A Question for the Readers #9: Cutting it Close

Any experienced gamer has doubtlessly run into a situation where their character is facing certain death. Most of the time, this situation is accompanied with a feeling of annoyed resignation. A reload is inevitable and all of the progress you made since you last saved is seconds away from being forfeit. However, every so often, a minor miracle occurs – you manage to stave off certain defeat long enough to turn the tables and win. Though gamers typically win more often than they lose, these particular victories stand out – even if no one else is around to appreciate it.

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100th Review Special, Part 10: The Best of the Best

If it’s one thing I’ve observed over the years, it’s that every critic or outlet seems to have a different attitude concerning the highest grade on their scale. Some hand them out like penny candy while others outright refuse to ever assign a 10/10 on the basis that there is no perfect work. Personally, I feel the former approach devalues the grading scale to the point of inanity. After all, if you hand out too many top grades, it doesn’t leave much in the way of middle ground; you either award a perfect score or you don’t. Though I can see where the people bearing the opposite mentality come from, I feel refusing to assign the highest grade on your scale denotes a lack of respect for the medium, and perfection is such nebulous concept to begin with. Naturally, my own approach is between the two extremes. I can and will award a 10/10, but I don’t award it to just any game. Indeed, one of my rules is that I can only award the grade once per franchise – this includes spinoffs. Therefore, I tend to think very carefully whenever I’m confronted with a masterful game whether or not it deserves such an accolade. Going the extra mile isn’t enough; I have to be convinced that these are once-in-a-lifetime achievements that will hold up in the coming years. So without further ado, let’s bring the list to a close with five games I feel managed to truly earn that top honor.

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100th Review Special, Part 9: Top of the Ninth

It is the dawn of new year, and our countdown is nearing its conclusion.

One of the worst trends of gaming criticism in the 2010s was the lack of middle ground regarding their rating systems. A lot of this was brought on by their tendency to overhype everything released by major companies to the extent that good grades seemed to be awarded to releases with the most press coverage rather than on the merits of actually being a good game. When reading their reviews, it gave off the impression that anything below a 90% or 9.0 wasn’t worth checking out. This is one of the trends I sought to defy when conceiving my own rating scale. I wanted to make it so that in order for any team to achieve a 9/10 from me, they would need to go the extra mile to earn it. For the following games, the pros outweigh the cons to the extent where you likely won’t be thinking of it for most of the experience. You can be sure that no matter how I decide to rank any of these games, every single one of them is a keeper.

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100th Review Special, Part 8: The Elite Eights

I have to admit that between the three colors I use, the green tiers are the ones for which my process of assigning grades is the least scientific. When I was developing my rating system, I wanted to make it clear to readers that a game really has to go the extra mile to earn an 8/10 or higher so as not to devalue the highest grades. Admittedly, it does come down to gut feelings to a greater extent than when I’m entertaining the idea of assigning a red or yellow score. For games I’ve awarded an 8/10, there might be a few minor issues present, but they’re easy to overlook in favor of appreciating what they do well. These are games you should give high priority should they end up on your backlog.

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Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

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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Metroid Prime 2: Echoes

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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Metroid Prime

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 a 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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