Super Mario Sunshine

Introduction

Several attempts at three-dimensional gaming had been attempted since the medium’s inception. Many games from the eighties would place players in a maze of flat, two-dimensional building blocks to create the illusion of depth. Though this was serviceable for its time, that the player character could only ever turn at 90 degree angles betrayed the strict technical limitations the developers were saddled with. In the nineties, id Software would light up the PC gaming scene when they released Wolfenstein 3D in 1992. Though not terribly different from its spiritual predecessors in how it used clever programming techniques to project the illusion of 3D, id’s effort compelled other development teams to begin seriously consider where the medium should go from there. This sentiment was punctuated with id’s release of Doom the following year.

Though many companies would try their hand at 3D gaming with varying degrees of success, it was Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, and Yoshiaki Koizumi of Nintendo who were the first to successfully explore this uncharted territory in the form of Super Mario 64 in 1996. The sheer amount of critical acclaim it received forever changed the face of the gaming industry. Suddenly, 3D gaming went from being considered a pie-in-the-sky scenario to the industry standard in less than a year’s time. Such was the extent of its impact that many subtle techniques from Nintendo’s groundbreaking effort are still being employed today. Becoming the Nintendo 64’s bestselling game with eleven million copies sold, a sequel seemed inevitable.

As early as January of 1997, Shigeru Miyamoto talked about a sequel to Super Mario 64, tentatively entitling it Super Mario 128. As Nintendo put the finishing touches on the Nintendo 64, they included a slot at the bottom of the console that would allow the use of peripherals. The most prominent one they were in the process of developing was the 64DD (Dynamic Drive). In a manner similar to the Famicom Disk System, the 64DD would allow the Nintendo 64 to utilize a new form of storage media. It was to feature a real-time clock for persistent game world design and afford players many new freedoms. They could rewrite data and create movies, animations, and even their own characters. Nearing the end of 1997, Super Mario 128 was renamed Super Mario 64-2. Much like how Super Mario 64 before it generated interest in the Nintendo 64, Super Mario 64-2 was to be the 64DD’s premier title. However, the 64DD was a commercial failure when it launched in December of 1999, only selling 15,000 units in total. By the end of its short run in February of 2001, only ten original titles had been released for the unit. Any other proposed title for the unit was reformatted into a Nintendo 64 cartridge, ported to future consoles, or cancelled outright. Among the titles to suffer the last fate was Super Mario 64-2.

Despite this setback, Nintendo wasn’t ready to give up on a potential follow-up to Super Mario 64. During their SpaceWorld event in August of 2000, they unveiled a technology demo to showcase their then-upcoming GameCube console. The project they elected to demonstrate was a Mario game – once again under the working title Super Mario 128. Taking its proposed name literally, the GameCube’s technical capabilities were demonstrated when it rendered multiple Mario models at once, eventually reaching 128 of them.

One year later, at the following SpaceWorld event, fans learned that Super Mario 128 had undergone a complete reinterpretation. Gone was Princess Peach’s iconic castle. Instead, a tropical paradise awaited players. To reflect this change, the game was now titled Super Mario Sunshine. It was notably the first time Yoshiaki Koizumi found himself in the lead director’s chair. The first great impression he made on his superiors was when he wrote the memorable scenario for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. He worked his way up from there, and his ten-year-long apprenticeship culminated in him getting to lead in the creation of the newest Mario installment. The game saw its release in 2002. Though not as impactful as Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine was a well-respected game in its own right, having little trouble amassing critical acclaim and becoming one the console’s bestselling titles. Did Mr. Koizumi’s first shot as the lead director result in a classic experience?

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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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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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The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures

Introduction

One of the games to coincide with the launch of Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance in 2001 was Super Mario Advance. It wasn’t an original title, but rather a port of the SNES version of Super Mario Bros. 2. In 2002, this was followed up with Super Mario Advance 2 and Super Mario Advance 3, which were ports of Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island respectively. During this time, Nintendo announced a port of the SNES-era’s sole entry in their The Legend of Zelda franchise, A Link to the Past. Not unlike how every Super Mario Advance port came bundled with a remake of the arcade classic Mario Bros., A Link to the Past was to also have a bonus game attached to it in the form of Four Swords – the series’ very first multiplayer campaign. Its mixture of cooperative and competitive gameplay proved highly popular among Zelda fans, and had a role in the Game Boy Advance port of A Link to the Past selling more than 1.5 million copies.

As the Game Boy Advance soared in popularity, Nintendo developed a cable that allowed it to hook up to a GameCube controller port, their then-current home console. This accessory had a precedent in the form of the Transfer Pak, which attached to the back of a Nintendo 64 controller. For certain titles, most famously, Pokémon Stadium, players could plug in a Game Boy or Game Boy Color cartridge into the Transfer Pak to access some form of bonus content in the Nintendo 64 game. During the E3 conference of 2003, Nintendo showcased two Zelda games that would make use of this connectivity: Four Swords and Tetra’s Trackers later renamed Navi Trackers. Later in December, Nintendo announced that both games along with a third dubbed Shadow Battle would be together on a single disc entitled Four Swords +. This compilation saw its domestic release in March of 2004.

As Western fans speculated the release of this new game, it was announced that Four Swords and Navi Trackers would be sold as two separate titles with the retail of Shadow Battle being unknown. The decision was quickly changed, and the compilation saw its release in the United States under the name Four Swords Adventures. It wouldn’t see the light of day in Europe until January of the following year. It is speculated that Nintendo’s reason for delaying Four Swords Adventures was so ensure it wouldn’t compete with another Zelda installment being developed around the same time for the Game Boy Advance called The Minish Cap. Did Four Swords Adventures allow its predecessor to truly bloom into a fully realized, standalone title?

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The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Introduction

The year 2001 marked the launch of the Nintendo 64’s successor, the Nintendo GameCube. Fans began waiting with bated breath for their big-name franchises to make an appearance on this new platform. In particular, they couldn’t wait to see a new installment in their venerable The Legend of Zelda series. Expectations were at an all-time high; after all, with Ocarina of Time, the series broke into 3D, allowing it to grasp something it needed to evolve that was always just out of reach in its early days. Ocarina of Time could claim to have been the most acclaimed game in history when it was released. Majora’s Mask did the impossible by surpassing it a mere two years later. With its surrealistically morose setting, Eiji Aonuma and his team achieved a level of greatness a majority of creators go their entire careers without reaching.

Before Majora’s Mask was completed in 2000, Nintendo formed plans for a new installment for their upcoming console. Much of the team returned for this game as well; Eiji Aonuma helmed this project while Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka served as producers. Early concept art followed the aesthetics established by Ocarina of Time. To demonstrate the new system’s capabilities, the team created a brief clip of series protagonist Link facing off against Ganondorf, which was then shown at the 2000 Space World exposition. It resonated with fans, who hoped it was a preview of the new game.

Behind the scenes, however, the team had difficulties incorporating this art style into their project. Mr. Aonuma in particular hated the clip, feeling it was too derivative of the past installments. Production stalled until designer Yoshiki Haruhana created a cartoonish drawing of Link’s younger self from Ocarina of Time. The instant design manager Satoru Takizawa saw it, he saw limitless potential.

“With a character like that, we can give him actions that will look and feel good no matter how he moves!”

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Haruhana drew a Moblin, one of the series’ famous reoccurring monsters, in a similar style. From there, the rest of the team also began to also see the possibilities afforded by the art style. To render it properly, they used a technique known as cel shading, lending the presentation the feel of an interactive cartoon. It proved to be exactly what the team needed, and development began to proceed swiftly.

In the 2001 Space World exposition, Nintendo presented a new clip. Though the franchise had gained many fans thanks to the success of their previous two 3D games, the reception of this clip was deeply mixed. Some enjoyed the new look while others derisively dubbed it “Celda”. More than a few posts on gaming forums mocked the character design, believing it made Link look like a girl. Mr. Miyamoto was surprised at this response, and decided the best course of action would be to not reveal any further information about the game until the team finished a playable demonstration.

Next year at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) conference, the game was shown alongside another upcoming GameCube Zelda title. In a case of poor timing, Mr. Miyamoto’s presentation was plagued by numerous glitches as he tried to showcase one of Link’s new abilities. Despite this, the tentative game received more of a positive reception than it did at Space World. Nonetheless, the divided response to the art style hounded the game for the rest of its development cycle. In October of 2002, the game’s full name was finally revealed to the public: The Legend of Zelda: Baton of Wind. Later in December, the game saw its domestic release. In 2003, the game would be released in North America, Europe, and Australia under the name The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

Any negative sentiments lodged toward The Wind Waker during its development did not reflect in its critical reception, as much like Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, it proceeded to win countless “Game of the Year” awards. Even with the evidence right in front of them, many fans refused to play it simply based on its art style, and this adverse reaction affected sales. Years later, many of those same people who thoughtlessly dismissed it began to look upon it more favorably. By the end of the decade, many declared it one of the best games of the decade with some declaring it a superior effort to Ocarina of Time. Just what did those fans choose to mock in the early 2000s?

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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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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 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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