Metroid: Samus Returns

The 2000s was arguably the most prolific decade for a majority of Nintendo’s big-name franchises. The Zelda franchise issued several beloved installments such as Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess. At the same time, the Mario franchise became highly experimental; Super Mario Sunshine had the title character explore a tropical island with a highly pressurized water dispenser on his back while Super Mario Galaxy saw him explore the far reaches of space. However, Nintendo’s most unexpected move was in 2002 when the Metroid franchise saw not one, but two installments revitalize the franchise that had been dormant since the 1994 release of Super Metroid. One of these games, Metroid Prime, allowed the franchise to break into the third dimension. It was followed up with two sequels, forming what is considered one of the most solid trilogies in the medium. With the franchise proving its continued relevance in the face of their new competition, the future seemed bright for Metroid.

Indeed, going into the 2010s, enthusiasts were excited to play the upcoming Metroid: Other M. Retro Studios demonstrated the franchise’s flexibility with their imaginative scenarios, and Metroid: Other M would be a comparatively simplistic return to form courtesy of Yoshio Sakamoto, the man who directed Super Metroid. It seemed as though this new installment was geared to join Super Metroid and the Metroid Prime trilogy as one of the series’ hallmarks. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. In a shocking turn of events, the same game that topped countless lists regarding the most anticipated titles of 2010 received anomalously bad word-of-mouth. By the end of 2010, the game failed to sell one-million units. Only two years after its release would it pass the threshold. This was an unthinkably dismal performance for a first-party Nintendo game.

The point of contention among most independent critics concerned its story. Mr. Sakamoto had poured a lot of his soul into the project, wishing to provide a definitive characterization of series protagonist Samus Aran. However, said characterization proved problematic for a majority of the enthusiasts who played it – not only abroad, but domestically as well. Consequently, the scenario was universally panned to the point where many critiques failed to mention the gameplay. Depending on one’s perspective, said gameplay was either passable or outright bad. Though the exact quality of Metroid: Other M was hotly debated, its status as a commercial disappointment couldn’t be contested.

For many years, there was no word of a new Metroid installment. The only game bearing the franchise’s name saw the light of day in 2015 under the name Metroid Prime: Federation Force. Because players felt it had little to do with the franchise, the game received a monumental preemptive backlash that persisted once it was released. Many enthusiasts resigned themselves to the fact that the Metroid franchise was effectively dead.

Luckily, all hope was not lost. Developers led by Yoshio Sakamoto began work on a new project in 2015 codenamed Matadora. Joining them on this endeavor was the Spain-based developer MercurySteam. They had previously pitched a Metroid game for the 3DS and Wii U. It was ultimately rejected, but Mr. Sakamoto took note of their interest in the series, and decided to collaborate with them. MercurySteam wished to remake Metroid Fusion, but Mr. Sakamoto instead suggested reimagining the series’ second installment, Metroid II: Return of Samus. He himself did not work on the classic Game Boy title, but he was enthusiastic about remaking it, believing it to be a vital part of the series’ lore. With the knowledge he and his company had developing Castlevania: Lord of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, Jose Luis Márquez found himself in the director’s chair alongside veteran developer Takehiko Hosokawa.

As it turns out, their project couldn’t have been timed any better. Metroid fans had been clamoring for a Metroid II remake for many years. It was to the point where one enthusiast, who went by the alias DoctorM64, took it upon himself to develop an unofficial remake titled AM2R (Another Metroid 2 Remake). For his troubles, Nintendo issued a cease-and-desist notice, and the game was taken offline. While fans were understandably upset, they later learned the biggest reason why Nintendo did what they did when they announced their own official remake. For his part, Mr. Sakamoto stated that, though he hadn’t seen the game, he appreciated the fan for caring so much about the series. On that note, DoctorM64 was just as excited about Nintendo’s project as Mr. Sakamoto himself. In fact, he bought a New 3DS XL with the specific purpose to play Nintendo’s Metroid II remake.

After much speculation, the game was released in September of 2017 for the 3DS under the name Metroid: Samus Returns. The Nintendo Switch had been released six months prior, but Mr. Sakamoto had declined releasing it on that platform due to the 3DS’s larger consumer base at the time. He also felt the dual screens allowing players to view the map during gameplay would be of an immense help. Upon release, Samus Returns was well-received. After a lackluster showing for a majority of the decade, it was seen as the return to form the series needed to stay relevant in the eighth console generation. Mr. Sakamoto had spent a majority of this decade a laughing stock among long-time enthusiasts – especially on message boards. Was Samus Returns able to restore the goodwill he lost?

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Gunpei Yokoi’s Game Boy sold millions of units on its launch day in 1989. So great was the popularity of the first handheld console to truly come into its own that the one million units shipped overseas sold out within a few weeks. Three years prior to the Game Boy’s release, a London-based developer named Argonaut Games created Starglider for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. This game, heavily inspired by the vector-based graphics of Atari’s coin-operated Star Wars adaptation was one of the earliest first-person combat flight simulators available for home computers. It wound up being one of the bestselling titles for the platform, and won Crash magazine’s “Game of the Year” award in 1986.

After observing the then-unique mechanics of Starglider, Nintendo sought to create a similar game for their handheld console. This project was slated to be published by Mindscape, a company established in Novato, California under the names Eclipse or Lunar Chase before Nintendo themselves took over the project after becoming interested in the idea of having three-dimensional graphics in a Game Boy title. Helming this project was Yoshio Sakamoto, a Nara Prefecture college graduate who worked under Gunpei Yokoi’s supervision, contributing pixel art for the NES classic, Metroid. Shortly before the game’s release, then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi shortened the title to a single English letter: X. When it was released in 1992, it proved to be a moderate success, providing the Japanese audience with a completely new experience while pushing the technical capabilities of the Game Boy to its absolute limits. Famitsu magazine would go on to list X as one of the Game Boy’s most influential titles, being the first 3D game released for a handheld console in Japan.

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Metroid: Zero Mission

The dual release of Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime breathed new life into the Metroid franchise. The former was a 2D affair that took the canon in a different direction while the latter broke the series into 3D – a feat many thought impossible given its nonexistence on the Nintendo 64. After the success of Metroid Fusion, Yoshio Sakamoto, a veteran who had been involved with the series since its inception began brainstorming ideas for the next entry. A fellow developer suggested porting Super Metroid to the Game Boy Advance. The Super Mario Advance series ported three classic Mario titles to the handheld console by that point, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was made available for the system as well.

However, Mr. Sakamoto had another idea; though Metroid Fusion was inspired by the classic installments, it largely abandoned the exploratory elements which gave the series its identity in favor of providing a more story-focused experience. He wished to bring the series back to its roots with his next project, thereby allowing newcomers to discover where the franchise came from. To accomplish this goal, Mr. Sakamoto saw fit to return to the very beginning and expand upon Samus Aran’s original mission. Utilizing a reconstructed version of the engine used to create Metroid Fusion, work quickly began. Released in 2004 and titled Metroid: Zero Mission, this installment continued the series’ second wind, and is considered one of the best games in the Game Boy Advance’s library. How does it compare to the original, beloved NES classic that started it all?

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Metroid Fusion

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 hit 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. He was 56. 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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Super Metroid

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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Metroid: Other M

Metroid Other M

Metroid is one of Nintendo’s longest-running, beloved franchises. The earlier installments helped pioneer a subgenre of action-adventure games that emphasize exploration and collecting power-ups to allow access to new areas. This subgenre is known in gaming circles as the Metroidvania. The latter half of the portmanteau was derived from Konami’s Castlevania franchise, for the later installments largely abandoned their pure platforming roots starting with Symphony of the Night, codifying the style in the public eye.

Three years after the release of the 1994 SNES classic, Super Metroid, the man responsible for producing the series, Gunpei Yokoi, died in a tragic roadside accident. Coupled with the fact that Yoshio Sakamoto, the game’s director, was not interested in continuing the series on the Nintendo 64, citing issues with its controller, enthusiasts wondered if Super Metroid was to be the final installment. This all changed in 2002 with the announcement and subsequent release of two games: Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime. The former was a title for Nintendo’s newest handheld console at the time, keeping true to the series’ 2D roots. The latter saw the series transition into the third dimension as well as the debut of Retro Studios, a gaming company based in Austin, Texas. Though many were skeptical about the idea of Metroid becoming a first-person shooter, these voices were immediately hushed when it received widespread critical acclaim with many fans rightly considering one of the pinnacles of the 2000s.

Retro Studios then followed up this triumph with two sequels, Echoes and Corruption, released in 2004 and 2007 respectively. Though fans may debate on how they compare to the original Metroid Prime, they were welcome additions to the franchise, and are essential experiences in their own right. The latter was especially noteworthy for being one of earliest first-person shooters to feature motion controls, employing the Nintendo Wii’s famous remote to elevate the gameplay to a new level.

In 2009, an entirely new project was unveiled during the annual trade fair, E3: Metroid: Other M. Yoshio Sakamoto had directed Metroid Fusion as well as Zero Mission, an enhanced remake of the original NES game, but this was to mark his return to the home console after an absence that lasted a little over fifteen years. For Metroid: Other M, Mr. Sakamoto promised fans a return to a style of gameplay comparable to the original installments along with a story that delved deeper into the backstory of Samus Aran, the series’ central protagonist. To this end, Nintendo collaborated with Team Ninja, a studio within Koei Tecmo to help develop the engine and combat mechanics. Team Ninja found much success in the 2000s with the reboot of Tecmo’s classic Ninja Gaiden franchise, so enthusiasts were enthralled to see what this dream team could produce. Following three years of production, Metroid: Other M was released in 2010 for the Nintendo Wii, allowing people across the world to learn the history of one of the medium’s oldest female characters.

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