise for this game was nearly unanimous with several websites naming it the greatest DS game of 2007. By March of 2008, four million copies had been sold worldwide. Nonetheless, even in the face of its positive reception, certain publications were a bit skeptical, believing Nintendo had been attempting to draw in only causal enthusiasts, offering nothing to longtime players. Was Nintendo’s return to the Zelda franchise’s handheld scene able to stand in the face of its three predecessors?

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The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Introduction

Within a year of the release of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker in 2003, Nintendo announced that a new installment for the GameCube was undergoing development. In the following year during the Game Developers Conference, Eiji Aonuma, the man who had directed the previous three console The Legend of Zelda installments, inadvertently revealed the projects working title: The Wind Waker 2. However, before any promotional materials could be released, one factor got in the way of these plans. Though The Wind Waker had little trouble becoming a critical favorite like its predecessors, winning the highly desired “Game of the Year” award in various publications, it didn’t fare quite as well among fans. Nintendo of America informed Mr. Aonuma of how its cartoonish visuals lent the impression that The Wind Waker was designed for a younger audience. This perception was fueled by preconceived notion regarding animation in the United States at the time. Whether a cartoon was indeed intended for kids or intentionally made as raunchy and irreverent as possible, people generally considered the medium sophomoric and therefore didn’t take it seriously. Because of this, The Wind Waker experienced sluggish sales compared to Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask.

Mr. Aonuma, concerned that its sequel would run into similar problems, expressed his doubts to producer Shigeru Miyamoto. He said that he wanted to create a realistic look for the next Zelda installment in an effort to appeal to their North American fanbase where the series historically had the most success. Mr. Miyamoto was a little hesitant about this proposition, believing the team’s focus be on innovative gameplay than aesthetics. Nonetheless, he advised Mr. Aonuma that should he and his team settle on a more realistic art style, the best place to start would be to attempt what couldn’t be done in Ocarina of Time. Four months later, Mr. Aonuma and his team managed to produce a short clip featuring gameplay, which was later revealed to the public with a trailer during the Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2004. Slated to be released in 2005, it was here that the game being produced had a name: Twilight Princess. It was also revealed that it would not be a follow-up to The Wind Waker as originally planned, placating the vocal, skeptical fans who expressed annoyance over its art style.

The scenario of Twilight Princess was conceived by Mr. Aonuma himself, though it underwent several changes courtesy of scenario writers Mitsuhiro Takano and Aya Kyogoku. Leaving the task of working with the new ideas to his subordinates, he oversaw development of The Minish Cap, the then-upcoming Game Boy Advance Zelda installment. To his dismay, he found that the Twilight Princess team was struggling when he returned. Many of the ideas regarding Link made his character unbelievable. Furthermore, a third Zelda installment was being developed for the Nintendo DS: Phantom Hourglass. This game would have players exclusively use the DS’s touch screen to control the protagonist’s actions, and Mr. Aonuma wished for Twilight Princess to boast a similar caliber of innovation.

His answer seemed to arrive in the form of Nintendo’s newest console – codenamed “Revolution” at the time. Mr. Miyamoto thought the infrared pointer embedded in the Revolution’s controller was well suited for firing arrows from a bow, and suggested Mr. Aonuma to consider the idea. When the console was in its earliest planning phases, Mr. Aonuma had anticipated creating a Zelda title for it, but assumed he would need to finish Twilight Princess first. He began to change his mind when he used the console’s pointer to aim at the screen, believing that it would give the game a new feel – just like Phantom Hourglass. Suddenly, he felt that releasing Twilight Princess on this new console, later named the Wii, was the only way to proceed.

However, things weren’t quite that straightforward. By the time he considered having his project jump platforms, Nintendo had already heavily promoted Twilight Princess. Consequently, consumers were anticipating a GameCube release. Here, Mr. Aonuma reached something of an impasse. Making the game unavailable to those expecting its release on the GameCube would have assuredly resulted in a loss of goodwill. Meanwhile, had they attempted to develop two separate versions of the game, it would have no chance of meeting its previously announced 2005 release. It seemed as though no matter what he did, he would disappoint his audience. It was Satoru Iwata who felt having both versions would satisfy users in the end – even it meant waiting a bit longer for the game’s release. This way, those who expected it to be released on the GameCube wouldn’t miss the opportunity to play it. At the same time, the Wii now had a highly anticipated launch title, incentivizing their audience to become early adopters.

As the Wii was backwards compatible with the GameCube, transferring assets between the two platforms proved to be relatively simple. Developing a control scheme to fit this experimental platform was a more difficult task. Mr. Aonuma thought it was strange to swing the remote with the right hand to mimic the sword slashes of the traditionally left-handed Link. To make matters worse, when playable demos began circulating, many new problems arose. Nintendo’s staff reported that demo users complained about the difficulty of the control scheme. Mr. Aonuma realized from this that he and his team implemented the controls with the mindset of forcing users to adapt to them rather than making the system intuitive. More talks with Mr. Miyamoto ensued, and the team proceeded to address these issues.

At long last, Twilight Princess saw its release in November of 2006 for both the GameCube and the Wii. It didn’t seem to matter which version critics played, for it proceeded to win “Game of the Year” awards from several publications. At the time, fans felt it was the return to form the series needed after The Wind Waker. Was Twilight Princess able to ascend a series no stranger to critical acclaim to the next level?

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BioShock

Introduction

With many alumni from Looking Glass Studios, game designer Ken Levine founded Irrational Games in 1997. Their first game was System Shock 2. Released in 1999, it was a sequel to System Shock, a first-person shooter released five years prior. Despite gaining a following, it fell by the wayside in favor of the more popular Doom. This seemed to foreshadow the fate of System Shock 2, as it had been released in the wake of Half-Life, causing it to disappear from the public consciousness rather quickly. Mr. Levine attempted to pitch a sequel to System Shock 2 to the game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, but they were ultimately rejected due to its poor sales performance. The subsequent dissolution of Looking Glass Studios in 2000 all but ensured the series’ abrupt end as the rights were acquired by Electronic Arts.

Irrational Games would go on to develop other titles such as Freedom Force, Tribes: Vengeance, and SWAT 4. Though these titles were modest successes, Mr. Levine desired to create another game similar to that of System Shock 2 – one with a free form and a strong narrative. In 2002, his team came up with a gameplay mechanic centered on three factions: drones, protectors, and harvesters. Guarded by protectors, drones would carry a desirable resource while harvesters attempted take it away from them. With a rough outline of what this hypothetical game entailed, all they needed was a setting.

The team unveiled a demonstration in 2002 built on the second Unreal Engine for the Xbox. This demo was set on a space station overtaken by genetically altered monsters. The protagonist was named Carlos Cuello, who worked as a cult deprogrammer – that is, someone charged with rescuing people from a cult, readjusting them to a normal life. They could be hired for much more nefarious purposes as well. As an example Mr. Levine gave, parents could use their services to deprogram their daughter who was in a lesbian relationship. The narrative was also intended to be political in nature with the main character having been hired by a senator. Unfortunately, the team ran into a twofold problem with this concept. They collectively agreed it was not what they set out to make and were having difficulties finding a publisher. They considered scrapping the project, but once their efforts to make a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 began appearing in various gaming publications, they decided to go forward and fully revamp the concept.

In a stroke of good fortune, 2K Games, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, offered to publish the game based on the core drone/protector/harvester concept in 2004. Even better, the team was allowed freedom to develop both the story and the setting. Both had changed considerably since the project’s inception. By the time Mr. Levine and his team found a willing publisher, they contemplated setting the game in an abandoned World War II-era Nazi laboratory unearthed by twenty-first century scientists. The experiments then formed the ecosystem centered on the three aforementioned factions. Many elements from System Shock 2 found their way into this project including psychic powers, a character relaying important information to the protagonist over a radio, and story elements delivered through scattered audio recordings.

Internal strife and communication problems brought about due to the team expanding from six to sixty people wound up making for a somewhat troubled production. To make matters worse, the environments they came up with were considered bland. Fortunately, these issues were resolved when the team’s artists realized the true importance of coming up with visions to meet the goals of the level designers.

This wasn’t the end of the team’s production woes, however. According to level designer Jean Paul LeBreton, Mr. Levine was distrustful of the more egotistical new hires. He often got into arguments with them to enforce his vision. Moreover, the executives of 2K Games were concerned with the project’s growing budget. As the mid-2000s saw an increase in popularity for the first-person shooter genre thanks to Halo and Call of Duty, they requested that Mr. Levine market the game in a way so as to compete directly with those franchises. This meant having to shift away from the first-person shooter/role-playing hybrid they set out to create in favor of placing more of an emphasis on the former half of that equation. As the targeted release date drew near, Mr. Levine ordered the team into round-the-clock development, only exacerbating the strife among themselves. Thankfully, 2K Games granted Mr. Levine’s team an extra three months, allowing them to fix programming errors that were otherwise difficult to catch.

January of 2007 marked a crucial moment for playtesting. Damningly, the feedback they received from players was mostly negative, as they believed the game to be too dark to see, causing them to get lost. They couldn’t even trust the man on the other side of the protagonist’s radio feed, describing him as a “lecherous Colonel Sanders”. Taking these criticisms to heart, the team addressed the problems. In a second late-stage playtesting session with the game being described as being ninety-nine percent complete, the feedback was still negative with the audience feeling no connection to the protagonist. The next day, Mr. Levine and his team decided to add an introductory cutscene to the game. He originally opted not to include any cutscenes, feeling ideologically opposed to them, but he and his team felt it was a good, quick way to respond to the criticism.

At long last, the game was released in August of 2007 under the name BioShock. While System Shock and its sequel wallowed away in obscurity for the longest time before receiving retroactive vindication, BioShock was a commercial success upon release. The Xbox 360 version sold nearly 500,000 copies. Meanwhile, critics adored the game, believing it to be a significant step forward in storytelling for the medium. On the subject of the best years in gaming, 2007 is popular choice with the release of BioShock being a common reason to cite for holding such a belief. Despite all of this, the game’s hellish production cycle ended up causing many members of the team to leave Irrational Games to pursue other projects once it was finished. Whenever one wished to extol the medium’s artistic qualities, BioShock was quick to be mentioned. Does it stand to this day as one of the medium’s greatest story-driven experiences?

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